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TODAY'S OTHER NEWS

PropTech Today: Startup should inspire agents to become community pillars

This week, I want to take a look at the Israeli startup, Venn, an urban revitalisation firm which has recently received $40 million in Series A funding.

The work it’s doing seems vital, and its philosophy certainly admirable, but, is its vision of bringing together “neighbours who are committed to open doors, inclusivity, creativity and entrepreneurship” a realistic one? And what could it mean for residential estate agents?

Founded in Tel-Aviv in 2016, Venn signs long-term management leases with various landlords whose properties are located in the same neighbourhood, renovates the whole lot and then manages the leasing of the spaces to both residential and commercial tenants. 

The end result, says Venn, is a “neighbourhood-wide network through homes and shared spaces” in which people “enjoy city life with more space, more human connection, and more impact”. 

Those who don’t rent any Venn spaces but live or work locally, are given access to a Venn app from which they access amenities such as co-working space and food deliveries.

The 2016 pilot project focused on an underdeveloped area of the Israeli city of Shapira. 

Since then, Venn has launched projects in Berlin and New York. In the latter case, it now manages 250 bedrooms in Brooklyn and has 1,000 people on the waiting list. By the year 2030, it plans to have ‘millions of members in 100 cities’. 

First the cynical, then the hopeful

What started as a renovation project in a badly undeveloped city district in Israel seems to have quickly evolved into something bigger - target areas need not be downtrodden, rather laced with opportunity.

Therefore, the picture of public service that emerges from bringing some much-needed life to ‘underdeveloped’ areas will be hard to replicate if a target area is considered, by the people currently living there, not to be underdeveloped but rather culturally rich. 

It makes me think of the public uproar in Brixton, London, after it was announced that the long-term occupiers of the historic Brixton Arches would be turfed out in order to free the space for high-end developments.

It’s a process referred to as ‘gentrification’ and many see it as an exercise in removing the poor to make way for the rich.

Venn, however, seems very self-aware, addressing this particular problem head-on. Venn CEO, Or Bokobza, has made it clear since receiving this huge amount of funding that, because it is leasing properties from current landlords, the current residents are not turfed out. Instead, they are consulted on exactly what they want to see included in their new neighbourhood.

Then, of course, we have the potential of negative effects for local agents.

I can only assume that all of the residents and occupiers in these buildings found their way there via an agent. Each time a tenant left, an agent helped to replace them, just as they have done all over the world for decades. 

Then Venn comes along, takes control of the whole building, as well as those standing around it, and gives the whole district a facelift.

We know that the current residents are allowed to stay, but who takes the reins when someone chooses to leave? Who finds the new tenant? Does it go to the agent? I doubt it. 

With 1,000 people on the waiting list for one project alone, my guess would be that Venn either handles it all or appoints one sole agency to partner with. Suddenly, one firm is enjoying trade from every bedroom, without exception, in an entire district. What becomes of the agent?

Not only is Venn suddenly becoming an agent, it’s also a community leader, property manager, urban planner, cultural decider, and everything in between. 

It has ultimate control on what a neighbourhood looks like and how it operates. Are we (you) comfortable with such autonomy? Are we (you) happy to cede control to a tech-enabled ecosystem?

Perhaps this is actually an opportunity for agents…

We (you) can be cynical about this all day long, but the more I think about it, the more I see this as an opportunity for local agents to take a step up in their roles as pillars of the community, helping create better spaces for people to live and work in.

In many ways, Venn is giving pride back to communities by giving life to areas which have long been allowed to degenerate.

This should certainly drive up prices and demand, always good news for agents, but perhaps there is greater value for agents by looking to apply some aspects of Venn’s philosophy to their own operation. 

Estate agents get a bad rep, but that is mostly in cities or other large markets where everyone remains more or less anonymous to everyone else. In smaller places, towns and villages, the agent is often a pillar of the community. 

I can certainly speak for my local agent - always central to running the school fete, always leading local fundraising efforts, familiar and friendly to everyone and their dog. In many ways, Venn is simply replicating this, albeit with $40 million to pile on top of it. 

But you don’t need $40 million to have a similar effect on a community. That money is being spent on rejuvenating property, this isn’t always going to be necessary. The core of the whole thing is supporting closer and happier communities. 

To that end, what’s stopping a local agent from approaching the developers earmarked to work in their area and teaming up with them to, together, ensure that new developments contribute to a greater whole rather than resulting in another ugly new-build?

I remember a story from a while back about a local agent somewhere around Berkshire. To invigorate their local community, they gave everyone a community credit card. This card gave you 10% off at all the local shops and eateries to encourage more people to spend their money locally. This is all that Venn is doing, so maybe now is the time for more agents to step up and launch similar initiatives?

Despite Venn having an app, and now a load of cash, its idea is very simple. This is probably why it is so effective.

I think agents can see this as a chance to add onto their existing services. Don’t just do the minimum required. Think about how you, alongside your fellow community and business leaders, can work together to make life that bit happier for everyone in town

I think Chemi Peres, Co-Founder of venture capitalists, Pitango, has said it very succinctly in a recent statement about Venn’s fundraising:

“When it comes to cities that are becoming homes to more people every day, investment must be sustainable and forward-thinking - there is no room for small dreams. Venn encourages the sector to view real estate as a long-term ongoing process, and community engagement is the only way to sustainably transform developing neighbourhoods.”

Venn is (currently) talking about cities. But the same rule should apply to our regional communities, too: there is no room for small dreams.

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator, and is co-founder of PropTech platform Unissu. You can follow James on Twitter here.

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    My son is currently looking to buy a property in Kent and has found that most agents have a poor knowledge of what they are selling. Although the above intentions are very admirable, they may further distract agents from their core business.

  • James Dearsley

    There is a huge gulf between good and bad estate agents Vivienne. The good ones really care about the community angle and know what they are doing. They should be augmenting their value proposition in my view. What makes them different to everyone else, what makes them stand out and how can they justify their fees?

    Certainly not saying this is the solution but it is certainly thoughts people should be having at the minute about their future.

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