Transforming 2021

Is the future of housing hiding in a smartphone app?

Landing is trying to build a new way to lease apartments, making it as easy as ordering anything else on your phone.

Is the future of housing hiding in a smartphone app?

A Landing apartment in Austin, Texas.

Photo: Landing

Bill Smith, who previously founded Shipt, which he sold to Target in 2017, founded Landing in 2019. The idea behind Landing is pretty simple: Create a system that would allow people to move between apartments as they'd like.

Not long before Landing launched, the world was witnessing the spectacular crash in WeWork's valuation. The follies of its founder aside, it was, at its core, a corporate real estate management company. It bought or leased buildings and rented space out to businesses at a monthly rate. Could something similar work for home apartments? Prior to the pandemic, it seemed like a niche idea, one that perhaps could suit consultants and others on secondments, people who moved around a lot. Would average people actually trust a company to source and outfit apartments, and take on all the technical and legal wrangles that come with signing short-term leases across the U.S.?

It turns out, some would. "It has been a wild year," Smith told Protocol. The pandemic has forced many to work from home for over a year, and that's led to new migration patterns. The work-from-home mandates made many realize what they truly value, and according to PwC, some 80% of growth in the housing market in the coming years is going to be found in the suburbs, and ditching big cities in favor of places like Austin, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Tampa. Those all happen to be towns that Landing now operates in.

Members sign up, pay an annual $199 fee to Landing, and can move into new apartments around Landing's entire network in as little as a month. The entire process lives on an app: In much the same way you have an app to call for a Lyft, order a beer on Drizly or find a vacation on Airbnb, you could just as easily be switching apartments. Though not on the same time scale. Reserving a new place can take as little as two minutes, according to Smith. Every part of the rental application process has been streamlined into a single online experience. Even in markets like New York City, where the application process can feel more involved than applying to college, the process is pretty much the same for Landing users, Smith said.

Using Plaid, Landing asks users to add a bank account so it can verify income and employment status — meaning that clients don't have to hand over things like pay stubs, bank statements and tax returns, which many rental applications ask for. And that also means there's no security deposit. "Similar with identity verification, we've made that really simple so a lot of these steps that are handled offline via email or phone calls: We brought [it] all online," Smith said.

Perhaps more than any other time in recent history, living situations have been in flux, but Smith is hoping the ease of use and consistent experience across Landing properties entices people to stick around in the future. The company has warehouses across the country full of products its interior designers have sourced to give all the properties in Landing's portfolio a similar feel. While some might not want a townhouse in Philadelphia to feel the same as one in San Antonio, for others, that might be a selling point — much in the same way there's a certain experience you'd expect walking into any Marriott or Hyatt hotel room around the world. Not identical, but similar.

There are roughly 10,000 apartments available on Landing right now, but Smith said he hopes for there to be a "few million" properties around the world within the next few years. While Landing won't disclose how many members it has, it did say the number has increased 1,250% in 2020 over 2019. "I think convenience and ease is becoming even more important now, as we're doing so much more online," Smith said. "Even since COVID, so much more is happening online that didn't before that I think it's just accelerated a trend that was going to happen anyway."

Unlike WeWork's business model, though, Smith said he doesn't see Landing buying property. Instead, he expects to continue working with building owners to drive occupancy with tenants they can trust from Landing's system. "It's such a specialized asset class, it just requires a different skill set as far as owning and operating properties and growing a balance-sheet business," Smith said. "It's just a different business."

Landing founder Bill Smith.Photo: Landing

To continue to attract and retain customers, Landing will have to create something that's never really been done before: a true national brand for apartments. Smith said the largest countrywide players in apartments only own about 3% of the market. Part of that is because property is such a different beast in so many disparate areas, and perhaps because people didn't tend to think about their apartments as short-term destinations before. Can the feeling of getting bored with an apartment and being able to move somewhere totally new at the drop of a hat outweigh having to pack up all your stuff?

Smith hopes that it will feel more like being part of a club as time goes on. "I think the benefits of being a member will continue to expand, and we'll create such a unique suite of benefits of being a Landing member that just becomes something very differentiated." Smith was tight-lipped on what those membership perks might be (though it probably wouldn't entail a partnership with Shipt), but did mention the company had tried things like offering online group yoga classes. Whether that's enough to sway people into a digital-first nomadic lifestyle, however, remains to be seen.

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