New York real estate is on fire, again. According to the Apartment List National Rent Report, median rent in the city rose 19% in October over last year. It now costs more than immediately before the pandemic hit to rent a place in the city. Last week, The Wall Street Journal featured returning New Yorkers who are having a hard time finding apartments similar to what they left behind during the lockdowns.
Even more frustrating, renters-to-be are finding it harder than ever to connect with agents, managers and other rental professionals.
Enter MeetElise, an A.I.-powered leasing assistant native to New York City. The brainchild of two young software engineers, “Elise” was originally born to disrupt the nationwide affordable housing shortage by lowering operational costs, improving efficiency and restoring trust to the leasing process. Now Elise is working overtime to solve a more pressing problem: converting e-mails, texts and chats into signed leases.
So far, Elise is doing very well indeed. In July of last year, MeetElise raised $6.5 million in Series A capital, including investments from two of its largest clients.
According to company co-founder and MIT-trained engineer Minna Song, MeetElise’s A.I. and machine learning tools have gotten so good that some clients will ask to meet Elise when they come to tour apartments in person. Some have asked Elise out on a date. While Elise knows how to say no, unlike a human being, Elise responds to every text, e-mail and chat inquiry immediately; always follows up on leads; and always follows best practices. Song says Elise is also an expert at providing virtual and self-guided tours. Best of all, Elise plays well with others’ property management software and CRMs.
And Elise doesn’t just save time. When MeetElise executives commissioned a nationwide mystery-shop, they were shocked to learn that leasing agents spent nearly 12 hours, on average, to respond to inquiries and one-third never responded at all. Only one in five were able to answer all of a prospective renter’s questions. Both were trust-killers.
The problem wasn’t that the agents weren’t using technology, but that over-hyped chatbots had created a vicious cycle by making more work for the humans that they were supposed to be replacing. According to a study on AI, virtual agents without sufficient conversational abilities are far less reliable and often fail to provide the information required by customers. So Elise not only has to have all of the answers, she needs to know nearly all of the questions too. Song says that while everyone makes mistakes, Elise’s proprietary ML technology means that Elise always learns from them.
Elise Never Sleeps
And like the city in which Elise was born, Elise never sleeps. Which is very important, because an internal study of 800,000 leads across 700 apartment communities found that about half of prospective renters make contact after 5 p.m.–a time when many agents have left the office. People are not just working more hours and putting things off until later, Song says, they’re used to being able to order anything they want at any time of day or night. Virtual leasing agents like Elise need to provide what Song calls “human-like engagement” 24/7, not just canned answers to frequently asked questions.
Song agrees that community websites like WestSideRentals and StreetEasy and online marketplaces like Zillow have made finding an apartment after-hours painless, but she says that without the right technology in place, most apartment shoppers will still have to wait 24 hours or longer before they’re contacted by a human being. Where Elise really shines is converting these off-hours leads into tours–and signed leases.
Oh yes, even if Elise is not talking to a prospective tenant, chances are Elise is preparing a report or brushing up on her conversational skills. Says Song: “Elise doesn’t quit. She doesn’t take vacation. She’s always working, always available, always ready.”