When Michael Gabriel began building a consumer-facing listings portal early this year, he thought he had the real estate industry’s blessing. Instead, he’s found himself embroiled in what could become a lengthy legal battle.
Just four days before the planned launch of homes.nyc, the Real Estate Board of New York hit the veteran software developer and his data partner RealPlus with cease-and-desist letters, claiming the two had improperly used its members’ residential listings data.
Both REBNY and homes.nyc share the goal of giving StreetEasy, the dominant listings portal in New York City, a run for its money. REBNY is said to be working on its own consumer-facing portal, backed by a third-party platform recently acquired by CoStar Group.
Now, both Gabriel and REBNY say they are lawyering up.
Gabriel is no babe in the woods. He got his start publishing an annual guide to New York City rental buildings before listings were online. Now, his firm, Gabriels Technology Solutions, is known for creating the Hamptonsre.com listings portal, among other real estate sites and digital tools in the U.S. and abroad. Earlier this year, he decided to create a rival to StreetEasy, which rose to prominence in the absence of a citywide multiple listings service.
The residential brokerage industry, which has never created a successful consumer database, has been a vocal critic of StreetEasy because of the portal’s fees and advertising programs. That’s what motivated REBNY to launch its Residential Listing Service in 2017.
The official debut of homes.nyc was scheduled for Dec. 14. REBNY’s cease-and-desist letters accuse Gabriel and RealPlus of violating REBNY’s intellectual property by using listing data from its RLS without proper licensing.
RealPlus is owned by Eric Gordon as well as Douglas Elliman, the Corcoran Group, and Brown Harris Stevens’ parent company. Gordon was not available to comment and his partners declined.
REBNY’s lawyer indicated in an internal memo viewed by The Real Deal that the trade group had received complaints from several brokerages indicating they had not given homes.nyc permission to display their listings or logos. The site displays 22 residential brokerages’ logos, more than 10,000 sales listings and close to 20,400 rental listings.
“Your listings data is your most valuable asset and the compilation of those listings is the RLS’ most valuable asset,” wrote Claude Szyfer, a partner at Stroock representing REBNY, in the memo, which was sent to members of the Residential RLS Board of Directors.
“REBNY and the RLS will do everything they can under the law to protect that absolutely vital listing information,” he added.
Gabriel said he was shocked to receive the letter from REBNY and maintains that he was authorized to use RLS data on homes.nyc.
Gabriel said he was talking to REBNY earlier this year about building a consumer-facing listing portal but, when they couldn’t agree on pricing, he decided to move forward with the website alone. Gabriel also said he’d been “encouraged by many of the larger firms.”
Correspondence provided by Gabriel shows that he filled out a form applying for a license to use RLS data in February 2020. The same day, John Canniffe, the head of the RLS at the time, wrote in an email that “due to a few things going on here, my product person suggests that you get the data from RealPlus.”
“The rest was verbal but you can take from those emails that there was authorization,” said Gabriel. “I did what I was asked to do.”
REBNY says that process did not amount to official licensing. The trade group’s president, James Whelan, said REBNY never granted homes.nyc a license, and RealPlus did not have its permission to give RLS data to Gabriel’s portal.
“We intend to pursue all available legal options in this matter,” he said in a statement. Canniffe left REBNY in August and did not respond to requests for comment.
There may be a factor beyond licensing at play for REBNY. The trade group has struck a deal with Homesnap, a residential technology provider, to build out its own public-facing portal that could launch early next year, according to a source with direct knowledge of the deal.
Homesnap was acquired by CoStar Group for $250 million last month, as CoStar seeks to break into the residential sector and compete with established firms — namely, Zillow Group, which owns StreetEasy.
“CoStar wants to go after Zillow,” said the person. “The only entry at this point is through this portal.”
The idea of REBNY building out its own consumer-facing portal has been much-discussed over the years, but active efforts this year were not previously reported. Asked about the partnership with Homesnap, a spokesperson for REBNY said, “We look forward to announcing upgrades and improvements.” A representative for Homesnap did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gabriel said he wasn’t aware of REBNY’s recent plans, but he has hired an attorney to consider whether REBNY’s cease-and-desist letters could amount to an antitrust violation. The trade association paid $2 million in 2008 to settle an antitrust lawsuit for blocking access to its listings.
“[Homes.nyc is] a site that brokers and agents have been waiting for, and asking for, for a very long time,” he said. “And they’re trying to restrict access.”
Gabriel has invested a “substantial” sum to outfit the portal with high-quality video, the capability to operate in 19 languages and display listing prices in over 50 currencies, and other features. He said homes.nyc will remain open, even if he has to source listing data directly from brokers and agents in the city.
“We are forging forward,” he said, “one way or another.”