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Opinion: On TRREB’s recent technology announcement

Recently, the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board’s CEO, John DiMichele, made an historic announcement that is unfortunately mostly fluff with no substance. The article reads like 90 per cent of tech industry announcements – faster, easier, cheaper.

So what? The writer of the article was attempting to speak about things to which they have demonstrated no understanding. It also reads like classic tech-vapourware.

The MLS isn’t so much broken as it is ancient. It’s not 20-year-old technology as DiMichele said. It’s based on 1990s technology – 30 to 35-years-old. Would you want to be using a mobile phone that’s even five-years-old?

There are clues in the article, however. Setting aside the nepotistic old-boy network of hands in each other’s pockets (Teranet, Stratus, TRREB), blockchain is a game changer. Embracing this technology is essential for TRREB and its ilk to survive in the next 10 years. Making dismissive comments like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” are the same phrases uttered by long-dead entities that manufactured typewriters, slide rules, VHS, optical media and countless other obsolete technologies. Even Netscape Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect, which each owned majority share in their respective markets, are just more gravestones adorning the tech info-highway.

DiMichele should have said that blockchain will do for any type of asset what the original Internet protocol (TCP/IP) did for information exchange. Blockchain will redefine how real assets (actually any asset – a painting, vehicle, single song, movie) are protected and exchanged. It will significantly reduce the need for the many people currently involved in each real estate transaction who are mostly there for a single purpose … to provide a “trusted” environment for the exchange and financing of items of value.

But blockchain is a “peer-to-peer” technology, meaning it’s intended to connect buyers directly with sellers. If so, perhaps TRREB might survive the technology sea change by morphing its MLS into a Zillow-like service (Zillow announced it was converting to blockchain in September 2018) but where does that leave Realtors? What will be the Realtor’s role in this peer-to-peer service? Such a service will particularly impact insurance and especially mortgage agents who may find themselves without a purpose at all. Real estate lawyers may well be in a better position to exploit the benefits of blockchain than Realtors.

With the dramatic multi-million-dollar loss of TRREB’s legal battle against the Competition Bureau, TRREB is slowly being forced to relinquish its hold on real estate data and information. Many Realtors are simply gatekeepers of MLS information today. What will the artificial intelligence capability of this system be? Will it replace these gatekeepers? (That’s a rhetorical question).

Many other questions abound about what TRREB thinks its own future role will be. DiMichele seems to suggest that TRREB is somehow going to be a market leader in providing this technology and related services to other entities. TRREB’s track record hardly supports such a vision. Teranet, despite its uncharacteristic control of “parcel fabric” data is still only a provincial corporation. Is this triumvirate capable of taking on mega-corporations who have all expressed keen interest in real estate transactions including Microsoft, Google, Zillow and Bell? Even individual brokerage companies like Cushman & Wakefield and Royal LePage are developing and building their own proptech (property technology) capabilities.

Working with the land registry offices to migrate all real estate assets to blockchain is absolutely essential. It appears Teranet and TRREB are attempting to preserve their “middleman” status in this process but what true value-add are they bringing to the table that the government and mega-I.T. companies can’t do a hundred times better?

There are many more questions like these. DiMichele answered none of them. TRREB is supposed to be a not-for-profit association dedicated to representing the best interests of its members. I don’t see that protection of member interests today, and I have no reason to believe that the leadership that TRREB so desperately needs will evolve in time to steer the ship into the technology tsunami heading our collective way and through it into a bright future of blue skies and clear sailing.