Nikita Starichenko/

Technology is changing the face of all aspects of real estate. Here, researchers plan to leverage the advantages of technology for a more fair system of zoning. But, there are still challenges.

Picture this: A developer owns a plot of land in a gentrifying neighborhood. Under current zoning codes, and with current market incentives, the best bang they could get for their buck is to build high-rise luxury apartments. But this neighborhood doesn’t need luxury apartments. It needs a supermarket, and affordable housing for current, low-income residents. The existing zoning code isn’t designed to consider those needs. It just states that this plot is zoned residential.

Now, a group of researchers are working on a vision for a new type of zoning and a different incentive system that might be able to respond more dynamically to communities’ needs — using machine-learning algorithms, big data, and blockchain, the same technology underlying Bitcoin.

Under their system, someone would take an inventory of that same hypothetical neighborhood’s current housing stock, mobility patterns, demographics, amenities, energy consumption, and other factors. Then a simulation model would propose solutions to maximize residents’ wellbeing, using tokens — think cryptocurrency — as a new system of exchange.

So, for example, if the goal is to protect residents from displacement, the algorithm might value longevity: Anyone who has lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years gets a token. That same developer could still build, but they might be required to rent or sell only to holders of this particular token. Community members would have a say in what the algorithm values. Maybe people with vital professions like school teacher might also qualify for the hypothetical housing token.

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