In big cities, some millennials are using Roomi, a real estate app meant to connect roommates and landlords, for exploring more than just apartments.
From friendly chatter and the occasional creepy encounter to what many presume to be Tinder-style hookups, the 3-year-old app has inspired millennials in Toronto, New York and even Brazil to adapt the service as a social tool wildly divergent from its intended application.
“It is becoming Tinder-Roomi,” Nat, a 29-year-old graduate student in Toronto, told Inman.
Nat, who spoke on the condition her last name not be published, said she soured on the service after attempting to find a likeminded female roommate in downtown Toronto only to come upon several profiles of 40-year-old men in search of 20-something female roommates. The profiles left her with an impression that the men were specifically seeking out attractive young women — not typically a prerequisite for shared housing.
Another 25-year-old woman who works as a technical writer said that when she signed up for Roomi in search of a roommate to share her New York apartment friends warned her to be careful because its design — prominent pictures of potential roommates that users can scroll through quickly — appeared to them to mimic dating sites such as Tinder.
“When I signed up for Roomi, my friends told me I should be careful because they heard there can be creepy men on mobile housing apps, just like on Tinder,” she told Inman, choosing to remain anonymous for her employer.
Launched in 2015 by entrepreneur Ajay Yadav, the app has experienced enormous growth, raising $11 million in Series A funding late last year and leaping to the top of the Apple Store rankings for housing apps. Since then it’s expanded to multiple cities across the U.S. and parts of Europe.
“We take safety very seriously,” Yadav told Inman in a phone call in which he specified that Roomi is “definitely not a platform for any sort of dating or any sort of matching.”
“We believe that community power combined with our platform can really help everyone build a better community,” he said.
As Roomi grew, it also expanded its features, most recently through a partnership with startup Lemonade that offers rental insurance to users of the app.
To protect users, Roomi also offers them an opportunity to submit documentation to get their profile verified, link social media to their profile and undergo an optional background check. This way, users who have taken the additional steps of verification are clearly identified for those who may be concerned about safety when using the app.
When told about some of the above users’ experiences on the platform, Yadav said that he would personally look into how such profiles were able to make it through to the app.
Right now, Roomi individually verifies every profile that puts up an apartment, and for renters, has a system that bans certain roommate profiles based on specific inappropriate words written in the description or other incongruities such as ID documents that do not match one’s location or a suspiciously low cost of an apartment in a particular area. The company also allows users to flag any profile that they find suspicious — a 10-person response team has been enlisted to verify those flags within two minutes.
“What we have done is really heavily focused on moving away from messaging and moving towards more applications,” Yadav said. “So we want to make sure before you even talk to anyone, you have to apply.”
That said, some users still feel that such a flag system puts the responsibility of weeding out people who are not using the app properly on the user, who may not necessarily know what the person writing them may want.
Users of any app designed to help people connect, especially in so intimate a setting as a shared living arrangement, need to be vigilant, said Carl Carter, the founder and executive director of the Beverly Carter Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation named after a slain Arkansas Realtor that advocates for safety in the real estate industry.
“We all forget that everyone’s intentions aren’t the same as ours,” said the organization’s founder and the son of Beverly Carter who was murdered in 2014 while showing a home.
Tyler, an aspiring 22-year-old actor, plans to move to New York from Chicago to audition on Broadway and develop his theatrical chops. But before relocating or buying a plane ticket, Tyler sought out Roomi not to find a roommate, but to make new friends before his move to Manhattan, which he acknowledged wasn’t happening anytime soon.
“I was mostly just exploring,” Tyler said, speaking on the condition of only his first name being used. “I have no immediate plans to move. I got someone to reach out to me almost immediately.”
Most of the Roomi users interviewed by Inman recounted similar experiences of finding the occasional incomplete profile or someone simply looking to make a new friend.
Another user, a 24-year-old Brazilian student named Fábio, sought out the app to meet new friends in Boston — even though he lives in Brazil and has no intention of moving yet. He has considered applying for doctoral studies in the United States and wants to meet American students who will tell him about life here through the app.
“I downloaded the application because my research has pointed to this app as being one of the best for [meeting people],” Fábio told Inman.