By Leah Etling
On May 1, 2016, a fast-moving wildfire began near Fort McMurray in northeast Alberta, Canada. The fire forced the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, while 90,000 people fled the flames.
Evacuees headed south in a scene reminiscent of an apocalypse movie. They made it away safely, but waiting at the end of the road was an instant housing crisis.
“Residents won’t be able to return home until it is safe to do so,” Alberta Premiere Rachel Notley informed thousands of anxious evacuees. “Residents of Fort McMurray should not expect to return home for an extended period of time.”
There were apartments to rent, but a way to share information about them was missing. The Provincial Government of Alberta, including the municipal government of Edmonton, scrambled to connect fire evacuees with a searchable, trustworthy, easy-to-use housing registry. It needed to be ready fast to connect an estimated 4,500 evacuees seeking housing with new homes and apartments.
The Capital Region Housing Corporation, a social housing provider in the city of Edmonton, reached out to its real estate technology provider, Yardi Canada Ltd., part of global software firm Yardi Systems. Based in Santa Barbara, Calif., Yardi is an industry leader and well-known provider of software for real estate companies around the world.
Greg Dewling, CEO of Capital Region Housing, contacted Peter Altobelli, Vice President and General Manager of Yardi’s Canadian subsidiary. Altobelli quickly reached out to Yardi founder and CEO Anant Yardi, who said that his company would provide development services without commercial terms.
Yardi’s RENTCafé apartment search platform was ideally suited to address the crisis, and its development team was ready to leap into action.
Dewling made his first call to Yardi late in the afternoon of Monday, May 9. By the early afternoon of Thursday, May 12, he viewed a nearly final product. Development of the housing registry website was complete in just 72 hours.
“This was an excellent test of how quickly we can mobilize the RENTCafé platform,” said Chris Ulep, Vice President of multifamily product development at Yardi. “It truly demonstrated the capability of design, development and client services to work together and ensure that product update and production plan was delivered quickly.”
“We were floored that they were able to turn it around so quickly,” Dewling said. “I shared this with colleagues at a real estate forum, and jaws were dropping about the speed of the initiative and what Yardi was doing to help. We were, to say the least, extremely impressed.”
Behind the scenes
The accomplishment of that 72-hour site launch was a global effort by Yardi executives, managers, programmers, designers and marketers. Staff members from Toronto, Canada; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Pune, India; and Cluj-Napoca, Romania were all part of the sprint to prepare the site.
With teams in four different time zones, the project was on a 24-hour clock. Web designers in Santa Barbara created a site design and handed off to programmers in Cluj, who built the site. With the infrastructure in place, the project came back to Pune and Toronto for Quality Assurance and user testing. Monitoring of site performance was conducted in Toronto, Cluj, and Pune.
As development neared completion, marketers in Cluj learned of the project and pitched in to publicize it via social media. To start the content process, Yardi clients in Canada were asked to list their vacant Alberta units, and many did so.
“Everybody was incredibly dedicated to working quickly to get this done,” said Altobelli. “Employees around the world worked overtime. There was amazing communication.”
The housing registry went live for all landlords to use on Friday, May 13. Vacant apartment listings began pouring in via webform and needed to be prepared for display.
“Everyone came together to participate in this initiative,” said Stephen Teague, a client services manager in Toronto. “The RENTCafé team in Canada and India worked through the weekend to make this possible.”
Renters began inquiring about apartments on Monday, May 16. By that afternoon, prospective renters had submitted hundreds of inquiries and more than 2,500 units were listed for rent. That same day, a call center powered by Yardi RENTCafé® Connect™ opened. Potential renters with questions about the listed properties can call in 6am to 11pm MT, seven days a week.
“The fire caught everyone off guard, and emphasized the need for emergency planning,” said Lynn Biggs, Executive Director of the Alberta Residential Landlord Association. “Without a pre-planned way to disseminate rental information, responsiveness was the next best solution.”
“The most important thing was to get this up so that people had a place they could go immediately,” said Biggs, whose office was fielding calls from evacuees seeking housing.
The association encouraged its members to list their vacant units on the site and offer reasonable terms, including reduced security deposits, and reduced or free rent periods.
Tempering the housing emergency was the fact that there were units available. Alberta’s economy has softened in 2016 due to falling oil prices, triggering residential turnover. To make sure the landlords providing listing information were reliable and to prevent imposters or scammers, the City of Edmonton verified each submitted landlord as a legitimate housing provider.
Commitment to community
Yardi has a longstanding tradition of giving back to the community, quietly contributing to more than 75 non-profit organizations annually. Financial support of disaster relief efforts is common. Less common are chances to use software expertise to help those in crisis.
“It is part of our company culture to support others in a time of need. Even as we have grown, we have not lost that humanity around what we do. It shows the true character of our company,” Altobelli said. “This effort to help happened to be made possible by our technology, and that’s a special way to make an impact.”
Dewling, of Capital Region Housing, observed: “It is humbling to know that an international organization of Yardi’s size was willing to help others in this capacity. I would have to say that we were thoroughly impressed by the entire team that worked on this project.”
The Centralized Housing Registry for Alberta homes and apartments can be viewed at http://www.rentcafe.com/canada/fortmcmurraywildfires.