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Develop a Virtual Rental Building—and Just Try To Break Even

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It isn't "SimCity" or "Spore." But today, the Citizens Housing & Planning Council launched Inside the Rent, a game (or simulation, as we would describe it) that aims to educate players about the challenges, from the costs of construction to what rents to change, involved with developing a new apartment building. Players begin by selecting a neighborhood for their building. The game currently offers 14 options including Morrisania in the Bronx, Bed-Stuy, Long Island City, and the Lower East Side.

After you choose your neighborhood, the game asks you to set the rent for a two-bedroom apartment in your upcoming building. Throughout the game, your rental price will be compared to the costs (per tenant) you've accrued because of the various choices you make regarding the development of your building, including the neighborhood selection. (Choosing to build in Williamsburg, for instance, bumps you up to a cost of $1,817 per tenant!) Other questions that you're asked include whether your building is a mid-or high-rise, the types of amenities (a choice between "basic" or "extra"), and whether or not you pay prevailing (union-level) wages for construction and/or maintenance.

At this point, if your costs exceed the rent, you can choose either just to up the rent (effectively giving up) or to add in government subsidies. You can subsidize land and construction costs, and apply for property tax abatements. Each of these options will slide the cost meter back somewhat substantially. Hopefully, with this assistance, the rent you-the-landlord/developer charge will be manageable.

Sarah Watson and Daniel Parcerisas, both from the Citizens Housing & Planning Council, acknowledged that the game is oversimplified. Most decisions are made between only two options, which subsequently lead to shifts in the cost bar. Parcerisas also emphasized that the dollar values in the game aren't meant to reflect any specific government program. For instance, the tax abatement option in the game doesn't correspond to the controversial 421-a program completely. Still, Watson says that the game is still realistic and "within the realm of possibility," and the concept is what's important anyway.

The goal, Watson and Parcerisas agree, of both the game and CHPC as a whole is to educate. "Educating people is the most value you can add to public housing policy," Watson said. Not enough people know exactly how construction costs and rent relate to each other—and this includes those who are making crucial decisions on housing policy. Therefore, while the game will be available to anyone to play—on either your computer or your phone—it's target audience is actually politicians, Watson says. CHPC is not an advocacy group by any means, but they want decision makers to understand that "whatever decision [they're] making... has consequences."

The game has its limitations: For one thing, there's no back button! (Though that may be intentional.) Parcerisas mentions that zoning is not a part of the game at all, and he hopes to incorporate it in future versions. The game's data will also be updated periodically so that it reflects accurate and current land costs and construction costs.
—Wesley Yiin
· Inside the Rent [official]
· Play Inside the Rent Now! [CHPC]
· All Renters Week 2015 coverage [Curbed]