Jimmy McMillan has an enduring allure to him, especially at this moment in history, perhaps because he reminds us of a time when our, let’s say, more unorthodox candidates weren’t seen as a direct threat to democracy and everything we hold dear. Most people started seeing McMillan’s Chester A. Arthur mutton chops and pro wrestler swagger during his notable bid for governor in 2010, when he ran on the Rent Is Too Damn High ticket, which also happened to be his catchphrase and only memorable platform. It was the “make America great again” for a kinder, simpler age. We’ve seen a decent amount of him since then: he talked about running for mayor, dropped a fairly fire anthem (for a politician, at least), traveled the world in doll form, occasionally shopped at Trader Joe’s on Court Street and announced in December he would retire from politics. This month he’s back in a new role, though along the same theme: Helping you find an apartment in a city where the rent only keeps getting higher.
Apartment hunting startup Joinery worked with McMillan to create Jimmybot, a free Jimmy McMillan-inspired Facebook bot that helps you search for apartments in your price range. McMillan appears in videos for the service, including one where he advises that if you had your own apartment, you wouldn’t walk in on him having sex with your mother to the tunes of Teddy Pendergrass.
“A lot of it was completely just ad libbed,” Joinery cofounder Julia Ramsey said of the videos. “He was totally into the idea, he’s been sort of in and out of politics for so long. His central platform that the cost of living is too high in New York, and I would tend to agree.”
— Julia Ramsey (@juliaramsey) October 10, 2016
The bot puts you through a few question-and-answer prompts: you tell “Jimmy” how many bedrooms you’re looking for and in what neighborhood and he combs a few different apartment rental sites to find you some options. Ramsey, who’s 30 and lives in Crown Heights, described it as like a Kayak.com for apartment rentals, crawling different apartment rental websites to provide you the best option. He interjects a few phrases like “Boomshakalaka!” and “Hell yeah!”
“We realized there’s no metasearch engines for real estate,” Ramsey said. “It aggregates together that information, so you just have to go through less places to look. … We just thought there was a gap in marketplace that needed to be filled.” (For the record, there is at least one other site that does similar meta searches.)
The bot is mostly just for fun (Joinery isn’t making any money off of it), which is why McMillan and his outsize persona made a good mascot. Of course, McMillan is a bit all over the place politically: though a long time pro-gay marriage Vietnam vet and affordable housing advocate, he endorsed Trump for president back in January (womp womp). Thankfully neither the videos on Facebook nor the bot get into any actual politics.
Before the bot, Ramsey and her cofounder Vianney Brandicourt, both alumni of Google, founded Joinery as a way to cut out brokers’ fees, those nefarious and most-hated middleman charges for finding an NYC apartment that always feel more like extortion than actually paying for a service. Joinery connects you directly with the departing tenant of the apartment, so you end up paying a fee of only 5 percent instead of the thousands and thousands of dollars you might otherwise hand over to a broker.
“It’s the idea of taking an apartment and making it a little more communal and less expensive,” Ramsey said. “The driving reason why I’m doing any of these projects is I feel the current system is just fundamentally flawed and unfair to people who are just trying to live their lives.”
The frustration was borne out of her own bad apartment hunting story, which of course we all have in New York. In her 20s, Ramsey was living in a rapidly falling apart fourth-floor walkup in the Lower East Side. The floors were so warped they were “basically parabolic;” a ceiling “exploded in cockroaches” one day. She tried to find a quick place to move on Craigslist, and found a promising place in the East Village. There was a broker fee — but it quickly dawned on her that the “broker” was just a guy searching the internet for no-fee apartments and passing himself off as a broker.
“He wanted $6,000 or something for the experience of doing a Craigslist search,” she said. “It’s so frustrating on so many levels. I couldn’t take the apartment at this point on principle. I can’t pay this man six grand to do a Craigslist search for me.”
Joinery has about 80 listings now and has flipped about 150 in the past year, she said. Cutting out broker’s fees and making apartments slightly easier to find through a bot will of course only do so much to address the “rent is too damn high” problem (there are many many many barriers to that), but at least Jimmy McMillan won’t pretend to be a shady broker on Craigslist.
Try out Jimmybot here.
Follow Tim if you can handle the amount of bad twitter jokes being too damn high: @timdonnelly.