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Toronto Real Estate Board shuts down local man's data project

After publishing a visualization of trends in Toronto's housing market, Shafquat Arefeen received a cease-and-desist notice from the TREB, which represents 45,000 realtors.

Shafquat Arefeen was sent a cease-and-desist notice for his project.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Shafquat Arefeen was sent a cease-and-desist notice for his project.

Shafquat Arefeen just wanted to understand the housing market better.

The 26-year-old financial data analyst saw that the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) had made aggregated data publicly available — but he wanted to develop his own insights. Using information released by TREB in early July, he published a visualization of trends in Toronto's housing market.

Readers loved it. His website, which does not have ads, got 13,000 visitors in the first month the visualization was available.

TREB did not love it.

On Monday, Arefeen received a cease-and-desist notice from the group, which represents 45,000 Toronto realtors. The letter, sent through law firm Gardiner Roberts, warns that if Arefeen didn't take down his visualization by Thursday they could pursue legal action. He complied.

"I was really scared," he told Metro. "I didn't think what I did was wrong."

Arefeen spoke to a few friends in the legal profession who told him he was better off just taking it down. But he didn't like TREB's approach.

"I felt like I was being bullied in a way," he said.

TREB was unavailable to comment in time for publication.

Arefeen's visualization displays the number of homes sold by month on a year-over-year basis, the ongoing difference between listing and selling prices as well as the data for individual house sales.

"I showed it to my parents, and they found it useful," he said. "It was mostly for educational purposes."

Arefeen stressed that he did not access TREB's database.

The real-estate board closely guards its data, which it considers proprietary. There has been a years-long legal battle between TREB and the Competition Bureau of Canada, which argues the board engages in "anti-competitive" behaviour by prohibiting ways realtors can use Multiple Listing Service data. TREB has argued it doesn't make more detailed data available due to privacy concerns.

"We need to use every piece of publicly available data to better understand the affordable housing crisis," said Paul Kershaw of Generation Squeeze, a group that looks at how young people are being priced out of the market.

Kershaw drew a parallel to the lack of free data from the provincially owned Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. He said the corporation can charge university researchers like him $20,000 for data that's freely available in British Columbia.

Arefeen said that, in spite of TREB's stance, he believes more and more data will become open and accessible.

"The world is moving towards a data-centric approach," he said.

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