Laura Gottesdiener is a a journalist and the author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, who lived and worked in the People’s Kitchen during the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Last Novemeber she wrote about how hedge funds and private equity firms were building a “rental empire” by buying up foreclosed properties by the thousands, renting them back to working people, and bundling up those properties to sell to Wall Street. If this sounds familiar, it should. It the same scheme that brought down the housing market with subprime mortgages and has the potential to do it again.
You can hardly turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about the nation’s impressive, much celebrated housing recovery. Home prices are rising! New construction has started! The crisis is over! Yet beneath the fanfare, a whole new get-rich-quick scheme is brewing.
Over the last year and a half, Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms have quietly amassed an unprecedented rental empire, snapping up Queen Anne Victorians in Atlanta, brick-faced bungalows in Chicago, Spanish revivals in Phoenix. In total, these deep-pocketed investors have bought more than 200,000 cheap, mostly foreclosed houses in cities hardest hit by the economic meltdown.
Wall Street’s foreclosure crisis, which began in late 2007 and forced more than 10 million people from their homes, has created a paradoxical problem. Millions of evicted Americans need a safe place to live, even as millions of vacant, bank-owned houses are blighting neighborhoods and spurring a rise in crime. Lucky for us, Wall Street has devised a solution: It’s going to rent these foreclosed houses back to us. In the process, it’s devised a new form of securitization that could cause this whole plan to blow up — again. [..]
This inundation has some concerned that the private equity giant, perhaps in conjunction with other institutional investors, will exercise undue influence over regional markets, pushing up rental prices because of a lack of competition. The biggest concern among many ordinary Americans, however, should be that, not too many years from now, this whole rental empire and its hot new class of securities might fail, sending the economy into an all-too-familiar tailspin.
“You’re allowing Wall Street to control a significant sector of single-family housing,” said Michael Donley, a resident of Chicago who has been investigating Blackstone’s rapidly expanding presence in his neighborhood. “But is it sustainable?” he wondered. “It could all collapse in 2016, and you’ll be worse off than in 2008.”
In her current article she focuses on how this is now happening in New York City.
How Private Equity Came to New York’s Rental Market — and What That Tells Us About the Future
Things are heating up inside Wall Street’s new rental empire.
Over the last few years, giant private equity firms have bet big on the housing market, buying up more than 200,000 cheap homes across the country. Their plan is to rent the houses back to families — sometimes the very same people who were displaced during the foreclosure crisis — while waiting for the home values to rise. But it wouldn’t be Wall Street not to have a short-term trick up its sleeve, so the private equity firms are partnering with big banks to bundle the mortgages on these rental homes into a new financial product known as “rental-backed securities.” (Remember that toxic “mortgage-backed securities” are widely blamed for crashing the global economy in 2007-2008.)
All this got me thinking: Have private equity firms gambled with rental housing somewhere else before? If so, what happened?
It turns out that the real estate market in my New York City backyard has been a private equity playground for the last decade, and the result, unsurprisingly, has been a disaster for tenants and the market alike.
In the Bronx, Benjamin Warren fears that he and other residents could burn to death in a fire because management has blocked both sides of the passageways between buildings designed to offer ways out of the massive apartment complex. (Warren has called the city and management multiple times to complain, but the routes remain shut.) Nearby, Liza Ash found herself intimidated by nearly a dozen hired men when she and other residents of her building, which had heat or hot water only sporadically this past winter, attempted to organize a tenants’ meeting in the lobby. A little farther south, Khamoni Cooper and her neighbors receive a constant stream of fake eviction notices ordering them to vacate their apartments within five days, even though all of them have paid their rent.
These three tenants — and nearly 1,600 more families in 42 buildings — are living through one of the largest single foreclosures to hit New York City since the financial crisis began seven years ago. But here’s the twist. The owner of these buildings is far from a traditional landlord. It’s actually a conglomerate of private equity firms that bet it would be able to squeeze more money out of these buildings than it ultimately could — and ended up unable to pay back the $133 million mortgage.
The problem is that, when things go bust, the tenants, far more than these private equity owners, end up shouldering the costs.
The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, is now the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the country. In one day alone, Blackstone bought up 1,400 houses in Atlanta. And as private equity firms gobble up huge swaths of the housing market, they are partnering with big banks to bundle the mortgages on these rental homes into a new financial product known as “rental-backed securities,” reminiscent of the “mortgage-backed securities” that helped cause the last financial crisis. Could this new private equity rental empire help spark the next housing crisis? We are joined by Laura Gottesdiener, author of “A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home,” who calls this wave of purchases “a land grab.” Gottesdiener’s latest article focuses on New York City’s rental market, a case study in what critics call “predatory equity.” Large firms have used abusive tactics to oust tenants in a bid to hike up rents – and tenants have been resisting. We are also joined by Benjamin Warren, who, along with nearly 1,600 families in 42 buildings, is a victim of one of the largest single foreclosures in the city’s recent history.