Wall Street is now America’s biggest landlord. What does that mean for the American Dream?

The Wall Street bull. Image: Getty.

Owning a family home in the suburbs has been a cornerstone of the American dream for many generations. But in 2008, when the United States’ housing bubble burst and a spate of mortgage foreclosures triggered the global financial crisis, that dream was vanquished, and such houses would instead become the sites of shattered lives.

In the aftermath of the crisis, hundreds of thousands of suburban homes were repossessed and sold at auction. With the market in shambles, prices were low. Tightened credit made it hard for individuals to buy – even for those whose credit was not destroyed by the crisis. Investors saw an opportunity, and began buying up houses.

Though house prices have recovered in many regions of the US, many of the people living in these homes are now renting – and their landlords are some of the biggest investment firms on Wall Street. Of course, small scale, mostly local investors have long owned and rented out individual houses. But it simply wasn’t feasible to manage large numbers of individual homes at a distance. As technology changed, it became much more practical for large corporations to manage individual homes spread across different regions.

With access to credit and funds unavailable to the average home buyer, large investors have been able to enter the landlord market in ways that have never been seen before. Blackstone – the world’s largest alternative investment firm – pioneered new rent-backed financial instruments in 2013, whereby rent checks are bundled up and sold as securities, similar to the way that mortgage payments are turned into financial products bought by investors.

Now, Blackstone’s rental company Invitation Homes looks set to merge with Starwood Waypoint Homes; a move that would create the nation’s largest landlord, with roughly 82,000 homes across the country. Another Wall Street backed firm, American Homes 4 Rent, owns a further 49,000 homes across 22 states.

Renting the American dream

Since 2010, the United States has seen a massive rise in the number of families renting the kind of single-family houses that have long been the desire of would-be homeowners chasing the American dream. While estimates vary, the inventory of single family homes being rented has grown by anywhere from three to seven million (35 per cent to 67 per cent) compared with pre-crisis levels. Single-family houses are now the most common form of rental property in the United States.

Overwhelmingly, the people living in these houses are families. Our ongoing research with Jake Wegmann of the University of Texas and Deirdre Pfeiffer of Arizona State University shows that almost half of Single Family Rented (SFR) households (49 per cent) have at least one child under 18; a far greater percentage than rental properties with multiple units (roughly 25 per cent) and owner-occupied homes (31 per cent).

According to our own analysis of the American Community Survey, in 2015 an estimated 14.5m children in the United States lived in a rented single-family home. Demographically, single-family renters are more likely than owners to be people of colour, and to face moderate or severe housing cost burdens. The upshot of all this is that the 40m or so people living in SFR homes now form the basis of a new asset class of rental-backed securities.


Destination unknown

Scaling up portfolios consisting of thousands or tens of thousands of rental homes has made it possible for Wall Street firms to roll out financial instruments suited to “a rentership society”. Securitisation allows big investors to borrow against the value of the properties, to buy more properties and pay off old debt, and acts as a loan that tenants pay back with their rent checks.

Wall Street is no stranger to the housing business in America. But their involvement as landlords of single-family homes is new, and so are the financial instruments they have developed. The impact of Wall Street’s new role is unclear. While rehabilitating houses and helping to stabilise home values in the hardest-hit markets, they may also be crowding out first-time buyers, creating a lopsided market that shuts out would-be owner-occupiers.

Some Wall Street landlords have been singled out for poor repairs, problems with billing and collections and lacklustre customer service. There is also growing concern about the fact that renters of single-family homes have little protection, even in cities with some form of rent control. A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that large corporate owners of houses are more likely than smaller landlords to evict tenants; some filed eviction notices on up to a third of their renters in just one year.

Here to stay

Wall Street landlords are also making new political allies, hinting they intend to stick around. The largest single-family rental companies have banded together to form a trade group, the National Rental Home Council, which promotes large-scale, single-family rental housing and advocates for public policies friendly to their interests. And it seems to be working.

In an unprecedented move, just after President Trump’s inauguration, the government-backed mortgage agency, Fannie Mae, agreed to underwrite Blackstone’s initial public offering of Invitation Homes stock, to the tune of a billion dollars. Blackstone’s CEO is Steve Schwarzman, one of the president’s most loyal backers. And Thomas Barrack – the recently departed leader of Colony Starwood Homes, which is preparing to merge with Invitation Homes – is a longtime friend of the mogul-turned-president.

Meanwhile, another government-backed agency, Freddie Mac, has announced that it too was supporting investment in single-family rentals, but with a focus on financing for mid-size investors and with an explicit goal of maintaining rental affordability. Non-partisan organisations like the Urban Institute have also suggested that government-backed financing opportunities could help single-family rental serve as a new affordable housing strategy.

The ConversationAll of these developments suggest that the downward trend in home ownership after the financial crisis could be here to stay. And while there is nothing wrong with renting – just as there is nothing inherently good about owning – the changes we are seeing in the single-family rental market bear ongoing scrutiny, to ensure that Wall Street’s demand for profit does not once again wreak havoc on Main Street.

Desiree Fields is a lecturer in urban geography at the University of SheffieldAlex Schafran is a lecturer in urban geography, and Zac Taylor a PhD candidate in geography, at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.