Who owns the city? How urban real estate became the corporate asset class of choice

New York City is still the world's most popular land bank. Image: Getty.

The term “gentrification” does not quite capture the massive changes that have been happening in a growing number of cities worldwide in the last few years. In mid-2014 to 2015 alone, more than a trillion dollars was invested in real estate in just 100 cities across North America, Europe and Asia; this is excluding properties priced under $5m and sites available for development.

Something else is happening. Urban land – not just buildings, but also undeveloped lots – is considered a good investment at a time when financial markets are shaky. As a result, worldwide investment in urban land is increasing rapidly.

There are diverse indications of this, which I explore in depth in my book, Expulsions. For one, the top 100 cities – as ranked by level of property investment – account for 10 per cent of the world population, but 30 per cent of the world’s GDP (its overall economic output) and 76 per cent of the world’s property investment. So wealth is clearly being concentrated into a select group of urban areas.

Another disturbing sign is that worldwide real estate assets amount to $217trn, according to Savill (one of the leading expert firms on real estate). This represents 60 per cent of the value of all global assets, including equities, bonds and gold. And let’s not forget that when a piece of real estate becomes an asset, it has been financialised – which opens up all kinds of possibilities to raise the property’s value.

That said, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Although the world’s GDP is about $270trn, this is dwarfed by the value of finance: measured by outstanding derivatives (the basic measure for finance), it is worth over a quadrillion dollars.

Home, sweet home?

There are a couple of signals that this trend has something to do with investment, rather than, say, more people moving to these cities to buy a house and start a family. Let’s focus on some of the most desirable luxury buildings in Manhattan in New York – though we could have taken any of 25 or even 50 major cities in the world.

The trends I describe capture something about the desirability of investing not only in property but, perhaps especially, in urban land. This is significant in a world where much land is dying – due to desertification, floods, mining, plantation agriculture, deforestation or poisoning from mining operations.

In 2014, 54 per cent of sales of real estate priced over $5m in Manhattan were made to shell companies – companies used as a front for other operations. If we break it down into specific buildings, and take the most famous and highly-valued Manhattan buildings we find similar numbers.

Bloomberg Tower. Image: Jaroslavd/Flickr/creative commons.

Here are some relevant cases for the last few years. In the Warner Center in Manhattan, 122 of the 192 condos are owned by people who used shell companies, which hide their identities. In the Bloomberg Tower, 57 per cent of condos are owned by shell companies. And in The Plaza, 69 per cent of condos are owned by shell companies. We can observe the same trend in other cities, such as London, where 22,000 properties had been left empty for more than six months, as of February 2016.


Several major US cities saw rising investments (both national and foreign) in urban properties, from offices to high-rise apartment buildings, hotels and retail. New York led, with $70bn from mid-2014 to -15, followed by Los Angeles Metro and San Francisco Metro. These top recipient cities were followed by Chicago, Washington DC, Dallas and several others.

We see similar trends abroad, with London, Paris and Tokyo among the major recipients. In some cities, it was mostly foreign investment: for example, in London, Dublin, and Amsterdam-Randstadt. In others, it was primarily domestic investment, such as New York, Moscow and Beijing. And in many it was 50:50, as a result of the growth of foreign investment – notably in Paris, Sydney, and Vienna.

Who owns the city?

Periods of high levels of foreign investment have recurred in cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong over the decades. When I was doing my research for The Global City in the 1980s, I found multiple nationalities in the ownership of much of the City of London. In New York and Los Angeles, the acquisitions by Japanese and Middle Eastern investors had become more prominent, alongside the long-standing European investments.

But what marked these investments in the 1980s was utility. The buyers wanted and needed to be in New York or London. Today, the high incidence of shell companies is more about storing money and hiding it, than actually using the buildings.

Building big in central London. Image: lucyrfisher/Flickr/creative commons.

These days, I would argue that whether the investment is foreign or national may matter less than the fact that it is corporate. Corporate investment tends toward large-scale projects; either in large developments, or in smaller urban plots that are assembled into one larger plot. Often, existing properties are torn down to build entire new mega-projects – taller, larger, fancier than what went before.

This kind of large-scale urban development entails significant shifts in ownership; from small or medium businesses to large corporations, or from public to private. Some of the most noxious “site assembly” developments happen when a single owner buys one or two city blocks, and the city authorities cave in to their requirements by eliminating little streets and parks, and privatising everything.

We are witnessing a deep history in the making: a systematic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in some of our major cities. Whether it’s national or foreign, large-scale corporate investment absorbs much of the public tissue of streets and squares, and street-level commerce. It shrinks the texture and scale of spaces that are accessible to the public, and ultimately changes the very character of the city. If we’re to safeguard equity, democracy and rights in urban areas, we must first ask ourselves: who owns the city?The Conversation

Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

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

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.