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.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.