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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.