President's Message: Revealing Who Owns America

 

In 1903, Elizabeth Magie, an East Coast office worker, introduced a game designed to illustrate the economic consequences of monopolizing land ownership. An avid follower of Henry George, Magie wanted more people to understand how unregulated rents enriched property owners at the expense of tenants. The Landlord’s Game was played in two rounds: the first involved buying, selling, and renting property, with the goal of making money; in the second round, players who landed on a property paid into a public treasury instead of paying the owner, showing how a land tax could undo the economic and social damage caused by unregulated land ownership.

Magie’s game was a forerunner of contemporary teaching games designed to reveal the consequences, either intended or unintended, of complex systems. For our purposes at the Lincoln Institute, it illustrates the use of land policy as a potential remedy to social and economic challenges. But it also inspired, and was ultimately usurped by, a popular game with a very different message.

The game of Monopoly is iconic. It is also ironic. The original Landlord’s Game was designed to offer solutions to the intrinsic unfairness of consolidated property ownership; Monopoly is a celebration of ruthlessness and greed that promotes unbridled large-scale land ownership. The popularity of Monopoly, now the world’s best-selling board game, helped normalize the idea that unregulated private property was sacrosanct.

More than a century after the invention of The Landlord’s Game, we still struggle to navigate the space between our cultural attachment to unfettered individual dominion over private property and our need to manage land to meet collective needs. A big part of the challenge is that property ownership in the US is still as opaque and almost as unregulated as it was in 1903. How can we regulate something we know so little about?

Property ownership is a matter of public record in the US, but it cannot be determined from any single public source. Our land ownership data is inaccessible, fragmented, and, in many cases, outdated or incomplete. To identify all the US property owned by a single individual or corporation with any certainty, for example, one would need to consult paper records held in 3,142 county offices across the country. Although many counties have digitized property records, the records that do exist are rife with errors and infrequently updated. Some private data providers have tried to compile property records nationally into machine-readable form, but these datasets are expensive, incomplete, and prone to repeat the errors found in the digitized county records. They are also typically tailored for individual use cases, like examining the activity of a particular entity or studying the dynamics of a local market.

It is also very difficult to determine actual property owners from the owners of record. This is because corporate ownership of property can be obscured by the corporate structure itself. The owner of record might be a division of a larger holding company, a managing partner of a national real estate investment trust, or simply a person or corporation doing business under a different name.

To make matters worse, land regulations are similarly opaque and complex. There are more than 30,000 zoning codes in use in the US, dictating how each parcel of land can be developed, and 89,000 local governments across the country that influence how land can be used and taxed. These local governments have overlapping jurisdictions, so different rules can apply to different properties on the same street.

Since joining the Lincoln Institute in 2014, I have wanted to be able to answer simple questions about the state of the nation’s land. For instance, how much prime farmland has been lost to urban sprawl since we began building the interstate highway system? To what extent are natural resources like forests owned and controlled by foreign investors? How many units could be added to the national housing stock if we rezoned and redeveloped abandoned strip malls? As it turns out, finding answers to questions like these was more complicated than I had anticipated. But now, a decade later, we’re making some headway.

In 2023, the Center for Geospatial Solutions at the Lincoln Institute (CGS) launched Who Owns America℠ (WHOA), a nationwide effort to uncover property ownership patterns with unprecedented ease, precision, and nuance. As a first step, this ambitious data mapping endeavor used best-in-class parcel-level data—optimized for analysis at an aggregate level—to respond to specific questions about the ownership of single-family housing in US cities. Starting with Baltimore, we were able to report block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, and across the city the extent to which institutional investors were snatching up single-family homes and converting them from owner-occupied properties to rentals—an increasingly common trend across the country.

Now, dozens of entities—from municipal agencies to national affordable housing organizations—have asked CGS to help them better understand the changing reality of their local housing stock. By equipping organizations like the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America and the Salt Lake County Office of Regional Development with precise and enhanced maps of property ownership, CGS is helping to inform strategies they can use to defend their housing stock—and to track their progress. (Our work was the subject of a recent article in Context, a Thomson Reuters media platform about climate change, technology, and inclusive economies.)

Without an available stock of starter homes, homeownership might disappear as a pathway to “the American dream.” Similarly, our chances of closing racial and ethnic wealth gaps will be greatly diminished if we cannot close racial and ethnic homeownership gaps (which are, incidentally, higher than they were when we passed the Civil Rights and the Fair Housing Acts in the 1960s).


The Center for Geospatial Solutions is working with stakeholders in places including Salt Lake County, Utah, to develop a more comprehensive understanding of institutional property ownership across the country. Credit: Rich Legg/E+ via Getty Images.

But ownership of the nation’s housing stock is only the tip of a very large iceberg of questions that this data-based approach can help answer. The unique “data fusion” expertise of CGS reflects the interconnected nature of our most pressing challenges. By layering multiple environmental and social datasets with land ownership data, their work stands to enrich our collective understanding of the obstacles we face—and how to surmount them.

For example, by weaving in legal-entity information, which is typically dispersed across hundreds of business registers, we can figure out where corporate investors are the most active—in land or housing. We can better understand the impact of large-scale institutional investors compared to that of small, family-owned LLC holdings. We can determine which corporate investors target their housing purchases in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color; which companies are finding loopholes in development regulations intended to protect water supplies in the parched Southwest; and which out-of-state investors are snapping up local timberlands. 

Last month, we got two requests in the same week from practitioners hoping to figure out how much land is owned and controlled by places of worship in their respective states. Drawing inspiration from California’s recently passed SB4, which allows religious organizations and nonprofit colleges to build affordable housing on their property, our partners wanted to better understand the potential of such legislation to engage relatively new players and resources in solving the housing crisis. CGS responded by providing a preliminary analysis estimating the total count of parcels owned by religious organizations, as well as the average and total acreage breakdown by state and county, and is now developing an interactive platform that will make it possible to refine this dataset and investigate potential redevelopment sites.

We’re now contemplating how Who Owns America℠ can help answer many other questions like these—including questions no one has thought to ask yet. The possibilities are endless and exciting.

Understanding property ownership in America involves navigating a complex web of legal, economic, cultural, and historical factors. Balancing private property rights, public interest, and sustainable land use remains an ongoing challenge—in the face of the climate crisis, it might be the biggest challenge of our lifetimes—and the tension between private ownership, government control, and public interest will continue to shape land policies and regulations. But for the first time, it seems possible that better informed and more transparent policies, buttressed by accurate, accessible data, will help to resolve this tension.
 


George W. McCarthy is president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Image: Segment of a data map produced by the Center for Geospatial Solutions to identify different types of property ownership in Baltimore. Credit: Center for Geospatial Solutions.

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