The Private Equity Land Grab Expanding to Smaller Legacy Cities
Small and midsize legacy cities, once written off as relics of an industrial past, are important actors as climate change plays out in the United States. As much as one-third of the U.S. population lives in these metro areas, which are home to fertile farmland, abundant fresh water, productive capacity and culture, and comparatively cool weather. As climate change accelerates, these resources will attract people displaced from other parts of the country and the world.
To succeed as “climate havens,” legacy cities must protect their assets, which also include relatively affordable housing, historic downtowns, and often overbuilt infrastructure, while simultaneously developing strategies to foster climate resilience, environmental justice, and green economic development. However, these cities face a serious threat that could undermine such efforts: large-scale speculative real estate investment that could put housing out of reach for all but the most affluent.
Corporate and institutional investors expanded their role in the housing market more than a decade ago, picking up foreclosed and distressed properties across the country at rock-bottom prices during the Great Recession, then renting or reselling them after the recovery. Today they are consolidating even more property and power, a trend marked by rising real estate ownership by limited liability corporations (LLCs), the increasing sophistication of algorithmic tools for amassing different types of property in aggregate, and increased reliance on driving up rents, rather than house-flipping, to extract profits. Leaders in legacy cities, preoccupied with dramatic population loss for decades and enthusiastically welcoming investment now, could be caught unprepared to handle a land grab that benefits only the wealthy, displacing most everyone else—particularly Black and brown residents.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Housing Finance Survey data, individual ownership of rental property fell from 92 percent in 1991 to 72 percent in 2017, with evidence suggesting that it has dropped further since. LLCs, which states authorized in large numbers beginning in the 1990s, account for much of this shift. They are a particularly common ownership structure for apartment dwellings of five or more units and, more recently, for single-family housing and mobile-home parks. These impersonal “equity-mining” operations convert owner-occupied housing to rentals, price out current renters with higher rents through devices such as block purchasing in targeted neighborhoods, and keep first-time homeowners off the market by reducing the available housing stock—all with virtually no accountability due to limited liability protections.
Most of this activity has taken place in growing metropolitan areas, mainly across the South and on the coasts, but legacy cities are emerging targets. Detroit, which has slowed gutting population loss in recent years, was among the 10 U.S. metropolitan areas where private equity accounted for the highest share of purchased homes in 2021. With 19 percent of its home sales made to investors, Detroit found itself in the company of fast-growing cities including Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami, and Atlanta.
The predominantly Black east side of Cleveland, and the city’s eastern first-ring suburbs, have also been hit hard. Between 2004 and 2020, the proportion of housing purchases made by private equity in Cuyahoga County rose from 7.2 percent to 21.1 percent; on the east side, investor purchases stood at a staggering 46 percent by 2020. Since 2016, Springfield, Massachusetts, with a poverty rate of about 25 percent, has experienced 1,200 single-family private equity home purchases, more than any other city in the state; that figure doesn’t even include purchases of foreclosed properties.
A number of conditions account for this housing market speculation. According to ProPublica reporting, private equity firms have record levels of unallocated capital available for real estate. Investors are also betting on a rising rental market as population outpaces housing supply. The pandemic has played a role too, leaving struggling individual landlords and owner-occupant sellers vulnerable to cash-paying private equity investors. Most housing in smaller legacy cities is single-family, which is currently targeted by private equity. And in a time-honored land-use dynamic, urban “improvements”—such as Springfield’s downtown MGM casino complex and potential East-West rail connection to Boston—tend to attract additional investment.
Countering this speculative, wealth-extracting land grab—a damaging trend that climate change will only exacerbate, as investors eye properties expected to remain viable amid calamitous changes elsewhere—is critical to the long-term economic health of smaller legacy cities. They should consider taking or supporting steps including the following:
- requiring greater transparency in LLC ownership, partnerships, and practices, as legislation recently filed in New York State aims to do;
- ensuring that municipal housing codes require access to a local agent in charge, along with “owner” information, and provide for and/or more readily apply both criminal and civil penalties for code violations; and
- encouraging full implementation of the 2020 Corporate Transparency Act, which Congress passed to make ownership information reported to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network public, so that neglectful corporate landlords can be more easily tracked and held accountable.
Policy makers also need to remedy the structural forces that have gotten us here by increasing housing supply to meet demand, particularly at the lower end of the market; planning to preserve affordability and prevent displacement of vulnerable residents; and linking housing to community wealth-building through tools like community land trusts.
Although much uncertainty clouds our climate future, we know many millions of people will be displaced, and the assets of smaller legacy cities will make them appealing destinations. Such cities must plan for that future now by safeguarding their land and people from the private equity invasion.
Catherine Tumber, author of Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World (MIT Press, 2012) is coauthor of a forthcoming Policy Focus Report from the Lincoln Institute on greening small and midsize legacy cities in the United States. To learn more about her work, visit catherinetumber.com.
Image: In Springfield, Massachusetts, and other U.S. legacy cities, institutional investors are muscling in on the real estate market. Credit: halbergman via iStock/Getty Images Plus.