A reveler roller skates with a sign reading, “Scream If Your Rent Is Too Damn High.”

A reveler roller skates with a sign reading, “Scream If Your Rent Is Too Damn High” at the 2022 Halloween Parade on October 31, 2022, in New York City.

(Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images)

The Billionaire Next Door Driving Up Housing Costs for Everyone

The rich are busy turning the 20th-century dream of owning your own home into the grubby 21st-century reality of renting your own home forever.

Democracy or plutocracy? Which label better fits today’s US of A? An apt question to contemplate as we enter what could turn out to be our most harrowing political year since Abe Lincoln’s election. Where to begin this contemplation? How about we take a stab at some definitions.

In a democracy, people identify the problems they face and, working together, try to fashion solutions. In a plutocracy, by contrast, a society’s richest employ their power to exploit the most pressing problems their nation faces — and keep real solutions off the table.

Where do these definitions leave the 21st-century United States? In deep plutocratic doo. Consider, for instance, how we’re responding, as a nation, to our contemporary housing crisis.

For younger American families, the classic American dream — a home of your own! — has become an ongoing nightmare. Some 20 percent of young American men between 25 and 34 lived with their parents last year, 12 percent of young women. America’s multigenerational household population, the Pew Research center notes, has quadrupled since the early 1970s.

What explains these stats? The simple story: Fewer and fewer American young people can afford a home of their own. Overall, an Amherst Group analysis has found, some 85 percent of renting households cannot “qualify for a mortgage.” America’s most typical first-time homebuyers last year, adds the National Association of Realtors, had already turned 36 years old. Young people a generation ago were becoming first-time homebuyers in their 20s.

The economic reality behind all these stats: the shrinking share of America’s wealth that belongs to average Americans. Back in the mid-1990s, America’s “middle class” — the middle 60 percent of U.S. households by income — held double the wealth of the nation’s richest 1 percent. Last year, Fed Reserve researchers calculate, top 1 percenters held more wealth than our entire middle 60 percent.

And America’s richest aren’t just enjoying that turnaround. They’re exploiting it — on a wide variety of housing-related fronts.

In Our Unequal World...

...the garbage rises ever higher

Some rich are busy turning the 20th-century dream of owning your own home into the grubby 21st-century reality of renting your own home forever. These rich and the corporations they run have spent recent years buying up homes for sale and turning their new purchases into rental properties.

In big cities ranging from Atlanta to Phoenix, deep-pocket investors have accounted for between a quarter and a third of local home purchases. The impact of this deep-pocket dabbling in the sale of middle-class housing? Corporate landlords turn out to be more likely, a Vox analysis points out, to evict tenants, raise rents, and dodge needed repairs and maintenance.

Apologist for the richest among us are claiming that critics of this deep-pocket interest in middle-class housing are making a mountain out of an investment molehill. They point out, for instance, that private-equity firms and other “institutional investors” drove less than 3 percent of all home sales in 2021 and 2022.

But that low national percentage, note housing experts like Cincinnati’s Laura Brunner, can obscure what’s happening in many actual local neighborhoods. Private-equity dollars can routinely buy up “50 percent of the houses on a single street.”

Other deep-pocketed movers and shakers, meanwhile, are taking different routes to exploiting America’s inadequate supply of affordable housing. Just how inadequate? In the decade that ended in 2022, Realtor.com reported last March, the nation ended up with “a shortfall of 6.5 million single-family homes.” The investor response to that shortfall? An explosion of “residential transition loans.”

These loans go to America’s growing army of house “flippers,” local speculators of various sorts who buy up older homes from families that can’t afford to make badly needed upgrades and repairs. The loans come at a “relatively high interest rate,” as much as 10 percent annually, notes Barron’s.

Financial industry outfits like 1Sharpe Capital, a subsidiary of the Blackstone private-equity colossus, package these high-interest notes into investment funds that offer millionaires returns that can average over three percentage points more than investments in U.S. Treasury funds.

The sharpies at 1Sharpe Capital, for their role in all this, reap an annual management fee of 0.5 percent and a 20-percent “performance fee” if they deliver investment fund returns that run 1.3 percent or more above the three-month Treasury index.

These ample fees ultimately make up only a tiny share of the income that annually pours into the Blackstone private-equity pool. But every little bit helps. Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, we learned this past August, “received a total adjusted compensation package of $253.1 million in 2022.”

Rewards that outrageous have begun capturing some serious attention from progressive lawmakers in Congress. A year ago this past fall, Rep. Ro Khana from California introduced the Stop Wall Street Landlords Act of 2022, legislation that would, among other provisions, prohibit “large investors from obtaining certain federal mortgage assistance” and create a tax credit that affordable housing developers could tap to build and rehab homes in low-income communities.

Two lawmakers from the Pacific Northwest, Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington, have recently upped the reform ante. The End Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act they introduced this past December would, if enacted, ban hedge and private-equity funds from buying up single-family homes and force them to sell off — over the next decade — the homes they already own.

Still another new bill now before Congress, the American Neighborhoods Protection Act proposed by North Carolina lawmakers Jeff Jackson and Alma Adams, would require corporate owners of over 75 single-family homes to pay $10,000 per home annually into a housing trust fund individual families could tap for help on housing downpayments.

None of these pending reforms have any shot at making it through the current Congress, not given America’s current plutocratic realities. America’s richest don’t just have the wherewithal to exploit the real needs of average American families. Their wealth distorts our national political dialogue. Their political power dooms and delays real solutions to the problems average people face.

How can we advance those real solutions? We need to think big. We need to start redistributing the fabulous amounts of wealth that have concentrated at America’s economic summit. Without that redistribution, our wealthiest will continue to exploit our society’s most aggravating unmet needs.

Take, for instance, the wheeling and dealing of one of the latest billionaire entrants into the buy-up-America’s-housing-stock sweepstakes, Jeff Bezos. The investment fund start-up Bezos is backing, Vicereported last month, “is betting on single-family home rentals because fewer people can afford to buy homes and more people are stuck renting.”

California congressman Ro Khana’s reaction?

“The last thing Americans need is a Bezos-backed investment company further consolidating single-family homes and putting homeownership out of reach for more and more people,” Khana noted last month. “Housing should be a right, not a speculative commodity.”

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