My landlord, my hedge fund

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My landlord, my hedge fund.

According to Fortune magazine, the two groups of people Americans dislike more than Congress are financiers and landlords. 

Given that financiers — and hedge funds in particular — have emerged as the largest owners of single-family homes in the US, it’s little wonder Americans are more anxious than ever about housing affordability.

In an article The New American Dream: rent your home from a hedge fund, author Simon Black said the transformation in the US housing market over the past 10 years is extraordinary. 

“Buying and renting out single-family homes has long been the mainstay investment of small, individual investors. The big banks and hedge funds pretty much monopolise everything else. They own the stock market.  They own the bond market.  They own all the commercial real estate. They even own the farmland. 

“Family homes were one of the last bastions of investment freedom for the little guy. But that’s all changing now.”

In early August a huge merger was announced between Invitation Homes — a real estate company spun off from private equity giant Blackstone Group – and Starwood Waypoint Homes. The combined entity will be the largest owner of residential homes in the United States with a portfolio of 82,000 properties worth over US$20 billion.

Blackstone was one of the first financial institutions to buy residential homes, spending over US$10 billion on distressed homes following the global financial crisis. At one point, Blackstone was reportedly spending US$150 million a week on houses.

All up, it is estimated hedge funds and financial investors have spent US$30 billion on more than 200,000 working-class, single-family residential homes across the US in markets including California, Seattle, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Florida, Chicago and Minneapolis.

Initially these financial owners purchased homes under threat of foreclosure, scooping up large swathes of housing stock when few average people were brave enough, or cashed up enough, to buy. 

Their initial objective was to capitalise on depressed prices with rental income as their secondary goal. They expected to dispose of these properties after about five years, pocketing a capital gain.

However, their residential home ownership experience has been fruitful and their objectives and appetite have changed over recent years.

What began as a buy-and-flip plan has become a long-term proposition. Most of the hedge funds now intend to be long-term landlords, making more money over time by raising rents.

They’ve also created new securities from their housing portfolios — bundling rental properties together to become a bond, paying bondholders out of the rental cash flow. Blackstone expects this “exciting new asset class” to grow into a US$1 trillion industry in the next few years.

Critics say the effect of this exciting industry has been to push house prices up, squeeze individual house buyers out and turn America into a nation of renters forever.

US Census Bureau statistics confirm the number of rental households has been rising steadily while the number of homeowner households has been falling. 

One commentator concludes: “The new reality in America, especially for young people, is you’ll be relegated to renting your house from Blackstone. Unfortunately this is not like renting your grandma’s old house. Maximising profit is their sole purpose and they are ruthlessly efficient in raising rent.”

It’s hard being outside the housing market waiting for an opportunity to buy. It will be even worse if your competition can pay more than you, will not even live in the house, and may instead become your landlord.      

No wonder hedge funds are unpopular.


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