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Laura Gottesdiener, Security vs. Securities

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

I live in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I can more or less roll out of bed into the House of Representatives or the Senate; the majestic Library of Congress doubles as my local branch. (If you visit, spend a sunset on the steps of the library's Jefferson Building. Trust me.) You can't miss my place, three stories of brick painted Big Bird yellow. It's a charming little corner of the city. Each fall, the trees outside my window shake their leaves and carpet the street in gold. Nora Ephron, if she were alive, might've shot a scene for her latest movie in one of the lush green parks that bookend my block.

The neighborhood wasn't always so nice. A few years back, during a reporting trip to China, I met an American consultant who had known Capitol Hill in a darker era. "I was driving up the street one time," he told me, "and walking in the opposite direction was this huge guy carrying an assault rifle. Broad daylight, no one even noticed. That's what kind of neighborhood it was." Nowadays, row houses around me sell for $1 million or more. I rent.

Washington's a fun place to live if you're young and employed. But as a recent Washington Post story pointed out, the nation's capital is slowly pricing out even its yuppies who, in their late-twenties and early-thirties, want to start families but can't afford it. "I hate to say it, but the facts show that the D.C. market is for people who are single and relatively affluent," a real estate researcher told the Post. The District's housing boom just won't stop; off go those new and expecting parents to the suburbs.

And we're talking about the lucky ones. Elsewhere in the country, vulnerability in the housing market isn't a trend story; it's the norm. The Cedillo family, as Laura Gottesdiener writes today, went looking for their version of the American housing dream and thought they found it in Chandler, Arizona. They didn't know that the house they chose to rent rested on a shaky foundation -- not physically but financially. It had been one of thousands snapped up and rented out by massive investment firms making a killing in the wake of the housing collapse. As Gottesdiener -- who has put the new rental empires of private equity firms on the map for TomDispatch -- shows, the goal of such companies is to squeeze every dime of profit from their properties, from homes like the Cedillos', and that can lead to tragedy. Andy Kroll

Drowning in Profits A Private Equity Firm, a Missing Pool Fence, and the Price of a Child's Death By Laura Gottesdiener

Security is a slippery idea these days -- especially when it comes to homes and neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most controversial development in America's housing "recovery" is the role played by large private equity firms. In recent years, they have bought up more than 200,000 mostly foreclosed houses nationwide and turned them into rental empires. In the finance and real estate worlds, this development has won praise for helping to raise home values and creating a new financial product known as a "rental-backed security." Many economists and housing advocates, however, have blasted this new model as a way for Wall Street to capitalize on an economic crisis by essentially pushing families out of their homes, then turning around and renting those houses back to them.

Caught in the crosshairs are tens of thousands of families now living in these private equity-owned homes. For them, it's not a question of economic debate, but of daily safety and stability. Among them are the Cedillos of Chandler, Arizona, a tight-knit family in which the men work in construction and the oil fields, while the strong-willed women balance their studies with work and children, and toddlers learn to dance as early as they learn to walk. Their story of a private equity firm, a missing pool fence, and the death of a two-year-old child raises troubling questions about how, as a nation, we define security in housing and why, in the midst of what's regularly termed a "recovery," many neighborhoods may actually be growing increasingly vulnerable.

A Buying Frenzy

In early August 2013, the Cedillo family threw a pool party at their house in Chandler. It was the sixth birthday of Brenda Cedillo's son, Jesus, and the family gave him a Batman-themed celebration, complete with a piñata in the driveway and a rented waterslide for the small pool in the backyard. Brenda, her brother Bryan, and her sister Christine had signed a one-year lease on the two-story structure three weeks earlier, which made the party special. It was the first family celebration that could be held in a house.

"We've always lived in apartments, apartments, apartments," said Christine.

The three of them were excited to find a place they could afford that was big enough for their children, Christine's partner Javier, and their parents Olga and Jesus. Christine's oldest daughter, two-year-old Zahara, was so close to Brenda's son that the two called each other brother and sister.

The only worry during the party was the pool, carefully monitored by the adults. Being unfenced, it had been a source of stress since they moved in. Repeated requests to the management company overseeing the property that one be installed had resulted in nothing. The Cedillos had no idea that the house's real owner was a private equity firm called Progress Residential LP. It had been founded in 2012 by Donald Mullen, a former Goldman Sachs partner, and Curt Schade, a former managing director at Bear Stearns, an investment bank that collapsed in 2008. Progress was financed by a $400 million credit line from Deutsche Bank.

The same month that the family rented the house at 1471 West Camino Court, Progress Residential purchased more homes in Maricopa Country than any other institutional buyer. Nationally, Blackstone, a private equity giant, has been the leading purchaser of single-family homes, spending upwards of $8 billion between 2012 and 2014 to purchase 43,000 homes in about a dozen cities. However, in May 2013, according to Michael Orr, director of the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, Progress Residential bought nearly 200 houses, surpassing Blackstone's buying rate that month in the Phoenix area.

The condition and code compliance of these houses varies and is rarely known at the time of the purchase. Mike Anderson, who works for a bidding service contracted by Progress Residential and other private equity giants to buy houses at auctions, was sometimes asked to go out and look at the homes. But with the staggering buying rate -- up to 15 houses a day at the peak -- he couldn't keep up. "There'd be too many, you couldn't go out and look at them," he said. "It's just a gamble. You never know what you've got into."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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