Connecting state and local government leaders
Experts say there are several strategies governments can try to prevent investors from dominating the market.
In the summer of 2021, Lauren Brunner and her colleagues at the Port of Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority came across an article in The Wall Street Journal that talked about the influx of out-of-town investors to Ohio’s real estate market. The article startled Brunner and her team, and they quickly did some digging. The Port, as it is called, discovered that 4,100 homes in the county were owned by just five landlords.
“We were, like, hair on fire–we had no idea this was an issue,” said Brunner, CEO and president of The Port, at a panel hosted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research this week.
These out-of-state investment firms were making it harder for local residents to buy homes, especially low- and middle-income buyers. With sky-high mortgage rates and a tight supply, it’s already been a tough year for new homebuyers across the country. Now communities are mobilizing to make it more difficult for investors to rent out the properties they purchase.
In Cincinnati, The Port was able to acquire nearly 200 properties that it is now working to sell to the tenants at an affordable price. This is just one approach governments are using to combat the issue. Panelists at the HUD event say there are several strategies governments can try to prevent investors from dominating the market.
A complex issue like this warrants a multifaceted approach, and one place to start is before investors even bid on a property, according to Laurie Goodman, an Urban Institute Fellow for the Housing Policy Finance Center.
“Rather than saying, ‘Bad investor, you shouldn't be buying these properties, you should be leaving them for homeowners,’ we should be looking to improve the financing process so individuals can compete with institutional investors,” she said at the HUD panel.
When it comes to financing a property, according to Goodman, investors have several advantages that make it difficult for owner-occupants to compete with them.
For starters, most of the homes real estate investors purchase require renovations. From the get-go, many of those properties are out of reach for typical homeowners because taking out home improvement loans is much more difficult for homebuyers. While investors have teams of experts that can anticipate how much renovations will cost and use that information to inform their bids, most homeowners “have no idea” how much renovations cost, and therefore shy away from bidding at all, Goodman said. And because investors typically own hundreds or thousands of properties, they often work with vendors at discounted rates because of the scale.
Meanwhile, nearly 40% of homebuyers or potential homebuyers are denied renovation loans, Goodman noted. “Is it any wonder that a homeowner would prefer to sell to an all-cash bidder than someone who needs a mortgage and has a 39% denial rate in order to get renovation financing?”
In addition to rethinking how homebuyers can finance property purchases, governments need to have good tenant organizing policies, said Elin Zurbrigg, deputy director of Mi Casa, Inc., a housing advocacy group.
She pointed to Washington D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. If a building is up for sale, TOPA gives tenants the first opportunity to collectively purchase the property. Under the policy, thousands of people – including low-income families – have been able to purchase homes in one of the country's fastest gentrifying cities, Zurbrigg said.
“Through purchasing their buildings directly or becoming a co-op or condominium owner, it's a model that's inclusive of everyone because you don't need to obtain a mortgage by yourself. You don't have to qualify individually,” Zurbrigg said.
She encouraged local leaders to work closely with tenant organizations and “channel the power of residents who want to remain in their homes in their neighborhoods.”
Bianca Motley Broom, Mayor of College Park, Georgia, also noted the importance of community engagement.
College Park has about 14,000 residents, 75% of which are renters. The city wants to provide more homeownership opportunities for its residents and was working with a developer to create 200 homes. But when the developer decided to rent those homes instead of sell them, residents spoke out. The city listened and stopped the project, Motley Broom said.
“What we're trying to do … is let people know, this isn't just about your house. This is about our entire community and the future of that community and also the future of individual families and their ability to generate wealth to pass on to the next generation.”
“It's not the job of a market you know, to watch out for society – it's the job of a market to be efficient and make money,” The Port’s Brunner said. “It's our job, all the rest of our jobs, to follow behind the market and determine whether what the market is doing comports with our values. And if it doesn't, we have to fight back.”
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.