The Rise of the Bankster Landlord

It’s time to put an end to the financialization insanity that’s hurting average people, destroying the American dream, and turning our economy into one big giant casino. One of the most startling trends to come out of the wreckage of the 2007-2008 financial crisis is the explosion of Wall Street firms buying up and renting out property all across the country.

The housing glut and foreclosure crisis that was, for most Americans, the symbol of the devastation caused by the worst economic downturn of our lifetimes, was, for Wall Street a wonderful business opportunity. A study from the Center for American Progress estimates that in the five plus years since the crash, “institutional investors [i.e. big banks and hedge funds] have... bought approximately 200,000 single-family homes at bargain prices and converted them into rental homes.”

Amazingly, the New York City-based hedge fund The Blackstone Group has focused so much of its resources on the real estate business that is now the single largest landlord in the entire country.

Now, I’ve known many people over the years who’ve decided to become landlords. It’s a smart financial decision, the kind that middle class people used to do all the time to help them boost their income. Renting out your first or second home is great way to earn some extra money, help pay the mortgage, or even make a living once you retire and no longer take home a paycheck.

But making a few extra bucks isn’t why big banks and hedge funds are buying up thousands of houses every year. The real reason why they’re so enthusiastic about throwing people out of their homes and flipping those houses into rental properties is that they want to repackage those properties and their rent payments into fancy financial products - remember derivatives? - that they can then sell to investors.

In other words, being a landlord is just another way for Blackstone Group and companies like it to make money with money. They don't produce anything at all, they don't add anything to our economy, they don't help any middle-class families, they just make money with money. And given that that's all they do, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that, they’re really, really bad at being landlords.

The activist coalition Housing For All recently surveyed hundreds of tenants living in Blackstone-owned properties in the Los Angeles area and what they found was startling. Nearly half of the tenants surveyed said they had problems with their plumbing. Almost 40 percent said they had roach or insect infestation. Another 22 percent said they had issues with rodents or termites. A similar number of surveyed tenants said that had problems with heating, mold, and roof leaks.

All in all, not a pretty picture, and a picture made worse by the fact that only one in 10 Blackstone tenants said they had ever met a representative of their landlord in person. While Blackstone gets rich repackaging homes into fancy financial products, the people who actually live in those homes suffer.

There have always been slumlords, but what we’re seeing right now with Wall Street firms like Blackstone buying up home after home, renting them out, and then using rental payments as the basis for derivative securities is something new and totally dangerous.

The financial products Wall Street is creating with its new rental empire are basically a re-hashed version of the mortgage-backed securities that crashed our economy five years ago. There’s a new bubble in the works, and if we’re not careful, we could see another financial crisis sooner than you might think.

This is a perfect example of why we need to totally rethink the financialization of our economy. Banks and financial institutions, especially regular, old-fashioned commercial banks, do have an important role to play in our economy. They facilitate commerce and help everyday people save and use their money through things like checking and savings accounts. In our economy, banks are supposed to provide that function.

There’s even a place for Wall Street in our economy. When regulated and controlled, investment banking can provide opportunities for asset and investment growth that wouldn’t otherwise exist. But there’s a huge difference between finance being just one part of our multifaceted economy and making it the dominant sector, as it is today.

There’s also a difference between allowing Wall Street to play a small role in the banking industry and letting it control the industry, as Congress and President Bill Clinton allowed to happen by deregulating the big banks in 1999 and 2000. We now live in a financialized country, and every part of our economy, whether it’s the real estate market, the commodities market, or the manufacturing industry, is in thrall to the big banks and hedge funds on Wall Street.

This is insane -- it’s a recipe for disaster.

That’s why it’s time to go back to what worked for decades before Wall Street took control of the banking industry and the economy. It’s time to make banking boring again by putting a firewall between good old-fashioned checking-account "commercial banks" and the "investment bank" gambling houses on Wall Street. Not only will this bring sanity to the banking industry, it'll also bring sanity to our entire economy as well, by protecting us from whatever crazy scheme Wall Street comes up with next.

Let the investment banks gamble all they want. Just keep the rest of us, and our houses, out of it. Bring back Glass-Steagal.


edayres's picture
edayres 9 years 47 weeks ago

HERE, HERE! these banks are just cutting the middle-guy, buying wholesale. If not stopped, wealth will continue to flow to them, and rest of us are forced to become a nation of shopkeepers scratching out a living. How do we stop this kind of encroachment when they increasingly own the lawmaking powers of government that will continue giving them all kind of tax breaks and other laws that make this possible. It all starts with campaign finance reform. The second area of challenge is for some smart attorney to turn this corporate personhood thing around on them and breakdown the protection they have from financial liability as entities. They are persons now and should not have that protection any longer.

jackk12's picture
jackk12 9 years 47 weeks ago

Holy Crap! I hadn't thought of the re-package thing but I did notice a little over a year ago our tax assessment went through a flip-over. I have a rental house and part of the ability to make money with a rental is through the depreciation of improvements over 27.5 years. My properties (home and rental) had the same basic split in values, approximately 35 % improvements and 65% land. Now and for the last two years it flipped the improvements to 65% and property to 35 %. A 30% increase in the deductible amount. I can't get it because it has been a rental for 15+ years and the deductible amounts were set then. I called our King County Appraiser and they said it was a reflection of the price land is/was selling for, but would not say anything more. I used to think it was just some local Richie Rich's wanting to make a few extra bucks but I now believe it is because of the oncoming billionaire landlords and how a 30% increase will make the paper they want to sell a lot more profitable! As Teddy K. said so well, "When will the greed stop! How much is enough!"


Jack K.

douglas m 9 years 47 weeks ago

Tell me the banking industry isn't a clear and present danger to the economy itself.

More importantly I'm sure they will stop making profit over destroying everything in their path.

I picture bankers as Ferengie from star trek. The love of money.

They will obviously have to be heavily regulated before anything will get better in this economy.

Wait we have a progressive congress, I feel safer already.

richinfolsom 9 years 47 weeks ago

The house always wins.

My grandmother talked of the days when she was a young girl os escaping the dust bowl with everything they owned loaded on a Model-T. I later read Grapes of Wrath and envisioned the details of life in the days of The Great Depression and found myself wondering not just the human cost, but "why." Born in the fifties, an age of technological promise: rocket ships and the race to the moon; freeways, television, and an anticipation that I would follow with a similar lifestyle and relative financial security.

We no longer fly rockets to the moon. Wages have stagnated since the days of Reagan with massive consolidation and leverage buyouts. I knew there was something called the Sherman Antitrust Act and was befuddled watching NBC announcing massive job layoffs in the thousands. I had a sense something profound was taking place, but understanding the reasons wasn't as clear.

Several months ago, the local Sacramento newspaper ran a story about the corporate buying of nearly 25% of rental properties in the area, cashing in on the demise of the for near middle class. NPR just did a story last week about how poorly maintained these corporate homes are maintained. I flash on my grandmother's stories of the days of economic darkness and wonder what perfect storm of market forces and world events might spin the world into an abyss unlike anything ever before encountered. Perhaps even worse is the pace of mediocrity as we slowly digress into an Orwellian world of corporate servitude until the planet chokes on the gasps for its cleansing. Tag you're it :-) Rich in Folsom

Aliceinwonderland's picture
Aliceinwonderland 9 years 47 weeks ago

This is one of those rare occasions when I have to disagree with Thom.

Thom says becoming a landlord is “a smart financial decision”, a “great way to earn some extra money, help pay the mortgage, or even make a living once you retire and no longer take home a paycheck.”

I think it’s a great way for property owners to be subsidized by the less fortunate. I think it’s a rotten system, generating all kinds of abuse from both sides of the deal.

Don’t get me wrong, folks. I’ll acknowledge that there are exceptions to this general rule, where there is a fair exchange between landlord & tenant that is mutually beneficial. But in a majority of situations, it’s not so great.

When my hubby & I were renters, we did not have big banks or hedge funds for landlords. But we had to deal with plumbing problems, carpenter ants, warped floors and ceilings, slug invasions (even finding slug tracks on our clean dishes in the dish drainer!) and other headaches. If my husband didn’t happen to have all these nice handyman skills, I don’t know what we would have done. That’s because all the people we rented from were deadbeat do-nothings who could only be depended upon to take our money.

Rent from Wall Street, or some corporate entity?! I’d rather hang myself. - AIW

dianhow 9 years 47 weeks ago

Afrer 2008 depression / crash US should have broken up largest banks ...These powerful crooked banks are a dangerous monopoly. Big Banks, Corps & billionaires run our country .Last 30 + years US policies, laws are anti middle class ..and favor wealth ! Why ? Because Supreme court says ' Money is Speech Corps are Persons ! Why do we listen to the diversions from GOP year after year ? GOP vowed to make Obama a failure 5 yrs ago. GOP ' leadership no longer puts USA first . The GOP is anti fair wages, anti middle class and anti womens right to birth control.

How dare they tell us how to plan our families .

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 9 years 47 weeks ago

douglas m -- In which universe have you detected a progressive congress?

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