In our previous article describing speculation on vacant urban land, we pointed out that the attention paid to vacant housing often overlooks another type of pernicious vacancy: housing units that aren’t even built in the first place. Sometimes this looks like plots of land lying vacant for decades, even in the face of exorbitant rents, earning juicy speculative profits for the owner as their land rises in value. But speculative profiteering doesn’t only occur on wholly vacant land. It also occurs on underutilized land. In this article, we examine the social harms that arise from underutilized land, consider ways of measuring it, and propose policies to discourage it.
Land Use and Housing
Articles: Speculation and Reuse
As academics, advocates, and pundits scramble to explain the rising burden of housing costs in American cities, much has been written about the specter of vacant housing. A symptom of wealthy speculators, vacant units indicate that many investors are happy to park their wealth in real estate and profit from growth in land values without the hassle of actually having to build or rent-out empty units.
This narrative is often paired with calls for a tax on vacant units, which is expected to push these units into being made available for use by tenants. While there are merits to this argument, it misses the forest for the trees, as it entirely fails to identify and fix two other ways in which scarce space within our cities is wasted: through vacant and/or underutilized urban land. Just like vacant dwellings, vacant and utilized lots are held out of use by speculators when they could instead be housing many more people.
In this article, we will summarize the existing research on the causes and consequences of urban land, which primarily centers on the existence of blighted land in struggling cities.
“Could I begin life again, knowing what I now know, and had money to invest, I would buy every foot of land on the island of Manhattan.”
So wrote one of the original robber barons of the early nineteenth century. Yet almost 200 years later, the idea of holding land as a road to riches is alive and well in New York City. Though, of course, owning land is not so bad when the owner also uses it productively, provides employment, or builds affordable houses. But owning ground to make money on it while doing nothing to it is a problem New York doesn’t need.
In 2022, New York City is facing a new onslaught from the financial sector and their hedge fund billions. The city is enormous––700 square miles. But under the current cruel system, struggling families and small businesses have the nearly impossible task of finding a decent location to live or do business.
Articles: Financialization of Housing
As housing costs continue their inexorable climb upwards in cities across the US, concern is mounting about the role played by corporate investors. Referred to as the ‘financialization’ of housing, real estate is being hoovered-up by massive investment funds with names like BlackRock and Blackstone.
While attention is often paid to the institutional investors, one overlooked component of this shifting economic quicksand is the growing presence of limited liability companies (LLCs) in the real estate market. This legal structure is favored by investors looking to profit by grabbing land, avoiding the tax collector, and dodging the ire of the public eye.
In this article we’ll describe how the LLC legal structure became a favorite weapon for real estate speculators, explain how they widen inequality, present our own research into their presence in New York City (NYC), and suggest some policy tools to uproot this pernicious weed ensnaring our cities.