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.