March 24, 2022

Gambling with Homes, or Investing in Communities?

by UNHP

Over the past year, UNHP’s Multifamily Research and Action Center has collaborated with the LISC Research and Evaluation team to investigate the effects of speculation in multifamily housing on tenants. Our newly released collaborative report, Gambling with Homes, or Investing in Communities? presents the striking findings of that work. In short, the research uncovered empirical support for what we and other community-based organizations have understood to be true for a long time — speculation has run rampant in neighborhoods like the Northwest Bronx and elsewhere in NYC with high concentrations of low-income and/or black and brown households, and that buildings where speculation has taken place are more likely to have bad outcomes for tenants such as poor building conditions and evictions. The report also includes a series of recommendations to mitigate harm from speculative fallout. Jacob Udell, UNHP’s Director of Data and Research, and Caroline Kirk, UNHP’s Data Analyst are credited in this important report that elevates UNHP’s long-time work to identify and address distressed multifamily buildings in NYC and preserve their affordability.

Click here to read the report.
Click here to download the report from UNHP’s publication page.

UNHP brought our long history of both thinking about and tracking the state of the multifamily real estate market to bear in this collaboration. For almost two decades, we have dug into the consistently rising values of Bronx multifamily buildings. Even early in that process, the trend of increasing property values was a mystery to us, as it both seemed to outpace gains in net income and did not comport with what we, as a community-based developer, knew it takes to operate old-stock, rent-stabilized housing in the Bronx. As we continued to watch building values increase, we also encountered distress and worsening building conditions throughout the neighborhoods we work in.

It was these connected insights that led to our Building Indicator Project (BIP), which sought to identify buildings that, as the result of speculative prices or debt levels as well as other factors, might be likely to be in physical or financial distress. Over the last few years, we have worked to create the Multifamily Housing Database, which expanded upon BIP by both increasing the depth of data we capture and putting that data into a format that was more suitable for analysis of trends over time. In particular, we deepened our use of ACRIS property records, to come up with a consistent and robust methodology for tracking both price and debt levels over time. This data has served as the basis for a theoretical framework for how we might understand rising prices and rising debt in NYC multifamily housing — built out with the help of years of input from organizers, other community-based developers, as well as advocates and researchers.

This graphic illustrates the extraction of money from the property that could be used for repairs and maintenance by leveraging more debt. UNHP examined the role of appraisals that often do not take the need for renovation into the valuation in this blog post on appraisals and affordability. Graphic courtesy of LISC

From that starting point, the collaboration with LISC has established a new approach to identifying speculation on a building level. And due to the immense work and expertise of the LISC Reporting and Evaluation Team, we were able to use that approach to measure the effect of that speculation on the things that matter most to tenants — the conditions of their units, and the ability to have a stable home without threat of displacement. Taken together, the report challenges an assumption that has been implicit in the way that urban policy relates to the real estate market for close to three decades — that rising values for housing are necessary to attract investment to older buildings where lower-income people of color often live.

Over the thirty-plus years of UNHP’s existence, we have seen Bronx housing move from a state of extreme disinvestment to that of over-investment, or more precisely, extractive investment. This research, and that of others working to combat the ills of rampant speculation, has provided us with evidence of the real-life effects that risky, quick profit-minded financial decisions have on tenants. This work underpins what many had been saying for a long time — that we urgently need policies and politics that prioritize safe, stable, and affordable housing, even in the face of widespread speculative investment that seems to do the opposite.

UNHP was honored to be able to collaborate with LISC Reporting and Evaluation Team. Special thanks to David Greenberg, Julia Duranti-Martinez, and the entire team for your incredible expertise and effort on this report. A BIG thank you to all former interns, IPED fellows, and especially Gregory Jost and VaNessa Lanier who built and led our Multifamily and BIP research through the years.


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