Investment firms are playing landlord and bundling their rental homes into new securities. What could go wrong?
Toward the end of 2012, Mark Alston, a real estate broker in Los Angeles, began noticing something strange. Home prices were starting to rise, and fast—about 20 percent annually. Normally, higher home prices would signal increased demand from homebuyers and indicate that the economy was rebounding. But the home ownership rate was still dropping. Somehow, the real estate market was out of whack.
Then there were the buyers themselves. “I went two years without selling to a black family, and that wasn’t for lack of trying,” recalls Alston, whose business is concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods where the majority of residents are African American and Latino. Now all his buyers were businessmen in suits. And weirder yet, they were all paying in cash.
Over the last two years, private equity firms and hedge funds have amassed an unprecedented real estate empire, snapping up Spanish revivals in Phoenix, adobes in Los Angeles, Queen Anne Victorians in Atlanta, and brick-faced bungalows in Chicago. In total, Wall Street investors have bought more than 200,000 cheap, mostly foreclosed houses in some of the cities hardest hit by the economic meltdown. But they’re not simply flipping these houses. Instead, they’ve started bundling some of them into a new kind of financial product that could blow up the housing market all over again.
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