Sarah Bauer, MJLST Staffer
For many of us looking to buy our first homes during the pandemic, the process has ranged from downright comical to disheartening. Here in Minnesota, the Twin Cities have the worst housing shortage in the nation, a problem that has both Republican and Democratic lawmakers searching for solutions to help both renters and buyers access affordable housing. People of color are particularly impacted by this shortage because the Twin Cities are also home to the largest racial homeownership gap in the nation.
Although these issues have complex roots, tech companies and investors aren’t helping. The number of single-family rentals (SFR) units — single-family homes purchased by investors and rented out for profit — have risen since the great Recession and exploded over the course of the pandemic. In the Twin Cities, black neighborhoods have been particularly targeted by investors for this purpose. In 2021, 8% of the homes sold in the Twin Cities metro were purchased by investors, but investors purchased homes in BIPOC-majority zip codes at nearly double the rate of white-majority neighborhoods. Because property ownership is a vehicle for wealth-building, removing housing stock from the available pool essentially transfers the opportunity to build wealth from individual homeowners to investors who can both profit from rents as well as the increased value of the property at sale.
It’s not illegal for tech companies and investors to purchase and rent out single-family homes. In certain circumstances, it may actually be desirable for them to be involved in the market. If you are a seller that needs to sell your home before buying a new one, house-flipping tech companies can get you out of your home faster by purchasing the home without a showing, an inspection, or contingencies. And investors purchasing single-family homes can provide a floor to the market during slowdowns like the Great Recession, a service which benefits homeowners as well as the investors themselves. But right now we have the opposite problem: not enough homes available for first-time owner-occupants. Assuming investor-ownership is becoming increasingly undesirable, what can we do about it? To address the problem, we need to understand how technology and investors are working in tandem to increase the number of single-family rentals.
The Role of House-Flipping Technology and iBuyers
The increase in SFRs is fueled by investors of all kinds: corporations, local companies, and wealthy individuals. For smaller players, recent developments in tech have made it easier for them to flip their properties. For example, a recent CityLab article discussed FlipOS, “a platform that helps investors prioritize repairs, access low-interest loans, and speed the selling process.” Real estate is a decentralized industry, and such platforms make the process of buying single-family homes and renting them out faster. Investors see this as a benefit to the community because rental units come onto the market faster than they otherwise would. But this technology also gives such investors a competitive advantage over would-be owner-occupiers.
The explosion of iBuying during the pandemic also hasn’t helped. iBuyers — short for “instant buyers” — use AI to generate automated valuation models to give the seller an all-cash, no contingency offer. This enables the seller to offload their property quickly, while the iBuyer repairs, markets, and re-sells the home. iBuyers are not the long-term investors that own SFRs, but the house-flippers that facilitate the transfer of property between long-term owners.
iBuyers like Redfin, Offerpad, Opendoor (and formerly Zillow) have increasingly purchased properties in this way over the course of the pandemic. This is true particularly in Sunbelt states, which have a lot of new construction of single-family homes that are easier to accurately price. As was apparent from the demise of Zillow’s iBuying program, these companies have struggled with profitability because home values can be difficult to predict. The aspects of real estate transactions that slow down traditional homebuyers (title check, inspections, etc…) also slow down iBuyers. So they can buy houses fast by offering all-cash offers with no inspection, but they can’t really offload them faster than another seller.
To the degree that iBuyers in the market are a problem, that problem is two-fold. First, they make it harder for first-time homeowners to purchase homes by offering cash and waiving inspections, something few first-time homebuyers can afford to offer. The second problem is a bigger one: iBuyers are buying and selling a lot of starter homes to large, non-local investors rather than back to owner-occupants or local landlords.
Transfer from Flippers to Corporate Investors
iBuyers as a group sell a lot of homes to corporate landlords, but it varies by company. After Zillow discontinued its iBuying program, Bloomberg reported that the company planned to offload 7,000 homes to real estate investment trusts (REITs). Offerpad sells 10-20% of its properties to institutional investors. Opendoor claims that it sells “the vast majority” of its properties to owner-occupiers. RedfinNow doesn’t sell to REITs at all. Despite the variation between companies, iBuyers on the whole sold one-fifth of their flips to institutional investors in 2021, with those sales more highly concentrated in neighborhoods of color.
REITs allow firms to pool funds, buy bundles of properties, and convert them to SFRs. In addition to shrinking the pool of homes available for would-be owner-occupiers, REITs hire or own corporate entities to manage the properties. Management companies for REITs have increasingly come under fire for poor management, aggressively raising rent, and evictions. This is as true in the Twin Cities as elsewhere. Local and state governments do not always appear to be on the same page regarding enforcement of consumer and tenant protection laws. For example, while the Minnesota AG’s office filed a lawsuit against HavenBrook Homes, the city of Columbia Heights renewed rental occupancy licenses for the company.
Discouraging iBuyers and REITs
If we agree as a policy matter that single-family homes should be owner-occupied, what are some ways to slowdown the transfer of properties and give traditional owner-occupants a fighting chance? The most obvious place to start is by considering a ban on iBuyers and investment firms from acquiring homes. The Los Angeles city council voted late last year to explore such a ban. Canada has voted to ban most foreigners from buying homes for two years to temper its hot real estate market, a move which will affect iBuyers and investors.
Another option is to make flipping single-family homes less attractive for iBuyers. A state lawmaker from San Diego recently proposed Assembly Bill 1771, which would impose an additional 25% tax on the gain from a sale occurring within three years of a previous sale. This is a spin on the housing affordability wing of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, which would have placed a 25% house-flipping tax on sellers of non-owner-occupied property, and a 2% empty homes tax on property of vacant, owned homes. But If iBuyers arguably provide a valuable service to sellers, then it may not make sense to attack iBuyers across the board. Instead, it may make more sense to limit or heavily tax sales from iBuyers to investment firms, or the opposite, reward iBuyers with a tax break for reselling homes to owner-occupants rather than to investment firms.
It is also possible to make investment in single-family homes less attractive to REITs. In addition to banning sales to foreign investors, the Liberal Party of Canada pitched an “excessive rent surplus” tax on post-renovation rent surges imposed by landlords. In addition to taxes, heavier regulation might be in order. Management companies for REITs can be regulated more heavily by local governments if the government can show a compelling interest reasonably related to accomplishing its housing goals. Whether REIT management companies are worse landlords than mom-and-pop operations is debatable, but the scale at which REITs operate should on its own make local governments think twice about whether it is a good idea to allow so much property to transfer to investors.
Governments, neighborhood associations, and advocacy groups can also engage in homeowner education regarding the downsides of selling to an iBuyer or investor. Many sellers are hamstrung by needing to sell quickly or to the highest bidder, but others may have more options. Sellers know who they are selling their homes to, but they have no control over to whom that buyer ultimately resells. If they know that an iBuyer is likely to resell to an investor, or that an investor is going to turn their home into a rental property, they may elect not to sell their home to the iBuyer or investor. Education could go a long way for these homeowners.
Lastly, governments themselves could do more. If they have the resources, they could create a variation on Edina’s Housing Preservation program, where homeowners sell their house to the City to preserve it as an affordable starter home. In a tech-oriented spin of that program, the local government could purchase the house to make sure it ends up in the hands of another owner-occupant, rather than an investor. Governments could decline to sell to iBuyers or investors single-family homes seized through tax forfeitures. Governments can also encourage more home-building by loosening zoning restrictions. More homes means a less competitive housing market, which REIT defenders say will make the single-family market less of an attractive investment vehicle. Given the competitive advantage of such entities, it seems unlikely that first-time homebuyers could be on equal footing with investors absent such disincentives.