The Corporatization of NYC Real Estate

Angela Stovall
JustFix
Published in
12 min readMay 26, 2022

--

A 20-year look at trends in property sales data, housing policy, and its intersections with displacement

Written and researched by: Angela Stovall and Sam Rabiyah

The New York City real estate market is a competitive, multi-billion dollar industry that dominates both the social and political landscape of the City. Over the last twenty years, this industry has shifted toward corporatization, particularly in areas of rapid displacement. Bolstered by investors with major purchasing power, corporations are outpacing individual owners throughout the City and control the majority of the housing market. Currently, 89% of all units registered with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”) across the City list a corporate owner. As JustFix’s previous report examines, larger corporations often downplay their stake in NYC real estate and center the narrative of small, mom-and-pop landlords to oppose legislation that protects tenants.

This report will focus on when, where, and how corporations began to dominate the New York City housing market. Using open-source data from NYC’s Department of Finance, this report will trace the shift toward corporatization from 2003 to the present and show how this shift reflects patterns of dramatic displacement that the City faces today.

How did we get here?

Situated within the relative prosperity of the new millennium, continuing through the economic collapse of 2008, ricocheting into the recession and period of recovery, and plunging into the uncertain tumult of the COVID-19 global pandemic, our data showcases one consistent trend: corporate buying has increased over time in every borough of New York. This trend was not created in a vacuum but rather was fostered by pro-corporatization politics and the resulting legislation.

Facing the repercussions of predatory home lending schemes, the United States fell into a period of an economic crisis in 2008, referred to as the Great Recession. While housing valuations rose consistently, by 2005, the housing bubble was beginning to burst, with prices plummeting to unprecedented lows. American homeowners exploited by piggyback loans and subprime mortgages experienced foreclosure at unparalleled rates. With the passage of The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010 which sought to reform the metrics used for loan approvals, mortgage lenders accepted only those applicants likely to pay the loans back. In 2008, New York City lost around ​​13,305 family homes (defined as one (1) to four (4) units) due to foreclosure, which impacted over 31,600 households throughout the crisis. When a rental property is foreclosed upon, tenants residing there will often face eviction proceedings in Housing Court, property neglect issues, or constructive evictions.

Situated within the midst of the economic upheaval, Michael Bloomberg’s political platform solidified a growing hostility to tenants’ rights as his administration tailored its policies in favor of the corporate class. Designing bullpen-style offices for City agencies that resembled Wall Street trading floors, Bloomberg physically showcased his commitment to maximizing profits above all else. The legacy of Bloomberg era housing is one of ballooning numbers of people living in homeless shelters, a proliferation of 80/20 buildings to address the affordable housing crisis, and prioritization of re-zoning practices that incentivized the growth of commercial businesses. Bloomberg’s conservatism was bolstered by New York State, with the Rent Guidelines Board (“RGB”) setting rent increases that encouraged tactics of displacement. The Rent Act of 2011 permitted deregulation based on high income/high rent, massive increases for Individual Apartment Improvements (“IAIs”) for units, and Major Capital Improvements (“MCIs”) building-wide. The primary goal for landlords was to evict long-term tenants in favor of gentrifiers to deregulate their housing stock and obtain the 20% vacancy bonus to maximize their profit, fueling massive displacement and rapid gentrification.

Although Bill de Blasio’s administration has been credited with pro-tenant policies and historic victories at the state level with the passage of the Housing Stability Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (“HSPTA”), corporate ownership has remained the predominant buyer type throughout the City since the bill passed. The HSTPA created some of the most robust protections for both rent stabilized and market-rate tenants, eliminating vacancy bonuses, preventing landlords from revoking preferential rents, and prohibiting the use of the tenant blacklist, among other historic reforms. Likely due to the tumult caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, building acquisitions went down overall, making it difficult to evaluate the true effect that the HSTPA had on the real estate market.

How does the data line up with the sociopolitical landscape of the last two decades?

To dig deeper into how corporations started dominating NYC real estate, we examined publicly-accessible deed transfer documents that the NYC Open Data Portal provides in bulk.

We first gathered a random sample set of 1,000 deeds to use as testing data. We then detected keywords in the deeds that indicated incorporation (i.e., “LLCs”). After confirming the accuracy of our method for detecting corporate ownership in the deeds, we applied it to the entire database of NYC’s residential property sales between 2003 and 2022.

Then, for the entire database of deed transfers, we compared the number of properties that corporations bought with properties individuals purchased. It’s not uncommon for individual building owners to form their own LLC, so to eliminate deed transfers that did not actually represent a sale, we removed any deed that had a nominal sale price listed.

The data revealed a major shift following the Great Recession. While individuals were the predominant buyer of property for most of the 2000s, corporate acquisitions overtook individual purchases in 2011, and remain the dominant type of transaction to this day.

Chart: “Corporations vs. individuals: who buys more property in NYC? Trends in yearly property purchases for 3+ unit buildings since 2003”
Data source: “ACRIS Real Property” deed transfers via NYC Open Data Portal

The data above includes transactions in which a corporation sold to another corporation or an individual sold to another individual. To more clearly track when properties became corporatized, we analyzed trends in property acquisition, specifically where the type of owner switched, as follows.

Chart: “How often do buildings change ownership in NYC? Trans in yearly property purchase for 3+ unit buildings since 2003”
Data source: “ACRIS Real Property” deed transfer via NYC Open Data Portal

While 76% of NYC households are situated in large multi-family buildings with three or more units, small family homes with less than three units make up the remaining 24% of households. In fact, small family homes represent 78% of residential buildings in the City, according to the NYC Dept. of City Planning. Prior to 2008, individuals, rather than corporations, purchased more small 1–2 unit residential homes. But, immediately following the Great Recession, corporations started outpacing individual purchasers and began dominating the market for small family homes. Between 2011 and 2016, the rate at which one-to-two unit buildings became corporatized nearly doubled.

Moreover, the vast majority of rent stabilized apartments are located in larger buildings because the legal framework that subjects a building to regulation captures those of six or more units. For rent stabilized properties, like with smaller housing types, corporations demonstrated their greatest purchasing power around 2014, after the Great Recession.

Chart: “How often do buildings change ownership in NYC? Trends in yearly property purchases for different types of buildings since 2003.” 3 charts showing purchase trends for 1–2 unit buildings, 3–5 unit buildings, and rent stabilized buildings
Data source: “ACRIS Real Property” deed transfers via NYC Open Data; “Pluto” unit counts via NYC Dept. of City Planning; rent stabilization from Dept of Finance via NYC Doffer

Where in the City are corporations buying property and why?

As with gentrification generally, patterns of corporatization have not occurred evenly across the City. Neighborhood-by-neighborhood changes echo larger trends in real estate speculation and have likely been exacerbated by pro-development policy shifts of the post-recession era.

In 2003, individuals represented the predominant type of multifamily property buyer in almost all neighborhoods in New York City, with the only exceptions being Lower and Upper Manhattan and a few areas in the outer boroughs. By 2010, the dynamic flipped, and corporations became the predominant buyer — this was especially true in rapidly gentrifying areas. These neighborhoods included East and South Bronx (which some referred to as the “next real estate frontier” or “SoBro”), as well as some Central Brooklyn neighborhoods that the Urban Displacement Project identifies as epicenters of gentrification: Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy.

Chart: “When and where did corporations buy buildings in NYC?” Chart depicts ownership changes by zip code from 2003 to 2021
Data source: “ACRIS Real Property” deed transfers and zip code boundaries via NYC Open Data Portal

By 2014, nearly a decade after the housing bubble burst, the geographies of real estate speculation across New York City had essentially flipped from pre-recession times. Corporations represented the predominant property buyer across nearly all neighborhoods in the City, with the exception of a few pockets in Southern Brooklyn, Eastern Queens, and Northeastern Bronx.

Chart: “Corporate acquisition of 3+ unit buildings: 2003 vs. 2014”
Data source: “ACRIS real property” deed transfers and zip code boundaries via NYC Open Data Portal

Corporate domination of the real estate market stayed relatively consistent up until the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a year following the onset of the crisis, individuals regained their position as the predominant type of buyer in some outer borough neighborhoods that had experienced extensive corporate speculation over most of the prior decade. Preliminary data from 2022, however, indicates that individual ownership likely proved short-lived, with corporations once again representing the majority of property purchases.

Timelapse of building purchase trends. View on Vimeo

How does corporate speculation intersect with housing equity, policy, and organizing?

For those familiar with the NYC housing landscape, it should come as no surprise that corporate landlords control more residential properties than individuals. Indeed, JustFix’s Who Owns What research tool, which captures all owners registered with HPD, demonstrates that the majority of corporate landlords (54%) control more than six buildings, but less than 5% of individuals own a portfolio that large.

According to JustFix’s Mom-and-Pop Landlord report (2020), larger landlords evict more tenants at higher rates compared to smaller landlords. Larger landlords also apply for more Major Capital Improvements (“MCI”) rent increases (and more frequently) than small landlords. MCIs allow landlords to pass the cost of necessary updates to building systems such as the boiler, roof, or elevator onto tenants. Housing Justice for All describes MCIs as “one of several tactics that landlords exploit to raise rents and drive displacement.” Given the common displacement tactics of corporate landlords, the continued corporatization of NYC real estate spells more displacement of long-term residents.

As Right to Counsel’s Eviction Crisis Monitor demonstrates, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are on the brink of homelessness following a surge of eviction cases filed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Neighborhoods facing the most pandemic-era eviction filings are also areas that endured high rates of corporate real estate speculation during the 2010s. These areas, including Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Southeastern Queens, have long been home to Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities — communities that have, uncoincidentally, already been disadvantaged by a legacy of redlining, urban renewal, and disproportionately high rates of COVID-19.

Chart: “Corporatization of property & NYC evictions during COVID-19.” Two maps of NYC showing corporations buying buildings and eviction rates by zip code
Data source: “ACRIS real property” deed transfers and zip code boundaries via NYC Open Data Portal; evictions from NY Office of Court Administrations via Housing Data Coalition and RTC NYC Coalition

Good Cause Eviction Protection — legislation currently pending at the State level that would limit the instances in which a landlord could bring an eviction proceeding against a tenant — could counteract the rapid corporatization of small residential properties and the mounting eviction crisis currently in motion. About half of New Yorkers live in unregulated housing and do not currently have a right to renew their lease. In unregulated apartments, landlords can file an eviction simply to make a profit. While the HSTPA counteracts incentives to evict long-term rent stabilized tenants, without legislation that protects unregulated tenants from huge rent increases, corporate landlords can buy up smaller buildings and engage in sweeping eviction campaigns against tenants living in historically oppressed communities. As our data supports, corporations are currently purchasing unregulated buildings throughout the City. Corporations also evict tenants at a faster rate than individual landlords, leaving unregulated tenants particularly vulnerable to displacement through rent hikes. By limiting rent increases and narrowing the basis of eviction proceedings, more tenants will be protected from violent displacement.

What are the impacts of corporate standardization?

Corporations standardize many of the processes and procedures surrounding a tenancy. The people best able to navigate a more streamlined system are often people with access to privilege, power, and capital. For example, tenants often have to navigate an online portal to request repairs, renew a lease, or pay rent. Without access to technology (and the experience to use it proficiently), these basic services can be unattainable. Tenants who do not use online banking or do not have bank accounts may have difficulty logistically paying their rent once a corporation changes the billing system to be online only. Although tenants are not obligated to pay using these online systems, landlords often obscure the rights of tenants and fail to comply with the law. By the same token, if a corporate landlord only fields repair requests through an online system in English, many long-term tenants, who once simply contacted the Super, will not have a way to register complaints.

Most distressingly, corporations also mechanize evictions by sending monthly rent debt collection notices and boilerplate eviction petitions, leaving vulnerable tenants feeling harassed and placing them at risk of homelessness. Challenging the dominant narrative that standardization serves as a democratizing force, a mechanized housing system enforces displacement and exacerbates existing systems of inequality and oppression. Simply put, corporations center their businesses around those who offer the most market value to them: gentrifiers.

Demonstrating the need for legislative intervention, New York City currently exists at the precipice of a landlord-created disaster. Paradoxically, tenants find themselves locked out of housing due to an affordability crisis while, on the other hand, landlords have left thousands of affordable apartments vacant. The 2021 housing vacancy survey, a recurring report from HPD on NYC’s housing stock and affordability, showed a substantial increase in vacant apartments, bringing the City even closer to a “housing emergency.” The uptick in housing vacancy makes clear that for some property owners, apartments are investments that, until legislative conditions change, will not serve as a place for New Yorkers to call home.

In the NYC housing policy landscape — from De Blasio’s Housing New York affordability plan to NYCHA’s RAD/PACT program — policymakers continue to associate corporatization and privatization with progress and potential. While legislation like HSTPA may stem the tide of rapid deregulation of affordable housing, new policy solutions to address the affordability crisis continue to entrench a system where housing is first and foremost a means of profit. As our data analysis shows, corporate speculation of residential property correlates with displacement. Therefore, new policy initiatives can more effectively curb displacement in the long term if they regulate who actually gets to own property and for what purpose in addition to redressing the harm caused by corporate greed.

Methodology

This report analyzes public NYC property records from the Automated City Register Information System (“ACRIS”). Specifically, we gathered all residential deed transfers and categorized them as either an “individual” or a “corporation” based on the name of the buyer party (called “party type 2” on ACRIS). To eliminate any transfers that did not actually indicate a true change in ownership (e.g. an individual transferring a property to their own LLC), we excluded deed transfers listing a nominal sale price, which we defined as less than $100. Because ACRIS did not electronically record sale prices until 2003, we also excluded all transfers before that date. We also limited our analysis to the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx because ACRIS does not hold financial records for the borough of Staten Island, as noted on their website.

We used the following logic to distinguish between the corporate buyers and individuals listed deed transfer documents:

  • Party names that included the terms “LLC”, “CORP”, “INC”, “BANK”, “ASSOC”, and “TRUST” were categorized as corporate entities
  • Party names that included the terms “TRUSTEE”, “REFEREE” or “WILL AND TESTAMENT” were considered special cases and were excluded from all analyses. These terms represented only 1.9% of all deed transfers considered in this report.
  • All other buyer parties that didn’t match the patterns above were categorized as individuals.

After randomly selecting 1,000 deed transfers from ACRIS via the NYC Open Data Portal, we manually categorized the buyer party names on each deed. After this manual classification, we then developed our list of key terms that identified each specific buyer. By leaving “individual” as the default categorization, we erred on the side of underestimating corporate acquisition of property.

Full list of data sources:

We made all of the code that generated the analyses and visualizations in this report publicly available via our Github page.

This report is also available for download as a PDF

--

--