Media Narratives Shield Landlords From a Crisis of Their Own Making
by Eric Horowitz | Oct 21, 2022
As landlords continue their relentless pursuit of profits, and politicians allow pandemic-era eviction moratoriums to expire, the human toll of a fundamentally brutal housing system is arguably more visible than ever—particularly in America’s largest cities.
Much of corporate media’s coverage of the deepening housing crisis, however, focuses on what are presented as three great evils: that landlords of supposedly modest means are being squeezed; that individuals and families living without homes destroy the aesthetics of cities; and that, in line with the most recent manufactured panic over violent crime, people without homes pose a threat to the lives and property of law-abiding citizens.
By pushing these narratives, corporate media are engaging in a strategy of misdirection. This shields the propertied class from scrutiny regarding a crisis of its own making—from which it derives immense profits—while blame is assigned to over-burdened renters and people who are unhoused.
The plight of Ma and Pa Landlord
Over the past year, rents around the country have risen at a staggering rate—far outpacing the growth of workers’ incomes. The median asking rent in July 2022 was more than 30% greater than it had been just a year earlier. Over the same period, wages grew just 5%.
While individuals and families are being forced to sink an ever-greater proportion of their income into housing, and as more and more people face the life-altering prospect of dislocation, establishment media outlets have decided that the real profile-worthy victims of this crisis are landlords, faced with rising costs and hindered from raising rents by the strictures of law and public opinion.
Corporate media’s boundless sympathy for “small” and “medium-sized” landlords is well-established. As the pandemic raged and millions of people struggled to pay for basic necessities, establishment outlets consistently chose to focus on how eviction moratoriums were depriving property owners of their right to throw delinquent tenants onto the streets.
CNBC (6/25/21) quoted Dean Hunter, introduced as “CEO of the Small Multifamily Owners Association and a landlord himself”:
This is the most excessively and overly broad taking of private property in my lifetime…. The eviction moratorium is killing small landlords, not the pandemic.
During the early days of the pandemic, Time (6/11/20) predicted that eviction moratoriums would result in all kinds of disaster for the small landlord:
The mom-and-pop landlords who are able to draw on their own savings to make it through the eviction moratoriums imposed by their local governments may struggle to recoup their losses when it’s all over…. Evicted tenants sometimes get away with not paying their debts by changing bank accounts, ignoring collections agencies, working cash-only jobs, filing for bankruptcy or fleeing the state.
As it turned out, Time’s premonitions of scheming tenants using every available means to victimize their struggling landlords were wrong. A July 2021 study from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley found that just 35% of small rental property owners experienced any decline at all in revenue, while around 13% actually reported rising rent revenue in 2020. An October 2021 report from JPMorgan Chase, meanwhile, concluded:
For the median small landlord, rental income did decline, especially in the early months of the pandemic, but recovered quickly. The median landlord ended the year with a modest 3% shortfall in rent…. Our data show that landlords were able to cut their expenses by more than their rental revenues fell, which resulted in landlords’ cash balances growing during the pandemic.
‘What about their landlords?’
Even as pandemic-era tenant protections have been allowed to lapse by politicians eager to serve the real estate lobby, corporate media continue to push the narrative that landlords are suffering—this time as a result of rising costs.
Along this line, the New York Times (9/27/22) ran a piece with the headline “Inflation Has Hit Tenants Hard. What About Their Landlords?” The article detailed the hardships faced by Neal Verma, whose company Nova Asset Management—to which the Times provided a link—manages 6,000 apartments in the Houston area. “It’s crushing our margins,” Mr. Verma said:
Our profits from last year have evaporated, and we’re running at break-even at a number of properties. There’s some people who think landlords must be making money. No. We’ve only gone up 12% to 14%, and our expenses have gone up 30%.
The Times, while broadcasting Verma’s consternation at “running at break-even at a number of properties,” failed to ask any of his tenants about how a 12% to 14% rent increase has impacted them. And although the article cited increased maintenance costs as one of the factors contributing to Verma’s plight, Nova’s Google reviews indicate that basic maintenance isn’t exactly high on its list of priorities.
By fixating on the supposed hardships faced by landlords, establishment outlets have pushed the idea that renters should bear the burden of runaway housing costs. To those who cannot afford this extortion, corporate media have been even less charitable.
The language of dehumanization
As wealthy urbanites continue their return to public life, corporate media have been saturated with laments over the increased visibility of homelessness in many of America’s largest cities. This type of coverage tends to characterize the presence of people without housing as an unsightly nuisance, in the same vein as vermin or uncollected garbage.
Indeed, to corporate media, the dispossession and dislocation of masses of people is largely an issue of urban aesthetics, rather than the intended material consequence of a housing system that keeps renters under the heel of landlords through the ever-present threat of eviction.
Tabloids like the New York Post have frequently published articles that dehumanize people experiencing homelessness. One such piece (10/1/22), titled “NYC’s Financial District Now Blighted With Spiking Crime, Vagrants,” included the line: “Unhinged hobos in particular have been terrorizing locals throughout the neighborhood.”
In another Post article (7/30/22), headlined “NYC Park Near Cooper Union Turning Into ‘Disgusting’ Area Filled With Rats, Homeless,” a neighborhood resident complains: “It’s disgusting! I feel outraged about the garbage and the rats. Every bench is taken up by the homeless and nobody is doing anything about it.”
Putting people who are unhoused in the same category as trash and vermin, the Post uses a kind of dehumanizing language typically peddled by the architects of genocide. Narratives of dehumanization—which portray individuals from targeted communities as dirty, disease-ridden or pest-like—often lay the groundwork for mass brutality.
Such rhetoric has been echoed by politicians aiming to impose further hardships upon those without homes, including former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who referred to people seeking shelter on New York City subways during the height of the pandemic as “disgusting.”
Voice of San Diego (9/16/22), a digital nonprofit outlet, quoted at length the rant of former basketball star Bill Walton, who claimed that, “while peacefully riding my bike early this Sunday morning in Balboa Park, I was threatened, chased and assaulted by the homeless population.”
The multi-millionaire and self-professed “hippie” raged against San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria:
You speak of the rights of the homes [sic], what about our rights?… We follow the rules of a functioning society, why are others allowed to disregard those rules?… Your lack of action is unacceptable, as is the conduct of the homeless population.
Like the Post, the Voice of San Diego piece stripped people experiencing homelessness of their individuality, treating them as one indistinguishable mass in phrases like “the conduct of the homeless population” and “assaulted by the homeless population.” The article concluded with a final lament from Walton:
You have given our bike paths and Balboa Park in our neighborhood to homeless encampments, and we can no longer use them, and they’re ours, this is unacceptable.
In publishing Walton’s diatribe, Voice of San Diego voiced the perspective of city dwellers made to feel uncomfortable by visual reminders of poverty in public spaces, the enjoyment of which they claim as their exclusive right.
Following the money
Corporate media’s eagerness to peddle narratives favorable to the propertied class is to be expected, since many establishment outlets have a vested interest in the continued growth of housing prices.
BlackRock—the world’s largest asset manager—owns 8.3% of the New York Times Company, making it the Times’ second-biggest institutional investor. BlackRock also holds around $68 billion in real estate assets, including an 8.5% share in Invitation Homes—a $24 billion publicly traded company that owns around 80,000 single-family rental units around the United States.
Invitation was created by another private equity firm, Blackstone, the largest corporate landlord in history, with real estate assets amounting to $320 billion. Shortly after Invitation launched in 2012, it proceeded to buy nearly 90% of the homes for sale in one Atlanta zip code. Such buying sprees are facilitated by the fact that institutional investors can secure loans at much lower interest rates than those offered to individual borrowers.
In a business section piece (2/16/22) covering Blackstone’s gargantuan real estate footprint, the Times did not mention the people that the asset manager—armed with massive stores of capital and low-interest loans—pushes out of the housing market by consistently buying up properties at well-above market rates. Instead, the article concluded: “Blackstone’s shares have been on a run lately. Its stock is up roughly 80% over the past 12 months.”
Another Times article, headlined “The New Financial Supermarkets” (3/10/22), did reference Blackstone’s predatory buying strategy, but presented it in a favorable light. Blackstone president Jonathan Gray was given ample space to extol his company’s prospects:
As the real estate industry teetered after the mortgage crisis, Blackstone used its capital to buy up and rent housing and other real estate, amassing $280 billion in assets, which produce nearly half of the firm’s profits. As interest rates rise, Mr. Gray predicted, real estate will continue to help its performance. Rents in the United States, he noted, have recently risen at two to three times the rate of inflation.
The Times presented rents rising at “two to three times the rate of inflation” as a precious opportunity, rather than a source of misery for millions of people. It’s not too different from the viewpoint of a “paid post”—that is, an ad designed to deceptively resemble Times copy—lauding Blackstone’s role in “shaping the future.”
‘Wall Street isn’t to blame’
Meanwhile, after a Twitter thread (6/8/21) that outlined the predatory home-buying practices of institutional investors went viral, corporate media were eager to defend their sources of capital. Vox (6/11/21) assured the public that “Wall Street Isn’t to Blame for the Chaotic Housing Market.” The article’s subheading chided readers that “the boogeyman isn’t who you want it to be.”
The Atlantic (6/17/21), using strikingly similar language, published an article headlined “BlackRock Is Not Ruining the US Housing Market,” along with a subhead that read: “The real villain isn’t a faceless Wall Street Goliath; it’s your neighbors and local governments stopping the construction of new units.” Like Vox, the Atlantic admonished the masses:
If we have any chance of fixing the completely messed-up, unaffordable US housing market, we should direct our ire toward real culprits rather than boogeymen.
According to this narrative, the true architects of the housing crisis are those standing in the way of private developers from building more units—all of whom are tarred as NIMBYs. While NIMBYism is oftentimes motivated by racist and classist interests, many communities have also opposed new development out of legitimate concerns over gentrification and displacement.
More than enough vacancies
This defense of developers and institutional landlords mounted by corporate media is undergirded by the false assumption that there is an acute shortage of housing units. In fact, in many US cities, there are more than enough vacant units to provide homes for every individual and family currently living without permanent housing.
One recent report found that, “With more than 36,000 unhoused residents, Los Angeles simultaneously has over 93,000 units sitting vacant, nearly half of which are withheld from the housing market.” In New York, the quantity of vacant rent-stabilized units alone—estimated at around 70,000—is larger than the total population of individuals that currently reside within the city’s network of shelters.
These apartments remain unoccupied because many landlords have calculated that it is more profitable to keep rent-regulated units off the market than to refurbish or maintain—even to a minimum standard—homes rented out to tenants at below market rates.
At least 100,000 more New York apartments sit empty because their owners hold them for “seasonal, recreational or occasional use,” or simply use them as long-term investment chips that they never intend to occupy. This dynamic also exists in other cities around the country, particularly in the most expensive housing markets.
Corporate media’s sympathetic treatment of landlords, combined with its reflexive defense of developers and institutional real estate investors, is indicative of the fact that many establishment outlets have a financial stake in the real estate business.
The Atlantic, which like Vox jumped to defend the honor of institutional landlords, is majority owned by Emerson Collective—a venture capital firm whose founder and president is Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Powell Jobs, who possesses a fortune of over $16 billion, has invested large sums in real estate over the past five years.
Vox’s largest shareholder is Comcast, which owns nearly a third of Vox Media, Inc. The top two institutional investors in Comcast are, in turn, the aforementioned BlackRock (at 6.9%) and the Vanguard Group (at 8.7%). Vanguard has over $38 billion invested in real estate assets, and is also the largest institutional investor in the New York Times Company, owning 9.5% of its shares.
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