Do rents really rise without human intervention?

It takes a lot of money to get people to vote against their own interests, and the real estate industry has plenty of money. Ideological obfuscation plays its part, too, and both contributed to a recent pair of defeats in San Francisco’s uphill fight against gentrification.

I happened to be in San Francisco in the days leading up to Election Day, and there seemed to be quite a lot of excitement over Proposition G, a modest proposal that would have instituted a tax on speculators buying and quickly selling tenant-occupied housing. “Yes on G” signs abounded and most, although not all, advocates I met believed it would pass. Why not? What renter could be against a law that might slow down, a little, skyrocketing rents? Nonetheless, the real estate industry poured $2 million into opposing Proposition G, outspending proponents 12-to-1, and it was defeated.

Only two weeks earlier, a federal judge overturned a law passed by the city government that would have forced landlords who kick tenants out of rent-controlled apartments to pay them the difference between the rent they had been paying and the fair market rate for a similar unit for a period of two years. An attempt to combat a steady upsurge in evictions, the judge nonetheless declared that skyrocketing rents aren’t the fault of landlords.

The rents go up all by themselves? Landlords by some lucky coincidence just happen to be the beneficiaries of some mysterious process outside of human control?

San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district (photo by

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (photo by “Urban”)

Ah, yes, the magic of the market at work again. The federal judge who handed down the ruling, Charles Breyer, has a reputation as a liberal. Yet he had no hesitation in grounding his ruling in orthodox economic ideology, largely echoing the arguments of the hard right, libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the landlords. Judge Breyer went so far as to call the requirement a confiscation and “an impermissible monetary exaction.” But the law would not have stopped landlords from throwing tenants into the street so they could bring in new tenants who would pay more, merely ameliorate the cost to the evicted tenant.

Lawyers for the city of San Francisco argued that the two-year rent-differential payment would be “roughly proportional to the harm they impose on their tenants by evicting them from a rent-regulated unit and forcing them to seek new housing at market rates.” That is a real consequence, as the average San Francisco rent of a one-bedroom apartment is $3,100. It would require the combined salaries of 4.6 full-time jobs at San Francisco’s minimum wage to afford the average two-bedroom apartment there, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

More than 10,000 San Franciscans have been evicted under a state law, the Ellis Act, that enables landlords to “exit” the landlord business (although in many cases, they “re-enter” the business after the previous tenants are evicted). The Tenants Together study that reported that total notes that it actually accounts for a small percentage of Ellis Act-related evictions as many others are forced out by the threat of an Ellis Act eviction and do not count toward the official statistic.

Court says landlords who evict are bystanders

Judge Breyer, nonetheless, blamed “market forces” and that favorite right-wing bogey, rent control, for runaway rents. Landlords, therefore, are innocent victims. In his decision, the judge wrote:

“[The law] seeks to force the property owner to pay for a broad public problem not of the owner’s making. A property owner did not cause the high market rent to which a tenant who chooses to stay in San Francisco might be exposed, nor cause the lower rent-controlled rate the tenant previously enjoyed.”

There you have it: If you are in the way of a speculator or a developer wanting to maximize their profits, get lost. That is simply a more polite way to say what former New York City Mayor Ed Koch said as gentrification got underway there in the 1980s: “If you can’t afford New York, move!”

Lost in these legal and ideological thickets are that landlords are cashing in on the sweat of others, including those they force out. Gentrification is a deliberate process. Organic cultures originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture are steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity.

Those organic cultures then became selling points to promote the targeted neighborhood, cashed in not by those who created it but by real estate interests. Local governments facilitate this process on behalf of developers, tempered by the ability of movements from below to slow the process.

The fallback position of the Pacific Legal Foundation, also adopted by the judge, was that the two-year rent-differential payment would be unfair anyway, because there was no requirement that the payment be used toward rent. The San Francisco city attorney pointed out that the recipient of such a payment would have no choice but to spend it on new housing. But the Pacific Legal Foundation attorney admitted that were such a requirement in place, it would have opposed the law just the same.

The city of San Francisco has announced it will appeal Judge Breyer’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “There should be no doubt that when a landlord evicts a rent-controlled tenant, the immense rent increase the tenant faces is the direct result of the landlord’s decision to evict,” the city attorney, Dennis Herrera, said. A decision acknowledging that would be one grounded in the real world, rather than the phantasmagoria of orthodox economics and its insistence that “markets” are based in the clouds, beyond human touch. In the real world, the landlords, developers and bankers who profit are the real estate market.

A flood of real estate money

Two weeks later, Proposition G failed, with 54 percent against and 46 percent voting in favor. Prop G proposed a “speculation tax” whereby a buyer of a multi-unit property would have to pay a tax surcharge if the building were sold in less than five years; the charge would range from 24 percent in the first year to 14 percent between four and five years. After five years, there would be no such tax surcharge. Because it was designed to be applied only to speculators, the proposed tax had several exemptions, including all single-family buildings and any building sold at a loss.

A heavy barrage of landlord mailings, including false claims that all properties would be covered, was too much for housing activists to overcome. Nonetheless, in a survey of activist responses after the vote published on the 48 Hills blog, there seemed to be a consensus that the effort to talk to people in the streets changed many minds, came close to overcoming the real estate industry’s 12-to-1 spending advantage and set the stage for further efforts that could succeed. The author of this article, Gen Fujioka, policy director for the Chinatown Community Development Center, quoted Causa Justa/Just Cause organizer Maria Zamudio:

“In this election we made major gains in organizing working class immigrants, seniors, low-wage workers, parents, and tenants, firing people up around the demand that they, too, deserve to live in San Francisco. … While it did not win this year, Prop G was part of a larger [local] progressive narrative that did win [including a minimum-wage measure that passed]. That narrative, along with the tools developed and relationships built in this campaign, will be the foundation on which we can continue to grow.”

Another activist, Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, believes that a greater emphasis on community organizing would make a difference. Proposition G had been placed on the ballot by four members of the city Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council), rather than by activists collecting signatures, a strategy he believes should be reconsidered. He writes:

“Had the anti-speculation tax gone the signature route, activists would have recognized when the Title and Summary for the initiative petitions was prepared that the very popular idea of ‘stopping the flip’ did not translate well into a ballot measure. At that point a decision could have been made to alter it in some way as to either guarantee that the words ‘eviction’ or ‘speculator’ were included in the ballot question, or to seek to broaden the support base before going forward. … [T]he months spent talking to voters during the petition gathering process would have educated thousands about the issue. It would have insulated these voters from the big money attacks that created, and sought to provoke, confusion about what Prop G meant.”

The influx of technology-company employees may have also tipped the balance. It is difficult to speculate as I have no seen no surveys or breakdowns of the Proposition G vote, but it is possible that techies, many of whom absorb their corporate leaders’ libertarian political tendencies, voted in large numbers against. The group Techies Who Vote called on the technology industry to “exercise its electoral muscle” and vote against Prop G and progressive candidates who supported the measure.

Don’t mourn, organize

Organization is the only recourse against further gentrification, in San Francisco and elsewhere. But reversing the powerful moneyed interests that profit from it is no small task. A local organizer, Mike Miller, writing in CounterPunch, laments the fading of coalitions such as the Mission Coalition Organization that won many battles on behalf of tenants but was unable to coalesce into a force strong enough to reach neighborhood-wide agreements with landlord representatives. He writes:

“Regulation replaced organizing as the strategy to protect tenant interests—a voter-passed initiative created a rent control law, and a Rent Control Board to administer it. Electoral politics rather than mass, disruptive, nonviolent action became the means to enforce the strategy. Each, alone, is insufficient. ‘The market’ overwhelms them: too much demand for too little supply.

Unfortunately, there is no capacity now to negotiate with landlords, developers, lenders and others who profit from this run-amuck market. There is no longer a mass organization that might hurt profits and politicians’ careers by its capacity for boycotts, disruption, lobbying and electoral action.”

The inability to stop gentrification then has ramifications for surrounding areas. Across the bay, Oakland rents have risen 15 percent this year after rising 12 percent in 2013. Housing developments, with little affordable set-asides, are mushrooming in Oakland and evictions are increasing.

That, of course, is not merely a local phenomenon. The average net income from building ownership in New York City has increased 31.5 percent since 1990 — rents collected have risen faster than expenses. Nationally, real estate prices have been increasing faster than inflation since the 1960s. Thus it is no surprise the share prices of real estate investment trusts have more than quadrupled since early 2009.

This is the result of allowing “market forces” to control housing. The way out is for housing to be recognized as a human right, instead of a capitalist commodity to be bought and sold by the highest bidder. That, however, will require a different, better world.

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“Fighting” low pay by distributing crumbs

Two state-level legislative bills seeking to reign in bloated executive pay have the effect of applying a band-aid to a broken leg, but whatever their effect should they become law, perhaps they might stimulate debate. The Rhode Island state Senate is considering a law that would provide an incentive for companies to adopt a maximum wage and a bill in the California state Senate would introduce variable corporate tax rates based on pay ratios.

Although corporate interests are likely to be successful in defeating these bills (both of which are in early stages of the legislative process), they represent at best a tentative attempt to bring about a small reform. But symbols can sometimes be important, and the symbolic value of these bills is what is likely to be distressing to the one percent.

The Rhode Island bill, S. 2796, is under consideration by the state Senate’s Finance Committee, which has recommended it be “held for further study.” Here is the official commentary explaining the bill, which is sponsored by 14 of the state Senate’s 38 members:

“This act would establish a preference in the awarding of contracts for any person or business doing business with the state whose highest paid executive receives compensation and/or a salary equal to or less than thirty-two (32) times the compensation and/or salary paid to its lowest paid full-time employee. This act would take effect on July 1, 2014.”

It would not be mandatory for a contractor doing business with the Rhode Island state government to have this pay ratio; it would merely give such a company an advantage when bidding.

Newport, Rhode Island (photo by Šarūnas Burdulis)

Newport, Rhode Island (photo by Šarūnas Burdulis)

The California bill, S.B. 1372, would replace that state’s current 8.8 percent corporate tax rate with a sliding scale of seven to thirteen percent based on a company’s pay ratio. The highest rate would be paid by corporations in which the chief executive officer makes 400 or more times than the average worker. The bill would also raise by 50 percent the tax rate of any corporation that moves more than 10 percent of its workforce offshore in a given year.

This bill, which has two sponsors, will be difficult to pass due to a California law requiring a two-thirds majority of both houses of the state Legislature to enact a change to the tax code. It is currently in the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee.

Executive pay rises into the stratosphere

There certainly is reason to reign in executive pay. The ratio of chief executive pay to that of an average worker in the U.S. rose from 42-to-1 in 1960 to 531-to-1 in 2000, when stock options were being cashed in at the height of the stock market bubble. Growing inequality is also demonstrated by these changes from 1990 to 2005, as calculated in a study by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy:

  • Chief executive officers’ pay increased 298 percent.
  • Production workers pay increased 4.3 percent.
  • The purchasing power of the federal minimum wage declined 9.3 percent, adjusted for inflation.

To bring these statistics further up to date, the U.S. labor federation AFL-CIO calculates that the chief executive-to-worker pay ratio was 331-to-1 in 2013, up from 50-to-1 in 1983 — a more than sixfold increase in three decades. The AFL-CIO also reports that in 2013 the companies comprising the S&P 500 stock-market index earned $41,249 in profits per employee. So, yes, they can afford to give employees a raise.

The standard argument given for bloated executive compensation is that the recipients “add shareholder value” — that is, they justifiably receive millions or tens of millions of dollars per year because their genius drives up the price of their companies’ stock, thereby creating wealth for stockholders. Although buying stock is, in theory, a bet on a company’s future earnings and therefore its price should rise and fall in concert with a corporation’s financial performance, bubbles fueled by speculation and larger macroeconomic conditions often account for how a stock does.

During the 1990s stock-market bubble, when valuations of publicly traded corporations were historically the most out of line in relation to actual profits, only unusually poorly managed corporations failed to have stock that significantly rose in price. More recently, the run-up in U.S. stock prices that has taken place over the past couple of years is a product of the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” program, whereby it buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts. As of the end of December 2013, the Fed had spent a total of $3.7 trillion over five years on this program.

Therefore, it is no shock to discover that actual chief executive officer pay bears little or no relation to the financial results of their corporations. A 2013 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that of the 241 chief executive officers who have been ranked among the 25 highest-paid U.S. chief executives at least once in the past 20 years, almost one-quarter of them headed corporations that either have ceased to exist or received taxpayer bailouts after the 2008 financial crash.

The Institute reports:

“[O]ur analysis reveals widespread poor performance within America’s elite CEO circles. Chief executives performing poorly — and blatantly so — have consistently populated the ranks of our nation’s top-paid CEOs over the last two decades. … In reality, [the] most highly paid executives over the past two decades have added remarkably little ‘value’ to anything except their own personal portfolios.”

And despite the one percent’s prevailing ideology that government only gets in their way, one of out eight of these highest-paid chief executive officers were among the biggest recipients of government contracts — a composite $255 billion in taxpayer-funded government largesse.

Hedge funders get billions for poor results

As the financial industry has swollen in relation to the rest of the economy, pay there is even more out of line with contribution. Speculation pays in fabulous ways: The 25 highest-paid hedge-fund managers of 2013 raked in a total of $21.15 billion. Yes, you read that correctly — almost $1 billion apiece in one year. Four hedge-fund managers made more than $2 billion each.

What magic do hedge funders perform that attracts such sums of money? Getting others to believe in their “magic,” it would seem. Bloomberg News reported that, as 2013 was drawing to a close, the composite gains of hedge funds for the year was 7.1 percent, as compared to the 29.1 percent gain of the S&P 500 stock index. In other words, they did worse than random chance. Nonetheless, hedge funds grabbed $50 billion in management fees for this below-average performance.

The Rhode Island legislative bill seeks to define a ratio of 32-to-1 as a “fair standard” for chief executive pay as compared to  employee pay. But isn’t that still an absurdly high ratio by any reasonable standard? By contemporary capitalist standards, such a proposal seems dramatic and has an uphill, at best, chance of passing. But if we were to design an economy that works for everybody, would you propose something anywhere near that lopsided?

Radical activists have been known to summarize the demands of liberals as “longer chains, bigger cages.” Here we have a classic case of that. If you start by asking for crumbs, at best you’ll get small crumbs. Given the immensity of problems the world faces, including declining living standards, surely we deserve much more.

Eminent domain to save homeowners a nice reform but falls well short

“Reverse eminent domain” — the seizure of mortgages by municipal governments to keep people in their homes — has yet to be put to the test, but the strong opposition mounted by Wall Street is perhaps negative proof that it is a good idea.

Financial industry opposition has so far cowed any government from actually implementing such a plan, even though one suit filed in California was thrown out as premature. That suit was aimed at Richmond, California, where the city government in July 2013 declared its intent to use eminent domain — U.S. laws ordinarily used to seize properties to clear land for construction projects — to buy mortgages and refinance them.

Cold feet on the part of some city council members has prevented Richmond from actually implementing its plan. But a second city on the other side of the country — Irvington, New Jersey — has voted to carry out a similar program. Fear of being the first has been a factor in the lack of action and if others announce similar intentions, perhaps an interesting experiment will yet be conducted.

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

The basic idea is this: A local government would buy the mortgage of a home at 80 percent of “fair market value,” which in these cases would be far less than what is owed on the mortgage, and then allow the homeowner to refinance at the new, lower amount. The new loan would be refinanced through a private company contracting with the local government.

This would not be an act of charity. The local government and the private finance company would split the profit that would result from the difference between what the homeowner would owe after the refinancing forced by the use of eminent domain (the property’s assessed “fair market value”) and the lower price at which the private finance company would buy the mortgage (80 percent of “fair market value”). The private company could not do this without a government using its power of eminent domain, which is the power to seize property for a public purpose.

The city council of Richmond, a poor city northeast of San Francisco, voted 4-3 in favor of this plan in July. Under California law, however, it can’t actually implement its plan unless the council has a “super-majority” of five votes, and that fifth vote has proved illusive. Opposed council members variously cite that no other city has stepped forward and a fear that the city would be too exposed to possible liability.

A small reform, not an overturning of economic relations

Although the banks and speculators who have profited enormously from the housing bubble would have you believe that refinancing mortgages proffered by predatory lenders is some sort of socialist outrage, the idea is in actuality a capitalist reform. The person most credited with conceptualizing the idea is a Cornell University professor, Robert Hockett, and he published a paper promoting it on the web site of the Federal Reserve’s New York branch.

The Federal Reserve? The part of the government that exists to see to the expensive needs of financiers hasn’t become a socialist bastion, has it? No, it surely hasn’t. Professor Hockett’s paper can’t be taken as, and isn’t, the policy of the New York Fed. But the mere fact of the Fed publishing it demonstrates that we are not discussing anything remotely resembling a threat to the capitalist order.

The paper simply acknowledges that providing assistance to “underwater” homeowners is the “best way” to assist them. Most mortgages have been bundled into pools of “mortgage-backed securities” nearly impossible to unravel; attempting to make a deal with the holders of these securitized mortgages, assuming they could even be determined, can be avoided by instead using local governments as the dealmakers. Professor Hockett advocates this in the context of refusing to blame homeowners for a bubble not of their making:

“[O]wing to asset-price bubbles’ status as collective action problems, it is doubtful that many homebuyers during the bubble years had much choice when it came to buying overvalued homes. That most homes were overvalued is what rendered the bubble a bubble. It therefore seems mistaken to blame homeowners as a class, or to characterize write-downs as per se unfair or morally hazardous.” [page 8]

Professor Hockett elsewhere argues that the plan would actually increase the value of the targeted loans. Writing on the Web of Debt Blog, he argues that the very fact that it is the loans “most deeply underwater” that are targeted is what makes the plan beneficial:

“[D]eeply underwater loans are subject to enormous default risk (just look at Fannie [Mae]’s and Freddie [Mac]’s [Securities and Exchange Commission] filings for a hint as to how high that risk is — nearly 70% for non-prime and 40% even for prime loans), such that one actually RAISES the actuarial value of the targeted loans by purchasing them and writing down principal so long as one targets the RIGHT loans. … The whole POINT of the plan is to target ONLY deeply underwater loans and associated securities that will be POSITIVELY affected. Those are EXACTLY the loans Richmond and other cities are looking at.” [emphases in original]

Predators profit, prices plunge

Cities like Richmond, with a large minority population, were particularly targeted by predatory lenders. Housing values in Contra Costa County, which includes Richmond, fell 47 percent in 2008 and another 24 percent in 2009. Prices have not recovered. The Richmond plan targets more than 600 mortgages, although that represents only a fraction of the city’s foreclosure-threatened houses.

The private company working with the city is Mortgage Resolution Partners, which refers to itself as a “community advisory firm” and says on its web site that it “will earn a government approved flat fee per mortgage — the same fee that any major bank earns today if it successfully modifies a loan under the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program.” (That fee is in addition to the expected profits to be shared with local governments.) The company’s head has worked as an asset manager for several financial companies.

Mortgage Resolution Partners pitched the plan to Richmond, whose Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, continues to support it. She led a community delegation across the bay to Wells Fargo to negotiate, only to have the bank lock its doors and refuse to negotiate. Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank were the two banks that sued the city last summer after its vote in favor of the reverse eminent domain plan.

A federal judge threw out the suit because no mortgages had yet been seized, but it is likely new suits would swiftly follow should Richmond or any other city begin to implement such a program. Moreover, the Obama administration’s Federal Housing Finance Agency has threatened sanctions against any jurisdiction that seizes mortgages. An additional threat, that of a capital strike against Richmond, seems to have dissipated, at least for now. A bond offering by Richmond in August 2013 was snubbed, but the city successfully sold $28 million worth of bonds last month.

Perhaps the most likely factor to make reverse eminent domain work would be for it to be widely adopted. Irvington, New Jersey, a poor city bordering Newark, on March 25 became the second U.S. municipality to approve such a plan. Irvington has already been threatened with refusals to issue loans to the city’s government or to any of its residents — an illegal “red-lining” of an entire municipality. Several other cities, including Newark, have discussed reverse eminent domain plans, although San Bernardino County in California dropped its plans in the face of threatened court challenges.

These plans are not without legitimate controversy. Public pension funds are invested in all sorts of financial products, and widespread reductions in mortgages could affect others than banks and speculators. The California Public Employees Retirement System, which holds about $11 billion of mortgage-backed securities, has expressed concern about the Richmond plan, although it has not opposed it. Plan proponents, however, argue that value will be added because the mortgages most at risk of default will be the targets, avoiding default and allowing homeowners to remain in their homes.

There are no magic elixirs here. The voracious growth of financialization has ensnared retirement funds, meaning that write-downs of debt are not simple matters. There has been much swooning at first sight of the reverse eminent domain idea, and it certainly does have appeal because it would undoubtedly help victims of predatory lenders. Yet plans such as Richmond’s can be no more than temporary fixes helping small numbers of people; expecting the same economic system that has created such a colossal mess to clean up its mess will end in disappointment.

As long as financiers and landlords are allowed to haul in massive profits without constraint, struggling homeowners and renters alike will continue to having their homes subject to being taken away when a larger pot of profit beckons.

In the short term, creative solutions to ameliorate the predatory behavior of financial elites and provide some measure of stability to embattled communities should be welcomed. Nonetheless, it is tinkering at the margins. Lasting solutions, rooted in community control, will require dramatic structural changes far beyond what so far is contemplated.