Pluralistic: 16 Aug 2021

Today's links

An abandoned house with graffiti and black mold on the walls. Overlaid in needlepoint font are the words 'Home Sweet Home.'

Housing, money laundry, speculation and precarity (permalink)

Something amazing is happening in Berlin. Next month, Berliners will vote in a referendum to force Germany's largest publicly traded landlords to sell 240,000 homes to the state, whereupon those homes will become publicly owned housing.

Berlin is a rarity: a semi-autonomous city whose history is overshadowed by a half-century of heavy public spending (in the west) as part of a program to prove that capitalism was a system of shared prosperity.

The Wall's collapse and German reunification produced a distinctive legislative framework that treats housing's function as a serving the human right to shelter, not as a speculative asset that produces either capital gains (from flipping) or passive income (from renting).

The system tolerates private or commercially operated housing, but only to the extent that this serves the goal of sheltering Berliners so they can make the city live – operate its businesses, serve its people, and enjoy its amenities.

For decades, heavy regulation and publicly operated housing made being a Berlin landlord into a safe, low-return operation. Most people rented, protected from rent shocks and poor maintenance by a vigorous enforcement apparatus.

Creeping deregulation and the vast sums sloshing around the world of the ultra-wealthy and the investment firms that serve them has changed all that. Today, Berlin's housing market looks like most cities': a skyline of safe deposit boxes in the sky.

Today, a home in Berlin exists to provide speculative returns (from resale) or income without work (rent). If it also provides a place for Berliners to work, live, raise a family and serve out their retirement, that's nice, but it's hardly essential.

Rents in Berlin have risen by 43% over the past five years.

Who raised the rents? Giant, multinational corporations seeking maximum returns for their distant shareholders, at the literal and figurative expense of the people of Berlin.

In an eyeblink, EUR40b worth of Berlin's housing stock has been turned into a publicly traded asset. That's more than all the institutionally owned housing in Amsterdam and London combined.

These rents are "financialized" – turned into monthly payouts to bondholders, spreading the risk of missed rent or eviction around, so it's not solely borne by the firms doing the investing. This allows them to convert ever-more housing from a life's necessity to an asset.

There's $5b more about to pour into the German housing market, thanks to pension funds and other big institutionals seeking predatory extraction, and that's before we get into Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).

REITs are private equity, and they're a devastatingly effective tool for money-laundering. REITs are typically backed by anonymous shell companies from financial secrecy havens and onshore-offshore zones like Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming.

The owners of these shell companies are…other shell companies, in non-cooperating jurisdictions. The actual beneficial owners are narco gangsters, corrupt public officials, and the vast family trusts of ultrawealthy, intergenerational neo-aristocracy.

REITs are a major force behind the global housing price emergency. The REITs scooping up German homes aren't just the ones owned by Russian oligarchs – there's also a ton of money from other EU countries, notably Spain and Ireland.

REITs represent a loophole to EU tax treaties, allowing Europe's wealthy to reap huge gains in another EU country, while ducking taxes.

Berlin is a weird case. Thanks to a combination of norms and regulations, it escaped the slow transformation of its built environment from a means to serve the city into a means to serve absentee investors. When the change arrived, it arrived in a torrent, too quick to miss.

Berlin is a weird case because its laws allow the public to call a halt to this game and redistribute the tokens. If Berliners vote Ja in Sept's referendum, the investors will get "fair market value" for these homes, and the city will assume their ownership and management.

It's quite a reminder that Steven Brust was spot on when he said that you can tell the left from the right by asking "What's more important: property rights or human rights?" The left's answer is "human rights." The right's answer is "Property rights are human rights."

Meanwhile, in America…

The American legend of class mobility had two paths: wage gains (largely the result of organized labor) and property appreciation (largely the result of public homebuying subsidies).

Both paths had color bars, but of the two, housing was the most racially segregated path to prosperity. Redlining and other predatory practices meant that the American journey from renter to owner was primarily a white journey.

White families accumulated wealth through their family homes, and Reagan convinced them to shut down the wage-gain path, with racist dogwhistles.

Now, 40 years on, the joke's on them – their kids are going to be renters because they have to liquidate the family home to pay for care, retirement and education – the systems that collapsed when organized labor was no longer there to defend them.

US real-estate is a criminal's playground, the world's most vigorous and thriving money-laundry.

If you are a sanctioned kleptocrat, a network of enablers – realtors, lawyers, investment advisors, and bankers – will help you turn your stolen loot into American property.

As Global Financial Integrity report in "Acres of Money Laundering: Why US Real Estate is a Kleptocrat’s Dream," "the U.S remains the only G7 country that does not require real estate professionals to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations"

The US also lacks those pesky corporate transparency laws that would unmask the beneficial owners of American homes, malls and office-towers, which is why "82% of US cases involved the use of a legal entity to mask ownership."

Property speculation isn't just for major metros. As On The Media reports, there's an epidemic of speculation and eviction in distressed American rustbelt towns, the places where Black people found middle-class prosperity after the Great Migrations.

These cities – gutted by financialization and the offshoring of manufacturing – are now distressed assets. Everyone who could leave them has. The left-behinds have no way to go and are hostage to whatever predatory practices the wealthy and their funds can conceive of.

Property speculation would never be a stable means to broad prosperity. As Elizabeth Magie taught us when she created The Landlord's Game in 1902, property is a winner-take-all game that eventually gathers all the assets into a few extractive hands.

(An unscrupulous salesman named Charles Darrow stole Magie's game and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935, who rebranded it Monopoly and sold for decades it without acknowledging Magie's authorship)

We've had decades of wage-stagnation and a great liquidation of American homes to pay for necessities lost when we abandoned labor markets to individual wage-negotiations, so capital could take more and use some of it to dismantle guaranteed education, health and retirement.

Things are at a breaking point. The liquidation is racing up the economic ladder, as people who thought of themselves as middle class (and supported attacks on the rights of renters and poor people) find themselves forced to sell or reverse-mortgage their family homes.

It's a bewildering and terrifying situation, and in our fear, we're ready prey for liars who promise that they can offer some security. These predators offer "online courses" on being a "house flipper" and make a fortune buying and selling property.

They preach about sites like, where abandoned/uninhabitable homes, odd lots and distressed commercial and retail real-estate lists for as little as $1, and promise shrewd bidding can relieve you from precarity and toil by delivering "passive income."

They're dangling a poor person's version of what a rich person does, leaving out all the graft, self-dealing, financial secrecy, arm-breaking and debt-leveraging that the wealthy use to wring gains from our homes.

This weekend, the Washington Post's Greg Jaffe published a stupendous, closely observed story of the people and places on either side of these trades, using a single block in Peoria, IL as a case-study.

A block on a street in Peoria's south end, West Lincoln Avenue, was once home to 100 people. Today, six people live there, and the majority of homes are uninhabitable, though they are sometimes squatted.

But early this summer, the block was snapped up by bidders from all over America, people who'd never been to Peoria (one new owner called a city official because she said buying a house in "Per-rora" was a "huge misunderstanding").

The houses went for as little as $751, and buyers had no way of knowing if their new "investments" were burned-down husks, crumbling ruins, or, in one case, a tomb for the long-abandoned corpse of an unidentified person.

The speculators who bid on these homes took "investing" courses or heard about the possibilities from friends. They live in US metros where the real-estate bubble has impoverished them by extracting nearly every spare cent for rent.

They don't know what to do, so they're doing this. It's a way to buy a dream. Some of them flip their "investments" to other speculators who also have no idea what to do with the homes of West Lincoln Ave.

Some of the investors are Black, and they speak of the urgency of property ownership that was instilled in them by their elders from childhood, as they watched white families accumulate (ultimately ephemeral) intergenerational wealth through owning their homes.

The people who live on West Lincoln are also Black, and they are several rungs further down the ladder than the investors who are scooping up the homes on their streets. Jaffe's profile of them reveals their hard work, burdened straits, and dream of a decent life.

There's a kind of tragedy there, when a desperate barber in Salt Lake City dreams of finding security by extracting rent from an even-more-desperate family in Peoria – a zero-sum kind of security that will never materialize in any event.

Because Peoria can't be made valuable by buying and flipping its decaying housing stock. For Peoria to come back, it needs actual investment – in services, productive enterprises, infrastructure maintenance.

Peoria can't rebuild or sustain itself by providing "passive income" to strangers across the nation. Any rent-extraction that distant "investors" manage from Peoria hastens its demise.

The people gambling at bid4assets are, at best, the suckers at the poker table, providing liquidity and pushing up the value of the bottom end, which pushes up the value of the properties higher up the chain and benefits deep-pocketed flippers.

Meanwhile, Berliners have a chance to turn the tide – to show speculators the door and reframe housing as a human necessity, not a poker-chip. It's a momentous juncture for a planet where whole cities and even regions are in imminent danger of becoming uninhabitable.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Researchers predict boom market for Palm Pilot exploits

#20yrsago Berkeley Breathed comes out of retirement for Onion interview

#20yrsago Human tiger files down teeth, tattoos strips, seeks fur implants

#15yrsago TSA bans gel-filled bras

#15yrsago Would a hair-gel bomb actually work?

#10yrsago Woman who recorded Massachusetts police beating charged with illegal wiretapping

#10yrsago In-game Ponzi nets US$50K

#10yrsago Damning 2007 letter asserts that phone hacking was an open practice at News of the World

#10yrsago Charlie Stross on network security in 2061

#10yrsago Empirical manners: towards a science of harmonious norms

#10yrsago WDW restores original Tiki Room

#5yrsago Private prison contractor’s $1B no-bid deal to run immigration jails guarantees 100% occupancy payouts

#5yrsago Even the woo industry thinks Gwyneth Paltrow’s “smoothie dust” ads are too much

#5yrsago After New Zealand spooks misidentified pro-democracy activist, NSA spied on him for them

#5yrsago The Greatest of Marlys! is the Lynda Barry book we’ve been waiting for

#5yrsago UK Intellectual Property Office grants trademark on “should’ve”

#5yrsago Hackers claim to have stolen NSA cyberweapons, auctioning them to highest bidder

#1yrago Amazon bans podcasts that criticize Amazon

#1yrago Combat Wheelchairs

#1yrago How to Argue With a Racist

#1yrago Self-driving cars are bullshit

#1yrago The Big Tech firms are dividing the world between them

#1yrago AI, 1A and Citizens United

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Metafilter (

Currently writing:

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  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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