As eviction rates climb across the United States, one Florida lawmaker blames corporate buy-ups of homes in low-income housing areas. However, an economist with the Heritage Foundation blames government policy.
Data collected through a 2022 U.S. Census Bureau survey from March 30 to April 11 showed that about 35 percent of respondents were “very” or “somewhat” likely to leave their homes due to eviction. Data compiled by Eviction Lab showed a steady increase in eviction filings across the United States through December 2022. The only thing that kept evictions below pre-pandemic levels was the record-breaking $2.9 billion in emergency rental assistance paid to approximately 665,000 renters and landlords by the United States Treasury Department as well as state and local governments. Once the assistance spigot was shut off, rents rose and eviction rates skyrocketed.
For one Florida lawmaker, the rise in evictions is the result of corporate buy-ups of homes, primarily in low-income communities.
“What inspired me to get involved was the foreclosure crisis that we faced a number of years back, where people were losing their homes, and I was contacted by a constituent that was losing a home that was left to him by his parents,” Florida state Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D-District 15) told The Epoch Times. “It was free and clear, with no mortgage, and he needed money and he decided he would take out a mortgage on his home.”
As Thompson explained, that mortgage was approved based on the fact that her constituent was earning additional overtime income. However, when the economy took a downturn and he lost the additional overtime income, he could no longer pay the mortgage.
“So the bank was in the process of foreclosing on the home,” she lamented, adding that she soon discovered “he was not the exception. This was going on all over, particularly in low-income communities.”
The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1997 (pdf) pressured banks to stop the practice known as “redlining,” in which banks refused to approve loans to minorities who lived in low-income neighborhoods. The law, which still applies to all federally insured banks and thrifts that take deposits, required lending institutions to provide loans to low-income home buyers, despite whether or not the individual(s) had the long-term financial means required to pay the loan back. In the wake of the foreclosures that followed the CRA, legal arguments, legislative investigations, and reports of “predatory lending” ensued, accusing “unscrupulous” financial institutions of seducing borrowers into securing “unsafe” or “unsound” mortgages for nefarious reasons.
Countrywide Mortgage Lenders
The mortgage holder of her constituent’s home, Thompson said, was Countrywide, which she said was found to have purchased a lot of properties in low-income, African American communities.
In October 2008, 11 states sued Countrywide for what has been described as “the largest predatory lending lawsuit settlement in history.” By 2009, Countrywide had gone from its heyday as a Fortune 500 company and the largest home-mortgage company in the United States to a choice between bankruptcy or acquisition by Bank of America. The latter was the decision.
“Once they owned the property, they would rent the property, sometimes to the people who formerly owned it,” Thompson explained. “But they would set the rate of the rent to where people could not afford the rent. So affordable housing came to the forefront for me, based on my interaction with that constituent and the research that showed this was something that was going on as a common practice.”
That interaction inspired Thompson to seek measures that would ensure that “no one entity can own more than a certain percentage of properties in one neighborhood,” as “this would prevent them from establishing a monopoly and set rent rates to a point where attainable housing is no longer available to low-income renters.”
The Federal Government
While Thompson blames corporations for the growing eviction rates, an economist said responsibility for people being priced out of their homes belongs to the federal government.
Joel Griffith, a research fellow with the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation, said rent increases have affected renters at many income levels, not just in low-income neighborhoods.
According to a May Rental Report released by Realtors.com, rent continued to surge nationwide, with median rent in the top five metropolitan areas rising by 15.5 percent over the previous year, setting a new rent increase record for the 15th month in a row. Renters from Massachusetts to Tennessee and Virginia to California are seeing rent increases.
“The biggest question a lot of people have is, ‘who is responsible for that?’” Griffith told The Epoch Times, acknowledging that many have “placed the blame on the investors.”
“But it’s important to look at the big picture,” he said, adding that “to blame the institutional owners for skyrocketing rental prices defies the reality of the data, which shows that roughly four percent of all rental homes are being purchased by institutions.”
Data compiled by industry leader Robert Charles Lesser & Co. in 2021 (pdf) do suggest that only two to three percent of single-family rentals are owned by institutional companies.
“So what we know is that this problem is really the fault of both federal government policy and, in some cases, state and local government policies,” Griffith said.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
One of the things Griffith said The Heritage Foundation is focused on is Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, “and the trillions of dollars they pumped not only into single-family residential homes but multiplex properties.”
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created by the United States Congress to “provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market.” This government entity purchases mortgages from corporate lenders and either holds the mortgage in its portfolios or packages the loans into mortgage-backed securities, which may be sold to other investors.
“They are subsidizing the purchases of these homes to investors and to individual families and it’s opening up a spigot of capital and directing [it] into the housing sector, which has pumped up the housing bubble,” Griffith explained.
“In 2006, we saw the bubble pop,” he noted. “Now we’re seeing it happen again, with home prices at all-time highs, not just in terms of the actual dollar value of the homes, but in the inflation-adjusted value of the homes. In terms of what it costs to have a mortgage on a typical home is also at an all-time high, and the federal government’s subsidization of these properties is largely to blame.”
According to Griffith, another contributor to the surge in rent prices are the enormous regulatory costs in places like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City, to construct new rental properties.
“Regulations account for up to 30 percent of the costs of new rental housing construction,” he said, “and that’s just the regulations on the construction side, the zoning side, and the environmental standards, many of which don’t have any real benefit.”
Environmental impact reports not only increase the time and cost of getting construction projects approved, but land-use restrictions, pollution screenings, and utility fees imposed by local environmental laws also increase the building and carrying costs of housing.
Griffith also noted how in Midwest states—like Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa, where zoning regulations are less stringent and there is a more efficient permitting process—housing is more affordable.
“There are also fewer of the so-called green regulations placed on housing construction, and you can actually evict tenants that aren’t paying rent,” Griffith said, explaining that “in states like California, tenants can effectively squat for months or even years, and these are the places where the housing is the most unaffordable.”
In California—the most heavily regulated state in the country—90 percent of the renters in 13 metros are being priced out of their homes. As Florida’s population continues to explode faster than any other state in the country, so does the price of rent, giving the Sunshine State what some reports describe as “the highest percentage of cost-burdened renters nationwide.”
According to World Population Review, the average renter in America pays $1,326 per month. With an average price of $2,399 per month, Hawaii has the highest rent prices. California, with an average rental price of $1,844 per month, placed second. Washington, D.C. placed third, with an average monthly rent of $1,785. Florida, while having the biggest increase in monthly rent (20 percent), placed sixth, with an average rental price of $1,686.
Look at the Overall Market
“It’s important to acknowledge that this is a very real housing crisis, not just for people looking to buy homes, but for renters, particularly over the past two years as rental prices have increased far faster than the inflation rate,” Griffith said.
A study by Clever Real Estate showed that, since 2020, median rent prices have exceeded the inflation rate by 29 percent. While the average rental rate rose by 90 percent, the inflation rate rose by 70 percent. Data from a 2020 study showed that 58 percent of renters are living paycheck to paycheck because rent increases exceed income growth.
While “anecdotes, which you can’t prove one way or the other, are more compelling,” Griffith said, “you have to look at the overall market.”