About the investigation
In Madrid in 2013, authorities sold more than 4,800 homes, originally intended as affordable housing, to companies controlled by American investment funds. After the sales, conducted with very little publicity, one of these new ‘corporate landlords’, American giant Blackstone, greatly increased the rents – in some cases by doubling them over a period of three years. Many tenants ended up being evicted.
In Dublin, in May 2019 a representative of another ‘corporate landlord’ forced his way into a flat and caused extensive damage inside. The tenants said that the company had been trying to make them leave since it had bought the building the year before.
In Lisbon, in 2017, two companies bought a building for 2.7 million euros and shortly after put it up for sale for 7 million as an “unoccupied” building, when in reality there were 12 families living there.
In Paris, London, Copenhagen and Berlin, tenants in homes owned by Swedish company Akelius have been complaining for years of abusive practices by their ‘corporate landlord’. In 2020, even the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing said that Akelius was abusing its tenants’ human rights.
In those and other cities across Europe, for years conversations have been often revolving around how hard it is to find an affordable and decent home to live in. And now the Covid-19 pandemic has made even clearer how important it is to have a proper home. Studies in the UK and France have shown that overcrowded homes, areas with very little social housing and the number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation all correlate with higher mortality rates due to Covid-19.
Everyone needs a home, and high demand for rental flats across European cities has contributed to make housing a very attractive investment – so much so that the total investment into residential real estate in Europe has increased more than 700% between 2009 and 2020, from 7.9 to 66.9 billion euros, according to data by Real Capital Analytics.
Where is all that money coming from? Who are the companies and investors buying so much housing across Europe? How does this phenomenon affect people’s lives and homes in European cities?
During a period of more than seven months, a team of over 25 investigative and data journalists and visualisations experts from 16 European countries, have been working on the cross-border collaborative project Cities for Rent: Investigating Corporate Landlords Across Europe.
We wanted to find the data and visualise these developments, and document their effects on our cities and in people’s lives. We found that since the financial crisis international investment funds and housing corporations have been buying up homes across European cities. And there are different critical issues connected to this.
Reports of negligence and of abusive tactics by ‘corporate landlords’ are consistent in most of the cities researched. Tenants complain about Blackstone in Madrid and in Amsterdam. About Akelius in Paris, London, Copenhagen and Berlin. About Heimstaden again in Berlin and also in Ostrava –in the Czech Republic–. We heard the same stories in Lisbon and Dublin and in other cities.
In Norway, the biggest private landlord, Fredensborg, pays only around 2,500 euros annually in property tax despite owning owning 3.600 rental flats in Oslo. And while generally real estate investment trusts (REITs) enjoy quite favourable tax incentives across Europe, we found signs that in Milan, Copenhagen and other cities ‘corporate landlords’ may be engaging in tax avoidance tactics.
‘Corporate landlords’ are also increasing their presence in cities like Zurich, Vienna and Prague. The absence of data in places like Lisbon makes it almost impossible to know how many homes those kinds of companies have acquired. In Athens, the lack of an online property registry makes it almost impossible to find out the detailed consequences of the huge Greek economic crisis, where thousands of homes are being publicly auctioned as people can’t pay for them.
We found that often local governments themselves don’t know much about the precise situation in their cities, and lack proper data about the investment flows into the rental estate markets. We confirmed this worrying trend: lack of data availability and accessibility, and of comparable data across cities, means there is still much to research and to find out if we want to have a properly informed public conversation about housing markets across Europe.
Cities for Rent: Investigating Corporate Landlords Across Europe, should be the first step towards more cross-border collaborative research into the crisis of housing affordability and how it affects people’s lives.