How Wall Street Real Estate Firms Get Richer—and Get Tax Breaks

After the 2007-09 financial crisis, a string of companies bought up foreclosed houses and flipped them into rental homes. Sometimes, they rented to the very same people whose homes were foreclosed and bought out.

Ever since then, these firms have profited handsomely from rising real estate values — and the existence of a growing class of renters.

Who Are These Real Estate Firms?

Invitation Homes, created by The Blackstone Group, is the largest of the U.S. house-for-rent companies. Blackstone more than doubled its investment and has already sold its holdings to massive financial firms for more than $7 billion.

Many companies are active in the same market segment. They have names like Essex Property Trust, Brookfield Property Partners, Equity Residential, the Irvine Company, Kushner Companies, Mosser Capital, CBRE, Related Companies, Pretium Partners LLC, Strategic Property Management, Colony Starwood, Brookfield Asset Management, American Homes 4 Rent, and quite a few others.

These are the winners in the real estate “recovery” that has certainly not floated all boats. The sector is worth tens of billions of dollars. It controls hundreds of thousands of properties. And the companies tend to hold just the types of homes first-time buyers want and need. For ordinary buyers, this is part of what created the daunting bidding wars in some competitive markets.

Wall Street firms formed real estate investment trusts (REITs), many of which went public. REITs are now common fixtures in investment accounts, along with stocks and bonds. These entities have bought foreclosed real estate from coast to coast. Some have freed up the homes by offering distressed owners cash incentives to move.  

  Banks and real estate companies might offer “cash for keys” — a kind of financial boost to help an occupant leave and move elsewhere — to distressed mortgage borrowers, in exchange for knowing the borrower won’t trash the house. Sometimes this offering applies in a deed in lieu of foreclosure or a short sale agreement. See more on this at How to Survive Foreclosure.

Large, institutional investors own hefty chunks of the rental markets in Tampa, Charlotte, and Atlanta. First-time home buyers and mom-and-pop landlords alike struggle to compete with them.

Et Tu, Fannie and Freddie?

Taxpayers have essentially had to enable these large companies. Fannie Mae backed $1 billion in financing for Invitation Homes in 2017. Never before had a government-sponsored organization backed a rental home corporation.

But it wouldn’t be the last time it happened. Freddie Mac, too, went in and backed financing for this novel investment sector.

All of this means tax money is supporting the companies, enabling them to get financing at reduced interest rates. It isn’t what you might expect from Fannie and Freddie. After all, there’s a high correlation between the percentage of minority groups living in an area, and the rate of evictions initiated there by the rental corporations. Motivated by profit, these companies are quick to evict and re-rent. It should come as no surprise that they drive up rents and spin intricate webs of fees and bureaucracies and legal actions. It should come as no surprise that a big company would routinely neglect the very things that make people love their homes. The very things that lead people to care about putting down roots and forming communities.

The REITs lobbied and raised millions of dollars to oppose California’s Proposition 10, which would have allowed local governments to set rent controls on freestanding houses. That was in 2018. Since then, California has enacted a law to cap rent hikes to 5% – plus inflation. In this economy, that still allows big rent hikes, but at least California’s cap now applies to the big rental companies. Yet in numerous states, lobbyists work to free the big rental companies from having to deal with the tax obligations that the rest of us cannot avoid.

Stimmies and Tax Breaks and Handouts—Oh My!

When Covid-19 struck, Wall Street investors became especially excited about the future of apartment companies’ stocks. Why?

Covid hit some business sectors hard. Employees struggled to pay their mortgages. There was a moratorium on foreclosures, but it was temporary. Investors sniffed out a “potential bonanza for rental-home investors,” as the Wall Street Journal put the point at the time. 

In March 2020, $170 billion was approved for businesses via the CARES Act, which released immediate tax refunds to cover losses for limited liability companies. And that was after real estate companies and REITs companies had already benefited from massive tax breaks in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Recent federal law changes have also let real estate investors completely deduct interest payments on their buildings. Experts estimate this tax break alone will cost taxpayers some $16 billion over a decade.

Even when real estate companies lose, they win. Businesses used to be barred from investing in money-losing ventures. They would sometimes invest in these to harvest passive losses — tax breaks on their losses. The real estate lobbyists managed to remove that bar, as it pertained to rental income. This means today’s real estate investors have access to a tax advantage for losing money when they rent out buildings.

Real estate companies also get capital gains tax breaks through standard depreciation provisions. This continues to be the case even when the value of their investment properties soar, and they make tremendous profits by offloading their holdings.

Most real estate operations in today’s world also reap immense tax advantages by registering themselves as limited liability corporations. LLCs allow for pass-through taxation, so that a limited liability company will avoid the double taxation that standard corporations incur. REITs get a similar tax advantage. By paying most of their income out in the form of dividends, they avoid taxes on the income they generate. As Bloomberg puts the point, “REITs, which are required to distribute at least 90 percent of their earnings as dividends, pay no federal tax at all.”  

And that’s not everything. The large rental companies have access to a variety of financing plans created by the states and cities in which they have a presence. This means the cities pay billions into these projects, while tax agencies offer property tax breaks for the developers.

The Upshot? Hopeful Buyers Deserve a Level Playing Field

While so many wait on the sidelines, a mortgage out of their reach, dozens of U.S. real estate companies are making it ever harder for these ordinary people to get their foot in the door. Financial breaks need to go first to the ordinary taxpayers — not to companies that exploit and even increase people’s vulnerability.

Supporting References

Internal Revenue Code: 26 U.S. Code § 857 – Taxation of Real Estate Investment Trusts and Their Beneficiaries.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA).

Americans for Tax Fairness: Coronavirus Pandemic – Pressure Builds to Repeal $135 Billion Millionaires Giveaway in the CARES Act (Apr. 29 2020).

Francesca Mari for The New York Times: A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street (updated Oct. 22, 2021). Under New Tax Law the Question Is, to Be or Not to Be a REIT (Apr. 25, 2018).

And as linked.

Photo credits: Andrea Piacquadio and Melvin Wahlin, via Pexels.