Tag Archives: suburbs

When billion-dollar companies buy out neighborhoods

Many of the single-family homes in the Piedmont Park neighborhood of Apopka, Florida, used to be owned by families — the Vargases and the Townes, the Pierces and the Riddles. Now, they’re owned by Blackstone, American Homes 4 Rent and Colony Starwood Homes, companies associated with big real estate investment firms.

And the occupants are tenants, not owners.

In the decade since the housing boom deflated into a bust, financial firms recognized an investment opportunity in hard-hit areas like this Orlando suburb. Single-family homes lost to foreclosure could be bought cheaply and transformed into rent-generating income streams.

The corporate purchases have spread through Piedmont Park and surrounding neighborhoods, where the percentage of renters rose from a bit over 10 percent to more than 35 percent within a decade. Piedmont Park homeowners complain that the result is more transient neighbors, less engagement at homeowners’ meetings and difficulties reaching absentee corporate landlords.

Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer regards the surge of renters in houses throughout central Florida as an unfortunate consequence of the damage this region absorbed from the Great Recession and housing bust.

“Having an owner-occupied house is better for a neighborhood and better for a community than a house occupied by renters,” Kilsheimer said. “They are invested in their children’s school. They’re invested the quality of life in their community.”

Claudette Guerrier, one of the original homeowners in Piedmont Park from its development in 1988, feels disheartened by the transformation. She said her four-bedroom, two-story house has been broken into twice recently

“It was better in the beginning; now it’s not so good,” Guerrier said.

In the aftermath of a housing crisis, metro Orlando suffered one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. A few homes in Piedmont Park sat empty for months, attracting squatters who moved in and were hard to evict, said Karin Settle, president of the local homeowners association. One house of college-age renters, she said, threw fraternity-like parties with 20 or so cars parked outside and drunk men hanging out on the porch — something the neighborhood didn’t see in years past.

Several homeowners have said they’re considering selling their homes because there are so many renters now, she said.

“If these people come in and they’re out-of-state investors — some place in Canada or Arizona — you don’t really have a physical office or people to contact about when there is something going on with the home,” Settle said. “On the good side, they come in, renovate the house, typically gut it. They paint it, fix the fence and it looks nice from the curb. But then these companies don’t take a lot of pains in terms of who they rent to.”

Laura Smith, a resident for 17 years, was close friends with her neighbors in the house behind hers until they moved a couple of years ago. Since then, she said, it’s been one renter after another.

“They just come and go; you just see different cars,” Smith said. “I say to myself, ‘I should make a better effort to get to know them.’ But by the time I get around to it, they’re gone.”

The three-bedroom, two-bath home next door to Michelle Harner’s house was sold in March. She was hoping that owner-occupants would move in. But the telltale signs of a corporate landlord appeared within days.

“Somebody doesn’t buy a house like that and turn around and rip everything out and completely remodel the whole thing and put a new roof on it five days after buying the house,” she said.

Property records show that the house was bought at the end of March by Freo Florida LLC for $145,000. Freo Florida, part of Progress Residential Trust, which owns over 3,000 homes around the nation, listed the house on Zillow as a rental for $1,325 a month.

Some renters show pride in tending to their homes, Harner said, but it’s often easy to pick out which homes are rentals. Yards tend to be untended, cars are parked all over the street, “and you see one family a year come and go.”

The transient nature brings other challenges. At a recent homeowners’ association meeting to discuss installing a new playground, only nine homeowners showed up from a neighborhood with more than 400 residents. A decade ago, dozens would likely have attended.

“When you have a high percentage of renters, you end up having a low turnout at things like homeowners’ association meetings, when you do a community yard sale,” Harner said. “That collaboration sort of declines.

Ask the renters themselves, and some will say that very sense of community is what they value most about living there. Nicole Caverly, who began renting in the Piedmont Park neighborhood this year, doesn’t consider herself a disengaged neighbor. After having lived for years in an apartment building where people kept to themselves, she loves living where she can chat with neighbors during walks.

The previous owners had lost the house to foreclosure in 2015, after which it was bought by Freo. Caverly, a store manager, says the management company her landlord uses has been pleasantly responsive. It quickly fixed troubled locks on the front door after she moved in with her daughter and boyfriend.

She is saving for a down payment to buy a home. But she doesn’t yearn for the responsibilities of ownership — from having to fix appliances to dealing with insect infestations.

For now, Caverly observed, “It’s a renters’ market because nobody can afford a down payment.”

There are few signs that the real estate investment companies plan to sell many of the homes they bought. But the temptation to do so will keep rising if home prices do. In the meantime, the companies have scaled back their purchases — from 9 percent of all sales nationwide in 2013 to about 2.5 percent early this year, said Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac, which tracks housing data and trends.

The industry has been consolidating as companies try to create efficiencies of scale. Colony American Homes and Starwood Waypoint Residential merged this year. And American Residential Properties merged with American Homes 4 Rent late last year.

“It seems like the players who are still around are pretty committed to a long-term strategy of holding these homes,” Blomquist said. “You had a lot of investors jump on the bandwagon during the acquisition phase because honestly the easiest part of this strategy is acquiring these properties … Efficiently and effectively managing these properties is just harder, so there are fewer players who want to do that.”

Christine Anderson, a Blackstone spokeswoman, said in an email that the company has sharply reduced its acquisitions. It has bought nearly 50,000 homes nationwide.

Wynkoop, LLC, which owns about 1,000 homes in Arizona and Florida, including some in Piedmont Park, has been winding down its Phoenix acquisitions as the supply of low-priced homes has dwindled. But it plans to buy about 200 homes in central Florida this year to serve a still-growing population of newcomers who need homes to rent, said Brandon Jundt, who runs the Denver-based investment firm.

If builders start constructing many more homes, or if the homes become more profitable to sell than rent, it would create an incentive to sell off the portfolio, Jundt said.

Still, he added, the firm’s investment in single-family homes is a matter of “years, but not for decades.” As the number of home sales from the foreclosure crisis fades, limiting opportunities to buy homes at discount, and as rents peak, it will eventually be time to look elsewhere.

“At some point, you’re going to have a normalization between rents and home values,” Jundt said. “And once things get back to normal … I’ll probably move on.”

Invasive beetle lures elusive woodpecker to Chicago burbs

Experts believe an invasive beetle is responsible for an increase in sightings of a rare woodpecker species in the western Chicago suburbs.

The pileated woodpecker has been seen and heard fairly regularly for the past month or so on the east side of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, John Cebula of the DuPage Birding Club told the Naperville Sun. The species also has been spotted near Naperville and other spots around the county, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County ecologist Brian Kraskiewicz reported.

“A few lucky folks have recently observed the elusive pileated woodpecker in woodlands at Danada and St. James Farm” forest preserves, Kraskiewicz said. The species also has been seen in the Blackwell, Waterfall Glen, Wood Ridge and West DuPage Woods forest preserves.

More dead trees, more pileated woodpeckers

More pileated woodpeckers are moving into the area because it has plenty of dead or dying ash trees, which have been ravaged by the pesky emerald ash borer, according to experts.

The weakened trees provide the ideal home for the species because they offer a place for them to excavate and build a nest, as well as a beetle buffet.

In the DuPage County forest preserves, pileated woodpeckers have been spotted “pecking away” on trunks and stumps, Kraskiewicz said.

Pileated woodpeckers leave rectangular holes in the wood, and have a loud, whinnying call, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The species also drums on dead trees in a “deep, slow rolling pattern.”

Woodpeckers are known to occasionally visit suburban backyard birdfeeders, but it’s not a common occurrence, said Rob Rohrbaugh, assistant director of conservation science at the Cornell lab.

“Put out a bird feeder. You’d be amazed at what birds live in urban and suburban areas,” he said. “If you get a pileated, that would be a bonus.”



Public hearing set for Feb. 18 on Waukesha water diversion app

A regional public hearing will be held Feb. 18 as part of the city of Waukesha’s application to divert water from the Great Lakes.

The hearing provides an opportunity for Wisconsinites to share their opinions on the proposal with regional representatives from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin Regional Body and Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin Compact Council. The regional body is composed of the eight Great Lakes governors and two Canadian premiers.

The hearing on the application also serves as the time and place for governors and premiers to ask questions and have them answered in a public forum, according to a news release from a coalition of environmental groups opposing Waukesha’s request.

The statement said, “This hearing is the first and only time citizens will have an opportunity to be heard directly by the decision-making body before the eight Great Lakes governors decide whether to support or veto the application.”

An informational meeting will be at 2 p.m. Feb. 18, followed by the hearing at 3 p.m. at Carroll University, Shattuck Music Center, 218 N. E. Ave., Room 122, Waukesha.

People who do not attend the hearing can file a comment with the secretariat of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Regional Body and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council until March 14 at www.waukeshadiversion.org/comments.

When the public comment period closes, the regional body will meet — probably in late April — to decide whether to support the application. Only the eight Great Lakes governors are allowed to veto, but a significant level of deference will be given to any objection from the Canadian premiers. Silence is considered assent, but only one veto is required to deny the application.

The body may also approve the application with conditions attached.

Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force meets, sets goals

The Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force held its first meeting recently, with 37 members from public and private organizations sharing their experiences of the sexual exploitation of young people and their efforts to eradicate modern day slavery.

Victim advocates, as well as the results of investigations nationwide, have identified Wisconsin as a hub of human trafficking. 

The nonpartisan task force is co-chaired by Attorney General Brad Schimel and Department of Children and Families Secretary Eloise Anderson, who ended the meeting with a challenge. 

“We challenged everyone in the room to make this a true working group — one that works to improve training, law enforcement, prevention, awareness, advocacy, resources for victims seeking help, sensible legislation, counseling and other direct services to survivors, housing for survivors, and aftercare,” Schimel said, according to a news release. “We have to protect our children and what we saw in the room was a group of people who are willing to work hard and to show progress.” 

Just a few weeks ago, a 15-year-old girl was rescued from the sex trafficking by DOJ-Division of Criminal Investigation agents. Undercover officers found her information posted on an Internet site under “escort.” She had been reported missing since late October. 

“Every time we get a glimpse of this crime, we are alarmed with what we see,” Schimel stated. “We ask ourselves, ‘How can this be happening?’ We have an amazing multi-disciplinary group from all across this state. If anyone can accomplish something, it is this group.” 

Human Trafficking exists in small and large cities, towns and villages, both urban and suburban. A statement from the task force said municipalities with truck stops or clusters of inexpensive motels can be centers for human trafficking, which is why one player in the effort to combat the crime is Truckers Against Trafficking.

The task force is working with local and regional human workgroups to better coordinate prevention, training, data collection and service delivery efforts. Through enhanced planning, resources and communication, the state-level task force will offer additional support to existing efforts, increase public awareness of the issue, create statewide practices and expand residential and community-based services throughout Wisconsin.

The task force will oversee five work groups: Training; Identification and Screening; Prevention and Public Awareness; Placement and Services; and Data.

Schimel said, “We heard from many eloquent and passionate advocates today and there are many more in the room who did not have a chance to talk simply because there was not enough time at this first meeting. I challenge you to hold this task force’s feet to the fire and demand that we do something.

“There is so much we know we need to do to prevent the spread of this scourge and to turn victims into survivors. If we do our work well, we can make our social services and criminal justice systems friendly and more welcoming places for victims. Until they truly believe they can count on us to really help, they will not come forward.”