Corporate Landlords Redux
Last month, we shared a snapshot of the landscape of large corporate single family landlords across metro Atlanta, showing that just the top ten of these companies own over 30,000 properties here in the five core counties. Since then, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an investigation into these landlords that lends additional credence to the countless other pieces of evidence about these investors and their exploitation of tenants across Atlanta and the rest of the country. Using a more extensive set of records of property ownership across six additional counties, the AJC ultimately arrives at a figure of over 65,000 single family homes owned by these institutional investors across the metro.
The AJC story even scooped a bit of work we’ve been doing – again in partnership with friend and colleague Eric Seymour – that shifts from treating all of these corporate landlords under one big umbrella to looking at them one-by-one. In the maps in the AJC’s investigation, they focus in particular on the five biggest single family landlords around Atlanta – Invitation Homes, Pretium Partners, Amherst Holdings, American Homes 4 Rent and Tricon American Homes – but also include other similar companies under one catch-all banner.
Like the Dangerous Dwellings series from last summer – that we also added some more geographic context to – this latest investigation does an excellent job at telling the stories of the tenants who have been so negatively affected by the predatory and exploitative practices of these corporate landlords. But in our eyes, the story also makes one subtle mistake when it comes to characterizing the geographic logic behind these companies’ property acquisitions. In their initial story, Brian Eason and John Perry write that “…disproportionately, investors buy in places with entry-level homes and in communities of color”. This isn’t wrong per se, but it also isn’t entirely true either.
Not all corporate landlords target communities of color. Some do, but some tend to stay away from them as much as possible and instead prefer to buy in predominantly white neighborhoods. While all of these corporate landlords follow a similar script in their overall business models, they’ve also developed unique spatial strategies for their property investments that mean we can’t paint them all with the same broad brush. Essentially, these companies have learned to target different kinds of neighborhoods with different demographic characteristics in order to avoid competing with one another, which in turns allows each company to maximize their market power and their profits.
Because of these differences, it’s important to tease apart these spatial strategies in a more comprehensive way rather than treating any individual firm as a synecdoche for the broader phenomenon. Even cartographically speaking, the way that the AJC mapped all of the properties for these firms as individual dots ultimately obscures just how concentrated investments are in certain places, and makes it harder to untangle the particularities of each firm’s investment strategies.
To examine these patterns in more detail, we mapped an odds ratio for the properties held by each of the ten largest corporate single family landlords across the five core counties of metro Atlanta,1 which you can see in the maps below. In effect, an odds ratio is a measure of local-scale concentration relative to a baseline value for a larger population at a broader scale. Values greater than 1, signified in the green shading in the maps below, mean that there is more of that thing in that place than we would expect if everything were distributed perfectly evenly across space. Values less than 1, shown in purple here, mean that there’s relatively less of that thing than we would have expected in that place.
So in this case the odds ratio lets us see where each corporate landlord’s investments are geographically specialized relative to the overall number of single family rental properties across the metro area which, as you can see, differ dramatically from firm to firm. It is important to note that just because a given firm is underrepresented in a given place doesn’t mean that that firm doesn’t own any properties – or even a lot of them! – in that place. It just means that they own a smaller share of the properties there than we would have expected.
Despite the subtle variations from firm to firm here, one major geographic trend holds true across all of these different companies: private equity-controlled firms are significantly more likely to concentrate their investments in predominantly Black and more working-class suburbs in the southern parts of the metro, while publicly-traded REITs tend to invest in whiter (but still fairly diverse) and more middle-class suburbs in the more northern parts of the metro across Cobb and Gwinnett counties. If we aggregate the three publicly-traded REITs (Invitation, AH4R and Tricon) together and the other seven private equity-controlled firms together and compare them directly using the same odds ratio measure, we can see this pattern quite clearly in the map below.
This is, in short, yet another instance of Atlanta’s ur-choropleths in action. Like practically everything else about this city, the geographies of corporate landlords respond to – and reinforce – the racial divisions that have been inscribed into Atlanta’s landscape for roughly a century and a half (even though they have, of course, evolved over this time).
And so while we think it’s important to understand precisely which companies are making their money off of targeting Atlanta’s working-class Black families, this isn’t meant to absolve any of these other companies for their less explicitly racist, but no less exploitative business models. But without knowing who we’re targeting and why, we’ll continue to struggle to make inroads in fully understanding the effects and fighting against these corporate behemoths.
1 Our top ten list here is ever so slightly different than the one in the map we posted back in January. Here we’ve replaced properties owned by Home Partners for America with those owned by Starwood Capital. All other companies remain the same, though some of the values for each firm have also changed in that time as we’ve ironed out some kinks in our methodology.
Atlanta’s Corporate Landlords
For the last decade, the Atlanta metro has been ground zero for corporate investors buying up single-family homes to turn into rental properties. Studies have consistently shown that more so than any other single metropolitan area across the country, these firms have focused on Atlanta and its suburban fringes, leading Dan Immergluck to label Atlanta a ‘private equity strike zone’.
The emergence of corporate-owned single-family rentals was fueled initially by the glut of homes held by banks and the federal government in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Eager to rid themselves of these properties and their potential liabilities, these various institutions sold off hundreds and even thousands of properties directly to corporate investors who were more than willing to take them off their hands for bargain bin prices.
But one of the features of this incredible flow of corporate cash into Atlanta is that it never really stops. Even though a number of studies have looked at the concentration of corporate landlords across Atlanta, these studies are outdated almost as soon as they’re published because these investors are constantly snapping up more and more properties. At the same time, new firms have popped up seeking to emulate these business models, further expanding the reach of these corporations into the housing market. This has led to the point where corporate investors made up more than 40% of metro Atlanta home purchases in the latter months of 2021. And as Elora Raymond has shown in her recent research here in Atlanta, more corporate ownership of housing almost invariably means more evictions and more displacement of Black residents.
Using the most up-to-date property ownership data available, I have – along with my friend and collaborator Eric Seymour – been working on mapping the largest of these corporate single-family landlords across the five core counties of metro Atlanta. Based on our analysis, just the ten largest single-family rental companies1 operating in the Atlanta metro own a total 29,785 homes across these counties, the concentrations of which are shown in the map below. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a good portion of this spatial pattern mirrors the racial geographies of the Atlanta metro, with more corporate landlords coming in and buying up homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
While it’s commonly stated that these institutional investors tend to avoid buying inside the perimeter or the City of Atlanta for a variety of reasons – one article even called it “a clear donut hole” – our analysis shows the situation to be a bit more complicated. These companies undoubtedly are much more concentrated on buying in the suburbs further out from the city center where properties tend to be cheaper, but they’ve also invested considerably within the city limits. Just within the City of Atlanta, these ten companies own 1,146 single family homes. Again, that’s only a small percentage – about 3.8% – of the total number of properties they own in the five core counties, but it’s nothing to shake a stick at either. More than avoiding the City of Atlanta altogether, it’s fairer to say that most of these corporate landlords tend to avoid buying in affluent and white neighborhoods whether they’re within or beyond the city limits. This is, however, variable depending on which company we’re talking about, as different firms tend to concentrate their property holdings within different neighborhoods in order to avoid directly competing with one another (a subject for a future post!).
What’s most remarkable about these top line numbers is not just that these companies represent by far the largest owners of residential property across Atlanta, it’s that they’ve achieved this status in incredible short order. Just a dozen or so years ago these companies didn’t even exist, much less own a considerable share of Atlanta’s – or the nation’s! – single-family rental stock. And yet, local groups like Housing Justice League have been calling attention to these new corporate landlords since at least 2014, with little to no attempt at intervention from policymakers. And now, with the problem of corporate control of housing considerably worse than it was back in 2014, the best we seem to be able to muster up are suburban municipalities’ foolhardy attempts at regulating these landlords via bans on rental housing, which have the unintended (?) effect of demonizing renters rather than the landlords that exploit them. Even still, the state steps in to quash these half-measures at slowing the pace of more and more corporate incursion into our everyday lives and the ownership of the land and housing in which we live and on which we depend.
1 Ordered by the size of their holdings in metro Atlanta, the firms included in this analysis are: Invitation Homes, Pretium Partners, Amherst Holdings, Cerberus Capital, American Homes 4 Rent, Tricon American Homes, Home Partners for America, Avenue One Residential, Sylvan Homes and Vinebrook Homes.
Placing the Police
For the last two-plus years, the place of the police in our society has been at the forefront not only here in Atlanta, but nationwide. But given the murder of Rayshard Brooks at the hands of an APD officer in the summer of 2020 and the city’s total lack of a meaningful response, followed by their steadfast refusal to consider that maybe tearing down hundreds of acres of intact forestland in order to build a playground for cops isn’t the best idea, or that maybe the solution to overcrowding in county jails isn’t more incarceration, these issues are especially prominent here in the city.
All of the love for – and desire to throw money at – the police amongst our city’s leadership belies the fact that Atlanta is already heavily invested in the police. We are already the most surveilled city in the United States, with nearly 50 surveillance cameras for every 1,000 people (NOTE: this is something we can’t map because the APD denied our open records request for data on the locations of these surveillance cameras, suggesting that sharing this data would lead to terrorism). On top of that, we’re also subject to a complex and overlapping set of police and security agencies with the power to control our everyday lives and subject us (and definitely some of us more than others) to violence with impunity.
As my friend and collaborator Steve Sherman notes in his recently published paper about policing in Atlanta, “in only the three square miles of central Atlanta, Georgia, USA, there are 11 different patrol agencies of fully sworn public sector ‘real cops’ with boots on the ground, guns at their hips, and full arrest powers”. On top of that, he documents the role of the private ‘non-sworn’ business improvement district security forces of Central Atlanta Progress and the Midtown Alliance, but doesn’t even get to touch on the DeKalb County police just a few miles to the east of downtown. Cumulatively then, when we’re talking about the police in Atlanta, we’re talking about not one, but FOURTEEN separate police and security agencies just within the city limits. Using some of the information from Steve’s paper and what resources we could find online explaining the boundaries of these overlapping jurisdictions, we mapped these 14 different agencies and their geographic remit within the City of Atlanta.
While some of these boundaries may be a bit fuzzy, we’ve opted to lean more towards a conservative definition of each jurisdiction. For instance, MARTA’s police force apparently has jurisdiction across the entirety of Fulton and DeKalb counties, but we’ve opted only to map their jurisdiction at MARTA stations and along train and bus routes. Similarly, while Emory’s police mirror the Georgia Tech and Georgia State University police in having jurisdiction anywhere within 500 yards of a university-owned property, they go a step further. According to the Emory Police website, their remit also extends to within “one-quarter mile of any public street or sidewalk connecting different buildings and campuses”. When you take into account that Emory’s main campus and Midtown Hospital location are a full five miles apart with countless roads connecting them, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch that Emory’s police could claim jurisdiction anywhere in that entire part of the city, rather than just the most direct route we’ve included going from Briarcliff Road to Ponce de Leon Avenue. Add onto those cases that one of the most consistent elements of the various definitions of police jurisdiction is the fact that they can seemingly be deputized to operate in other jurisdictions practically instantaneously, making all of these borders subject to change in practice.
In addition to looking at the specific boundaries of each of these police agencies, we can also look at them quantitatively to understand which part of the city have the most jurisdictional overlap. No matter where one is in the city, you’re always subject to at least two different police agencies in the form of the Atlanta Police Department and either the Fulton County or DeKalb County Police. But throughout much of the city’s central core, there is even more overlap. Based on our analysis, there are multiple places across Downtown and Midtown where a person would simultaneously be subject to seven different police agencies. This is perhaps most notable around Emory’s Midtown Hospital location, where the combination of APD, Fulton County Police, Emory Police, police from Georgia Tech or Georgia State and MARTA Police, along with the Midtown Blue and Downtown Ambassadors security forces, would all have jurisdiction. In fact, as the map below shows, pretty much all across the north-south spine that connects Downtown and Midtown, there are rarely fewer than five different police forces with jurisdiction.
It should be noted that these overlapping jurisdictions represent just one way of measuring and mapping the expanding presence of the police in our city and our everyday lives. Across countless neighborhoods in and beyond the City of Atlanta, police are unevenly distributed in their patrols, focusing on some areas more than others even when there are only one or two agencies with jurisdiction in that place. Nonetheless, these maps help to show that far from defunding – let alone abolishing – the police in Atlanta, our city’s elected officials and other leaders continue to invest in the police and entrust them with solving society’s problems, in spite of overwhelming evidence that they not only can’t solve them, but in fact actively make them worse.
Landownership Inequality in Georgia, Past and Present
From 1897 to 1910, the eminent American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was based at Atlanta University, where he worked to establish what is now considered the first real ‘school’ of sociology in the United States. During his early years in Atlanta, Du Bois and his students prepared a series of hand-drawn data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, demonstrating the achievements of Black Americans in the face of centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow segregation. Given his residence in Atlanta, Du Bois used Georgia as a focused case study for many of the issues he was examining across the country. While these visualizations, like the rest of Du Bois’ work, are incredibly compelling and were extraordinarily cutting-edge for their time, there’s always been one visualization that particularly irked me as a cartographer.
Plate 20 in Du Bois’ exhibition – “Land Owned by Negroes in Georgia, U.S.A. 1870-1900.” – is a bright and colorful map of Black landownership across the state during the period following emancipation, through Reconstruction, its end and the beginnings of Jim Crow segregation. Given that one of my primary areas of interest is the ownership of housing and land, this map has always stood out to me as an artifact capturing the importance of landownership to broader fights for equality.
But as a cartographer, this map is a bit of a disaster. Long story short, the map breaks a whole lot of the conventions that I try to teach my students about how data should be visualized in map form. But chief among these crimes against cartography is the fact that Du Bois’ beautiful color scheme isn’t actually used to show variation in the underlying data. Instead, colors are assigned more-or-less randomly to counties, which you can tell if you look closely at the labels on the map. Even if the colors were used to classify the data into a series of classes, they don’t follow the kind of sequential change in value we expect with choropleth maps in order to make their patterns comprehensible. On top of all of that, the values in Du Bois’ map are in total number of acres, making them inappropriate for mapping via a choropleth anyways.
Given all of these issues, I took it upon myself a few months back to remake DuBois’ map with a little more appropriate visualization style. Well, a few more appropriate visualization styles. Thanks to the Du Boisian Visualization Toolkit and the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, I was able to easily replicate both Georgia’s county geographies from 120 years ago and the particular colors and typography of Du Bois’ original maps and charts.
The first map in the series starts by normalizing the total number of acres owned by Black Georgians by the total land area of each county to show the percentage of Black land ownership, but still using something that approximates the richness of Du Bois’ color scheme. The second takes the same data but applies a more appropriate sequential color scheme, again replicating some of the same general hues that Du Bois used. Finally, the third map takes the most straightforward solution to the issues of Du Bois’ original map and represents the total number of acres as a proportional symbol map, which is more appropriate for mapping total count data. As opposed to Du Bois’ original, this trio of maps not only (mostly) follow cartographic convention, but they actually make it easy to identify the counties where Black Georgians had made the most headway in acquiring land in both absolute numbers and as a proportion of a given county’s total land area.
While remaking Du Bois’ original map of Black landownership at the turn of the 20th century should probably be sufficient enough material for one post, I couldn’t help but go an extra step further. Unfortunately, because the USDA doesn’t actually collect or share granular information on the race of America’s farmers or farm owners, we can’t just make a contemporary map showing the same patterns for the present day. But given that we know that 98% of US farmland is white-owned and that Black ownership of agricultural land is just 2% of what it was in 1910 – when it was at its peak – it isn’t hard to imagine how dire those county-level numbers might be today.
The USDA does, however, share data on the flip-side of agricultural land ownership in the form of the annual Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act Database, which tracks how much land is owned by foreign investors across the United States. So using the same visualization styles as before, I mapped this more insidious form of landownership that speaks to the reproduction – rather than amelioration – of social and economic inequality. It didn’t hurt that, like with Du Bois’ original map, the USDA’s own maps of this data don’t necessarily follow cartographic convention and are a bit of a disaster themselves.
Comparing the two sets of maps, one can see that there isn’t any real clear spatial clustering of either Black landownership in 1900 or foreign investor ownership in 2020, and neither do the two patterns seem to overlap in a meaningful way. That said, when looking at the outliers and the statewide geography of landownership across the last century-plus, one can see just how much broader racial injustices and capitalist exploitation are reflected in and reproduced through landownership.
In 1900, based on Du Bois’ figures, Black Georgians owned a total of 1,065,239 acres across the state, or just about 2.8% of the total land area. Liberty County just south of Savannah had the highest rates of Black landownership at just 7.5%, and only a dozen of Georgia’s then-137 counties had rates of Black landownership higher than 5%. Meanwhile, today, 23 of the state’s 159 counties have more than 5% of their total land area owned by foreign investors, with eight of these having foreign ownership rates over 10%, even reaching an astronomical high of nearly 42% in Monroe County.
Across the state today, 1,120,314 acres of agricultural land, or about 3% of the total land, are owned by foreign investors who own the land not as a way of sustaining life and livelihood, but as financial assets to be mined for profit. Given that our figures from 1900 are close approximations of the peak of Black landownership in the United States, we can say with a fair bit of certainty that foreign companies now own more land in Georgia than Black Georgians ever did.
Charles Sherrod – the recently passed co-founder of New Communities, Inc., the country’s first community land trust in Albany, Georgia, which was meant to ensure precisely that kind of livelihood-sustaining connection to land for Black communities – once said that “all power comes from the land”, speaking to its fundamental importance for all manner of other social structures and inequalities. If we take Sherrod at his word, rectifying these contemporary and historical imbalances in who owns land – agricultural or otherwise – is of the utmost importance if achieving any meaningful equality in this country is ever going to be a reality.
Over the course of the next week, colleges and universities across Atlanta will restart classes for the fall semester. But teaching classes and offering degrees is only one – sometimes small – aspect of what universities do nowadays. While fielding sports teams is obviously one element of this larger project, universities are just as oriented towards the accumulation of property (both real and intellectual) and the development of real estate.
Of course universities need space for buildings to house classrooms, offices and dormitories, but the modern university’s appetite for real estate goes far beyond these bare necessities. In Atlanta and across the country, colleges and universities buy up nearby properties not just to meet their present day needs, but also to get rid of nuisances nearby and speculate on future growth. Universities aren’t just a passive supporter of the urban growth machine; they’re an active player in it. And just like any other landlord or real estate developer, they use many of the same tactics for concealing the full extent of their holdings, registering their properties under different corporate entities and with different mailing addresses. But having access to bulk parcel data allows us to cut through some of this opacity by cross-referencing ownership records to identify (in most cases) who actually owns or controls a given property.
In the City of Atlanta, the nine universities with a significant presence collectively own 800 parcels totaling nearly 1,500 acres, which are appraised at nearly $2.5 billion – all of which is untaxed because of the universities’ non-profit status. But many of these investments, from Georgia Tech jumping over the connector to construct Tech Square in the early 2000s to Georgia State’s downtown growth and more recent purchase of Turner Field and expansion into Summerhill, aren’t necessarily meant to serve the academic mission of the universities, but rather to promote certain kinds of economic development and, usually, gentrification.
By far the biggest university landowner within Atlanta is Emory University, much of which sat outside the city limits until its annexation by the city on January 1, 2018. Even if one were to aggregate all the public institutions in the city that are governed by the University System of Georgia in one group, and all the historically Black colleges and universities that make up the Atlanta University Center in another, their 527 and 247 acres, respectively, would still not come close to Emory’s 700+ acres within the city limits (along with a good deal more outside the city in DeKalb County). These properties are cumulatively valued at over $750 million, which, as we might remind you, is probably an underestimate because of how the tax assessors work around here.
University # of Parcels # of Acres Total Appraised Value of All Properties Emory 123 705 $753,316,795 Georgia Tech 361 363 $672,445,900 Morehouse 150 108 $106,716,100 Georgia State 78 99 $595,179,900 Clark Atlanta 61 85 $113,509,700 Atlanta Metro 5 65 $25,329,900 Spelman 5 47 $18,478,800 SCAD 13 15 $123,185,800 Morris Brown 4 8 $7,970,900 TOTAL 800 1495 $2,416,133,795
Meanwhile, despite having just the second-smallest footprint by acreage with 13 properties taking up roughly 15 acres of land, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta holdings are disproportionately higher valued. In fact, SCAD’s properties are more valuable than each of Atlanta’s HBCUs. Even Morehouse College’s 107 acres of land and Clark Atlanta University’s 84 acres are valued at just $106.7 million and $113.5 million, respectively, while SCAD’s much smaller footprint is appraised at over $123 million. We’re totally positive this has nothing to do with the historic devaluation of property in predominantly Black parts of the city, though.
Apart from the extent of their holdings and their valuation, each of the city’s universities also displays its own unique spatial pattern of property ownership. Even though we typically think of college campuses as being largely self-contained, most of Atlanta’s universities have a bit more scattered pattern of property ownership, across the city. For instance, Emory’s various healthcare facilities are located in Midtown several miles from its main campus, while Georgia Tech holds various properties scattered north of its main campus, and SCAD’s combination of buildings stretches from the northern edges of Midtown down to Ponce. Even Morehouse and Clark Atlanta own properties quite far from their main campuses. And then there’s Georgia State, who besides the recent expansion into Summerhill, has always been atypical in that the university is scattered throughout downtown, only rarely for more than a couple of consecutive blocks. If we were to look beyond the city limits this pattern would only be exacerbated for Georgia State thanks to its subsumption of Perimeter College several years ago.
But given these trends in universities acting as landlords and developers, the only thing seeming to stand in the way of their continued expansion is the egregiously high property values and sales prices we see everywhere else across the city and metro.
If you’re a Fulton County homeowner, it’s that time of year to have just recently received your latest property tax assessment. And chances are, that assessment has gone up, meaning you’ll be paying more in property taxes. But those increases in property taxes aren’t equal across the county.
Thanks to the fact that Fulton County has posted the previous 15 years of parcel data online (and the hard work of my excellent undergrad research assistant Laurel Sparks collating all that data), we can analyze the trends in how tax assessments have changed over that time period.
Looking only at the 300,000 or so single-family homes in Fulton County over the last six years, we can see that the median home has increased in value by 73% over that time period, which is pretty significant in and of itself. But the brightest colors on the map below indicate those properties that appreciated in value much more rapidly over that time, and they’re primarily concentrated in Atlanta’s historically Black neighborhoods to the south and west of downtown. Indeed, of the 50,000 or so homes that grew 4x faster than the median home from 2017 through 2022, just over 80% of these are in majority Black census tracts. It isn’t like all of these homes are only growing in value because they’re getting flipped; only about half of those 50,000 or so most rapidly appreciating homes have even changed hands over the course of the last several years.
The thing about these patterns of property value appreciation is that they are fairly new. Looking at the two previous five-year periods from 2007-2011 and 2012-2016, we can see two important differences. First, the median change for each of these periods was quite a bit lower across the country, at 43% from 2007-2011 and just 26% from 2012-2016. But second, during both of these time periods, the places with the most rapidly appreciating properties weren’t in Atlanta’s historically Black neighborhoods (with a couple of much more isolated exceptions), but instead in the predominantly white parts of Atlanta and northern Fulton County, places that are already replete with wealth and much more capable of shouldering rapid property tax increases. To add insult to injury, throughout the last decade, large commercial properties like Ponce City Market have been dramatically under-assessed – thereby paying much reduced tax bills once their property tax breaks expire – meaning that these more recent changes represent a dramatic shifting of the cost burden for Atlanta’s growth onto those who should least be asked to shoulder it.
Together, these maps show that while gentrification undoubtedly has the greatest potential to disrupt the lives of tenants without security of tenure, they aren’t the only group whose homes and neighborhoods are threatened by influxes of capital and rising housing costs. Atlanta’s low- and moderate-income homeowners, even those who have paid off their mortgages and own their homes outright, are also vulnerable to gentrification because of rapid changes in property tax assessments that outpace their incomes.
These increased property tax burdens can make for quite the dilemma. On the one hand, homeowners could try to avoid paying for awhile, but risk losing their home altogether, as our insanely over-compensated Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has a particular predilection for placing liens on tax delinquent homeowners and then selling those liens in bulk to private investors and speculators who can then charge massive interest and fees, and ultimately take control over the property. Or, if one is able to scrounge up the money to pay the growing tax bill year after year, you end up having less money to spend on other necessities, including home repairs (which may then lead to additional punitive measures from code enforcement). Once that dilemma is apparent, selling and getting out is often the only solution available, even if it means ‘willingly’ selling to a speculator who’s massively underpaying for the property. Either way, chances are that financially precarious residents are going to end up losing their largest stores of wealth for pennies on the dollar, and the speculators who take over will likely replace them with someone else willing to pay even more for the same property.
Of course, there are some local programs meant to help stem the tide of this kind of equity stripping and tax-driven gentrification, from the general use of homestead exemptions to clinics for appealing assessment increases (a de rigueur practice for more affluent white homeowners trying to shirk their property tax responsibilities) to the BeltLine’s program for helping homeowners in neighborhoods around the south and west sides of the trail to actually pay their increased property tax bills. But what we really need as a city is a set of policies like the property tax circuit breaker proposed by the Housing Justice League, or even a progressive property tax, which don’t rely on legacy homeowners having to take initiative themselves or rely on charity to be able to stay in place. Because a place is nothing without its people.
Last month, I happened upon a tweet from an Atlanta newcomer inquiring about the logic and utility of Atlanta’s street naming conventions. You know what I’m talking about: the ordinal directions appended to the end of the city’s street names, always letting you know which of the city’s four quadrants you’re in at any given time? That thing that, like a newcomer, we all recognize but really don’t have a very good understanding of? Well, it seemed like just the thing for some cartographic investigation…
The City of Atlanta’s quadrant system is straightforward enough. Four mostly straight lines radiate in the cardinal directions from the city’s midpoint at Five Points, creating four not-exactly-equally-sized quadrants due to the fact that Five Points isn’t actually the geographic center of the city anymore. The dividing line between east and west is Peachtree Street north of Five Points (save for a stretch where the line jogs a bit and picks up on West Peachtree Street) and Capitol Avenue SE to the south. The division of north and south is marked by Edgewood Avenue NE to the east and MLK Jr. Drive SW to the west once you get a little bit outside of the blocks surrounding Five Points. But things get a little bit complicated in a few places. If you want the full, point-by-point description of where these dividing lines are, look no further than the city’s 1977 code of ordinances which first enshrined these divisions officially with this particularly wordy description:
North and south line. Beginning at the center line of Lake Forrest Drive and the city limits boundary in Land Lots 119 and 94 of the 17th District of Fulton County, and running thence southerly along the center line of Lake Forrest Drive in Land Lots 94, 95, 96, 97, 117, 118 and 119 to that point at the center of Powers Ferry Road; thence southeasterly along the center of Powers Ferry Road in Land Lot 97 to the center of Roswell Road; thence south along the center of Roswell Road in Land Lots 97, 98 and 99 to the center of Peachtree Road; thence south along the center of Peachtree Road to that point coinciding with the line between Land Lots 113 and 100; thence due south on the center of Peachtree Road along the line between Land Lots 113 and 100; thence due south along the line between Land Lots 112 and 101 to a point intersecting with the center of Lindberg Drive; thence southwesterly along the center of Peachtree Road in Land Lots 112, 111 and 110 to the intersection of the center line of Collier Road; thence continuing southeasterly in Land Lots 110 and 109 to the intersection of the center of West Peachtree Street; thence continuing due south along the center of West Peachtree Street and along the line between Land Lots 109 and 104, 108 and 105, 107 and 106; thence continuing due south along the center of West Peachtree Street to Tenth Street; thence slightly southeast along the center of West Peachtree Street between Tenth Street and Eighth Street; thence continuing due south in the 14th District of Fulton County along the center of West Peachtree Street in Land Lots 49, 50 and 51 to the center of Peachtree Street; thence due south along the center of Peachtree Street and along the line between Land Lots 50 and 51 to Forsyth Street; thence continuing southwesterly along the center of Peachtree Street in Land Lots 78 and 77 to the center of the right-of-way of the Western and Atlantic Railroad; thence southeasterly along the center line of said right-of-way of said Western and Atlantic and Georgia Railroad to Piedmont Avenue in Land Lot 52; thence continuing southwesterly along the center of Piedmont Avenue to the center of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive; thence southeasterly along Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive to the center of Capitol Avenue; thence southwesterly along the center of Capitol Avenue to a point coinciding with the line between Land Lots 77 and 52; thence due south along the center of Capitol Avenue and along the line between Land Lots 77 and 52, 76 and 53, 75 and 54, and 74 and 55 to a point at the intersection of the center of McDonough Boulevard; thence continuing due south to the southern city limits boundary along the line between Land Lots 73 and 56, 72 and 57, 71 and 58, 70 and 59, 69 and 60, 68 and 61, 67 and 62, 66 and 63, and 65 and 64.
And that’s literally just for the dividing line running north and south!
But the adoption of this particular way of organizing the city’s streets goes a good bit further back in time. The earliest evidence I can find of Atlanta’s adoption of this mostly unnecessary quadrant system is the 1926 map of the city’s proposed house numbering system seen below on the left, as found in the GSU Library’s Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Collection. As the map makes clear, the quadrant system served as a way of prescribing street numbers for every corner of the city by assigning them to cells, which were then assigned a range of street numbers depending on which direction the streets in those cells run.
The 1930 map from the same collection shown on the right, however, more closely resembles the contours of the city’s present-day quadrants, particularly with respect to the way the dividing line running vertically along Capitol Avenue SE takes a brief detour along the railroad tracks moving to the west to meet Peachtree Street at its point of origin before returning to its northern course. This little jig is, of course, what makes the vertex of the four quadrants sit precisely at the Five Points intersection downtown. By 1933 (at the very latest), the city’s quadrants were in full force, as seen in the addresses listed in the city’s public directory for that year. But that’s the mostly straightforward part that nobody really needed maps to understand.
One more interesting aspect of Atlanta’s quadrants is that they actually extend well beyond the city limits in all four directions, as you can see in this map of all the streets in Fulton and DeKalb counties that have been assigned a directional suffix.
Atlanta is also not the only city or county in the metro area to use a quadrant system for their streets, though it is certainly the most dedicated to the schtick. Bartow, Cobb, Gwinnett and Rockdale counties all use an extensive quadrant system, as does the city of Covington in Newton County.
There are a couple of significant oddities about Atlanta’s quadrant system, though. First, some streets deviate from the system by having no quadrant assigned to them at all. This includes everything from interstate highways to minor streets that run no more than a block or two, but it also includes the city’s most famous street of all: Peachtree Street.
Second, a number of streets within the city seem to have had their directional suffixes misallocated. For example, while Vance Street SW is clearly in the northwest quadrant, Westview Place NW is clearly in the southwest quadrant. There are a total of 14 different streets in the city that have had this little mishap, and they’re present in all four of the city’s quadrants and in almost every conceivable combination. It should be noted that this figure does not include streets that run continuously from one quadrant to another without their suffix changing. Because these 14 streets exist entirely within a quadrant that their name doesn’t reflect, I call these Atlanta’s exclave streets.
While noting the existence of these deviations from the norm is one thing, figuring out why they are the way they are is another. If not all streets have to have a directional suffix attached to them, why have we given a few handfuls worth of streets suffixes that don’t actually correspond to their location within the quadrant system? If the same street changes names on either side of the quadrant boundary, why do we need the quadrants to differentiate things for us? Answering those questions is going to have to be a job for somebody else though… I’m just the guy who makes maps!
Over the past week, the AJC has been running an excellent multi-part investigation of the housing conditions at some of Atlanta’s most notoriously dilapidated complexes, broadening out from the case of the now-condemned Forest Cove Apartments. While the whole situation is infuriating, I was particularly taken with the second part of the series investigating the absentee slumlord Ben Beroukhai, who lives in the lap of luxury in Beverly Hills while extracting rents from poor tenants in Atlanta’s historically marginalized Black neighborhoods on the south and west sides. Like so many landlords, Beroukhai has acted with impunity, receiving over 100 criminal violations in a single complaint with no punishment whatsoever, while people living on the streets are arrested and thrown in jail for the crime of simply existing. But what struck me the most about the AJC’s reporting is how this is a tale as old as time (and one I’ve done research on before!), where the enrichment of people like Ben Beroukhai and places like Beverly Hills comes at the expense of poor renters in Atlanta whose paychecks go to fund someone else’s gaudy house and luxury cars.
Ben Beroukhai is just one of many absentee landlords who extract financial resources from the city and its poorest residents in exchange for often shoddy, unlivable housing, all while being aided and abetted by local officials and judges who will almost always side with landlords rather than tenants. So while putting Beroukhai’s properties in their geographic context is one thing, thinking about the broader geographies of absentee landlordism in Atlanta can help us shift from thinking about this as a problem of ‘one bad apple’ to realizing just how pervasive these forms of speculation and exploitation are, and how other people and places are able to profit off of the immiseration of Atlanta’s residents and neighborhoods.
The first step in our analysis was identifying all the multi-family residential properties across Fulton County with 16 or more living units within them. Unfortunately this was limited to Fulton County and not the entire City of Atlanta or the surrounding metro area, due to the fact that Fulton County is the only one of the core metro counties that makes the necessary data available as part of their property parcel database (hint, hint other counties!). This filtering yielded a total of 996 different parcels across the county, which are visible as orange dots in the map up above. These properties are collectively home to over 150,000 total units and $20 billion in appraised value.
But splicing those thousand or so large multi-family buildings based on their ownership geographies tells us a more complicated story. Looking only at those absentee-owned complexes – defined somewhat conservatively here as those with listed owner addresses outside the state of Georgia – we can see just how much property these landlords control and how much value they’re able to extract from tenants across the city. Of the larger set mentioned above, 471 parcels totaling 94,042 units and $14,010,136,612 in appraised value are owned by people or corporations based outside of the state. While those 471 parcels represent only 47.3% of the unique large multi-family parcels in the dataset, they represent a disproportionate share of the total number of housing units and appraised value, at 61.6% and 67.8% respectively. So even though the more locally-based multi-family landlords own more properties in total, it is the absentee landlords who are able to influence (often negatively) the lives of tenants actually living in their complexes to a much greater degree.
The trio of maps below show these relationships of power extending out from Atlanta to the places where these properties are owned. The lines on the map connect the locations of the properties in question with the places where they are owned, highlighting the fundamental connection between the sites of exploitation and the people and places that profit from it. The circles on each map symbolize the aggregate number of absentee-owned parcels, housing units and appraised value per metropolitan statistical area, highlighting which places across the country (and beyond!) the wealth and resources extracted from Atlanta end up flowing to.
While the country’s largest metro areas – New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago – tend to have the largest concentrations across all three metrics, there are some interesting anomalies in the data. The final map below represents one effort to highlight some of these anomalies. In this map, each of the three variables are shown as proportional circles simultaneously. In effect, how spaced out or clustered the three rings are for a given metro area indicates the relationship between them for a given area. If the three rings are more tightly clustered, they show a relative parity across the three variables; if they are more spaced out, they indicate a disproportionate relationship, with one value for that place punching above its expected weight. For example, if the red ring is considerably more spaced out from the others, it would indicate that the properties owned by absentee landlords in that place are more valuable on average than one would expect based on the total number of parcels and units contained within them. This disproportionate relationship is even more true when the order of the rings gets inverted, with the either the green or blue rings being the outermost ring rather than the red ring representing appraised value.
Though it doesn’t take living halfway across the country to exploit one’s tenants, these dynamics of absenteeism across Atlanta’s large multi-family complexes highlights a troubling fact: what wealth and resources could be saved by some of the city’s poorest families are instead being shipped out-of-state to wealthy individuals and large corporations with no connections or obligations to the city except for their financial dependence on Atlanta’s most marginalized residents, who we’ve unfortunately done so very little to help or protect.
In a recent piece in The Architectural Review, Marianela D’Aprile examines the significance of one ever-proliferating element of our collective urban landscapes: the self-storage facility. D’Aprile draws a parallel between self storage units and luxury condos, another use of urban space that’s largely devoid of human life, and yet similarly important for the functioning of capitalist urbanization. Even though neither is meant for actual human habitation, their importance comes in their ability to store either one’s excess wealth or excess material belongings. As D’Aprile writes:
“Practically speaking, storage units hold items for people during times of transition: relocating to a different city, changing homes following a break-up or a divorce, a loved one’s death. These things, of course, happen to almost everyone, so these facilities seem to fill a nearly universal need.”
Despite filling a nearly universal need, I suspected that this need isn’t met in a geographically universal way. Indeed, thanks to another recent piece from RentCafe that I came across more or less at the same time, my hunch was confirmed.
As the table below shows, the geography of self storage space varies quite dramatically from place-to-place, and that’s true even when looking at just the top 10 metro areas. Part way down the table, you can see that Atlanta already ranks as one of the nation’s leading metros when it comes to self storage space. Atlanta already ranks 8th nationally with nearly 40 million square feet of self storage space in inventory, with another 3.5 million planned or under construction as of March 2022, a figure which ranks us 7th nationally.
MSAs by Population Total Population (2020) MSAs by Total Storage Space Inventory Total Inventory (by sq ft) MSAs by Storage Space Under Construction Planned Storage Space (by sq ft) #1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 20,140,470 #1 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 71,668,813 #1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 11,863,734 #2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 13,200,998 #2 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 71,653,718 #2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 6,324,477 #3 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 9,618,502 #3 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 68,285,797 #3 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 5,378,565 #4 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 7,637,387 #4 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 67,915,312 #4 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 4,629,836 #5 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 7,122,240 #5 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 48,456,168 #5 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 3,963,007 #6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 6,385,162 #6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 45,634,594 #6 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 3,852,158 #7 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 6,245,051 #7 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 40,311,628 #7 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 3,541,086 #8 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA 6,089,815 #8 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA 39,826,205 #8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 3,006,318 #9 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 6,138,333 #9 Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ 35,663,505 #9 Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV 2,698,725 #10 Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ 4,845,832 #10 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 33,753,663 #10 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 2,608,456
While there’s a pretty close connection between self storage space and population that makes Atlanta’s top 10 ranking unsurprising, these metro-level rankings make it clear that the geography of storing our stuff doesn’t actually match up neatly with where people are as a whole. And while part of RentCafe’s analysis breaks down the siting of these new storage facilities by urban vs. suburban locales – with Atlanta’s recent construction heavily tilted towards urban centers rather than our sprawling suburbs – their analysis doesn’t give us any more granular of a look at the geography of self storage and what it might mean.
So using data from the artist formerly known as ReferenceUSA, I collected data on all the businesses in the Atlanta metro area that are primarily coded under the NAICS heading for “Lessors of Miniwarehouses and Self-Storage Units”. This yielded a total of 854 different locations. While just the four largest brands – Public Storage (113 locations), Extra Space Storage (100 locations), Life Storage (56 locations) and Cubesmart Self Storage (51 locations) – account for a significant percentage of this total, the majority of these 800+ self storage facilities don’t seem to be associated with a larger chain or brand.
After cleaning the dataset by deleting 61 locations without an exact location, I aggregated the remaining 793 locations to a uniform hexagonal grid spread across the metro area, representing the density of self storage facilities as proportionally sized hexagons on the map you can see below.
Based solely on the location of these storage facilities, it’s evident that despite the seemingly universal need for such places, this demand is met more in some parts of the city than others. Most of these storage spaces are located in the metro’s core counties, especially concentrated along some of the key highways and thoroughfares, with relatively few in the furthest reaches of the suburbs. Even though the difference isn’t absolute, there is also an obvious divide in the clustering between the predominantly white and predominantly Black parts of the Atlanta metro, with many fewer located in the southwestern parts of the city and surrounding counties that tend to have much larger Black populations.
While we as humans of course require some number of material objects to live, and especially to live comfortably, the proliferation of places for our things to live in the absence of affordable places for actual people to live suggest there’s a fundamental imbalance between the two; between how space is being utilized, who it is being utilized by and for. The structure of our society and economy is such that it makes more sense to devote tens of millions of square feet of space to store peoples’ things rather than actually create spaces where people can live with their things in a safe and healthy home.
Last summer, my parents made the trip to Atlanta to visit me for the first time since I’d moved here in the midst of the pandemic. In an effort to avoid either sitting at home the entire time or going out and exposing ourselves to COVID, we spent a lot of time driving around the city and looking at things from the car window. As is probably completely common for anyone not from around here, my dad almost immediately remarked upon the repetition of the word “peach” in the names of streets, businesses and nearly everything else across the city’s landscape. Putting my geographer hat on (the real question is whether I ever take it off!), I wondered whether this phenomena was universal, or whether there was something unique about the distribution of these peach names?
In an effort to answer this question authoritatively, I used the USGS National Transportation Dataset for the state of Georgia to identify all streets, roads and highways across the state that included the word “peach” in their name. These are what I call Georgia’s “Peach Streets”. After accounting for divided highways or parkways that duplicate the mileage for a given road, I calculate that the state of Georgia is home to approximately 217.5 total miles of Peach Streets.
But, as I suspected might be the case, these Peach Streets aren’t evenly distributed across all 159 of Georgia’s counties. While most of the state’s counties have at least one Peach Street, they are usually extremely short and less than a mile in length. Meanwhile, just the top five counties listed below are home to over half of the state’s total Peach Street mileage. Metro Atlanta counties like Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb, which rank #1, #2 and #4 statewide in total mileage of Peach Streets, are home not only to numerous Peach Streets each – the 20 county Atlanta region famously has 71 different streets with some variation of the name Peachtree – but also individual Peach Streets that stretch a dozen or more miles on their own.
#1. Gwinnett 39.13 miles #2. Fulton 29.32 miles #3. Richmond 16.47 miles #4. DeKalb 15.45 miles #5. Forsyth 14.60 miles Top 5 Counties by Total Mileage of Peach Streets
Conspicuously absent from the Top 5 Counties is Peach County in central Georgia, which has just the 6th most miles of Peach Streets in the state, despite being named after peaches itself! As is true for many counties across the state, nearly all of Peach County’s 11 miles of Peach Streets are concentrated on a single road, in this case the roughly 9.5 miles of Peach Parkway that run across the county. Third-ranked Richmond and fifth-ranked Forsyth counties have a similar dynamic, with almost all of their total mileage being made up by Peach Orchard Road and Peachtree Parkway, respectively.
Despite Fulton County ranking second in total mileage of Peach Streets across the state, it’s really the City of Atlanta pulling most of the weight for the county. Nearly 22 of the 29 total miles of Peach Streets in Fulton County actually lie within Atlanta’s city limits. If we were to separate out the city from the surrounding county, Atlanta proper would rank second statewide behind only Gwinnett County, which sits far out in the lead thanks to the 23.5 miles of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard that run diagonally across the length of the county.
All that being said, it’s important to note that for all the concentration of Peach Street mileage in a handful counties, a number of Georgia counties have no Peach Streets whatsoever! Indeed, of the Peach State’s 159 counties, 45 (or nearly 30%) have no streets named after peaches at all. So while we can’t be entirely sure the reason why so many places have a dearth of Peach Streets, their absence casts some doubt on just how peachy things are across the Peach State.