Absentee Exploitation

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.

Map of Ben Beroukhai’s six properties in Fulton County, as highlighted in yellow. Orange dots represent all absentee-owned large multi-family apartment complexed in Fulton County.

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.

Maps visualizing the relational dynamics of absentee ownership of Atlanta’s large multi-family apartment complexes, showing concentrations of (a) total number of parcels owned, (b) total number of units owned, and (c) total appraised value, aggregated to the level of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).

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.

Map visualizing the relationship between total number of parcels, total number of housing units and total appraised value at the MSA level. The more spaced out the rings are indicates a disproportionality between the variables.

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.

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