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Assembling the Single-Family Rental Market: Post-Crisis Geographies of Financialization in the U.S. 

Desiree Fields, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield 

February 18th, 2015 - The Treehouse, Berrick Saul Building 4:15-5:30

The representation of bank-repossessed properties littering the U.S. urban landscape has shifted rapidly over the past few years:  once distressed assets, these homes now constitute a desirable new institutional asset class. Since 2011, large investors have acquired nearly 400,000 foreclosed properties, capitalizing on low property values and surging post-crisis rental demand by converting formerly owner-occupied properties to rental housing. This paper examines the assemblage of discourses, practices, and technologies constituting distressed-as-desirable assets, as well as the emergence of counter-discourses that seek to problematize this representation.

New corporate landlords mobilize discourses of “improving community” by stimulating local economies, stabilizing property values, and meeting contemporary housing needs. Investors’ practices of large-scale, fast-paced property acquisition have opened up a pipeline for new financial products: corporate landlords have rolled out more than a dozen rental securitizations since late 2013. At the same time, technologies are central to securing the representation of distressed-as-desirable assets. Corporate landlords rely on proprietary software and algorithms to bid on and acquire properties, collect rent and manage property maintenance for geographically dispersed portfolios, and to continuously evaluate and manage their investments. 

Thus properties once devalued by the spectacular bust of the global real estate bubble are being selectively re-valued as they are incorporated into new regimes of financial accumulation. However, counter-discourses from activists, housing advocates, and policymakers also point to the incomplete and therefore contestable nature of distressed-as-desirable assets. This paper concludes by reflecting on the potential for fracturing the careful alignment of discourses, practices, and technologies that have brought forth this representation of housing.