Is it good for suburban neighborhoods for foreclosed homes to be purchased by private-equity funds who want to rent them out?

Some neighborhoods are facing a new dilemma: how to respond to private-equity firms purchasing and fixing up foreclosed homes and then renting them out.

Similar scenarios and concerns are unfolding across Chicago and in other markets hard-hit by the housing crisis. Well-capitalized, out-of-town private equity funds are scouring neighborhoods, paying cash for distressed single-family homes and renting them out. The opportunities are plentiful, enabling investment groups to profit from low home prices, rising rents and an increase in the number of potential renters.

The transactions are returning vacant properties to active use. But they also are stoking fears among neighbors and municipalities about the long-term effect of large, private investors — including many that are operating under the radar — in their communities.

“This scares the hell out of me,” said Ed Jacob, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago Inc. “In this rush to say this is a new asset class, are we creating the next community development problem?…

The general strategy of the companies is the same: buy low, make the necessary upgrades, fill them with tenants and then sell the homes in three to seven years. With companies and analysts anticipating projected returns of at least 8 percent, there also is talk of creating publicly traded real estate investment trusts.

This presents quite an issue for suburbanites worried about property values (which is a top-level concern). Foreclosures are not good for a neighborhood. They tend to drag down sales prices for homes with residents because investors or buyers can try to get the foreclosures for cheaper. Foreclosures may not be maintained well so the yard and exterior appearance can suffer. Suburbanites fear such homes might also fall prey to more criminal activity.

On the other hand, renters are not typically viewed positively in single-family home suburban subdivisions. Renters are perceived to be more transient, not as concerned about the property itself or the neighborhood. Renters can be viewed as a different class of people, meaning people who don’t have the resources to settle down and buy a home. Renting might mean absentee or less-involved landlords who might still let the property become run-down.

What is the long-term verdict? I think rentals make sense in a lot of suburban neighborhoods. Without buyers willing to pay good money for homes, it is better for a community to have people consistently in the homes than to have series of foreclosures. The situation could be made a lot better if the landlords and/or rental investors are good landlords who make efforts to help the neighborhood. As the article notes, different communities can also look into the matter and see how they want to respond. I would guess most communities and neighbors hope the rental properties again become owned homes but this will take some time for housing prices to climb again.

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