Shadowy McMansion owners

A letter to the editor in the New York Times suggests McMansions owned by shell companies are a big problem:

Your article on shell companies and real estate highlights a phenomenon not unique to ultra-wealthy areas of Los Angeles. Real estate purchases using the cover of limited liability companies are a significant issue in the San Gabriel Valley in eastern Los Angeles County, where McMansions owned by L.L.C.s sit empty as middle-class home buyers are priced out, unable to compete against those flush with foreign money from unknown and undisclosed sources.

New York, San Francisco, London and Vancouver are also experiencing this influx. In the United States, real estate brokers and agents are not required to comply with customer due diligence and know your customer mandates that banks and many non-bank institutions must follow.

This kind of argument makes McMansions seem even worse then they are typically depicted: they are owned by shadowy wealthy people who don’t care about the normal resident who just needs somewhere to live. The problem with this letter is that it doesn’t provide good data on how many homes actually fall into this category. Wealthy, culturally significant cities like the ones listed above – LA, NYC, San Francisco, London, Vancouver – do attract foreign investors (particularly Chinese investors recently in Vancouver and the LA area) but major cities tend to like this: it keeps new capital flowing into local coffers and it fuels the high-end construction industry (see Miami or London or New York).

In contrast, it is pretty clear that most major American cities don’t really want to talk about affordable housing and/or aren’t willing to do much about it. Affordable housing is needed in many major cities, particularly those along the coasts. Part of the reason McMansions exist in the first place is that Americans were willing to move further out from the city to buy a bigger house (and this has to with state policies and residential preferences to avoid urban life and non-whites). The resources that it takes to construct McMansions in the suburbs could be harnessed to build smaller urban units or at least denser suburban units (see these recent ideas to use the materials from McMansions or to subdivide McMansions into multiple units) but few governments want to mess with the single-family home market and few builders or developers want to limit their profits.

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