Conditions right for Pittsburgh to be a “house-flipping hotspot”

Pittsburgh is home to a lot of profitable house flipping activity:

Today, old industrial cities such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland are among those offering the greatest returns. They have struggled to recover from the recession, but now are beginning to attract tech firms, such as Google-parent Alphabet Inc, Uber Technologies Inc, and Amazon.com Inc.

The influx of new workers is boosting demand for urban homes in areas that have some of the oldest housing stock in the nation and not much new construction, creating richer opportunities for flippers than in Las Vegas or Miami at the height of the housing boom more than a decade ago…

In Pittsburgh, home flippers made a gross profit of 162.7 percent on average during the second quarter of this year, while in Buffalo, the average gross return came in at 107.5 percent, according to ATTOM data. Nationally, the average house-flipper earned a 44.3 percent gross return on investment this year, compared with the 35.3 percent during the boom…

“Pittsburgh’s housing market was under-invested in for 40 or 50 years,” said Aaron Terrazas, senior economist at real estate listing firm Zillow. “The housing stock in the urban core of these cities requires substantial investments to update these older homes and bring them up to modern living standards.”

There are plenty of Rust Belt cities that would want in on this action. Do you think political and business leaders in places like Syracuse or Milwaukee or Lansing wouln’t salivate over the prospect?

But, it sounds like Pittsburgh could be a unique place. Certain conditions were in place:

  1. An influx of tech workers. Pittsburgh has a university and research base that not all Rust Belt cities can draw on. Everyone wants part of the tech industry but how many cities, particularly struggling ones, can attract significant numbers of tech employees?
  2. Relatively cheap homes. Many Rust Belt cities have this.
  3. An attractive urban core. In addition to jobs, a vibrant city or neighborhood scene could go a long way to attracting new workers and residents.
  4. While the article mentions concerns about residents being priced out of their own neighborhoods, I assume leaders in Pittsburgh are at least okay with the house flipping activity if not outright encouraging it. A “favorable business climate” could signal to developers and investors that the city wants redevelopment and is okay with seeking profits. This does not even account for the moves local leaders may have made to encourage the growth of the tech industry.

In other words, if the conditions change in Pittsburgh – such as there are fewer cheaper houses to make money on – it is not guaranteed that house flippers will simply move on to the next Rust Belt city with cheap housing.

Why are 62 acres so close to Chicago’s Loop even available?

There has been a lot of talk about a new project on 62 acres on the Chicago River just south of the Loop. Before we get to what will go there, why was such a big piece of property empty near one of the major centers of the world?

The South Loop property was used as a rail yard, but has sat unused for decades.

The scraggly land was later owned by Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser for imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich who himself served a prison sentence after a fraud and money laundering conviction. The site was sold 10 years ago to Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding, a firm led by Iraqi-born and British-based businessman Nadhmi Auchi. He was convicted in a French corruption scandal in 2003.

Last May, Related completed a city-approved deal to take over as lead developer, with Auchi’s firm remaining a joint venture partner.

From the city’s perspective, Related’s involvement brought credibility to the long-idle site. Related Midwest is an affiliate of New York-based Related Cos., which is building 18 million square feet in the Hudson Yards mixed-used development in Manhattan.

One thing that is striking about Chicago and some other Rust Belt cities is the amount of available or empty property. In particular, Chicago’s South Side has a number of large parcels including this site along the Chicago River, land southwest of McCormick Place with some small developments here and there, land on the Robert Taylor Homes site with a few buildings here and there, and the former US Steel site (and subject to a number of proposals in recent years – see the latest here) plus numerous empty or vacant properties scattered throughout neighborhoods. Even while development booms in certain neighborhoods (and the city trumpets the work taking place in the Loop), others have significant chunks of empty land.

The why: these properties are often available in poorer or more industrial neighborhoods and the properties are often located in or close to areas with higher concentrations of black residents. In other words, these properties are not desirable, even at cheap prices (such as $1 properties in Chicago), and the desirability is connected to the status of the location and the status of places in the United States is closely related to race and class. This particular 62 acres is a great example of how uneven development works; those who want to build (leaders and developers/those in the real estate industry) usually do so in order to profit as much as possible. Now, this 62 acre site is more desirable (meaning profitable) because the South Loop has done well in recent years and there are other new developments nearby.

Chicago’s population decline masked by Mexican immigration

Amid news that the Chicago region led the country in population loss during 2015 comes this reminder of how Chicago has bolstered its population in recent decades:

More than any other city, Chicago has depended on Mexican immigrants to balance the sluggish growth of its native-born population, said Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer who advises nonprofits and community groups. During the 1990s, immigration accounted for most of Chicago’s population growth. The number of Mexican immigrants rose by 117,000 in Chicago that decade, making up 105 percent of all growth, according to data gathered by Paral’s firm, Rob Paral and Associates.

After 2007, falling Mexican-born populations became a trend across the country’s major metropolitan areas. But most of those cities were able to make up for the loss with the growth of their native populations, Paral said. Chicago couldn’t.

Chicago is often held up as a shining example of a Rust Belt city that survived and thrived – but this may have had less to do with grand building projects or powerful mayors or a prominent international presence and more with continuing to be a center for immigration.

Exodus of black residents from Chicago’s South Side

A long-time resident of Chicago’s South Side discusses the movement of black residents to other locations:

For South Side residents, the writing has been on the wall. Starting as a slow trickle into the suburbs as industrial jobs began drying up in the 1970s, black flight increased in the 2000s, with blacks seeking the suburbs like never before — as well as places like Georgia, Florida or Texas, according to U.S. Census data.

The population shift has folks like myself, left behind on the South Side, feeling like life after the rapture, with relatives, good friends and classmates vanishing and their communities shattering. A recent study found that nearly half of the city’s African-American men between 20 and 24 were unemployed or not attending college…

Every senseless death, every random shooting and every bullet-riddled weekend means another family, another frightened parent must make the decision to stay or go.

Those of us left behind must deal with the aftershocks: lessening political clout, limited public services and the creep of poverty and crime into neighborhoods like South Shore and Auburn-Gresham.

Even as some trumpet the demographic inversion of metropolitan areas other research suggests poor neighborhoods, particularly in Rust Belt cities, can often slowly lose residents. On one side, there is a lot of attention paid to whiter and wealthier residents moving into urban cores and hip neighborhoods while on the other side, little attention is granted to disadvantaged neighborhoods. In some of these neighborhoods, it is remarkable just how much open space there can be as buildings decay and few people clamor to move in (think of Detroit and its urban prairies as an example).

Even affluent Chicago neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park, have lost significant numbers of residents

Rust Belt cities like Chicago have declined in population since the mid-1900s and the population loss is not just limited to poorer neighborhoods:

For a long time, most accounts of Chicago’s lagging population have focused on parts of the South and West Sides where many residents, largely African-American, have decided to decamp for the suburbs or the South in search of better schools, less crime, and more jobs.But the under-appreciated flip side of population loss in those parts of the city is that places that ought to be growing like gangbusters are stagnant, often sitting 25% to 50% below their peak populations. Lakeview, for example, was once home to 124,000 people; its population is now 94,000. North Center is down from nearly 49,000 to under 32,000. West Town, which includes Wicker Park and Bucktown, has fallen from 187,000 to 81,000.

Decline5010

What explains the population loss in even popular neighborhoods? Here is one possible answer:

Since replacing a couple two-flats with a courtyard building is now illegal, developers make money by tearing down an old two-flat and building a luxury two-flat in its place. Or they build a mansion, and the neighborhood actually loses a housing unit. As a result, as a neighborhood becomes more attractive, the city encourages fewer people to live there.

Zoning (theoretically based on improving the neighborhood) plus chasing profits may just lead to population loss. This could be balanced out by approving more high-density housing in a particular area (like the Loop are in specific portions of popular neighborhoods as to limit their effect) but that leads to major changes in two places.

It is still worth noting that the areas that seen an increase in population are either (1) the Loop with a reemphasis on residential construction and (2) community areas on the edges of the city which other lower densities as well as potentially more open land since 1950.

Rust Belt cities look to attract immigrants to help turn things around

Rust Belt cities have struggled for decades but are now welcoming seeking out immigrants:

Other struggling cities are trying to restart growth by luring enterprising immigrants, both highly skilled workers and low-wage laborers. In the Midwest, similar initiatives have begun in Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Lansing, Mich., as well as Detroit, as it strives to rise out of bankruptcy. In June, officials from those cities and others met in Detroit to start a common network.

“We want to get back to the entrepreneurial spirit that immigrants bring,” said Richard Herman, a lawyer in Cleveland who advises cities on ideas for development based on immigration.

The new welcome for immigrants reflects a broader shift in public opinion, polls show, as the country leaves behind the worst of the recession. More Americans agree that immigrants, even some in the country illegally, can help the economy, giving impetus to Congressional efforts to overhaul an immigration system that many say is broken.

Concerns about uncontrolled illegal immigration, which produced strict curbs in Arizona and other parts of the country, have not been an issue in Dayton. Officials here say their goal is to invite legal immigrants. But they make no effort to pursue residents without legal status, if they are otherwise law-abiding.

Read on for more information on what happened in Dayton, Ohio which has welcomed thousands of Turkish immigrants. This will be worth watching in the long run.

Three other thoughts:

1. The article doesn’t say much about this but recent immigration debates have been marked by two opposites: more opposition to less educated and skilled immigrants and more interest in educated, wealthier immigrants. Perhaps it doesn’t matter much in Dayton.

2. A student asked me recently where Middle Easterners fit into typical American definitions of race and ethnicity. For example, where do they fit in Census categories? The article suggests the immigrant residents haven’t encountered much opposition in Dayton but they do occupy an unknown sort of racial and ethnic space. (Also see discussions in Europe about Turkish immigrants as well as whether Turkey should be allowed in the European Union.)

3. This article hints at a broader reality: population growth in plenty of places, including a number of suburbs as well as the United States as a whole, has depended heavily on immigration.

Three possible reasons why the harsh national spotlight is on Chicago

Whet Moser proposes three reasons Chicago has received negative attention recently from the national media:

It’s a big, easy target. Chicago’s “Big Shoulders” image—it was the city that “built the American dream,” to use the historian Thomas Dyja’s words—makes any fall from that perch seem that much more momentous. “We were the future,” says the Northwestern professor Bill Savage.

The Obama factor. Chicago’s problems never used to be much of a national story (unless a governor got indicted). But after a skinny Chicagoan became president—a man whose team has included a Daley, our current mayor, and one of the country’s most powerful political advisers—the light of press attention shone more brightly. “When you look at what’s wrong [with the country],” says Savage, “you look at Chicago.”

It’s our turn. In the 1970s, New York City “was collapsing,” the Reader media critic Michael Miner points out. “The Summer of Sam, ‘Ford to New York: Drop Dead.’?” When Los Angeles hit hard times in the early 1990s, it “was just as much of a [media] whipping boy,” says Savage. Chicago is a logical third. It will be somebody else’s turn soon enough. Prepare yourself, Houston (which is projected to surpass Chicago in population by 2030): You may be next.

Some thoughts about each of these proposed reasons:

#1: Out of the three reasons listed above, I find this one the least plausible. Yes, Chicago was once the new American city (see the late 1800s) but it has been eclipsed by Los Angeles (perhaps Hollywood and the generally glitter of the city limits negative attention?) and Chicago has been suffering from the same kinds of problems as today (loss of manufacturing jobs, poverty, crime, inequality) since at least the 1970s if not all the way back in the early 1900s with the Black Belt and immigrant experience. Chicago may have once been the future (also see the 1893 Columbian Exposition) but that future disappeared a long time ago (and perhaps Chicagoans hold on to that 1893 fair a little too closely as well). This might be a longer story about Chicago representing the problems of the Rust Belt – a cycle of loss, rebirth (1990-2006 or so in Chicago), then problems again – than about the loss of a future.

#2: Chicago has never had a president so linked to the city. And, while Obama spent much of his adult life in Chicago, he isn’t originally from the city. While the Daleys are well known, their rule was much more provincial.

#3: This suggests that such negative attention is cyclical, either because different cities experience trouble at different times or there is a sort of revolving set of cities that receive attention. Houston might be next if people first learn about its growth and changes.

Plus, has Chicago received more negative attention recently than Detroit?