2022 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

Security for Sale


About the Project

We started reporting this story in November 2021 after real estate sources told us that corporate landlords were changing Charlotte. We immediately began hearing stories about how these institutional investors, armed with piles of Wall Street cash, were hoovering up single-family homes, pricing out traditional homebuyers and charging premium rent to tenants. We quickly found that their business model, visible in SEC filings and their leases, was designed to squeeze every drop of profit out of their houses and tenants.

What we didn’t know was the scale of the industry in North Carolina. So we dove into data to identify the biggest corporate landlords and their most common subsidiaries, which we linked using naming conventions, corporate mailing addresses and company officials listed in business formation documents, along with other state filings. We used that list to create a machine learning model to find other name variations. We supplemented our list of subsidiaries and holding companies with data from other sources, including UNC-Charlotte Urban Institute, MIT researchers, court eviction proceedings, state utility records and the nonprofit OpenCorporates.

By unraveling the true ownership of hundreds of subsidiaries and holding companies, we identified the largest single-family landlords. With that, we used county-level and statewide property records databases to count how many homes these companies owned across North Carolina, a figure not previously known. We discovered that about 20 corporate landlords owned more than 40,000 houses in North Carolina, including a quarter of the rental homes in the Charlotte area.

Once we knew the scale, we wanted to decipher how these businesses work and affect people in our communities. Our reporting turned up neighborhoods where the companies owned a majority of houses; first-time homebuyers without a hope of competing against Wall Street money; a new financial instrument created by these investment firms to rake in more money; and tenants living in filth because their landlords prioritized profits over people. We documented the industry’s local origin story during the Great Recession by tracking changes on deeds from one subdivision. That made plain how the federal government unleashed the industry by changing rules to allow investors to scoop up many foreclosed residential properties at one time.

On May 1, we published the first installment of a three-day series called Security for Sale. In addition to all described above, we reported that local and state officials, despite receiving complaints, do nothing to constrain the industry. In fact, the state pension plan is an enabler, having invested millions in the industry’s rental-backed securities. Other stories explained tenants’ rights and the fragility of local governments’ strategy of depending on homeowners associations to slow the industry’s growth.

Transparency was at the core of this project. Upon publication, we made both our methodology and the data powering our investigation public to allow journalists, researchers and the public to investigate corporate homeownership themselves. We’ve also published a detailed toolkit with resources and walkthroughs to help journalists use our data and code to replicate our investigation for their own cities and states.