The Blackstone rebellion: how one country took on the world’s biggest commercial landlord [Private equity | The Guardian]

Blackstone is the largest commercial landlord in history. Over the past two decades, it has quietly taken control of apartment blocks, care homes, student housing, railway arches, film studios, offices, hotels, logistics warehouses and datacentres. Blackstone doesn’t just own real estate, it owns everything – or that’s how it can feel when you start to examine its bewildering array of assets. If you wear Spanx, have ever matched with someone on Bumble, stayed in a Hilton hotel or a CentreParcs resort, visited Legoland, Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon or an elderly relative at a Southern Cross care home, you have encountered a company that forms, or has recently formed, part of the Blackstone empire.

The New York headquarters of Blackstone are located in a skyscraper on Park Avenue. Every Monday, the firm’s founder Steve Schwarzman and chief operating officer Jon Gray gather with senior partners around a large conference table on the 31st floor to discuss investment memos sent the previous week by teams in the company’s 26 offices in the US, Europe and Asia. It’s here that Blackstone’s investment decisions are made. Last year, the company invested $270bn, bringing the total value of the assets it manages to $881bn, slightly more than the gross domestic product of Switzerland, and more than twice that of Denmark. The Monday meeting resembles an intense seminar whose participants zero in on the weaknesses in proposals that pass before them. Some investments can return to this table three or four times for approval before they’re ultimately killed.

Blackstone is an asset manager, a type of private financial firm that invests the wealth of pension funds and insurance companies. It is not to be confused with BlackRock, an asset management firm founded by Larry Fink, who worked for Blackstone in the 1980s and set up its bond-investment business. In 1994, BlackRock became an independent firm and Blackstone sold its shares in the company. Fink and Schwarzman now work on opposite sides of Park Avenue. Fink’s company dwarfs Blackstone, but when it comes to property, Blackstone is the giant. Its $320bn real estate portfolio is more than six times larger than that of BlackRock. “For Blackstone, real estate is the goose that lays the golden egg,” Brett Christophers, a professor of geography and author of a forthcoming book about the asset management industry, told me.

In the 2000s, Blackstone’s real estate division was known for buying up office spaces and hotels. Now, it seems to prefer life-science laboratories and warehouses rented out to last-mile delivery firms. But it is Blackstone’s interest in another type of real estate that has attracted the most scrutiny. In recent years, it has become known for creating a profitable asset class from residential properties – in other words, buying up homes. Unlike warehouses or office blocks, the principal revenue source in rental homes are the people who live in them. Although Blackstone insists that its top priority is providing a good service, the finance industry’s expectation of increasing returns can seem at odds with the interests of tenants.

In the years before the pandemic, the company presented its “conviction themes” – the areas where it plans to invest – to its largest shareholders at an annual investor meeting. (This event used to be held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan, which Blackstone used to own.) “It was like drinking from a firehose in the world of real estate,” Anil Khera, a former managing director at Blackstone in London, told me of one meeting at the Waldorf. “You could be talking about shopping centres in Shanghai one minute, offices in Seattle the next minute. In that room, you’d probably be more informed about what was happening in the world of real estate than in any other room on the planet.”

When Blackstone buys a building – say, an office block in London – employees are dispatched to “walk the asset”, considering its size and location, ceiling height, ventilation, natural light, transport links, the number of lunch spots nearby, how many students, creatives and computer programmers are moving to the area and what other businesses are located there. After employees have visited the site and combed through its paperwork, they gather with colleagues from the firm’s American, European and Asian offices to review and “socialise” the proposed deal. The final step is to secure approval from the real estate investment committee at its Monday meeting. For major acquisitions, senior leaders will fly in from New York to walk the space if they are not yet convinced by its commercial appeal.

This methodical, even cautious, approach to investing has yielded big rewards. Today, the name of Blackstone’s founder can be seen on universities and public institutions across the US. There is a Stephen Schwarzman building at the New York Public Library, a Schwarzman centre at Yale University and the Schwarzman College of Computing in Massachusetts. Soon, the University of Oxford will open the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, funded by the largest single donation it has ever received. Yet, beyond the inscription of its founder’s name into buildings and brass plaques, Blackstone is shaping the cities around us in a more profound way.

Blackstone founder Steve Schwarzman in 2019. Photograph: Gary He/Reuters

The company has acquired houses and apartments at a voracious speed in cities around the world. Like any company, Blackstone is focused on creating returns for its investors. Residents in some Blackstone properties have accused it of raising rents while reducing overheads, and the company has even been blamed – by an adviser to the United Nations – of helping to fuel the global housing crisis. (Blackstone vehemently denies these accusations and has previously said that the UN adviser’s findings included “numerous false claims, significant factual errors and inaccurate conclusions”.)

In most places where it began to buy up residential properties, Blackstone faced little opposition from governments or politicians. That is, until it arrived in a small Scandinavian country, which, when confronted with the indifferent force of this global real estate company, decided Blackstone had gone too far. “Blackstone was like a boxer walking into a heavy right-hand hook to the jaw,” Curt Liliegreen, a Danish housing economist, told me. “They didn’t see it coming. They picked totally the wrong place.”

Blackstone started making major investments in homes shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, when tantalising new opportunities emerged. The cheap credit that rolled across the world in the years before the financial crisis had allowed people to momentarily live out a dream. In the US, they bought sprawling houses that they could no longer afford once the carousel stopped. In Spain, where Blackstone would also set its sights, the entire country got drunk on the GDP growth that flowed from its bloated construction sector. In both places, a real estate bubble was sustained by nothing more than an expectation that property prices would continue to rise. When they started to fall, the results were catastrophic. But not for Blackstone.

Before 2008, major real estate investors had focused on the places where people worked or shopped. After the financial crisis, the industry started eyeing up the places where people lived. In the US, as more and more people found themselves unable to pay their mortgages, thousands of houses became available at discounted prices. In spring 2012, Blackstone dispatched employees to hoover up such properties. It founded a subsidiary, Invitation Homes, to manage its new kingdom of houses, which spanned from Seattle to Atlanta.

“We were very particular about the assets we were buying,” Alexandra Thur, a former equity partner who joined Invitation Homes before the company even had a name or email address, told me. The firm looked for two- or three-bedroom houses in sunnier climes where an economic recovery seemed more likely. It avoided struggling cities such as Detroit or Cleveland. Invitation Homes hired local agents who knew every detail about the neighbourhood, right down to whether a street had a “weird church” or a rundown shopping parade on it, Thur recalled. Soon, the company was spending as much as $125m on houses every week.

Not everyone was thrilled with their new landlord. Some people who lived in Invitation Homes’ properties told journalists that it had hiked rents, seemed to scrimp on maintenance costs and imposed punitive fees on tenants. The company’s business model appeared to depend on maximising rent and fees while reducing the cost of maintenance. In this dispassionate equation, tenants seemed to be the ones who lost out. Some complained of black widow spider infestations, floods of raw sewage and plumbing leaks. Despite this, the federal government gave Blackstone’s business model a seal of approval. In 2017, Fannie Mae, a government-sponsored mortgage lender, even acted as the guarantor for a $1bn loan made to Invitation Homes.

Blackstone told me any negative reports were a “mischaracterization of the facts”. The company had previously responded to reports of tenants’ complaints by noting that it spent an average of $25,000 renovating each home, that it was helping address a national shortage of rental accommodation, and that it scored highly in tenant satisfaction surveys. It also said that Invitation Homes only owned 0.1% of single-family homes across the US. Even so, the company was the largest owner of family rental homes in the country. Before Blackstone sold its shares in 2019, Invitation Homes owned about 82,500 homes.

Jonathan D Gray, now president and COO of Blackstone, in 2015. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

At the same time it was buying up properties across the US, in 2013, Blackstone made its first investment in Spanish housing, buying 1,860 apartments from the city of Madrid. The story was the same as in the US: the Madrid tenants union accused Blackstone of hiking the rent on new leases, forcing some tenants to leave their homes. According to a two-year analysis of Blackstone-owned apartments by academics in Madrid, tenants said their buildings quickly declined after Blackstone took over. (In an email, a spokesperson for the company told me that rising rents in Madrid were caused by an “imbalance between supply and demand”, and that Blackstone’s funds invested more than €150m in refurbishing homes in Spain and providing services to its tenants.) By 2019, Blackstone owned almost 30,000 rental homes in the country, making it Spain’s largest private landlord.

Then, as if spinning a globe on a desk, the company fixed its attention on a different part of the continent. Instead of buying repossessed homes at fire-sale prices, Blackstone would start to buy housing in “tier-one” cities that were home to the “industries of the future”: science, tech and creative fields. One of the people who worked on this strategy was James Seppala, the company’s head of real estate in Europe. Seppala grew up in France, attended boarding school in England and studied French and Italian literature at Harvard. He also has family from Finland, and was particularly interested in investing in Nordic countries.

Stockholm was the first Scandinavian city where Blackstone made a major investment in housing. With nationwide rent controls, Sweden was like no other market the company had entered. That might seem offputting for a landlord, but for Blackstone, it was a plus. “There is something very safe and stable about investing in regulated markets, because you tend to have more demand than you will have supply,” Seppala told me when we spoke over Zoom. “From an investor’s perspective, that’s quite a safe backdrop.”

In 2016, Blackstone bought a controlling stake in Sweden’s largest real estate firm, which owned 16,000 apartments, most of which were in Stockholm. That year, the company renovated more than 1,000 apartments and then raised the rent on them by 42%. Over the following three years, it bought more apartments in Stockholm, and by 2019, it owned 21,000. Blackstone soon came under fire from the Swedish tenants union, and, in 2018 it changed the name of its Swedish company to Hembla, a friendly, Swedish-sounding name (“Hem” means “home”). In a suburb to the north of the city, a kind of natural experiment unfolded. Blackstone’s Swedish company owned almost half the apartments on one housing estate. The other half were still owned by the local authority, which made it easy to compare how the two landlords operated.

In a damning report compiled in the summer of 2019, shortly before Blackstone sold its stake in the company, Sweden’s tenants union alleged that the entrances to the Hembla properties were “messy”, “dirty” and “broken”, with holes in the walls and flaking paint. This degradation, the report concluded, was the result of these apartments having been owned by private landlords for almost a decade, and Blackstone was merely the latest company to have acquired them. Blackstone said it reinvested all income back into these properties from 2016-2019, and did not pay dividends to its shareholders over this period. The company told me it invested in solar panels and geothermal heating at the properties, and created common areas and playgrounds. But even the playgrounds that belonged to these properties were apparently worse off, the union concluded, illustrating its point with a sad photograph of a broken seesaw.

“Blackstone came in, raised the rent, took the money, and got the hell out of here,” Ola Möller, a Social Democrat MP, said. “We aren’t used to that in Sweden. We’re used to companies like Volvo and Ikea!” By the time Blackstone sold its stake in Hembla in September 2019, Seppala and his European colleagues had already fixed their attention on a different part of the map. In neighbouring Denmark, the company had started working with a partner to buy up apartments. But Denmark would prove a far more hostile country to invest in.

In late 2018, Claus Højte’s inbox began to fill with agitated messages. Højte is the head of Copenhagen’s tenants union and he has lived in the city since the 1980s, when he moved there as a student. Back then, he used to shower at university because there was no bathroom in his small rented apartment. Now, he owns a spacious house in the suburbs, which he shares with his wife, who is a school teacher, and his golden retriever, Lulu. He cycles to work, where he and his 33 staff represent almost 40,000 renters in the city.

All of the emails Højte was receiving seemed to be about the same thing. A new landlord had started buying up properties in Copenhagen, blitzing through the city at high speed. Some tenants said they would arrive home to find their apartment block wrapped in scaffolding and workmen traipsing up and down the stairs. One tenant wrote to Højte that their new landlord had stressed her out with letters and “unpleasant measures”. Another said they had been sent five reminders about late rent, despite having paid on time every month. The same tenant complained about the landlord’s “ice-cold communication”. Others believed the landlord was sprucing up the buildings for a more affluent class of resident, making cosmetic improvements to stairwells and facades. To some tenants, these renovations seemed as much about disrupting their lives as fixing anything.

The new landlord was a small Danish firm called 360 North. Behind its shopfront was a giant. Blackstone had moved into Denmark, paying its operating partner 360 North to buy up apartment blocks on its behalf. For the tenants union, gaining an overview of exactly how many apartments Blackstone owned in Copenhagen was tricky. When it bought a building, it would set up an individual property company, a “PropCo”. Each block of apartments was owned by a different “PropCo”, which was in turn owned by a holding company, a “HoldCo”, which was in turn owned by another holding company, a “TopCo”. And to make matters more complicated, that TopCo was owned by another holding company, Calder Holdco, which was based in Luxembourg. This structure is a hallmark of the asset management industry. “It is like a spider’s web”, Claus Højte said of his attempts to find out which properties Blackstone ultimately owned.

Copenhagen is a small city where outrage travels fast. Soon, the media started to take an interest in tenants’ stories. One told Danish TV that her apartment had been soaked in rainwater after workmen removed parts of the roof, and another said cracks had started to appear in her ceiling. A TV channel broadcast a documentary called City of the Rich, which cast Blackstone as its villain. People suspected the motive behind the company’s disruptive renovations was to get tenants to leave so it could renovate their homes and charge new occupants higher rent. (Seppala told me over Zoom that as the company was building its portfolio in Denmark, “it became clear to us that we had to make improvements in how our local team in Copenhagen managed the properties”.)

Copenhagen looking towards Vesterbro area of the city. Photograph: Nigel Howard/Alamy

360 North even offered some residents sizeable sums to vacate their properties for good. Once the company had renovated an apartment for new tenants, it would sometimes double the rent. (Owing to a law introduced in the 90s, landlords that invest a certain amount in renovating old rent-controlled apartments can raise the rent when a new tenant moves in, meaning new tenants can end up paying close to the market rate for such apartments.)

Across Copenhagen, these tactics became known as ryste bygningen – or “shake the building”. “Imagine an apple tree shaking at the trunk to get the apples loose from the branches,” wrote one journalist of 360 North’s partnership with Blackstone. “In the real estate world, the occupants are the apples, the apartments are the branches, and when a landlord ‘shakes the building’, it is to get the tenants out.”

Almost everywhere that tenants complained about Blackstone, the same guy would appear. He would circle the buildings, inspecting courtyards and stairwells and chivvying contractors. He seemed possessed of a churning energy, as though he could hardly stay still for longer than a few minutes at a time. He wore thick black spectacles like a 1950s crooner and spoke fast. “Blackstone didn’t seem to care what methods he was using, or what bad media coverage he was getting,” said Anette Birck, a tenant who lives in an apartment owned by the company. That man was Nils Jansson, and in Copenhagen, he would be Blackstone’s undoing.

Nils Jansson was a strange business partner for a Wall Street firm that preferred to be regarded as a careful steward of pension pots rather than an impulsive Monopoly man. The entire population of Denmark is just over half the size of London, and its real-estate industry is dominated by a tight-knit group of professionals with august credentials. Jansson was an outsider. He came from Holbæk, a hefty harbour town, and studied farming at agricultural college in the early 2000s. He worked for a catering company and then as a manager in a construction firm, finding himself in Copenhagen during the biggest financial boom of the 21st century. Jansson had a hustling, enthusiastic energy, which earned him the nickname “Speedy”. “In the olden days,” said one property investor who used to work with him, “we used to say he could charm a cow out of a flower field.”

Real estate finance can be complicated. What Jansson did was simple. Before the financial crisis, he bought properties from a group of investors who sold buildings to one another at vastly inflated prices. Jansson would buy rundown buildings – “some old crap” as he once put it – then renovate them and sell them on. Eik Bank, a Faroese bank with branches in Denmark, gave Jansson huge loans to buy properties on the basis it would receive a bonus once they were sold. This was legal but extremely risky. The loan depended on the value of properties continuing to rise, while the bonus was a seductive promise that gave bankers an incentive to overlook risk.

Jansson became a big customer at Eik Bank. When the real estate market slowed down in 2009 and the banks stopped lending him money, Jansson went bankrupt. One year later, Eik bank declared insolvency and was taken over by the state. After the crash, Jansson mostly disappeared from public view. He moved on to a farm and acquired a herd of cattle. He told a journalist that he spent most of his time digging ditches and had no plans to ever start trading real estate again. Among those who had followed the story, “Speedy” was emblematic of the risks and excesses that had caused Denmark’s financial crisis. In 2012, a Danish newspaper ran a profile of him headlined The man who sold dog shit.

Nils Jansson in 2018. Photograph: Søren Bidstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

Blackstone’s decision to partner with Jansson was like Lloyds of London moving to the US and deciding to go into business with a bankrupt farmer. “Sometimes, initially, when we start making investments in a certain location, we will rely on third parties as partners because they may have other clients, too,” Seppala said. Jansson had skills that Blackstone needed. For one, it was looking for old properties that could be renovated. Few knew the market better than Jansson. He was unrelenting, with a preference for working 18-hour days. Yet in a country where people have a deep aversion to anyone who appears to be getting too big for their boots, Jansson made enemies wherever he went. “I could remember his face from the financial crisis. I was like, what is he doing here?” said one resident in a housing development that Jansson visited when trying to buy it on Blackstone’s behalf.

Blackstone was not the only investor to have bought and renovated apartments in Copenhagen with the aim of raising the rent. Nor was it the largest. Measured by the value of its buildings in 2021, it came 23rd on a list of private landlords in Copenhagen’s housing market. (PFA, Denmark’s largest commercial pension fund, took first place.) Although it increased the rent on the apartments it renovated, the amount that people paid in old apartments was so low to begin with that these new tenancies were still cheaper than renting an equivalent flat in a new apartment block. (Owing to legislation passed in the 90s to encourage new homebuilding, there are fewer regulations governing rental homes built after 1992.)

Even so, Blackstone had two major problems. It was an American firm eroding the stock of cheap housing, and it had partnered with a businessman who hurtled through the city like obnoxious startup founder. Certain acquisitions became particularly notorious. Holckenhus, a fin-de-siècle apartment block originally designed as cheap housing for artists in the centre of town, was dubbed the “crown jewel” of Blackstone’s portfolio. In the spring of 2019, workmen ripped out the building’s original stained glass windows and replaced its light fittings, giving the effect of a cheap conference centre. (Blackstone said it had to replace the windows to improve the sustainability of the building.) The company also applied for planning permission to build penthouse flats in artists’ attic studios; in Blackstone-speak, such conversions create “additionality”. (It later cancelled this plan.) Meanwhile, at a block in Vesterbro, an affluent area in the city centre, more than one resident said they had seen workmen employed by 360 North taking away belongings from their shared loft in sacks. In an email to tenants, 360 North said these items had been “lost”.

Banners at a housing estate in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen in August 2019, protesting against Blackstone’s attempts to buy the estate. Photograph: Ole Ellekrog/Fagbladet Boligen

These disparate stories began to coalesce into a larger struggle. In Vesterbro, some tenants started a group called Cities for Citizens. At an estate in Frederiksberg, where the company was trying to buy 300 apartments, residents launched an energetic campaign and set up a control room where volunteers, who met on an almost daily basis, painted banners shouting “Blackstone Go Home”. After rifling through the national archives in Copenhagen, one lawyer living in Frederiksberg found an old deed for the apartments that had been made with a typewriter almost 100 years earlier. It seemed to suggest that any future sale of the apartments to a private investor would breach the terms of the deed.

It helped that some residents were well-connected and knew how to get journalists and politicians to listen. A few of the people living in Holckenhus were civil servants, artists and writers. Some co-wrote an op-ed for a major Danish newspaper; others convened a meeting with a minister. The media ate up their stories, spotting a convenient narrative: a plucky social democracy versus an unrepentant American investor.

“What happened in the Blackstone [case] was the middle classes discovered they were in danger of not being able to house themselves,” Claus Højte told me. “In Denmark, when something starts affecting the middle classes, something political happens.”

On a cloudy evening in April 2019, Højte called a meeting at the tenants union. So many people turned up that it was standing-room only. Kaare Dybvad, an MP for the Social Democrats, was there. So were two other MPs, from the leftwing Enhedslisten party and the far-right Danish People’s party. Blackstone had become a target that shifted depending on your politics. For the left, it was proof that huge investors needed reigning in. For the right, it was a foreign outsider that could be blamed for the shrinking stock of affordable homes in Copenhagen. The atmosphere was tense. “Tenants were talking about rent increases of as much as 250%,” Dybvad recalled. “They shared stories of construction workers arriving at 6am in the morning and entering their bedrooms without notice.”

The objective of the tenants union was no longer simply to create embarrassing publicity that would deter Blackstone. They wanted to distil this anger into concrete policy that would offer more permanent protection to renters. By the summer of 2019, Blackstone had already stopped buying flats in Copenhagen, and in October, it cancelled its plans to buy the 300 apartments in Frederiksberg. Though Seppala denies that these decisions were a response to negative media coverage, its approach to the Danish market seemed to be changing. In particular, the firm focused on severing ties with Jansson. “Unwinding ourselves out of that situation, let’s say … it was the single biggest issue that our business was facing at the time, by far,” Seppala told me.

Blackstone bought out 360 North in May 2019. Later that year it would install a new board and change the company’s name to Kereby, which translates as “caring city”. (One tenant described this piece of damage control as a “joke”.) The company has introduced a call centre and now runs yearly satisfaction surveys. Kereby’s CEO, Lars Pærregaard, said it also regularly organises tenant meetings. Jansson, meanwhile, has moved back to the countryside. He advises companies entering the Danish real estate market and owns an equine breeding business, a kitchen cabinetry firm, and a company that makes bespoke horseboxes. He declined to be interviewed on the record.

Vesterbro in Copenhagen. Photograph: Nigel Howard/Alamy

Two months after the meeting at the tenants union, Denmark held a general election. The Social Democrats won a majority in parliament and Dybvad was appointed housing minister. By autumn 2019, the backlash against Blackstone had made it all the way to parliament. Mette Frederiksen, the new prime minister, attacked the company in a speech. “An American private equity fund is purchasing our houses,” she declared. “Does greed know no boundaries?” Dybvad spent that winter hammering out the details of a plan for a new law that would stop Blackstone and other companies from speculating on Danish housing. This would also be an opportunity to devise a high-profile policy that would burnish his reputation as an ambitious new minister.

He wanted to introduce a new law that would prevent landlords from hiking the rent on apartments they renovated until 10 years after they had bought them. It would stop not just Blackstone, but every investor in Denmark from gambling on Copenhagen’s old properties. Unsurprisingly, Denmark’s landlords association and pension funds were furious at the proposal. Dybvad was a pragmatist; he knew he desperately needed the support of his opponents to have any chance of passing a bill. So he shortened the rule to five years – long enough to put the brakes on speculation and prevent landlords from making quick profits, but moderate enough to appease rightwing members of parliament.

Finally, in July 2020, the Danish parliament passed what became informally known as the Blackstone Law, or Blackstone indgreb. “We were holding our breath until the very moment the law was passed and the ink was dry,” said Anders Svendsen, a lawyer for Denmark’s national tenants union. As well as preventing new landlords from raising the rent for five years, the legislation also prohibits landlords from offering tenants money to move out. (They must also upgrade a building’s energy efficiency before increasing the rent.) The law targets all landlords, pension funds and big investors. Blackstone was just the wedge that propped open the door. The tenants union even considered sending the company a bunch of flowers.

The Blackstone law is one of the few successful cases of a country taking a stand against the transformation of homes into a resource for the finance industry. But there have been other attempts to curb the industry’s encroachment. In Spain, the government has proposed a law that would ban the sale of social housing to investment funds and force landlords to cap the rent in areas where it has exceeded inflation. In Berlin, where Blackstone owns 2,500 apartments, the city introduced a five-year rent freeze in January 2020, which covered 90% of Berlin’s flats. (Last year, Germany’s highest court ruled the cap was unconstitutional.) More recently in Denmark, where inflation is now running at almost 10%, the government has pledged to cap rent increases to 4% over the next two years.

Despite these hiccups, Blackstone shows no sign of slowing down. In 2009, shortly after the world entered a recession, Schwarzman wrote to his shareholders: “We are long-term investors and we are patient.” Back then, Blackstone had $27bn of unspent capital, known in the industry as “dry powder”. Today, it is sitting on $170bn, opening up possibilities that Schwarzman could once only have dreamed of. The company likes to wait for the right moment to spend. As Schwarzman told a financial services conference in 2010, in reference to investment opportunities in Europe: “We’re basically waiting to see how beaten up people’s psyches get, and where they’re willing to sell assets.” Adapting a quote often attributed to Lord Rothschild, he reminded his audience that: “You want to wait until there’s really blood in the streets.” At the start of 2022, as inflation has caused rents to swell, Blackstone reported its highest earnings on record.

Blackstone insists it does not deliberately set high rents, but follows the market. The company says rents are rising because of an imbalance between supply and demand. “The simple fact is that housing costs are increasing because there is a chronic shortage of housing in many markets around the world,” a spokesperson for the company told me via email.

Blackstone is now positioning itself as a solution to housing shortages in both the US and Britain. “We and our investors are focused on contributing to creating much-needed new supply,” a spokesperson said. In England, Sage Housing, a company owned by Blackstone, last year became the UK’s largest single provider of affordable homes. (Affordable, according to the UK government’s definition, means no more than 80% of market rent.)

One cold morning earlier this year, I met Dybvad in Frederiksberg at the estate where Blackstone pulled out of buying 300 apartments in 2019. We walked through the sprawling group of low-rise cottages that were built in the early 20th century and modelled on English garden villages. The estate is verdant and peaceful, and each apartment has access to a garden for growing vegetables. “This is one of the few places in this municipality where you can live if you work in a kindergarten, or if you drive a bus,” said Dybvad. For him, the fight against Blackstone was about making it possible for such people to live in an otherwise expensive city.

Denmark can seem like a postcard for social democracy, but its commitment to affordable housing only extends so far. While Dybvad was fighting to pass the Blackstone law, his party was also enforcing a policy that identifies estates with high crime, unemployment rates and a high proportion of “non-western” residents and earmarks them for eviction and demolition. These areas must slash their public housing stock to no more than 40%. Already the policy has resulted in the sale of 260 affordable apartments to a Danish real estate investment firm, NREP, one of the largest property owners in Copenhagen. Unlike the residential properties that Blackstone acquired, however, these were in underprivileged areas, and such sales have not attracted the same media backlash. Dybvad has since become the minister for integration, and is now responsible for overseeing this policy, which has been criticised for demonising migrant communities.

In Højte’s view, Blackstone’s presence in Denmark was merely a ripple on the surface. The even bigger problem is the pension funds, which have long been buying up housing not just in Denmark, but across the world. Pension funds seek long-term, predictable returns, so the five-year delay that the Blackstone law introduces is unlikely to deter them from investing in Copenhagen’s apartments. One country’s pension provider is another country’s financial predator. Since the Blackstone law came into force, Danish pension funds have invested in residential real estate in Belgium, and in Berlin, where one pension fund became the target of a campaign launched by the city’s tenants’ association. The money that such companies invest in housing guarantees steady returns for investors, but it also guarantees that rents will increase as those companies try to squeeze a profit. “So you have to choose,” Højte said: “Do you want higher pensions … or do you want housing for all?”

Author: Hettie O’Brien