Real Estate in Brief: New task force on housing affordability, brokerage expansions and more

by Andrew Morrell

One of the largest residential real estate brokerages in the U.S., Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, will open more international franchise locations throughout Europe and the Middle East. According to Bloomberg News, BHHS will partner with London franchisee Kay & Co. to open new offices in Milan, Vienna and Dubai before the end of the year.

Bloomberg further reports that the firm “is also in talks with prospective partners in Paris and Madrid, and is looking at Mexico City, Hong Kong and Tokyo as well.” Since being acquired by Berkshire Hathaway through a subsidiary in 2000, the firm did not open any overseas franchises until this year, with its first in Berlin. BHHS, part of the prolific multi-billionaire Warren Buffett’s vast business empire, is currently second only to Realogy in terms of market share among residential brokerage firms nationwide, Bloomberg reports.

In other real estate news:

  • The National League of Cities, helmed by mayors and city council members from around the U.S., announced the creation of a task force aimed at improving housing affordability and availability. The NLC’s Task Force on Housing will be led by the organization’s president and mayor of Gary, Indiana, Karen Freeman-Wilson, and chaired by Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C. Made up of 18 elected officials from various locations, “the task force will develop a set of best and promising practices at the local level, as well as policy recommendations to federal and state governments,” according to an NLC press release.
  • Public pension funds, among the biggest players in the U.S. financial markets, are increasing their holdings in risky real estate projects in search of higher returns, The Wall Street Journal reported. Public pension funds invest retirement savings for employees working in federal, state and local agencies into the financial markets to grow as their workers age. But several major pension funds have come under pressure in recent years as greater numbers of workers enter retirement and the funds’ guaranteed benefits have not materialized. Part of this is due to the funds’ obligations to invest only in relatively “safe” financial assets which do not generate the returns promised to employees. Therefore, the WSJ reported, public pensions have collectively invested around $135 billion in so-called “opportunistic” real estate projects that could provide high returns but carry a high risk of loss. Some of these riskier investments now being pursued by public pensions include residential and commercial new construction, or extensive remodeling projects of large buildings like office towers. Analysts fear the investments could trigger a repeat of the financial crisis a decade ago, when public pension funds saw trillions of dollars invested in real estate vanish.
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson continues to come under fire amid new findings that health and safety violations are increasing within federally subsidized housing units nationwide. NBC News reported Nov. 14 that more than 1,000 of the nearly 28,000 residential properties subsidized by HUD have failed health and safety inspections in the last two years. That failure rate is around 30 percent higher than the figure reported in 2016, before Carson assumed office. Issues cited in the publicly available data as well as internal documents obtained by NBC via a Freedom of Information Act request include reports of hazardous black mold, exposed electrical wires, insect infestations and others deemed “life-threatening” by HUD inspectors. In some cases, the issues took months to resolve or still haven’t been fully addressed, even as many of the buildings remain occupied, NBC reported.