UN rights experts decry Big Finance moves in housing market

Two independent U.N. human rights experts are denouncing moves by big investment and private equity firms to buy up affordable and low-income homes to the detriment of tenants, singling out one by name: Blackstone Group.

A statement from the United Nations human rights office in Geneva on Tuesday said Leilani Farha and Surya Deva had written to Blackstone to air concerns that "its actions are inconsistent with international human rights law with respect to the right to housing."

Blackstone responded in an extensive rebuttal letter faulting "numerous false claims, significant factual errors and inaccurate conclusions" by the experts.

The concerns expressed by the experts, who are among dozens of outside experts who work in connection with the rights office but are not U.N. staffers, amounted to a relatively rare instance in which a single company's activities were flagged for concerns about their human rights implications.

The experts faulted firms like Blackstone that buy up properties "en masse," renovate them and jack up rental rates — thus forcing tenants out of their homes and communities.

Farha, the rapporteur on "the right to adequate housing" whose position is mandated by the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, based her concerns on the "right to an adequate standard of living."

The experts also contacted five European countries and the United States, saying they had facilitated the "financialization" of housing through measures like favorable tax laws and weak tenant protections.

In its four-page rebuttal dated Monday, Blackstone claimed a number of benefits to its investments — such as improving housing through renovations, providing rental opportunities to people who cannot afford to buy, and putting up capital that "helped to stabilize local housing markets following the financial crisis," among other things.

"We take our responsibilities as residential landlords around the world incredibly seriously, and hold ourselves to the highest standards of fairness, transparency and empathy for our residents," the letter said.