From Editor for Emerging Product and Audio Sarah Feldberg:
Property ownership records are public information, available through county assessor rolls that are used to determine property taxes. But each county in the Bay Area maintains its own database, and the information each one contains — who owns large swaths of property in the Bay Area — has never been available from a single source. Until now.
For the past year, The Chronicle has been collecting, standardizing and analyzing this data to create a clearer picture of property ownership across the nine-county region and uncover the power players who control vast holdings of rental properties and apartments from San Jose to Santa Rosa.
“It seems like it should be simple to know who owns the most buildings in the Bay Area, but it definitely isn’t,” said Chronicle Data Editor Dan Kopf. “Through the incredible reporting of my colleagues, we now know more about some of the biggest players in the region. We can also better explain why answering questions about property ownership is so hard.”
Today, the year-long investigation debuts in the form of two stories and a reader tool:
Determining the individuals and corporations who control rental housing for tens of thousands of tenant families is a complicated task. Corporations and wealthy families often purchase properties through shell companies or trusts, sometimes with a different company or trust named for each purchase. To find common ownership between these entities, The Chronicle analyzed 2.3 million property records, comparing mailing addresses, using machine learning and cross referencing with additional data sources.
“The analysis of these millions of records just might be the most intensive data project ever conducted by The Chronicle,” said Kopf.
The results yielded 12 ownership networks that wield enormous influence over renters and collectively control nearly 7,000 properties across the Bay Area. As reporters Susie Neilson, Emma Stiefel, J.K. Dineen and Lauren Hepler write, some of them have been the subject of federal investigations, lawsuits and mass eviction allegations.
In San Francisco, Chronicle reporter Hepler explored Veritas, a company widely known as the city’s biggest operator of rental units, although its name doesn’t appear on a single public housing record. Instead the company relies on individual LLCs, which can help shield larger organizations from legal threats.
“Housing researchers say the shift toward corporate landlords and property managers could have big implications for residents,” Hepler writes, as national studies “show that living conditions tend to decline when rentals go from being owned by an individual to investors.”
To make the data behind this project accessible to Chronicle readers, newsroom developer Stiefel created a single unified database of all 2.3 million property records and built an interactive map that allows readers to find out who owns their rental property — or any other address in the Bay Area.
Type an address into the tool, and you’ll see the ownership information as it is listed on county records, as well as whether that person or organization owns any other properties, and whether its mailing address matches the ownership of other buildings.
The package of stories has tapped into teams and talent from across the newsroom. Kopf served as lead editor and project manager. Deputy Creative Director for Design Alex Fong and digital designer Stephanie Zhu designed the digital stories, and Deputy Creative Director for Graphics and Engineering Hilary Fung edited the graphics. Hearst Newspapers Director of Newsroom Engineering Evan Wagstaff collected the data. Jessica Christian, Scott Strazzante, Lea Suzuki and Salgu Wissmath contributed photography, which was edited by Philip Pacheco and Emily Jan. Illustrations are by Jeff Hinchee.
“We are so proud to offer residents a closer look into who actually owns the housing in the Bay Area,” said Kopf.
About The San Francisco Chronicle:
The San Francisco Chronicle (www.sfchronicle.com) is the largest newspaper in Northern California and the second largest on the West Coast. Acquired by the Hearst Corporation in 2000, The San Francisco Chronicle was founded in 1865 by Charles and Michael de Young and has been awarded six Pulitzer Prizes for journalistic excellence. Follow us on Twitter at @SFChronicle.
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