There’s a pretty astounding and disturbing revelation on the real estate website Redfin at the moment. What it basically shows is that we are very much in a modern day Gilded Age in which single individuals or families could, hypothetically speaking, buy up every residential property in several major U.S. cities. From the Walton family to the Koch brothers to Mark Zuckerberg, huge swaths of real estate owned by thousands upon thousands of people would be no match for the deep pockets of the upper echelons of the 1%. In this graphic, these billionaires with household names can actually buy all of the households in the cities listed.
Redfin compiled the graphic using Forbes‘ famed list of billionaires, and by examining all multiple listing home sales from April 2013 to April 2014, which it treated as representative for the broader values of city properties. So if 10% of homes in a city went for a combined $1 billion, then Redfin estimated that the value of all homes totaled $10 billion. The figure includes single-family homes, condos, and townhomes.
It’s hard to decide whether the thought of the Waltons — a family that prides itself on low prices at the expense of a living wage for its employees — buying all the homes in $15 minimum wage Seattle is funny or chilling. And as it turns out, the Emerald City isn’t the only metropolis whose residential property the Waltons could gobble up in its entirety:
In a really demented sort of way, the wealth gap naysayers are right when they deny any huge chasm between the super rich and everyone else — as long as “everyone else” is lumped together. In which case, yes, there’s no wide disparity between Bill Gates’ net worth and the total valuation of every single home in the city of Boston, for example.
The other reality here that’s hard to avoid — especially in light of the constant erosion of campaign finance restrictions — is the immense financial and therefore political influence that an individual can wield. If one family can buy all the houses in Washington, D.C., for example, then how many lawmakers could it buy or at least gain favors from? Once a billionaire can buy a city, a congressman is no great trial, let alone a state lawmaker.
It’s obviously no shock that the U.S. has the worst income inequality in the developed world. The only way a person can be comfortable with such a statistic is to honestly believe that the U.S. — more than any other country — has such an immense competency gap among its citizens, that it translates into huge and unequal economic outcomes, which is only fair because wealth is a measure of success. In this worldview, the Koch brothers, who inherited daddy’s energy company, have worked harder or at least contributed more to society than every hard-working residential property owner in Atlanta.
And if that’s a conclusion you’re comfortable with, I’m sorry to have interrupted your mid-afternoon Swedish massage.