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UPDATED: September 9, 2014
Going Global
Chinese investors are scooping up real estate around the world, especially in the United States. What does this mean for American cities?
By Corrie Dosh

The area around Candlestick Park in San Francisco is, by all accounts, not a great neighborhood. The murder rate is five times the city average, and most of the residents live in "extreme poverty" according to local media. Now, the historic baseball stadium in the heart of the neighborhood is being demolished to make way for a 15-year development project called the Shipyards that will create more than 12,000 housing units, parks, retail, office and commercial space – all funded by hundreds of eager, and wealthy, Chinese investors.

In exchange for their investment, the Chinese hope to attain American green cards through the federal EB-5 program, reports The Huffington Post, which allows foreigners to obtain the residency permits for themselves and their families in exchange for investments of $1 million. In areas of high unemployment, like the Shipyards, the threshold is set at $500,000.

"We're very grateful for the monetary support that our Chinese friends have lent to the city and county of San Francisco to make projects like the Shipyards happen," said Dr. Veronica Hunnicutt, chairwoman of the local Citizens Advisory Committee, which advocates for community interests on the project. "It's a model program for the community, city and really the nation."

Pay no attention to the grumblings of the anti-China contingent of right-wing media, Chinese real estate investment in the United States is a good thing for America. You can take your pick of a number of very expensive challenges facing our cities: an affordable housing crisis, hundreds of thousands of urban residents who need jobs, a dwindling tax base for public schools and aging infrastructure. These entrenched problems need a lot of capital to fix, and the Federal and state governments are more in a mood to cut budgets, than to increase spending.

So, enter private investment, the backbone of American growth. In the case of the Shipyards project, San Francisco signed an extensive community benefits agreement in exchange for over 700 acres of public land. That agreement stipulates tens of millions of dollars for job training and local employment in all phases of the project. It also provides for 30 percent of the future housing to be priced below market rates, and requires the developer to completely rebuild the notoriously dilapidated and dangerous Alice Griffith Housing Project located on the site, reports The Huffington Post.

The developments in California are not unique. Chinese investors have gone on a buying spree this year, with institutional investment in overseas property up 17 percent over 2013 in the first half of his year, according to real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle. London was the most popular destination for Chinese investors, thanks to the city's efforts to lure $2.3 billion in Chinese capital into major infrastructure projects, JLL said. San Francisco and Chicago followed with $548 million and $365 million respectively. According to a survey by the National Realtors Association (NAR), the Chinese spent $22 billion on U.S. housing in the 12 months through March — 72 percent more than they spent the year before.

This interest in U.S. real estate can be seen as a positive. For one, it means that these investors view the American market as a safe bet and secure investment. It means more Chinese are becoming rich, and have more access to credit. And, it means a cash infusion into a new focus on urban renewal.

But there are a few caveats to this wave of international gentrification. American cities are already becoming too expensive for the middle class. Families that have lived for generations in New York neighborhoods now find it impossible to raise a family in a climate of double-digit rent hikes. Cash-rich investors from China may contribute to this bubble. Even as prices rise, U.S. properties remain a bargain for Chinese investors, thanks to a strong yuan and positive growth outlook.

"It used to be that [Chinese buyers] would just appear out of the woodwork, but now everyone in the real estate market is going to the Chinese and marketing their product directly to them in China," Martin Purcell, a broker for Rutenberg Realty, told Forbes. "Some of these guys are buying property sight unseen," he adds.

Real estate investment is good, but it can be better with the kinds of incentives employed by San Francisco that encourage responsible property ownership. Unlike many American investors, "a lot of Chinese real estate investors aren't that concerned with cap rates, tax shelters, or cash flow," says Shang Dai, a Chinese real estate attorney based in New York. They concentrate on the potential for appreciation, which makes them more gamblers than investors, he told Realtor Magazine.

If the Chinese buying up property in the United States take the time to develop their investments, to care about long-term returns and the communities they buy into, then this game of Monopoly can be beneficial to all.

The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review living in New York City

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