Wednesday, December 16, 2015


I read a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday about mega-rich homeowners in Bel Air, California, using shell companies to hide their ownership of property. In some cases these shell companies become so multi-layered and complex that local government can't enforce building codes and matters of public safety.

That's what's happened in the case of a house that neighbors call the "Starship Enterprise," a vast, curved glass structure that landed on the hills and looms over the surrounding houses -- which of course are hardly modest structures in their own right. The house's construction has flouted local building and planning laws but inspectors seem powerless to stop it, because they can't figure out who owns it.

This isn't a phenomenon unique to Bel Air. Wealthy property buyers all over the USA use similar techniques to conceal their identity. Similar things occur here in England, where The New Yorker not long ago reported on residents' frustrations at being unable to determine who owns a huge mansion in Highgate, North London, where a massive renovation project was planned.

Side story: When I visited Los Angeles as a kid in 1983, with my family, I was very insistent that we do a tour of the movie stars' homes. So one day we piled into the car and went to Sunset Boulevard, or maybe Hollywood Boulevard, and arranged with a tour operator to drive us through Beverly Hills and Bel Air in a van or small bus. (There were eight of us.) I took a million blurry snapshots of houses belonging to Lucille Ball and others of her generation -- most of whom were still alive at the time -- and the remarkable thing was that their houses, although large, were just houses. They weren't giga-mansions that looked like spaceships. Of course, Lucille Ball was probably poverty-stricken compared to modern Russian oligarchs.

Are the super-rich more insular now? Do they have less regard for the people who live around them? When is a big house big enough? If they're just looking for a place to park their money, they have no community interest at all -- they're not going to live there.

Most importantly, isn't there a legitimate public interest in being able to identify the owner of a piece of property? Legislative changes are clearly in order.

(Completely unrelated photo: St. John's Wood, in October.)


Elizabeth said...

It all makes me ill, particularly as we have one of the worst homeless problems in the country.

alphabet soup said...

Starship Enterprise. Really? It looks like a large overgrown canal barge.

See, if you have enough money you can buy anything. And almost anyone. I'm sure there would be a lot of very unhappy people if these laws were changed. I will go with the quote from Balzac 'Behind every great fortune is a great crime" - I found that among the comments.
It's way more polite than my thoughts when I finished reading.

Thanks for linking the article.
Ms Soup

Mwa said...

I was wondering yesterday about some empty houses in my town. Who has enough money to just keep a house sitting empty? Lots of people, apparently. I don't get it.

Ms. Moon said...

This is all so far from my reality that we might as well be talking about space aliens.
I am so home-centered. I can't imagine having houses (and they can't really be homes at all, can they?) in far-flung places in the world. It's just not my reality.
Money, money, money...

ellen abbott said...

are the wealthy more insular? absolutely. and I really don't understand the desire for gigantic mansions. even if you had a large family, most of the house would go unused.

Linda Sue said...

Nothing changes really, just that now the common folk instead of Lords and Royalty can acquire enough cash to , well, lord it over the peasants...seems to be one of the worst aspects of human nature. And you are right, they are just houses!

Sharon said...

I couldn't agree more. I cringe every time I see a new mega-mansion going up here. I simply can't understand why anyone needs a place to live that large and In most cases, that garish. I do remember driving around in the Hollywood Hills and enjoying seeing the houses of the stars and as you say, they were gorgeous, well kept and large but, they were houses. Nothing like what is seen today. I live in a property attached to what is called the Biltmore Estates here in Phoenix. This area has always been a rather exclusive area but, when I drive through the estates today, almost every house that I admired back in the 70's and 80's is long gone and re-built as a super-mansion. And, quite frankly most of them have no character at all.

jenny_o said...

I don't understand it. (Obviously I am not rich!)