US Farmland
States are passing laws limiting foreign ownership of real estate. Photo credit: Bernd Sieker / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

What’s behind laws restricting foreign home and land ownership?

Listen To This Story
Voiced by Amazon Polly

A federal appeals court recently heard arguments in a suit seeking to overturn a 2023 Florida law barring Chinese citizens from buying houses within 10 miles of military installations, as well as agricultural land. The challenged measure also restricts the purchase of houses and land by citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia — a short list of nations deemed to be global bad actors.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and his fellow Florida Republicans have evinced concern about the threat posed to national security by foreigners — mainly Chinese — owning too much US land, in addition to using such property as a base for spying or destabilizing activities.  

Per Aboutblaw, between January and June 2023, 15 states — all red with the sole exception of Virginia — “enacted legislation regulating foreign ownership of US land.” Twenty other states have introduced legislation to this effect.  

The states in which these restrictions have become law (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Virginia) tend to be mostly rural and every one of them, except Virginia, has a Republican trifecta in charge of state government (Virginia has a Republican governor while Democrats narrowly control both houses of the state legislature).  

In light of the fact that this policy, almost entirely the product of deep red states, presents itself as fundamentally a Republican agenda, it is worth noting that the Biden administration chose not to file a brief in support of the parties challenging the Florida law. Indeed the Florida law might be seen as the offspring of President Biden’s policy regarding China as a threat to national security. 

It is noteworthy that the Florida law is not a blanket prohibition but conditional on distance from a military installation. This serves to emphasize concrete security concerns, but it begs the question of whether there is a difference between ownership of a house in such proximity and renting, which is not prohibited. Perhaps the only practical difference is that a rental can be inspected by the landlord while home ownership precludes inspection except for peace officers in limited circumstances. 

Concern at the Federal Level

According to a Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) survey, China has more instances of publicly known espionage against the United States than any other foreign actor. While the majority of such incidents involve hacking of computers, the purchase and use of land near military installations is viewed by US intelligence as part of their espionage tactics.  

The FBI website says that the threat of espionage by the Chinese government is grave and, consequently, China is the top FBI counterintelligence priority. Further, it says that China is treading an unconventional path toward global superpower status through predatory lending, cyber-intrusion, and theft of intellectual property.

US intelligence sees, and the Florida legislation reflects, an important distinction between Chinese nationals, who are considered susceptible to pressure by the Chinese government to act as its agents, and US citizens of Chinese ancestry, who are likely to refuse or be beyond the reach of such recruitment efforts. There is, of course, also the practical consideration that moving against the latter group would be a political, if not a legal, nonstarter — a bridge too far, even amidst the ramped up xenophobia and sinophobia of the Trumpocene.


As the law also extends its prohibitions to purchases of agricultural land, it is worth considering that foreign nationals, as of the end of 2021, controlled approximately 3 percent of the roughly 1.3 billion acres of privately held American agricultural land, an amount that had increased by about 2 million acres annually ever since 2015. 

China, however, held less than 1 percent of this foreign-owned agricultural land (far larger portions being held by Canadian nationals, followed by the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Germany). In fact, at the end of 2021, Chinese-controlled acreage was less than 400,000 acres, and China ranked only 18th among foreign nations in extent of US land holdings (although 8th in the value of land). 

Foreign nationals have been joined in this latter-day land grab by billionaires like Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Jeff Bezos. Gates — with 250,000 acres, or 390 square miles, across 17 states — is currently the largest private landowner in the US, thanks to his large-scale purchases of farmland in recent years. The motive for such mass acquisition is not entirely clear: Some have suggested it’s part of the super-wealthy set’s “end times” prep, or perhaps aimed at developing innovative approaches to land use, but more likely is that it simply serves as yet another highly profitable capital investment. Which may also be true of most foreign buyers.

Please donate to support WhoWhatWhy 

Political Considerations

While laws like Florida’s have been passed by red states firmly under GOP control, there’s reason to anticipate blowback from voters of Chinese heritage, even though the law targets only non-voting Chinese citizens. The voting patterns of Asian Americans lean Democratic. Voters of Korean and Filipino heritage tend to support Democratic candidates at about 68 percent. Relative to this, Chinese Americans are more conservative, but still support the Democratic Party at about 56 percent. 

Asian-American voters also tend to be concentrated in only five states, including California and Texas, where Chinese Americans successfully pushed back against legislation similar to the Florida law. There are far fewer such voters in Florida and the pushback there has been correspondingly less successful. Real estate developers, who sometimes depend on Chinese investments for large-scale construction, may be more successful in their recent lobbying to ease the law’s restrictions — time will tell.  

While both Democrats and Republicans see China as a hostile political rival, if not an outright national security threat, this view is considerably more prevalent among Republicans, three-quarters of whom, compared with fewer than one in three Democrats, identify China as our principal enemy

Donald Trump, in a recent speech to the NRA, went so far as to stoke fears of a creeping military invasion

Even large numbers of Chinese warriors are flowing into our country, all aged from 19 to 25. Almost every one of them is a man. What is that about? 

This hostility seems to jibe with MAGA sympathy towards Vladimir Putin, leaving China the more suitable target of fear and enmity. 

Talking tough on China therefore pays political dividends on the right, and may be the reason DeSantis pushed the bill back in April 2023 while running for the GOP presidential nomination. Yet the fact that very similar passed at the same time in many other solidly red states suggests that it’s part of a nationwide, templated strategy and not a more parochial campaign like DeSantis’s war against Disney. 

If, for the moment, the motivation for these neo-exclusionary measures isn’t entirely clear, it’s at least safe to conclude, given the GOP’s recent political track record, that they are not part of a push to make more homes available for the working class and ease the nationwide homelessness crisis. 

Doug Ecks is an attorney holding a JD from the University of California, Hastings and a BA in philosophy from California State University, Long Beach, Phi Beta Kappa. He also writes and performs comedy as Doug X.


Comments are closed.