Geoffrey Palmer made a multibillion-dollar fortune building luxury residential buildings in southern California. To keep rents high and taxes low, he’s spent nearly $32 million in the past six years opposing ballot initiatives and backing Republicans–particularly Donald Trump.
One title not up for debate: billionaire. Since completing his first apartment complex in Santa Clarita in 1985, Palmer, 72, has built up a portfolio of nearly 13,000 apartments throughout southern California, including faux-Italian luxury “fortresses” in downtown L.A. Those properties are now worth an estimated $3 billion, boosted by a 17% increase in rents in L.A. from pre-pandemic levels and a more than 75% rise since 2010.
He’s made those riches by developing properties in historically low-income neighborhoods and installing high-end apartments that price out local residents. He’s done it by unabashedly fighting local government for years. He’s done it ruthlessly, bragging about how he’s in the real estate business to avoid taxes. And, most recently, he’s done it by spending $31.5 million in the past six years on ballot measures and politicians—particularly Donald Trump—that will keep his juggernaut going, no matter who he drives out.
Palmer has more than enough money to keep funding politicians and financing lawsuits. Between his real estate firm, G.H. Palmer Associates, a private jet and nine homes—in upscale locales like Aspen, Beverly Hills, Malibu and Saint-Tropez—Forbes estimates Palmer is worth $3.2 billion, even after factoring in debt. Palmer did not respond to Forbes’ requests for an interview for this story but a representative for Palmer told Forbes he had no comment on the valuation.
Much of his fortune comes from Palmer’s so-called “Renaissance Collection” of high-end, Italian-style buildings. Before redistricting last year, eight of Palmer’s nine downtown Los Angeles developments were located in California’s 34th congressional district, where 23% of people live below the poverty line, double the nationwide average. That puts his properties out of reach for many local residents. Rents at his Piero complex—two blocks from the 110 freeway and a one mile walk from Skid Row, home to more than 4,000 unhoused people—range from $2,266 a month for a studio to $4,068 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Not surprisingly, he has quite a few critics. “You have these luxury apartments [with] fairly rich people overlooking homeless encampments,” says Susie Shannon, policy director at Los Angeles-based nonprofit Housing is a Human Right.
“Palmer has been involved in a lot of unhelpful [and] destructive behavior in terms of solving Los Angeles’ housing crisis,” says Cynthia Strathmann, executive director of the economic justice nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE.) “But he’s been here for so long and people are so used to him doing unhelpful and unpleasant things that it’s no longer a surprise.”
Palmer was born in Los Angeles in 1950, the same year his father—a Hungarian immigrant who became an architect—began designing Modernist suburban homes in southern California through his architecture firm Palmer & Krisel. After finishing high school, Palmer spent a year at Santa Monica College, a community college, before transferring to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned a degree in finance and real estate. Midway through an MBA, he returned to California to study law at Pepperdine University.
He followed in his father’s footsteps after graduating and passing the bar in 1975, teaming up with real estate developer Mel Kauffman to build residential projects. By 1978 he struck out on his own, setting up G.H. Palmer Associates to build condos for sale in the Santa Clarita valley in northern Los Angeles County. Six years later, he started developing apartment complexes that would generate a steady stream of income.
Palmer’s first salvo against local real estate regulations came in 1987. In a bid to oppose the incorporation of the city of Santa Clarita—which would have slowed down his plans to build 1,452 condos—he allegedly routed $7,000 in political donations to an anti-incorporation committee through seven of his company’s employees and one employee’s mother. The incorporation measure passed, and the new Santa Clarita city council shot down his proposals in 1990. Two years later, the California Fair Political Practices Commission charged him with 15 counts of illegally laundering campaign contributions and fined him $30,000. (Palmer did not respond to a request for comment from Forbes about the charges.)
At that same time, Palmer was building in Los Angeles and completed his first project there in 1988. He sued the city for the first time in 2001 over its affordable housing requirements, arguing they violated a 1995 law allowing landlords to set rent levels. He eventually settled for $2.8 million, which allowed him to build his Visconti project with only market-rate units.
Palmer was directly responsible for Los Angeles “not being able to mandate affordable housing in a city that had growing homelessness.”
The next lawsuit came in 2003, after Palmer demolished an 1880s-era historic home in downtown L.A., called the Giese Residence, to make way for his Orsini project. The city, claiming that Palmer had torn down the home without a permit, invoked an ordinance that banned further development on Orsini for five years. Palmer sued the city over the ordinance, and in July 2004 they reached a $400,000 settlement. (The project was completed in 2010.)
He sued the city of Los Angeles once again in 2007 over its policy mandating 15% of rental units to be priced for low-income residents. This time an appellate court ruled in Palmer’s favor in a case that had far-reaching consequences. In what has come to be known as the “Palmer” case, in 2009 the court determined that the mandatory housing policy violated a 1995 state law, a decision that effectively prohibited local governments from requiring owners to offer units at lower rents.
“[Palmer] was directly responsible for the city not being able to mandate affordable housing in a city that had growing homelessness and people who just couldn’t afford to live [there] anymore,” says Shannon of Housing is a Human Right.
By that time, Palmer had built four luxury developments in downtown L.A. Their ostentatious features and high walls separating them from the surrounding area—with Papyrus-font name plates and elevated walkways—have been mocked in countless local publications.
For his part, Palmer claims to have almost single-handedly revitalized a once-derelict neighborhood. “Everybody was trying to create downtown as a ghetto, and it was my concept to re-gentrify it,” Palmer said in a rare 2015 interview with trade publication The Planning Report. “We’ve created prosperous areas out of what were formerly blighted and decayed areas. If you remember what LA looked like [in 2000] downtown, it looked like Sarajevo—just bombed out.”
That comparison is far from the truth: Many of L.A.’s tallest buildings in the downtown financial district were built in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, Palmer’s first developments in the area came at a time when downtown was becoming a more attractive destination, with the opening of the Staples Center (now the Crypto.com Arena, where the L.A. Lakers and L.A. Clippers play) in 1999 and the L.A. Live entertainment complex in 2008.
“When he first started building in the downtown area, there wasn’t much else other than a couple of older high-rises that you could rent,” says Greg Wasik, president of real estate appraisal firm Los Angeles Valuation Group. “He’s definitely made an impact in proving the viability of downtown L.A. as a 24-hour city, being the first one to go in there more than 20 years ago.”
Palmer’s aggressive moves don’t always pay off. In 2019, he was sued in a class-action lawsuit by tenants from several of his buildings who alleged he had kept millions of dollars in rental security deposits. Last June, Palmer agreed to a proposed $12.5 million settlement with more than 19,000 tenants.
Palmer shares not only a love for gaudy architecture with former President Trump but also a disdain for taxes. In his 2015 interview with The Planning Report, Palmer said he’s in the real estate business for a simple reason: “Quite simply, I don’t like paying taxes!” He also claimed that “through the magic of depreciation,” his firm hadn’t paid federal taxes for 30 years—another parallel to Trump, who once said he “loves depreciation.”
Not surprisingly, Palmer has been one of Trump’s largest donors, contributing $4.3 million to his 2016 campaign and political action committees. Prior to that, he had given some $1.3 million to a range of political campaigns—mainly backing Republicans, including Mitt Romney and George W. Bush—but also supporting Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, Ralph Nader’s 2004 and 2008 presidential bids plus two Democratic mayoral candidates in L.A.
Palmer later poured $11.4 million into the 45th president’s campaign and PACs between 2017 and 2022, including hosting a fundraiser at his Beverly Hills home in September 2019 that drew protests.
He also put $3 million towards efforts to recall Governor Gavin Newsom and L.A. District Attorney George Gascón—both Democrats—including more than $1 million to the campaign of Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host who sought to replace Newsom. He wasn’t successful: Newsom retained his post in the 2021 recall vote, while the Gascón recall failed to get enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.
“Quite simply, I don’t like paying taxes!”
Lately, Palmer has also been spent heavily opposing ballot initiatives. In 2018, Palmer, who once called rent control and inclusionary housing “immoral,” spent $2 million to defeat Proposition 10, a ballot initiative that would’ve allowed local governments to enact rent control; in 2020, he gave another $2 million to a PAC that opposed Proposition 21, a similar proposal. Both measures failed.
Palmer is also spending to keep taxes low. He’s a major donor to the California Business Roundtable Issues PAC, which spent heavily to defeat a 2020 statewide ballot measure that would have taxed commercial and industrial properties on their market value instead of their purchase price. The PAC is now spending to defeat Measure ULA, a 2022 ballot initiative in L.A. to raise sale and transfer taxes on real estate worth $5 million or more.
On a personal level, Palmer used an offshore tax haven to potentially limit the taxes paid on his Boeing 727-21 private jet, according to a 2017 investigation by The Guardian and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He incorporated a firm named Malibu Consulting Ltd in Bermuda and, in 2007, transferred his jet’s registration from Los Angeles County—which taxes aircraft as property—to Bermuda, which does not. Leaked files viewed by ICIJ and The Guardian showed that Malibu Consulting attempted to take out a mortgage on the plane in 2009. Palmer told The Guardian that he “did not use Malibu to avoid taxes” and that he registered the plane in Bermuda “for a host of reasons, mainly for safety, maintenance and convenience.”
Forbes found that Palmer’s jet is still registered in Bermuda to Malibu Consulting. This year the plane has made at least 12 flights from Van Nuys airport in L.A. to Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina as well as to Canada, France, Italy, Switzerland and Turkey. (Besides jetting around the world on his private plane, Palmer is also a competitive polo player in France.)
In the meantime, Palmer has continued filing—and defending against—lawsuits. In August 2021, he sued the city of Los Angeles over its pandemic eviction moratorium, seeking more than $100 million in compensation for missed rent payments. Several community groups joined the case on the side of the city in October 2021. The case has been on hold for several months while the defendants wait on a decision from the judge on their motion to dismiss Palmer’s case, according to Faizah Malik, a senior staff attorney at Public Counsel, who represents the community groups. Palmer’s attorneys in the case did not respond to a request for comment.
“At this point, most housing justice advocates are so familiar with [Palmer] that it’s lost a bit of its shock value,” says Strathmann of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. “I don’t think anyone was surprised that he sued the city.”
Despite the battles, Palmer is forging ahead with plans to expand his empire. He’s building new projects in L.A., Ventura and San Diego, as well as “aggressively targeting opportunities to develop and/or buy” apartment complexes with 200 units or more in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
“I enjoy what I’m doing,” Palmer said in 2015. “If somebody asked me, “What’s your favorite deal?” I’d say it’s the next one I’m doing.”
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