Who is Harlan Crow? Real-estate billionaire inherited an empire
Harlan Crow is in the news. The conservative billionaire has recently gained a whole new level of fame as the longtime friend and secret benefactor of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who appears to have broken even the light ethics laws surrounding the nation’s highest court. Thomas has failed to disclose decades of lavish gifts from Crow, ProPublica reported, and even a real-estate deal between the two in which Crow acquired and renovated the house where Thomas’ mother lives, apparently rent-free. But while Crow may have a whole new level of public notoriety, his family has been one of the richest real-estate dynasties for two generations, and he inherited a commercial real-estate empire.
The 74-year-old is the chairman and former CEO of Crow Holdings, a private Texas-based real-estate investment and development firm which manages $29 billion in assets, its website. The firm was founded 75 years ago by Crow’s father, Trammell Crow, and its massive size at its peak made him the largest landlord in the U.S., according to the New York Times. In the same publication’s obituary for Trammell Crow, he was recognized as an innovative developer who once had interests spanning nearly 300 million square feet of real estate, totaling to 8,000 properties in more than 100 cities.
A high point in Trammell Crow’s career occurred in 1987, when Fortune named him to the United States Business Hall of Fame, describing him as “one of the most innovative developers in history,” although Fortune had just recently omitted him from a billionaires’ list (also omitted: the New York-based real-estate developer Donald Trump). Despite claiming to have a family net worth of $1 billion at the time, an anonymous critic weighed in: “Trammell Crow has overappraised his own worth just like he overappraises his own handsomeness.” He did hike the Himalayas, though, Fortune noted. “You can get rich selling real estate,” Trammell Crow often said, according to the Times, “but you can only get wealthy by owning it.”
It was a bad scene when Harlan Crow took over in 1988, though. The commercial real estate market was in a bad way, not unlike its current woes, and it was near bankruptcy when the next generation took over, according to the Wall Street Journal. Crow the younger restructured its debt and sold off some assets and set it on course to retain its position, especially in rentals. Crow’s exact net worth is unknown, but his billionaire status is widely reported.
It’s still clear that Crow Holdings remains a major player in American real estate. The market research platform RocketReach estimates that the firm had $113 million in revenue in 2021, while its multifamily development arm, Trammell Crow Residential, was the fifth-largest developer in the U.S. in 2022, according to an annual ranking by the National Multifamily Housing Council. It started over 9,000 units for the year, compared to slightly over 6,600 in 2021 (the top developer was Alliance Residential, with 13,480 units started). Crow Holdings was not included in the National Multifamily Housing Council’s top 50 lists of owners or managers. Elsewhere on its website, Trammell Crow Residential says it has developed 269,000 residences over the past 40 years and focuses largely on the sunbelt, with major holdings in student housing. In other words, Harlan Crow develops a lot of dorms from Texas to the Carolinas, and a lot of high-rise apartments, too.
The Crow family’s dominance of the commercial real estate industry stretching back 75 years is what allows such a massive influence, not to mention an eye-catching art collection. In a story published in the Dallas Morning News in 2014, reporter Mariana Greene took a look inside Crow’s home, in which she wrote about the paintings on the walls, including one by Adolf Hitler. His collection also included manuscripts, sculptures, and a collection of “dead dictator” statues. (His collection includes Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, but he was unable to secure one of Cambodia’s Pol Pot.) Despite being initially shocked at Crow owning a Hitler’s painting, she told the Times that Crow spoke more often about his paintings by Churchill and Bush. Crow says his collection is all about preserving history.
In terms of his political stance, Crow has donated more than $10 million in publicly disclosed political contributions, according to ProPublica. He’s also on the board of trustees for the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, while also serving on the boards of the George W. Bush Foundation, the Supreme Court Historical Society, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. When ProPublica revealed that Crow had bought a house belonging to Clarence Thomas and his family, Crow responded that he wanted to turn it into a museum dedicated to the Supreme Court justice.
In the Journal’s profile of Crow back in 2021, the publication followed a former project of his, building the tallest private bell tower in the country, which he called a gift to Dallas, the city where he was born. At the time he had spent $25 million on it. An architect and friend of Crow’s told the Journal “He’s a unique person with a lot of money…The real story is Harlan does what he wants to do.”
Last week, ProPublica revealed that Thomas did not disclose lavish gifts from Crow, largely in the form of luxe vacations. In one instance, the two men (among others) reportedly jetted off together to Indonesia where they’d island hop on a yacht, both vehicles being owned by Crow. In a separate revelation this week, ProPublica reported that Crow also purchased three properties from Thomas, a transaction Thomas also chose not to disclose.
The home and two vacant lots purchased by Crow’s company in 2014 cost $133,363, and Thomas’ mother who was included in the sale as one of the co-owners, continued to live in the home as Crow’s team worked on renovations, per the report. Aside from ProPublica’s investigation, details of Crow and Thomas’ relationship have been previously discussed, like when Crow gifted Thomas a Bible that had belonged to Frederick Douglass, the prominent abolitionist.