Archive for the ‘Housing’ Category

Misunderstanding housing costs again

imge credit: David Shankbone  (cc) via flickr

New York’s housing situation (image credit: David Shankbone (cc) via flickr)

Melissa Kite had a piece in Thursday’s Guardian complaining about the escalating cost of London housing. She starts off well, observing that she can’t earn as much in a year as the increase in the value of her flat.  “[W]hat does it say about our society when we can, in theory at least, make more money doing nothing than we can by the sweat of our brow?”  Agreed, it’s a problem. So what does she recommend?

In New York, 45% of people live in rent-stabilised accommodation where landlords are limited to increasing rates by a certain percentage each year. This is not rent control – which accounts for only 1% of tenants – but rent with controlled increases, an important difference.

I will wait to hear from New Yorkers about how this has solved their housing problem.  Going back to the Guardian article, Kite gets pretty close when she observes that “a British company is selling a flat-pack self-assembly ‘house in a box.’ But she doesn’t take the next step to ask: “If you buy one, where are you going to place it?” The answer, of course, will be that anyone who can afford only the flat-pack house will be unable to obtain a suitable site anywhere near London.

The problem isn’t house costs, it’s land costs. And land costs would be a lot lower if all land was subject to a stiff site value tax, because there could be little or no speculative premium.   (To be clear, the cost of obtaining a site for your house, purchase financing plus tax, would be much less if landholders weren’t pricing sites based on their future hopes rather than current usefulness.)  This point is readily made, for example here and here. It’s unfortunate that the writer of the Guardian article seems unfamiliar with the concept.



Progressive proposal from Kenya

detail from photo by Jennifer Wu via flickr (cc)

detail from photo by Jennifer Wu via flickr (cc)

Writing in Standard Digital, Charles Kanjama proposes that “If government was clever, it would include a value-capture approach in project financing.”  He’s writing about big infrastructure projects, which in his time (2014) and place (Kenya) include railway and port improvements. He suggests that perhaps half the cost should come from land value tax, without explaining why it would be appropriate for landowners to receive half the benefit of improvements paid for by the general community.  (Kanjama is an attorney and accountant who was rated among the top 100 legal minds in Kenya as well as one of the 100 most influential people in that country.)

The same edition (January 4 2014) carries another article showing a problem resulting from failure of the community to collect all the rent.  It seems that the government wanted to remove a large number of squatters who had settled in a protected forest.  Ordered to vacate, they each received 400,000 shillings ($4604.67 US, according to Wolfram Alpha) to purchase land elsewhere.  Now the time for relocation has expired, and many spent the money on things other than land.  Of course I don’t know these people, don’t know what land was available, don’t know their needs, but very clearly if land were nearly free (as results from a high land value tax) they would almost certainly be better off.

Housing bubbles, a Misesian view

Photo credit: Christian Berl via flickr (cc)

Photo credit: Christian Berl via flickr (cc)

Finally I’ve stumbled over a simple explanation by an Austrian of what causes housing bubbles.  According to data cited in Mark Thornton’s article, Oslo’s housing prices continue to rise even as other places have slowed or tumbled.

What explains the large increase in prices is an increase in the demand for housing. Part of this increased demand takes the form of people simply being unwilling to put homes on the market in the face of persistently rising home prices….[Also] Oslo, the capital city with almost 1/5th of the nation’s population, has land-use restrictions that keep much land unavailable for construction. This is the same fundamental case that was given for the severe housing bubble in Las Vegas: the government prevented land from being developed. Housing prices in Oslo, however, have not risen much more than the average increase. The largest increases have occurred in areas associated with the oil and oil exploration business…. Norway’s rosy economy is not the result of good policy, but of oil revenues that subsidize their socialist government.

Another factor is Norway’s central bank holding interest rates at an “artificial” low, because they don’t want their krone to appreciate too much (it is viewed as a “safe” currency in  a world of depreciating euros, dollars, yen, etc).  Low interest rates of course drive housing prices higher.

If the central bank did act and raised interest rates and simply allowed their currency to float, the krone would appreciate and Norwegian savers would get a windfall as the value of their savings increased. This would encourage them to work more, save more, and become wealthy. Every krone would buy more goods from around the world and would buy even more goods tomorrow than today. This appreciation would indeed hurt exporters, such as oil and cheese exporters, but most importantly it would stop and reverse the housing bubble before things get even worse and more distorted.

So, if you were to “get a windfall as the value of [your] savings increased,” would you “work more and save more?”  Or would you be inclined to work less, at least for money, and maybe spend some of the windfall?

Thornton doesn’t tell us much about the incomes of ordinary Norwegian working folks.  If exports drop, might unemployment increase?  How, if at all, does Norway’s sovereign wealth fund contribute to incomes? What proportion of personal income in Norway comprises economic rent, and how is it distributed?

A couple of other issues:  Thornton says that Norway looks good not because its citizens govern themselves intelligently, but because they have oil revenues.  If that’s true, how to explain Venezuela? They have oil too, but don’t seem to govern themselves so well.  Some other explanation?

Then there’s the assertion that land use restrictions exacerbate housing bubbles. A smart growth policy coordinates land development with provision of needed facilities such as roads and sewers, and allows some leeway to avoid worsening the land monopoly that exists everywhere, and in case forecasts don’t exactly come to pass.  Over time it makes development less expensive and the cost (monetary and nonmonetary) of living lower (which would increase land prices unless land rent is publicly-collected).  The example of Las Vegas is cited, but I always thought Portland had much stricter controls, yet much less of a bubble. Is there somewhere data about this?


Another successful politician endorses land value tax

Nick Boles

image from Financial Times

Nick Boles

MP for Grantham and Stamford. New-intake MP and a key moderniser. Former Policy Exchange director and one of the Notting Hill set. Deemed close to the leadership. Tipped for bigger things

I assume this means he’s successful, British political terminology being rather unfamiliar to me. What’s really important is that

Nick Boles, The MP for Grantham and Stamford says a Land Value Tax should be introduced and use the proceeds to cut National Insurance – permanently.

He doesn’t want to do it exactly how I would want to do it, because he seems to want to exclude owner-occupied residential land and farmland, without limitation.  But the important thing is, he’s a successful politician, he gets elected, and he appears to want to move toward a sound economy. I’m just some guy with a blog.

I also don’t know how all this relates to the British custom of building homes on rented land far more commonly than Americans do. But it seems to be his top priority.

Source: FT via GN

Cuba gets it half-wrong

What kind of financial crisis could America have had without private collection of land rent?  If homebuyers were able to purchase a house, but the land came practically free with an obligation to pay a land value tax, how bad could the mortgage mess have been?  Not very bad, evidently, since mortgages would have been much smaller and quite unlikely to go under water (because the price of houses can’t decline nearly as much as that of the land under them).

Veranda in CubaWhich is why I’m not pleased to learn that Cuba will allow the private purchase and sale of homes (including, apparently, both structure and land).  There will be limits (only Cuban citizens and permanent residents, and only two homes per person) “to prevent speculative buying and the accumulation of large real estate holdings,” tho one wonders how long-lived and how effective they’ll be.

There’s no question that Cuba’s struggling economy needs freer trade, and moves to allow buying and selling of cars, and an increase in the permitted size of private businesses, tend in that direction.   It’s unfortunate that the Cuban powers that be don’t seem to recognize that land is different, since by definition it will never be produced no matter how free or prosperous the economy.

“The new law requires that all real estate transactions be made through Cuban bank accounts so that they can be better regulated, and it sets a tax rate of 8 per cent of the assessed value.”  The need for more government revenue is one possible explanation for this change.  Another is that Cuban elites anticipate, after further easing of land ownership restrictions, the ability to accumulate at low prices sites which will become valuable in the future.  The least likely is that Cuban authorities just haven’t thought about what land is and its role in political economy.


Did you hear the one about the two economists….

…who spoke for over an hour about cities, development, migration, and density, and asserted that America would be more productive if our cities were denser, and did not mention economic rent nor land value?

They did it here, on econ-talk, and you can download the podcast or just read a pretty good text summary (I do not recall them using the word “land” either, but it appears several times in the text summary so I must have missed it). The book itself seems to be available only on Amazon Kindle, which as I understand it means I cannot buy it, but only license a copy to read. But from the interview I gather that author Ryan Avent has determined that American cities (and some suburbs too) are not as densely developed as they “should” be, and that this is due to local governments’ reluctance to allow development at optimal densities.

Now certainly there’s no question that local governments, usually reacting to neighborhood concerns, often refuse to allow development at densities which are physically workable. I recall one suburb where a proposal would have had single-family houses on lots of 9000 square feet.  Community reaction was that the kind of people who would live on such small lots would not be desirable neighbors, even tho in many other cities such a lot would be considered oversize.  These concerns are often stated as “property value” arguments, and perhaps they really are.  That’s an expected consequence of an economic system where ordinary people cannot expect to accumulate much money by working and saving, and must hope to profit from rising prices of the real estate they occupy.

And it’s not unknown for the politicians whose approval is needed for major developments to take advantage of the opportunity for personal gain, legal or otherwise but surely wrong.

So how is it to be decided what the optimal density is? In  Science of Political Economy, Henry George observes that, for each kind of production, there is an optimal density at which to work.  That density depends on what is being produced, the technology applied, the number of workers available, their skills, the quantity to be produced, etc., so it will change over time.  Avent may be correct that we would be better off if higher densities were permitted in some already-dense desirable places, but he certainly didn’t offer much evidence in this podcast.

But let us assume that higher density would be a good thing (and I am certain that in some places it would be), how is it to be achieved? Avent seems to assume that a reduction in land use regulation would be the proper method, because the market is efficient and so density would rise to the appropriate level.

But communities are more complicated than that, and you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, ignore externalities.  The first builder to put a high-rise in a desirable townhouse neighborhood may profit nicely.  However, not only does the character of the community start to change, but different infrastructure is needed.  Can the streets handle the traffic, or can acceptable public transport be provided? Will the sewer and water system handle the load? What are the other effects on the larger community, and how can they be dealt with? There are loads of reasons why it makes sense for the community, acting thru its local government, to have a major say in its development.

But to really irritate those who understand political economy, Avent says:

[I]f you had a sort of density charge–I hate to tax density in that way but in terms of being realistic about the distribution of cost–you could channel some of that into investing in local amenities: could be parks, could be transit, something to try to convince local stake-holders that density is going to be in their interest. So normally we think of taxes as discouraging an activity–which it would. It would make it more expensive for developers to make urban areas more dense.

Yes, some way for the community to share in the benefits of increased density. Can you say “land value tax?” It doesn’t tax development, it taxes development potential.  It pressures landowners to build at appropriate densities, but doesn’t punish them for doing so. Supported by competent and realistic zoning, it guides density to the places where is works.

Somebody told me once that the Economist, for which Avent is a correspondent, is a pretty good source of economic news except that it refuses to acknowledge the possibility, let alone the benefits, of a land value tax. I still haven’t seen anything that contradicts this assertion.

Hong Kong’s “citizens dividend”

I have previously discussed Hong Kong’s land tenure system, under which the land is publicly owned, but improvement owners have security of tenure in exchange for paying significant land rent.  One result is that most working people don’t have to pay any sales or income taxes.  Another is that land is efficiently used.

But there are a couple of concerns:

  • Since Hong Kong doesn’t collect all the economic rent, speculation can still drive up the cost of housing as well as any activity which uses land (and they all do).
  • Wealthy mainland residents are moving to Hong Kong to take advantage of the increased liberties which HK residents get, further driving up costs for local people.

Now we read that every HK has declared a sort of citizens’ dividend, every permanent resident will get HK$6,000 (US$773, currently).  Bloomberg calls it a “handout,” but I think “share of economic rent” might be more appropriate.  Opponents of the move say it will be inflationary, and certainly it could lead to higher economic rent, with speculation driving land costs even higher. Of course, if people expected the government to collect all the economic rent, speculation would not occur. While the cost of living might still increase, giving an equal dividend to every resident would tend to flatten the income distribution, helping the poor much more than the wealthy.


Saudi housing bubbling

Suppose you are a king. And suppose you have a restless, mostly young population, high unemployment, with most people having to rent because housing and land are too expensive. Few people can get mortgages, because they involve large down payments and high interest rates. Also suppose that you have a big country, lots of land relative to population, and a huge government surplus. What to do?

You could examine why housing is so expensive, and whether there’s a way to make more land available. Maybe that’s happened in Saudi Arabia, but recent news reports give no indication.  Instead, the Saudi solution is to encourage the mortgage industry and expand credit.  Will that make housing cheaper?  Will that make it easier for an underemployed population to get decent housing? Or will it drive up the price of land and feed what seems to be an already-building bubble?  It may be that the Saudi objective is to get more of their people into debt-slavery so they’ll faithfully serve the state.  I don’t know.

What really puzzles me is how mortgage interest fits into an Islamic-dominated state.  Possibly this is like the “Islamic Finance” offered by some U S banks, where no interest as such is charged, but either the price is inflated to compensate for the fact that it will be paid gradually, or the “homeowner” is technically a renter until enough rent has been paid to cover the cost plus what, to others, would be interest.

Bloomberg says the King pledged more than $82 billion for housing, but does not say whether this comprises direct government grants, or is simply some amount of debt which homebuyers will contract.  It also says that

Saudi Arabia’s mortgage law will change the way home finance is regulated, from registering mortgages to prosecuting police officers who refuse to carry out eviction orders.

This will be interesting to watch, preferably from a distance.

More about Saudi housing and morgages:


Paradox of geoist publicity

Innovative geoist group Prosper Australia are promoting a homebuyers’ strike against that country’s still-high housing prices. It’s getting them worldwide publicity and certainly seems to be in the interest of non-homeowning Aussies, encouraging them to avoid leveraging themselves in a soon-to-burst land bubble.

But what is the message?  The message is, “don’t get yourself deeply in debt to buy a house that may put you underwater in a few months.” I hope the message also is “We at Prosper Australia understand the economy and know how to fix it.  Pay attention to us.”

Whether that’s getting thru, I don’t know.  But the campaign can’t hurt.

How to prevent economic Ebola?

Economic Ebola is “the virus that infects scientists and engineers and causes them to go to Wall Street rather than create something of societal value,” says Paul Kedrosky.  Graduates with quantitative skills are offered salaries up to five times what they could make in productive work, so of course many of them spend their time finding ways to scrape a few million from high-velocity financial markets, rather than designing products or processes that would actually increase society’s satisfaction.

“Let’s save the world by keeping our engineers out of finance,” says Vivek Wadhwa. [Well, they’re not really our engineers, they belong to themselves, but we’ll skip that for now.]  A fine idea, but how to do it?  One answer might be a financial transaction tax, a tiny levy on each financial trade which could remove the profit from “financial engineering.” It would have no real effect on “long-term” investors who hold a position for more than a day. Seems like a good idea, but of course there will need to be a definition of what is a “financial transaction” for tax purposes, and clever people will find a way to design a transaction which doesn’t meet the criteria.

Maybe a better approach is to eliminate or scale back some of the things that make financial engineering lucrative.  For instance, if a land value tax prevented private collection of land rent, the mortage/financial crisis we’re still in would have been much smaller, or perhaps not possible at all.  We might want to go back to the classical concept of usury, forbidding all transactions where interest is charged for the use of money.  (People can still get compensation for lending money, but it would be as some agreed share of the profits which the investment generates, keeping the lender conceptually closer to the borrower.)

Of course we could start with something simple, like having the government take over insolvent banks, prosecuting and imprisoning criminal executives, letting stockholders, bondholders, and others who have unwisely trusted the bank to absorb the financial loss.  That alone would make financial engineering a lot less appealing.