Category Archives: Housing

Distributing privilege differently

Some land in Woodlawn (15 years ago). Image credit: Eric Allix Rogers CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A D Quig reports in Crains that the City of Chicago’s Housing Commissioner  says “everyone who lives in Woodlawn now should be able to stay in Woodlawn.”  This can be a challenge as housing costs in the area rise.  According to Crains (not corroborated by any press release I can find on web sites of the Department of Housing or the Mayor’s Office), support for housing affordabiity in the area will involve six strategies:

  • Right of refusal for large apartment building tenants if a landlord seeks to sell his or her building
  • Helping apartment building owners refinance properties to keep renters in place with affordable rates
  • Giving grants to long-term homeowners to help with home repairs
  • Financing the rehab of vacant buildings
  • Setting guidelines for how city-owned, vacant, residentially zoned land can be developed into affordable or mixed-income housing
  • Requiring developers that receive city-owned land to meet enhanced local hiring requirements

Details, of course, are yet to be defined, and the whole thing requires action by the City Council.  Still, assuming that the program is effectively structured and implemented, what we have is the designation of a privileged class– people who live in Woodlawn– receiving benefits that might otherwise accrue to another privileged class — people who own land in Woodlawn, with a new layer of bureaucracy established (or repurposed) to administer it, including investigating and monitoring the reported income and behavior of the people who are granted permission to live in the area.

Whereas, under a land value tax, the area would now have little vacant land, presumably a lot more housing, probably quite “affordable.”

Of course if you’re the Mayor, you do what you figure is politically feasible and within your power, not what is morally right and economically efficient, but would require persuading a lot of uninformed voters and obtaining cooperation from quite a few other governmental actors.

Why does public policy favor homeowners over renters?

image credit: Stephen Dann CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s certainly true here, where owner-occupants (of houses or condos) pay less tax than renters occupying units of the same value, with additional discounts for old people, some military veterans, and some poor old people.  Some owners also still benefit from deductability of mortgage interest and/or property tax.  So why do renters put up with this discrimination?

I have always thought, and some data seems  to confirm, that it’s because homeowners vote, and renters don’t. But according to this interview, the problem is similar, perhaps worse, in Australia.  Voting in Australia is compulsory, which apparently means one is fined if one fails to at least show up at the polls (the fine is up to $79AU, less for their Federal elections).  They also vote on Saturday, and seem to make a party of it, according to various posts such as here and here.

Of course just showing up doesn’t mean that you vote, nor that you pay much attention to candidates and issues, but the problem of low-information voters isn’t unique to Australia. Maybe there’s something about the worldview of people who rent vs. that of people who own….? Dunno.

U S jurisdictions do often provide some protections for tenants, which can disadvantage landlords, but they wouldn’t affect the status of owner occupants.

In Japan, folks know that houses depreciate

image credit: insho impression CC BY-ND 2.0

According to this post, Japanese don’t expect the value of their houses to grow.  It seems that they routinely recognize the house and land as separate purchases, and after a few decades the house might have no value at all.  The inference is that land value also might not increase, but at least is unlikely to drop much. (Of course the same trends in value occur in the U S, but we tend not to recognize it.)

As a result, empty-nesters in Japan don’t count on funding their retirements by selling their houses.  As noted in the comments, this also means that housing in Japan is much more affordable than in North America.

Another post by the same writers observes that vacant land in Japan is subject to very high taxes — six times the rate for land with structures.  So landowners are reluctant to demolish worthless houses.  The result is over 13% of houses (as of 2013) were vacant, many of them deteriorated and uninhabitable.    (This article asserts that Japan had 8.5 million “abandoned homes” in 2018, but provides no source and doesn’t define “abandoned.”  This table from the Japan Statistics Bureau reports 8,764,400 vacant dwellings, 14% of Japan’s housing. Most are “for sale” or “for rent.” )

14% seems like a lot, but the equivalent U S rate is 12.2% (according to the press release here which might soon be memory-holed in favor of an update.)


“Chicago’s growth spurt” part of expanding Gaffney trove

Michigan Avenue around 1912.

As Polly Cleveland continues her project posting Mason Gaffney’s works, we find “Chicago’s Growth Spurt, 1890-1900.”  It’s not very long, and worth reading today as a contrast to our current stagnation. Most importantly, Gaffney deduces circumstantial evidence that during the era of growth, land values were significantly taxed.  As he notes in conclusion, “More research into Chicago’s political history is needed.”

The whole trove contains dozens of working papers, class notes, and publications, in Gaffney’s concise and understandable style.  (You’ll find it linked here as well as above; depending on your screen size and magnification you might need to scroll over to the right to see it.)


Buyers can’t afford houses, so land prices go … up?

Crains reports today that rising land costs, as well as increases in construction costs and uncertainty about real estate taxes, is slowing construction of single family housing on the north side.  One might think this would result in lower land prices, but a builder is quoted as saying lots in Lincoln Park and Lakeview, which recently sold in the $700,000 range, are now going for $900,000 and up. This makes it difficult or impossible to build a new house selling for the $1 to $1.5 million that buyers seem willing to spend.

So if it’s not demand for houses, what is driving up the price of land? Possibly more multi-family is being built? Or other uses? (Other than the City’s massive database — which doesn’t specify type of structure nor how many units, except as inconsistent text fields — I can’t find any statistics on housing construction within the City.  Must be somewhere…)

Or possibly the supply of vacant lots, or deteriorated structures on lots that could be made vacant, has depleted?  Or purchase and sale of vacant lots is used to launder money?

The article also notes that land costs are much lower in an isolated part of Bridgeport/Chinatown, specifically Throop & Hillock, where a recent development of attached and detached houses paid $55,300 per unit for land.

Declining number of homeless Americans

Here’s another assertion that our “civilization” is collapsing.  Of course I don’t know that it’s collapsing, maybe it is, but I decided to arbitrarily pick one of the signs identified in the article:

The “misery index” mushrooms, witnessed by increasing rates of homicide, suicide, illness, homelessness, and drug/alcohol abuse;

I haven’t time to look up all of these, so I picked one  — homelessness. It happens that the Federal Dept of Housing & Urban Development, while not doing other mischief, runs an annual point-in-time survey of the number of homeless.  And look what it shows:

source: The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. (PIT=”point in time”)

Observed homelessness is declining. That doesn’t mean rent isn’t too high, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t imposing on friends or relatives for temporary shelter, it doesn’t mean that lots of folks don’t lack the opportunity to earn a decent living, and it doesn’t mean that people don’t hide from government officials.  But it does mean that one arbitrarily chosen statistic, used to support the ongoing collapse, doesn’t.

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