Property tax can’t be equitable, Kaegi asserts

former Schulze bakery
Disused Chicago bread factory to become data center. Image credit: Emily CC BY-NC 2.0

In a new article (archived copy, also included in this pdf) for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi asks “In a digital economy, how can cities create a more equitable property tax system?” Of course he does not try to define “equitable,” but one infers from the article that it means “funded more by those benefiting from the digitalization of the economy, and less by those who actually perform useful work.”  A desirable result, to be sure, but how does he propose to accomplish it?  He also seems to assume that government-funded schools are a good thing, or at least that parents shouldn’t be held individually responsible for arranging their own children’s education.

He proposes to get more revenue from the big infotech companies, specifying Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, and Facebook, but by implication the numerous other organizations who have prospered by taking advantage of the internet (as well as their lobbying capabilities to stifle competitors). He doesn’t think that local or state government is equipped to collect much of this revenue.  Further, he assumes that a real estate tax to fund “education” can only be implemented at the school district level, and couldn’t be countywide, regionwide, statewide, or in any respect subnational.  He concludes that the U S government needs to send large quantities of money to America’s cities, particularly including Chicago and the rest of Cook County.

“The federal government … is best situated to tax incomes generated by activity like digital commerce, virtual meetings, and footloose service providers [and]…will need to build fiscal mechanisms for a digital world that separates economic activity from physical space. ”  (Presumably these wealthy and influential companies won’t use their influence to deflect the tax burden to others. )

OK, so Cook County local governments don’t get revenue from this digital economy?  What about the 11 (soon to be 12) data centers in Elk Grove Village (archived copy), paying real estate taxes and utility taxes, as well as taxes imposed on persons working to construct and operate them. This report (archived copy) counts 52 data centers regionwide as of February 2021.  Both reports note that several kinds of tax favors are provided, without indicating that they’re necessary since the digital economy requires facilities in appropriate locations.

And Amazon and other on-line retailers don’t generate taxes?  Those of us who’ve bought something on line in the past couple years have noticed that the e-commerce giants collect and remit state and local sales taxes, typically in excess of 10% here.  Last year the BGA counted (archived copy) 36 warehouses in the Chicago area built for Amazon since 2015 (and noted “at least $741 million in taxpayer-funded incentives”).  This of course doesn’t count warehouses used by non-Amazon sellers such as Walmart and Target.  Again, it’s likely that most or all of these facilities would have been built without subsidies, since warehouses have to be located appropriately with respect to markets, labor supply, transportation, etc.

Kaegi is legitimately concerned about the fragmentation of Cook County’s tax base, noting that “The lower the value of real estate in a community, the higher the effective rate to provide a comparable level of school services. This results in
great disparities.”  But that problem isn’t inherent in the real estate tax; it’s inherent in the fragmentary structure of finance, funded largely by local real estate tax. A statewide real estate tax, such as Illinois had until it was replaced by a sales tax in 1933, could reduce or eliminate the disparities.  A number of states retain statewide real estate taxes, but the problem of disparities can also be addressed by a tax-base sharing arrangement, as has operated for half a century in Minnesota.

“[W]e must continue to push for local-school funding that is not rooted in local land values,” writes Kaegi.  Actually, if an effective disparity-reduction arrangement is in place, the opposite might be true.  I have previously posted a table and map illustrating that, if taxes were based on land value rather than land+improvement value, the burden on homeowners in communities of low income and color would be lessened.  And of course if the burden of sales taxes could be replaced by a tax on land value, the benefit to moderate-income households would be enhanced.

So we have an Assessor, running for re-election, who doesn’t believe the taxes he helps calculate are a good way to fund local services.  I had hoped for better (but didn’t really expect it), as the quality of assessment seems to have improved during his tenure. He does have one announced primary opponent.

Cheap housing is on cheaper land

Click for larger, interactive map

UPDATE Aug 29 2021:  If anyone familiar with Chicago doubts that removing improvements from the tax base will ease the burden on low-income homeowners, this map will be instructive.   The original, mapless post from Aug 25 follows.

We sometimes are told that a land value tax (LVT) would punish the poor person who has a small rundown house on a high-value lot, while benefiting the person next door who has a large fancy house on an identical lot. And that’s not wrong, it’s just atypical.  In practice, we believe, poor people mostly live in neighborhoods where housing is cheap and land is cheaper, thus they would tend to benefit from a shift to LVT.

As the quality of Cook County assessments has been improving, we expect to be able to show this by analysis of that data. In the meantime, we have some estimates of land and improvement value from William Larson and colleagues at the Federal Housing Finance Agency.  Using appraisals produced for mortgage underwriting, they estimate land and improvement values for homes in most zip codes (and census tracts) nationwide.  Their source data includes only single family properties which were appraised for mortgage purposes.  They consider only parcels where the improvement is less than 15 years old, and exclude vacant land as well as land where the appraised value is very close to the assessed value (in case appraisers might have relied on low-quality or obsolete assessments).  Also excluded are zip codes with an insufficient number of single family home transactions.

The chart below shows, for Chicago zip codes, the ratio of land value to total value (vertical axis) and total value of the property (horizontal axis. What stands out is that the ratio tends to be lower where the properties are cheaper.  That is, a revenue-neutral shift of property taxation to land values only, ignoring value of improvements, would tend to reduce the taxes on low-value zip codes, while increasing it in higher-value areas.


The table below shows the data for each zip code, sorted from high proportion of value in land to low.   Clearly the more affluent areas have lower proportion of improvement value, and the areas with low income population have a higher proportion of improvement value.

Estimated land value proportion and related data for single family properties in Chicago zip codes
ZIP Code Lot Size building sq ft floor area ratio Property Value (As-is) Land Share of Property Value
60640 4300 2320 0.540 $809,500 50.70%
60614 2920 2950 1.010 $1,516,300 47.10%
60613 3740 2590 0.693 $1,128,200 46.90%
60625 4220 1860 0.441 $528,000 46.30%
60618 3580 1890 0.528 $615,800 45.90%
60660 3820 1940 0.508 $553,500 44.50%
60657 3210 2600 0.810 $1,133,300 44.40%
60622 3120 2330 0.747 $911,800 41.80%
60631 5620 1690 0.301 $390,700 40.90%
60610 2250 2900 1.289 $1,443,300 40.20%
60646 5370 1820 0.339 $445,900 39.80%
60647 3250 1880 0.578 $600,800 39.20%
60654 1990 3580 1.799 $1,661,200 37.40%
60630 4310 1550 0.360 $315,500 37.20%
60642 2230 2140 0.960 $667,200 37.20%
60641 4230 1640 0.388 $316,400 35.70%
60605 1840 2200 1.196 $774,700 35.30%
60659 4310 1800 0.418 $367,500 35.10%
60626 5410 2050 0.379 $407,400 34.20%
60656 5100 1500 0.294 $334,600 34.20%
60612 2910 1920 0.660 $424,300 33.90%
60645 4420 1870 0.423 $373,600 33.70%
60634 4240 1470 0.347 $264,100 32.40%
60608 2960 1530 0.517 $302,200 31.70%
60615 4460 2630 0.590 $615,700 31.50%
60616 2570 1950 0.759 $447,900 31.40%
60607 1970 2140 1.086 $641,400 28.90%
60655 5140 1490 0.290 $258,000 28.80%
60707 4940 1600 0.324 $258,700 28.70%
60637 3920 1970 0.503 $350,000 26.30%
60609 3320 1450 0.437 $209,700 25.20%
60639 3900 1420 0.364 $202,900 25.20%
60638 4280 1340 0.313 $225,100 24.70%
60632 3860 1300 0.337 $173,600 20.60%
60643 5960 1600 0.268 $200,800 20.60%
60652 4730 1330 0.281 $176,400 18.30%
60629 4040 1340 0.332 $155,300 17.40%
60651 3920 1440 0.367 $158,300 16.90%
60653 3290 2360 0.717 $390,100 16.60%
60644 4580 1650 0.360 $137,400 16.00%
60633 4690 1320 0.281 $120,200 15.20%
60649 4960 1870 0.377 $170,800 13.80%
60623 3510 1340 0.382 $118,500 13.60%
60624 3300 1540 0.467 $122,200 12.80%
60621 3880 1490 0.384 $69,300 11.50%
60617 4200 1360 0.324 $116,300 11.20%
60619 4320 1430 0.331 $127,700 10.50%
60636 3540 1270 0.359 $65,200 10.30%
60620 4180 1410 0.337 $117,800 10.20%
60628 4320 1340 0.310 $99,800 9.20%

A Chicago zip code map is here.

Also of interest, even tho the low-value areas have a high ratio of improvement to land value, this isn’t because of large houses on small lots.  The floor area ratio is generally lower in the areas with lower land value proportion.

Overall, the above data is consistent with Georgists’ assertion that low-income residents usually benefit from a switch to LVT.  I might be taking a further look at this dataset.

2020 Cook County Property Tax Analysis — sort of

image credit: Andy Arthur CC BY 2.0

We have a new report from Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, subtitled “2020 Cook County property tax analysis: A heavier burden for businesses, Black and Latino suburban property owners.”   It’s got more detail than I recall seeing published before, including two decades of total real estate tax revenue countywide and by triad, and (for the past two years only) median taxes per parcel for residential and commercial, by municipality and township (and limited data for Chicago wards)  as well as a fun list of the ten highest residential and commercial tax bills for each township. The extra load Cook County’s current classification system places on commercial property is noted.

All of this data for individual parcels has been available on the Treasurer’s web site for some time, but it wasn’t assembled for convenient use.

It’s likely impossible to discuss the real estate tax system (let alone the complete scope of public revenue) in a way which can hold the attention even of people who find themselves heavily burdened by the way government is funded and operated.  And Pappas’ office got this information out quickly, as the taxes have only recently been calculated and won’t be due until October 1.  All the same, there are problems which one hopes will be fixed next time this is done (and one certainly hopes there will be a next time, soon.)

Noting the continuing rise in revenues, the report asserts that “[t]he bigger tax burden is not being shared equally.”  What could this mean?  What would be equal?  Should we fund government by a poll tax, which is the only way to get everyone to pay the same amount? Perhaps the writer means “equitably,”  a desirable thing tho difficult to agree on. It’s then observed that “Property owners in many south suburbs continue to pay far more in taxes than landowners in other parts of the county.”  I will set aside the fact that “property” and “land” aren’t the same thing, and assume that the writer may have meant “real estate taxes are higher in many south suburbs than in other parts of the county,” which is sufficiently cautious that it must be true.

But in fact the amount of real estate tax paid by a median homeowner is much lower, less than $4,000/year in Bloom and Thornton townships (page 49 of the statistics section of the report), less than any of the north suburban townships (page 56).

That doesn’t mean that the taxes in Bloom and Thornton aren’t a burden for many, because taxes imposed on struggling people are always a burden. And the very high tax rates reduce market values, while increasing the extra burden on renters (who cannot benefit from the “homeowner exemption.”)

The report makes no attempt to separate the value of land from the value of improvements, even tho the assessments provide this breakout for each parcel.  There’s no distinction between owner-occupied and renter-occupied homes. The only mention of vacant land is to say that it’s been ignored, as has mixed-use (residential+commercial) property.  There’s no mention at all of exempt government-owned land.

It would be helpful to include reference maps, especially of townships. And in an ideal world, the tables would be offered in spreadsheet format.


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.