Collecting the Rent in Hong Kong

Georgists often like to point to Hong Kong as a successful example of funding a community’s needs from economic rent.  The result is a prosperous and (relatively) free city, a magnet for immigrants.  But our information is old, and numerous changes have happened since the transfer of power, from UK to PRC in 1997.

So I was pleased to spend a bit of time this afternoon with a Hong Kong native, who now lives and works in Chicago.  Not familiar at all with Henry George, not even interested in political philosophy as far as I could tell, but able to speak with me about current economic conditions.  If I have any errors below, I trust that someone will correct me. Continue reading Collecting the Rent in Hong Kong

Housing costs and land use regulation

Steve Keen did the great service of reading the FCIC report and confirming my impression (obtained without reading it) that it was not worth reading.  And a few posts prior, he reported that Wendell Cox and friends are out with another edition of their annual Demographia report, showing, once again, that the ratio of house cost to income tends to be higher in metropolitan areas where housing development is relatively restricted, and lower where developers find it relatively easy to get clearance to build. (Their report is international in scope but I will limit my comments to their analysis of US conditions.) Continue reading Housing costs and land use regulation

Medical tax to burden homebuyers

Yes, the report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is out.  It’s over 600 pages long.  Sources I respect say it’s the expected whitewash.  I probably won’t ever read it. I still haven’t read the Obamacare Act (yeah, thats not a good name for it, we really oughta call it something like DemoPublicare.)  Anyhow, I just found out how it’s going to increase the screwing up of the housing market.

As Lew Sichelman explains, it includes

a highly targeted 3.8% tax enacted as part of the controversial health-care reform legislation that has been signed into law and which Republicans are now trying to overturn.

The tax will apply to individuals with adjusted gross incomes above $200,000 and couples filing jointly with more than a $250,000 AGI. If you and your spouse choose to file jointly, the AGI threshold is $125,000 for each of you.

The Medicare tax, so named because the proceeds are to be dedicated to the Medicare Trust Fund, will be on interest dividends, rents less expenses, and capital gains less capital losses. But the key thing to remember is that the tax is based on whichever is less, the gain you made on the sale of the house or the amount your income exceeds the AGI threshold.

It’s complicated, so it’s hard to predict how it will effect every seller. As always with tax matters, it’s best to consult with a professional.

Of course, the income limits may change (legislatively or thru unmeasured inflation), so any of us who own our housing better save all receipts which might possibly have anything to do with adjusting the basis.  But at least it doesn’t immediately affect the rest of us, does it?

Not so.  I’d say this is another in a series of moves discouraging old people from selling houses that are larger than they need or really want, and which would otherwise be bought by families with children who could use the space.  Earlier policies with similar effect include real estate tax breaks targeted at old people, and whatever programs facilitate reverse mortgages.

So what will homeseeking families do? Most likely, they’ll find houses they can afford, and the probability is that these will be further out. (The tax presumably also applies to sales of high-priced vacant lots, another force discouraging construction of homes on well-located sites.)

So maybe instead of the Obamacare Act, we should call it the Sprawl Enhancement and Old People Stabilitzation Act.

Land prices, not house prices, have dropped

in the past few years, as well illustrated by this article from MSNBC.  Homeowner insurance costs generally haven’t declined, because construction costs haven’t declined. (Homeowner insurance covers the cost of repairing or replacing the structure.) If it’s not construction cost, what went down? Must be the land. (ht Rob’t Blau)

I’m struck that an article about homeowner’s insurance doesn’t touch on title insurance, which is having difficulties of its own.

Bank bails itself out

The subhead of this  (1/1/11) Tribune article summarizes well:

$15 million Marquette Bank program offers subsidized home loans to buyers who purchase homes in subdivisions of client builders

You’re a bank.  You made some construction loans (or were they even land acquisition loans?) to residential builders who are now unable to repay. If you repossess the land you surely will have to recognize a loss; maybe your capital ratios will be endangered.  What do you do?

You lend money to buyers on favorable terms, which they use to buy houses in those subdivisions.   You hold the loans in your own portfolio, so they need not conform to recently-tightened underwriting standards. Win-win, at least for the bank and the borrowers.

We Institutionalize Kleptocracy

That’s how Yves Smith describes the probable outcome of the latest bunch of mortgage finance scandals.  We already know that lenders lied, brokers lied, consumers were instructed to lie, and the whole house of cards was built on perpetually-rising land prices. In recent weeks, and especially the past couple of days, we are learning that the back office lied too, nobody bothered to process much of the paperwork, it was easier to just forge documents as needed, and for many parcels it will be difficult or impossible for tell who really owns the mortgage (which likely will never be repaid anyway as it far exceeds what the property could be sold for).

The solution? Smith (and others) expect the federal authorities to move in, Continue reading We Institutionalize Kleptocracy

Avoiding foreclosure vs. getting ripped off

A significant post at Naked Capitalism asks “Why Are NACA’s Innovative Mortgage Modification Marathons Below the Radar?”    Suppose a property bought for $300,000, with a $290,000 mortgage, has declined in value to only $200,000.   If the borrower can’t keep up the payments, the lender could foreclose, but would net less than $200,000 after expenses, while the borrower would lose the property.

The rational solution is for the parties to agree to a reduction in principal, write the mortgage down to, say $200,000, with payments reduced commensurately.  The lender is better off, the borrower is better off, and there’s no vacant foreclosed home for the neighbors to worry about.

But homeowners under financial stress tend to have a lot of difficulty dealing with their lenders.  Lenders want to pretend that the mortgage is still worth $290,000 (otherwise they might have to liquidate or raise more capital), and/or hope to be bailed out by yet another federal program, and/or lack competent staff.

The NC post implies that NACA can be helpful in this situation.  But, as one of the commenters there notes, thousands of other enterprises make similar promises, and many of these are predatory.  How is the stressed homeowner to find someone who will help, rather than rip her off?

NACA provides some reason to be suspicious:

NACA – America’s Best Mortgage Program
The incredible NACA mortgage allows NACA Members to purchase or refinance homes with:

  • no down payment,
  • no closing costs,
  • no fees,
  • no requirement for perfect credit,
  • and at a below-market interest rate.

Everyone gets the same incredible terms, including the below-market interest rate, regardless of their credit score or other factors.

I can only answer by treating it like any other purchase of consumer services. You ask your friends, google around to see what other folks say about it, evaluate the explicit promises made on the provider’s web site…. and maybe you guess correctly, getting real help. [Hopefully you are not working three jobs trying to make ends meet, lacking time to do any real investigation.] There is no sure solution, only ways to improve the odds.

A better remedy, of course, would be a system that allows people to obtain decent housing in a decent neighborhood, without having to mortgage their futures for an “investment.” That would be one benefit of a land value tax.  No, we wouldn’t expect our homes to appreciate in value, at least not beyond the general rate of inflation.  But we would need much less debt to purchase them, and more easily build a reserve of real savings.

A warning about the NACA web site, btw: They seem beholden to Microsoft and will display an error message on many pages if you are not using genuine Internet Explorer.  I think some other browsers allow you to pretend to be using IE, and possibly this will solve the problem.