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%
source: https://www.fhfa.gov/PolicyProgramsResearch/Research/Pages/wp1901.aspx

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.

Sun-Times report inadvertently helps show the benefits of simple LVT as a revenue source

Image credit: Purple Wyrm CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

According to a Sun-Times report, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi acknowledges that his “Senior Freeze” program, under which old property owners claiming household income under $65,000 can get a big break on property taxes, is “riddled with errors.” Highlighted is a multi-million dollar condo in Water Tower Place, whose owners pay only $2502/year.  While it’s certainly possible that these folks might have income under $65,000/year, that seems unlikely, as they also own a Florida condo valued at over $1 million. Their Chicago property apparently also benefits from the temporary removal of toilets during a 2017 remodeling.   It seems that the Assessor never noted that the toilets were replaced (or perhaps they were not?)

While the WTP property is clearly an extreme case, the senior freeze program transferred $250 million from owners of 144,904 properties who participate in it to the remainder of the 1.77 million taxable properties (of which 1.6 million are residential) in the County.  With the total property tax revenue at $15.6 billion, this amounts to about 1.6 % of total taxes collected.  The Sun-Times article provides several other examples of affluent old people who benefit from the program.

Clearly this is a problem of bad policies ((discriminating against renters, the nonelderly, and people who find it difficult to complete simple bureaucratic forms), and taxing improvements), combined with governmental malfunction (Kaegi hasn’t been able to get the program under control, partly because there is no mechanism for the County to verify incomes).

It should not be necessary to mention, but I will mention anyway, that the Sun-Times report relied on property tax data being, for the most part, publicly available.  While far worse scandals likely could be found regarding income tax, many of these can’t be documented unless taxpayers “voluntarily” release their information, or it is (probably unlawfully) liberated.

Not the first daylight robbery, but a good one

I’ve long considered Dominic Frisby, perhaps the only working comic who’s also a financial writer, to be a Georgist.  Several years ago he posted a nice video explaining the land value tax.  Now he’s gone deep into a history of taxation and its effects, in  Daylight Robbery: How Tax Shaped Our Past and Will Change Our Future   Readable and succinct, but somehow by the end Frisby has forgot about his video.

The title is appropriate, so good that over a dozen older books already carry it, but the subtitle may be unique.  Frisby asserts quite a few facts new to me, and for the most part provides references (altho some are a bit summary, showing only the domain name such as cbs.com, or time.com, where one might need to search around a bit).

The book starts with the story of Hong Kong, a British colony which prospered thru free markets and lower taxes (The point stands, even tho in recent years external demand pushed housing costs to obscene levels, and in recent months political and governmental interference made conditions even more difficult.) Going thru tax history, Frisby of course discusses the effects of the window tax (“daylight robbery”), and explains why it was considered to be fairer and easier to administer than its predecessor. He tells us about tax revolts and England’s first income tax, all records of which were apparently destroyed (source citation is a two-volume history that I can find only in Latin).  He explains the cause of the U S War between the States (which Lincoln waged more for revenue purposes than in any opposition to slavery.)  He notes that Hitler was tax-exempt, and the Guardian used a Cayman Islands entity to (apparently legally) avoid taxes.

After lots more stories about taxation and its role in history, moving to modern times, Frisby explains (as if any of us need to know) the burden that taxation of productive activity places on people trying to, well, be productive. He talks about the digital nomads and crypto currencies which make collection of production tax more difficult, and about digital transactions which make the collection easier.

Finally he proposes a Utopian tax system.  Is it collection of all economic rent as the sole source of public revenue?  Not really.  He wants VAT (not to exceed 15%, and including narcotics) and income tax (also not to exceed 15%).  So the record-keeping burdens and complexities of those will remain, tho perhaps a bit reduced because the impact of error is less.  To these he wants to add L U T (Location Usage Tax), which is basically LVT but with perhaps a clearer name, and which would be set at some percentage of the land rental value.  He wants voters to choose the percentage, apparently a single rate nationwide. And since he aims to keep governmental expenditures below 15% of GDP, it’s unclear that there would be any L U T at all.

“The location usage tax does not apply just to land, but to any asset granted by nature — the airspace the mineral wealth, and even the broadcast spectrums.”  He doesn’t seem to have any problem with private collection of rent for “intellectual property,” even tho I P is a privilege granted and protected by the government, thus straightforward to track and assess– if there’s any justification for I P at all.

It seems that much of the land in Britain is “unregistered,” in that the owner isn’t known, and in Utopia this will be remedied by identifying every  owner.  I’m not sure why that’s necessary.  A tax bill could be posted for each parcel, and a copy mailed to the owner should s/he request it.  After due and repeated notice, If the bill isn’t paid, the land could be taken over by the Crown (or whatever they call it over there), and auctioned to somebody willing to pay the tax. (If nobody’s willing to pay the tax, it needs to be reduced.)

Would I like to live in Frisby’s Utopia? Well, of course here in the U S we have no VAT, and the retail sales tax is generally less than 15%. But income tax can be higher, and we have various other taxes which Frisby proposes to eliminate.  And LVT has other benefits in addition to the revenue it generates.  So on the whole, it’s a better deal, a step in the right direction. But Utopia? Go back and watch the video.

(Note: This review is of the 2019 edition of the book.  The Publisher’s web site indicates that a new edition will be released later in 2020.)

Some effects of high and misconfigured real estate taxes

Delinquent taxes soaring in Cook County

Reportedly, taxes of 163,036 parcels in Cook County were not paid on time. This comprises 2018 taxes which should have been paid in 2019. and amounts to 8.7% of all parcels in the County. For a dozen south Cook County municipalities, this amounts to 20% or more of total parcels.  Counts by municipality are posted separately for south, west, and north Cook.  All sources show the percentage of parcels with unpaid taxes within the City of Chicago as 9.9%.

Separately, the reports show that only 7.8% of the delinquent taxes offered for auction in 2018 were bought by investors, which might imply that the remaining parcels are considered worth less than the taxes owed.

Unfortunately the source doesn’t tell us  how many of the parcels are vacant, residential, commercial, or other uses, and gives no historical context, so we don’t really know how any of these figures compare to prior years. But regardless, the current numbers are alarming.

Suppose that the real estate tax system was changed, so that improvements would be tax-free while the value of land as vacant would be heavily taxed to make up the difference.  For vacant parcels, construction of houses or other structures would not increase the tax.  For parcels which contain improvements, taxes likely would be lower than now, and improvements would again be tax free.  Just a thought.

Maybe expanding tax-exempt institutions raise land prices?

Crains tells us that a strikingly-designed two flat, less than 30 years old, is worthless.  Well, they didn’t say it quite that way, but it was sold for $1.9 million to a buyer who will demolish it. So the $1.9 million was for the land.  I don’t know whether any developer of housing or anything else taxable would have paid nearly that much for the site, but the buyer was tax-exempt Illinois Masonic Medical Center.  Their exempt status of course made the land more valuable to them. Which raises the interesting question of whether buying land in the path of such an institution’s expansion might be a profitable strategy.  Of course, a fair-minded community might decide to tax land used for hospitals at the same rate as land used for housing and other useful things.  But we’re not there yet.

“Taxes – De Standaard” by Stijn Felix is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

 

Putting government pension costs into perspective

Wirepoints recently issued a helpful report showing state and local government pension debt per Chicago household.  They estimate the burden at $144,000 per household.  This is a big number, but one could suppose that a prosperous household, over decades, could bear such a burden.  Some could, but probably not those below poverty level.  Take them out of the picture and the per household amount rises to $172,000.  Excluding households with incomes below $75,000, or below $200,000, and the per-household amount rises further, to $393,000 and $2,022,000 respectively.

Here’s their chart: pension debt chart

Of course this doesn’t consider land values, nor businesses.  If prime Chicago land is worth $1,000/sq ft, that’s 5.38 sq miles.  But more typical land value is much less, probably no more than $25/sq ft. (it seems that nobody has tried to estimate citywide values). That would be 112 square miles.  Once we subtract land owned by governments, churches and other exempt nonprofits, we might be approaching the total value of all land in Chicago. And that’s just for pensions, not bonded debt, nor needed capital improvements.  Real estate buyers know, or certainly should know, about these encumbrances.

Of course money can be raised from business taxes, but that’s hardly a way to grow economic opportunity for Chicagoans. I would consider any tax revenue from “gaming” as a kind of business tax.

The lesson Wirepoints draws from this is that pensions have to be downsized somehow, which required amending the state constitution.  And they go further, comparing government salaries to those of the private sector:

some local gov't salaries compared to average workers

So it looks like we’re going to have to confront a large number of people with guns and firehoses and control over our children, who have been getting a lot of money from us for years and may prefer not to moderate their demands.

Tho I don’t know how, this problem will be solved. Maybe MMT will yield a continuing stream of funds to bail us out.  Maybe inflation will accelerate such that the fixed 3% compounded pension increase isn’t a burden.  Maybe Chicagoans will decide that they just don’t want so many government “services.”  Maybe politicians will decide to remove all taxes from productive economic activity, taxing only the value of land and other privileges (such as the private monopoly over street parking fees), which will grow the economy (while reducing the need for emergency services) sufficient to make pensions a non-issue.

And when it is solved, those who own land and other privileges will benefit most.

Why trust corrupt governments to honestly administer a land value tax?

bar chart of what folks say they're afraid of
source: Chapman University Survey of American Fears

I don’t know that governments are always and inevitably corrupt, but there sure seems to be a lot of corruption going on.  It isn’t a new development; maybe it’s worse nowadays or maybe just more visible.

So how can we single taxers say that we want the government to collect all, or nearly all, of the economic rent? Don’t we know that it will be stolen or, at best, wasted?

Not necessarily.  Consider the following:

In the U S at least, real estate tax is administered and collected at the local — that is, substate– level. This is where the records and expertise needed to operate a land value tax exist.

Unlike income tax or sales tax, nearly all the data involved in real estate taxation is public information.   Most of this data is accessible to everyone with internet access, generally without fee. I can see how much real estate tax my neighbor paid.  I cannot see how much income tax they paid. The same goes for sales taxes and most other kinds of taxes. So cheating in real estate tax can be seen.  That doesn’t mean it will always be impossible for people to cheat, but it provides a much greater possibility that cheating will be observed and rectified.

Government corruption seems to be a function of government size.  A survey earlier this year found that “87% of voters nationwide believe corruption is widespread in the federal government. Solid majorities believe there is also corruption in state (70%) and local (57%) government.”  Looked at the other way round, only 13% of us believe the federal government is possibly honest, compared to 30% for states and 43% for localities.  I actually believe that one of the local governments to whom I pay taxes is pretty honest and efficient.

State and federal governments might logically collect some of the economic rent.  Examples currently include severance taxes and could reasonably include rents for electromagnetic spectrum should our rulers become persuaded to levy and collect them. Existing federal agencies are able to review and evaluate collection efforts.

 

Notes on Cook County Assessments

Selection from Olcott’s Land Values Blue Book, 1936 edition, Numbers represent values per front foot, to be adjusted as described in the book.

Assessor Fritz Kaegi appears to seek assessments that are more consistent with applicable laws and ordinances, and easier for taxpayers to understand. This might be a good thing, tho one hopes that, once taxpayers understand how assessments are done, they’ll demand a more helpful system, one which doesn’t punish homeowners and businesses for building or improving.

Traditionally, Continue reading Notes on Cook County Assessments

Fictitious people and their imaginary taxes

Credit: Mike Licht (CC BY 2.0)

Matt Levine has an illuminating post about why the recent reduction in corporate tax rates results in a reduction in some corporations’ reported profits.  It seems that past losses can be saved as a “deferred tax asset,” permitting a reduction in taxes to be paid in future years.  But the ratio of losses to tax reduction declines when the tax rate declines, so the deferred tax asset is reduced.   Levine notes that such tax rate reduction can cause a corporation to appear less well capitalized, since it reduces assets, even tho it increases expected after-tax income.

Just another illustration of the absurdity of a corporate income tax (or perhaps of corporations in general).  Of course corporations should pay taxes – based on the land (including spectrum and other natural resources) that they claim.  And they should pay additional taxes reflecting the limited liability granted by the state.  But the accounting concept of corporate income has little to do with this.

Another outrage that a land value tax would eliminate

One of many sophisticated dogs named “Wrigley” Image credit: Liz CC BY-NC 2.0

Expanding on a subject covered here nearly six years ago, Tim Novak of the Sun Times writes about  assessment deals in Wrigleyville.  Actually, not just 32 properties in Wrigleyville, but apparently on 13,984 parcels countywide, each of which reportedly contains commercial use along with at least one, but no more than six, apartments.

Because Cook County taxes residential (and vacant) property at 40% of the rate applicable to commercial property, and because, 17 years ago, the Cook County Board decided to pretend that commercial property containing one to six apartments is residential, taxes on these 32 Wrigley-area properties (and, presumably, on all 13,984 parcels) are only 40% of the amount they would otherwise be.  Furthermore, Novak visited some of the properties and found evidence that they don’t contain any apartments at all. Which Assessor Berrios thanked him for reporting.

Novak also visited an auto repair shop across the street from Wrigley, whose owner owes $78,000 in back taxes and claims to fear losing his property.  Of course I don’t know the owner’s personal financial situation, but given high land prices in the neighborhood, it seems he could sell his site for a couple million dollars, take the money and buy (or buy land and build) a better facility a mile or two away.  Across from Wrigley may have been a good location for car repair in the 1970s, but not so today.

Three conclusions:

(1) Sun Times needs to sell papers (and attract web traffic) and putting “Wrigley” in the title probably doubles or quadruples the number of people who’d read an article about “tax break.” But the issue is taxes, not commercial baseball.

(2) Once again, let’s be thankful that real estate tax and assessment data is (mostly) accessible to the public.  Who knows what kinds of scandals there are on the income tax and sales tax returns filed by the politically-connected property owners, their accountants or attorneys? Unless Wikileaks takes an interest, we’ll never see them.

(3) All this would be solved with a land value tax.  Everybody pays the same rate — a big rate — based on the value of their land, exclusive of improvements, and perhaps no other taxes are needed.  If there were inequities, the Sun Times — or the Civic Federation — could publish maps making them readily visible.

 

Won’t be finishing this book

Laurel & Hardy silhouettes. Image credit: Stephen McCulloch CC BY-SA 2.0

A Fine Mess by T R Reid. The subtitle is: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System. A great quest, and certainly something to investigate. Grabbed it off the library shelf, started to read, and …

Any time I see what might be a thoughtful book about taxes, I pretty soon turn to the index to see what it says about Henry George, land values, or economic rent. Hey, Reid devotes about six of his 262 pages to a section about Henry George and land value tax (tho he sort of conflates this to the “property tax” which includes improvements.) He acknowledges George’s historic significance and the logic of the Georgist argument.  Then he says:

In George’s day, government– and thus the funding needed to pay for it– was vastly smaller than what we know today… [I]n 1879 there was no Social Security, no Medicaid, no NASA, no Department of Transportation or Energy or Health & Human Services.  Some economic historians argue that the Georgian Single Tax might have been adequate to maintain the relatively minimal governmental establishment of the 1880s…No country has ever been able to fund its governments with only the Single Tax on the value of land that Henry George envisioned.

He does not say “Full collection of economic rent would be insufficient to fund all the legitimate functions of government,” tho he certainly implies it.  So a response is needed.  And available.

  • If the government provides services which make the community (city, state, country, whatever unit) a more pleasant or productive place, what is the effect on the value of land? Does this not apply to the services Reid mentions?  If it does not, why should the people continue to pay taxes for such services?
  • If all the taxes which make labor expensive and real wages low, such as the tax on earned income, payroll tax, sales tax, tax on houses, utility tax, Medicare tax, were abolished, what would be the effect on the value of land?  And what would be the effect on the need for that part of government expenditures which assist the poor?
  • In fact, how has the value of land in America changed  since George’s time? It is a national embarrassment that we do not have reliable information to address this question, but surely the answer is “multiplied manyfold.” One reasonable estimate (pdf)  of today’s value is $23 trillion (as of 2009). That’s more than the national debt.  Because land value is a function of rent, and because all taxes come out of rent, imagine how much greater land value would be in the absence of all the anti-productivity taxes as noted above.

Of course, George’s proposed tax does not apply only to land as conventionally defined.  It also includes taxes on mineral rights and extraction, electromagnetic spectrum, water rights, and more. (Mason Gaffney compiled a pretty complete outline (pdf)) It also applies to the moon and planets, should NASA or some billionaire claim rights.

So since Reid neglects to properly evaluate the potential of the single tax, I’m not inclined to read his book because I wouldn’t know what other oversights it might contain. But I did browse thru it.  Reid really likes the value-added tax: “We should…implement this tax and use the money it raises to cut taxes on work and savings. (page 255)”

Uh, what are the economic purposes of work and savings? Yeah, to buy goods and services, now or in the future.  Substituting a VAT for taxes on earned income would permit people to get earn or save more dollars — and would make more expensive the things people want to spend those dollars on.

Gaffney has provided a further case against VAT (pdf).