Wealth and Want
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Is population density a bad thing? Many people's instant reaction is to answer yes to that. And obviously, not everyone wants to live in or near a city. Yet for many of us, urban living, with all the amenities that a dense population provides, is a wonderful thing. Many of us would rather live close to those amenities than spend an hour, or two — or more — commuting from land we can afford to sites where wages are high enough to provide a living.

With population growth comes an increase in rent. That increase in rent can be used to make a few landholders extremely wealthy (in the form of annual rent payments that are mostly for location rather than a return on the building and the services they provide, or in the form of appreciation on a property when they choose to sell it), or it can be used to fund the services which make living in a city pleasant: good public transportation, good schools, good emergency services, parks, libraries, etc. Which plan makes sense to you?

Jeff Smith and Kris Nelson: Giving Life to the Property Tax Shift (PTS)

John Muir is right. "Tug on any one thing and find it connected to everything else in the universe." Tug on the property tax and find it connected to urban slums, farmland loss, political favoritism, and unearned equity with disrupted neighborhood tenure. Echoing Thoreau, the more familiar reforms have failed to address this many-headed hydra at its root. To think that the root could be chopped by a mere shift in the property tax base -- from buildings to land -- must seem like the epitome of unfounded faith. Yet the evidence shows that state and local tax activists do have a powerful, if subtle, tool at their disposal. The "stick" spurring efficient use of land is a higher tax rate upon land, up to even the site's full annual value. The "carrot" rewarding efficient use of land is a lower or zero tax rate upon improvements. ...

Owners paying higher land dues feel pressured to develop their land in order to pay their dues, and development is already blighting many suburbs and farmland. Won't the PTS force premature or excessive development, losing open space and ecologically sensitive areas? Environmentalists should understand that development is actually needed to spare land. Using some land more intensely means using other land not at all. The PTS stimulates construction in the most intensely-used locations; compact urban form leaves more surrounding countryside pristine. Since about one-fifth of urban areas are vacant or underused land, and half is devoted to cars, there's plenty of room in cities for growth. While suburban commercial centers compete with downtown for redevelopment, each new building, whether for business or residents, must find tenants.

Higher density is the expected result of the PTS, yet many people oppose higher density. However, the noxious component is not a higher density of population but of automobiles, creating congestion, noise, noxious smells, and danger. The PTS, by clearing out the infestation of vehicles, makes human habitats more livable and the added people unnoticeable.

Without coercion or remote planning, the PTS improves our settlement patterns. Regulations and zoning, some assume, might be vitiated or obviated, become obsolete. Instead, the PTS makes it easier for regulations and zoning to do their job. Since the land tax lowers land price, buying land for parks and reserves is more easily afforded. The loss in revenue from removing the newly public lands from the tax rolls would be offset somewhat by the corresponding rise in value of sites near the protected open space. Creating green spaces raises the density of already developed land, and thus its value. Furthermore, land dues reduce the profit from land development, making it a less attractive investment, and land use decisions of less economic consequence. After a while, people with deep pockets would turn to investments that, post-shift, would be untaxed. Reserving land for recreational or natural uses becomes less contentious; people could more easily determine an optimum proportion of green space to developed space.

Redirecting land rent from owner to government might merely pass the motive to exploit from owner to state, possibly the next implacable force against conservation. However, while an individual must use their own land most intensely to maximize profit, a government must optimize land use to maximize its land tax base. That is, land value thruout the jurisdiction is lower when there is border-to-border development; overall values are higher when some space is kept open. From the government's point of view, there's more rent to be collected when highest and best use includes nonuse. ...

What's won or lost is a value generated by society. That is, land rises in value
  • where a new resource is discovered (during a gold rush, more money is made by land developers than by prospectors),
  • where population grows (see the Sun Belt and verdant Northwest),
  • where technology advances (witness the land values in the various Silicon Valleys, Forests, etc),
  • where infrastructure expands (e.g., near a new road or sewer), and
  • where society cooperates (e.g., in communities that organize street fairs, neighborhood watches, etc).
These factors driving land value are not improvements made by lone owners but by the entire community. The closest correlation to land value is density and no one person creates that. Hence the site value levy merely puts public values in the public treasury for public benefit, as untaxing homes, sales, and income leaves privately-generated values in private pockets. ...

A big problem needs a big solution which in turn needs a matching shift of our prevailing paradigm. Geonomics -- advocating that we share the social value of sites and natural resources and untax earnings -- does just that. Read the whole article

Jeff Smith: How Profit Shapes Urban Space
Like the rest of the universe, US cities keep expanding. Some time before the universe begins to contract, American metro regions may, too. What counterpart to gravity might suck suburbia back into the hole of our doughnut cities? One of the most fundamental forces in the world - money. 

It was the lure of cold cash that drove urbanites out of downtown. The usual suspect, the car, was merely a convenient ride. Despite our present dependency on cars, the drive to profit is powerful enough to bring people back.  ...

Post-PTS, would these speculators turned developers find customers? Or would potential customers continue to set up shop and home out in the cheaper 'burbs? Many house-hunters are drawn to where all the amenities are in walking distance. Many shopkeepers locate where people walk about. Other businesses collect themselves close to their suppliers and customers. There are plenty of takers for new downtown development.
At least that's what land values tell us. Land values merely reflect the desirability of locations. The more people want on, the more they must pay. The lots that people are willing to pay the most for are the heart of the city. ...

As does nature, her defenders might also want to abhor a vacuum. "Letting one city block lie fallow means paving over many suburban acres," calculates Gaffney, consultant to Alaska on oil royalties. "Conversely, using one block intensely means many outlying acres need not be used at all." The biggest gain in saving suburban land comes from using urban land more efficiently. ...

This property tax shift (PTS) "helps cities recover from auto-dependency," notes Gihring, author of The Journal of the American Planning Association’s first article on revenue reform (1999 Winter). The PTS turns lots for cars into structures for people. By densifying a city, it provides more riders for mass transit, justifying more routes and times. As riding becomes convenient while remaining a bargain, and parking grows inconvenient while rising in cost, more people switch from driving to riding. Less traffic lets cities transform streets for bikes, pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, and street performers.  ...

In New York, the city council keeps Manhattan’s Central Park unbuilt not because Greens rule the Big Apple but because property values overall are higher with the park than with luxury condos on the site. Land value is at its maximum when land use is at its optimum - mixed use including non-use. Batt adds, "the higher land value is, the more revenue there is for public benefit. Limiting a locality’s funding sources to land value puts government squarely on the side of the land’s health."  ...  Read the whole article

Bill Batt: The Nexus of Transportation, Economic Rent, and Land Use
Site Rent and Transportation Costs Linked
Higher density development has all the economies of scale, savings in cost, reduction in externalities, dividends in community and political enhancement, and benefits to urban areas that we all say that we want. The greater the proximity to points of desirable accessibility, the lower are typically the transportation costs. Conversely, sites remote from the urban centers of greatest locational value will have higher transportation costs. When the fixed costs of transportation infrastructure and parcel site improvements are accounted for (which tend to be relatively the same regardless of location), one is left with the marginal costs of operations.(6)  ...

This relationship has been demonstrated more empirically in a recent study by the Urban Land Institute. The author concluded that, for Portland Oregon,
each additional mile [traveled] translated into slightly more than $5,000 in housing costs; closer-in locations command a premium, those farther out save money. A ten-mile difference, all other things being equal, would amount to about $56,000 in new home value.
For a household in which one worker drives downtown (or at least to a more central location) to work, that ten-mile difference may amount to 4,600 miles annually, assuming 230 days of commuting and a round-trip of 20 miles each day. Moreover, if non-work trips to the central area and elsewhere doubled that amount, the tradeoff would be about 9,000 miles annually, which could mean a higher/lower driving cost of $3,000 annually, not counting the time saved/spent.(7)

That's the savings for living closer to the urban center by ten miles. If the urban resident has to rely upon a car nonetheless, subtracting some $3,000 annual travel expenses will still leave him paying again that much, and likely more, to own a car. Seven years ago James Kunstler put the true costs along with other experts at about $6,100 annually.(8) The American Automobile Association calculated that a car driven 15,000 miles in 2001 cost 51¢ per mile or $7,650.(9) Even that figure reflects only direct costs to the driver, not those passed on to society. One study calculated that the total costs of motor vehicle transportation to our society equal approximately one-fourth of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).(10) In 1991 road user fees totaled only about $33 billion whereas the true costs to society were ten times that;(11) put another way, drivers paid only 10% of the true costs of their motor vehicle use.(12) ...

... Developing land use and transportation patterns that assume walkability or transit service rather than individual and private motor vehicles is the very definition of livability. Experts agree that the minimum density necessary to make public transit services economically viable is 10 to 12 households per acre, although cities developed in the post-automobile era, lamentably, one sees very little prospect of altering automobile dependency.(36) One study found that "the range of costs induced by spread-out development, . . [i.e.] houses built in sprawling developments, may cost 40 to 400 percent more to serve than if they were located close to major facilities, were clustered in continuous areas, and in corporate a variety of housing types."(37) But by bringing prices into line with costs, both on the transportation services side and on the site-rent side, it is possible both to foster those personal choice calculations that are consistent with sustainable urban environments. ... read the whole article

Bill Batt: How Our Towns Got That Way   (1996 speech)

Failure to recapture publicly-created land rents through the tax mechanism provided the incentive to speculators to buy land, not to use it in production but to hold it for the rise. In this way, choice parcels remain undeveloped or underdeveloped relative to the full extent that their values warrant and development occurs instead in remote areas where opportunity for profit is more immediate. The result was low density development what we know as sprawl.

To some people this may be counter-intuitive. It may not be obvious that increasing taxes on a parcel of land will foster its improvement. Consider, however, the possibility that there are two parcels of land in roughly the same location and of equal size. You own a vacant parcel and another next to it has a twenty-story building. If only the land-value is taxed you will be paying the same tax revenue as your neighbor. What are you likely to do with your parcel? If you are rational, you will either build a twenty-story building or else sell the land to someone who will. In this way improvements tend to be clustered in high-land-value areas except where it is prohibited, perhaps for a park. ...

Jessica Matthews, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote a syndicated piece observing that:
In a now familiar sequence, developers reach for the cheapest land, out in the cow pastures. Government is left to fill in behind with brand new infrastructure roads, sewerage systems and schools paid for in part by those whose existing roads and schools are left to decline. Property values rise in a ring that marches steadily outward from the city and fall in older suburbs inside the moving edge.

Because residential development can't meet the public bills, local governments compete for commercial investment with tax discounts that deplete their revenues still further. Property taxes then rise, providing an incentive for new development.

Years of such leap-frogging construction devours land at an astonishing pace. Now if the full social opportunity cost of land occupancy were charged to landholders, the reward of (and incentive for) speculation would be obliterated, and land now locked up by speculators would be transferred to users. Users would employ more labor and engender more capital development instead of seeing it locked up in wasted space.

Absent adequate taxation the regions at the periphery are the first developed, just as Ms. Matthews observes.

The economics profession is only now coming to recognize its responsibility for what it has wrought. Economists are coming to recognize the costs of sprawl, and studies show how astonishingly inefficient the suburban lifestyle is. One review of the literature on the subject of comparative development costs published by the Urban Land Institute revealed that "houses built in sprawling developments may cost 40 to 400 percent more to serve than if they were located close to major facilities, were clustered in contiguous areas, and incorporated a variety of housing types."

Transportation planners know that public transit typically takes a density of at least 8-10 households per acre in order for it to be economically viable. Because tax policies have been instituted that have the effect of deliberately fostering low density suburban sprawl, society has become dependent upon motor vehicle transportation rather than transit service. Had taxes been imposed heavily or solely upon land value, just the opposite would have occurred: development would have been most intense on the high land-value parcels, right by the transit services, making our society less dependent upon motor vehicles.... read the whole article

Bill Batt: The Compatibility of Georgist Economics and Ecological Economics
The collection of land rent has other consequences for the smooth and effective functioning of the economy as well. With respect to the configurations of land use in urban areas, the collect of land rent neutralizes, and even reverses, the centrifugal forces which the current real property tax (i.e. that on both land and improvements) exerts on the values of locational sites. In fact one eminent economist argues that a tax on land sites is “better than neutral,” because it fosters activity in the highest value areas and removes the factor of adverse timing that often stalls economic investment.51 This all leads to the economic vitality of high-land-value cities, simply by virtue of concentrating activity in central areas instead of peripheral and remote regions. It discourages the extravagant and careless development of land sites, thereby also fostering development densities conducive to community welfare and to the success of public transit services.52 Experts agree that the minimum density necessary to make public transit services economically viable is 10 to 12 households per acre; without this, there is little prospect of altering private automobile dependency.53 And given the widespread environmentally and socially destructive consequences of motor vehicle dependency, collecting rent is half the answer toward the goal of engendering livable urban areas. (The other half — see below — is pricing motor vehicle use at its true marginal cost to society.)... read the whole article

William F. Buckley, Jr.: Home Dear Home

... So why is the cost of housing so high?

We learn that the average new house nationwide now sells for nearly $300,000. The writer tells us, "I asked (a builder) what our children -- my kids are both under 8, I told him -- would be paying when they're ready to buy.

"'They're going to live with us until they're 40,' (the builder) said matter-of-factly. 'And when they have their second kid, then we'll finally kick them out and make them pay for the house that we paid for. And that house will cost them 45 to 50 percent of their income.'"

Such data are dismaying, but perspective helps. "In Britain," the builder explains, "you pay seven times your annual income for a home; in the U.S. you pay three and a half." The Brits get 330 square feet per person in their homes; Americans, 750 square feet. But choice parts of the United States face "build-out." Consider New Jersey. It currently averages 1,165 people per square mile -- denser than India (914) and Japan (835). ... read the whole column



Mason Gaffney: Red-Light Taxes and Green-Light Taxes

Likewise, there are at least two kinds of containment policies for urban sprawl.

  • One says Stop! Thou shalt not settle outside the designated growth boundary, neither shalt thou build, nor manufacture, nor trade, nor store goods, nor park vehicles, nor disport thyself in other than traditional country-squire-like amusements. I shall call this a "negative containment policy."
  • The other policy says Go!, or rather Come! Come into my city and rebuild it. This is not "development" in the modern pejorative sense of territorial expansion. Rather it is REdevelopment in the manner of the phoenix - the mythical bird, that is, not the city misnamed Phoenix, which is an awful example of mindless lateral expansion without renewal.

Consider Philadelphia, once the City of Brotherly Love founded by an idealistic English Quaker. Today, after 3 centuries of development, Philadelphia has 15,800 vacant lots, but that only begins the story. It has 27,000 empty houses (i.e. junkers on usable lots that might as well be vacant); 1500 acres of vacant land and brownfields; and 700 vacant commercial bldgs. A local journalist names it BlightTown, U.S.A. If he travelled a bit he'd find it is only one of many.

The result of decay without renewal is to threaten the countryside; settlers spill out, "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing." Yet, these are not ghosts, nor autumn leaves in the west wind; these are live people. Destroy man's habitat here and he moves it there, and takes habitat from other life forms. The solutions to urban decay and disintegration are infilling and renewal. Here is where the Green Light Tax is such a good management tool. It lets cities rebuild themselves without tax penalties on new building, and rise like the phoenix from their own ashes.

There is a reflex against growth and development we must learn to overcome. "Growth" should not be an issue to divide us: it depends on the kind of growth. Resentment of growth and development stems in large part from associating them with territorial expansion. Infilling and renewal and rehab, however, UNCOUPLE growth from sprawl: they let cities grow (or at least stop shrinking) without sprawling. Ascending to a satellite view, let's look at the whole system of settlement: focusing people where they should be keeps them away from where they shouldn't be.

Here is an aerial view of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state dominated by owners of million-acre ranches, and therefore with about the lowest property tax rate in the U.S. Albuquerque sprawls out about 30 miles east-west, and another 30 miles north-south, giving a density of about 300-400 people per square mile for its 330,000 residents. Many of its homes are slums.

Contrast that with the aerial view of Sydney, Australia, a city that raises a lot of its budget from "Green Light" taxes on site value. Sydney and suburbs have nearly 3 million people, on less land than Albuquerque, and with no slums.

There is plenty of land to go around. The pleasant green villages of Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin are upper-income Milwaukee suburbs that feature detached homes on tree-lined streets, with detached garages, laws against overnight curb parking, a number of lakeshore mansions with parklike grounds, ample public parks, good shopping, and a little industry. Their densities are 10,000 persons per square mile. At this density, 250 million Americans would fit nicely into less than half of Wisconsin, an average-sized one of 50 states. (They would occupy 0.7% of the United States.)

At the 10,000 density, Greater Milwaukee would fit inside Milwaukee County, yet it now sprawls out over several counties. It sprawls farther yet if one counts the rural residents who float in and out of town for seasonal work. Shorewood and Whitefish Bay have high density because they are the only Milwaukee suburbs with no vacant land; the others, and the central city itself, are full of holes. Result: sprawl, invasion of wildlands, loss of farmland, forced automobilization of former pedestrians, water pollution from new grading - the whole litany of green laments. High density is not their cause, but their cure.  ... read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: Economics in Support of Environmentalism

... Sometimes the rich take land from the poor, provoking sympathy, strong rhetoric, and occasionally effective rear-guard resistance to such changes. Actually, a well-oiled market is often quite democratic. People of moderate income, by crowding, can outcompete those of high income for the same land, as when a Sears or Wal-mart takes the best commercial sites from a Nordstroms or Broadway; or when an old estate is subdivided into five lots per acre. This, too, provokes negative rhetoric, but developers know how to make hay out of this, and mincemeat of their opposition. At this point developers become populists and accuse preservationists and environmentalists of snobbery and elitism. We need an answer for that one if environmentalists are going to command enough popular support to win, and hold the gains. Of this, more later. ...

Leapfrogging, floating value, and compensation

The environmental damage from those attitudes might not be so bad were it not for leapfrogging, urban disintegration, and floating value. Leapfrogging is when developers jump over the next eligible lands for urban expansion, and build farther out, here and there. This has been a problem in expanding economies ever since cities emerged from within their ancient walls and stockades, but in our times and our country it has gone to unprecedented extremes, with subsidized superhighways and universal auto ownership and truck shipping.

Alfred Gobar, savvy real estate consultant from Placentia, has recorded the amount of land actually used by city and suburban dwellers for all purposes. From this, he calculates that the entire U.S. population could live in the state of Missouri (68,965 square miles). That would be at a density of 3625 people per square mile, or 5.67 per acre. That is 7683 square feet per person. On a football gridiron, this is the area from the goal to the 16-yard line.

He is not being stingy with land, at 3625 persons per square mile. The population density of Washington, D.C., is 10,000 per square mile, with a 10-story height limit, with vast areas in parks, wide baroque avenues and vistas, several campuses, and public buildings and grounds. This is also the density of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, a well-preserved upper-income residential suburb of Milwaukee, with generous beaches and parks, tree-lined streets, detached dwellings, retailing, and a little industry. San Francisco, renowned for its liveability, has 15,000 per square mile. More than half the land is in non-residential uses: vast parks, golf courses, huge military/naval bases, water surface, industry, a huge regional CBD, etc., so the actual residential density is over 30,000 per square mile.

On Manhattan's upper East Side they pile up at over 100,000 per square mile. They do not crowd like this out of desperation, either. You may think of rats in cages, but some of the world's wealthiest people pay more than we could dream about to live that way. They'll pay over a million dollars for less than a little patch of ground: all they get is a stratum of space about 12 feet high on the umpteenth floor over a little patch of ground they share with many others. They could afford to live anywhere: they choose Manhattan, they actually like it there!

Take 10,000 per square mile as a reference figure, because it is easy to calculate with, and because it works in practice, as noted. You may observe and experience it. At that density, 250 million Americans would require 25,000 square miles, the land in a circle with radius of 89 miles, no more. That gives a notion of how little land is actually demanded for full urban use. It is 9.4% as big as Texas, 4.2% as big as Alaska, and 7/10 of 1% of the area of the United States.

And yet, the urban price influence of Los Angeles extends over 89 miles east-south-east clear to Temecula and Murrieta and beyond, at which point, however, it meets demand pushing north from San Diego. Urban valuation fever thus affects much more land than can ever actually be developed for urban use. Regardless, most owners come to imagine they might cash in at a high price, with high zoning, at their own convenience, with public services supplied by "the public," meaning other taxpayers. This is the meaning of "floating value."

If their land is downzoned for farming, open space, or habitat, they regard it as a "taking," and plead the 14th Amendment. Once we buy into the Sanctity (Holiness, Sacredness) of private property, we owe them. If we think of the public's buying large quantities of it to preserve habitat or open space, the price is already high above its aggregate value, and the new demand will push the price higher yet.

Here is a case showing how this works. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) needed the old Union Station, northeast of downtown in a run-down neighborhood, as the centerpiece of its new, integrated mass transit system. With the decline of interurban passenger rail traffic, the old station was unused. The owners, mainly Southern Pacific, asked more than MTA offered, so MTA invoked its power of eminent domain and condemned the land. The case went to judgement, and in 1984 the court awarded SP an amount about twice the going price for land in the area. The court's reason was that the coming of mass transit would raise values around the new central station, and SP should be paid as much as neighboring landowners would be able to get after the station was built.

Thus, land originally granted to SP to help subsidize mass transit was used instead to obstruct and penalize mass transit. Private property had become an end in itself, Holy and Sacred, a welfare entitlement, rather than a means to an end. MTA (the taxpayers) had to pay a price for land based on the unearned increment that its own construction and operation was expected to create in the future.

Later, MTA was to stint on subway construction, resulting in subsidence on Hollywood Boulevard, but there was no stinting on paying off SP for doing nothing: the award came to $84.7 millions. This is how the 14th Amendment works in practice, making private property an end, sanctified for its own sake, rather than a means to a higher end. It makes landowners the spoiled children of the national family, inflating the cost of every program that entails acquiring land. It means there is no chance that the public, whether through government or the Nature Conservancy, can preserve more than token areas of habitat by buying it: it would bankrupt us.... read the whole article

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper