Value Capture: I’m Lovin’ It

No — we’re good.

Economic news sometimes manages to tickle the heel of our crazily careening Trumped-up news cycle. Recently, the issue of “value capture” has been able to tickle the heel of the economic news. That’s right, people; it’s that big a deal. This is a bit frustrating to those of us who think this is a vital issue. After all, it has to do with some of society’s most important themes: how the community manages to fund infrastructure and public goods – and generally the relationship between individuals and society itself. But, I can’t expect you to agree with me about how important this is until we unpack it a bit. So let’s try and do that.

The basic idea of “value capture” is pretty well understood. People who are willing to actually consider it find it hard to disagree with. (If you’d like a quick introduction, here’s an informative three-minute video.) The notion is that public investment, such as in, say, a new commuter rail station, disproportionately benefits the owners of nearby real estate. We all know this: “Close to transportation” is a standard selling point in ads for New York City rentals. Nearby public transportation is a convenient amenity for which people are willing to pay. The value that’s there to be “captured” attaches to the land – the locations whose proximity to the amenity makes them worth more in the market.

976 6th Avenue — one block from 34th St., Herald Square
809 6th Avenue — one block from either 28th St, 7th Ave, or 28th St, Broadway
18 East 42nd St. — one block from either Grand Central or 5th Ave. Bryant Park
26 East 23rd St. — one block from either 23rd St., Broadway or 23rd St., Park Ave.
38 Union Square West
490 8th Ave. — one block from Madison Square Garden & Penn Station

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, having noticed that the New York City subway is struggling for funding and falling into disrepair, and that the newly completed Second Avenue subway extension has created big piles of real estate value on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has proposed a value capture scheme to help fund the subway. A study by NYU economists Giancarlo Falcocchio and Constantine Kontokosta found that in Manhattan’s main business corridors, south of 60th St., being close to the subway adds $3.85 per square foot to the value of commercial real estate.

A few keen-eyed students of economics have even managed to excavate the theme of value capture from the 55-page infrastructure plan issued by the Trump administration. President Trump is known to be no fan of public transit, and some commentators are even going as far as to say that this is the only good idea in the infrastructure plan. Under the proposal, “any city that wants federal money must show that it will collect some of the property value gains that accrue to plots along the new [public transit] line, and use

those proceeds to finance the project.”

We would not want you to think, however, that value capture is a new idea. Indeed, though it may just be dawning on municipal governments, corporations and other big-time real estate operators have been familiar with this idea for a long time. Examples abound; to give you an idea of just how pervasively entrenched this practice is in our modern economy, here is the most easily-findable example I could think of.

It’s been widely reported that real estate is the McDonald’s Corporation’s main source of profit; flipping burgers is just how its employees busy themselves while the company waits for prime locations to “ripen.” No doubt you can think of examples of this practice in your local community. But, time is money, so I did it easy way: asked the McDonald’s website to list locations in midtown Manhattan, and checked them out on Google Maps.

429 7th Ave. — around the corner from Madison Square Garden & Penn Station

Keep in mind that there are many other companies, and individuals, who engage in this sort of economic opportunism. Moreover, these are just the first few examples from the find-a-restaurant page on their website – and they don’t even include my very favorite example of this sort of thing!

It’s also worth keeping in mind that it’s not just train stations that create capture-able value. The fact is that any public amenity or improvement (assuming it was worth building in the first place) adds to the real estate value that is “captured” by private owners of real estate. And in the final analysis, it may be that “capture” isn’t quite the right verb for for us to use in this case. It makes the value sound like some wary little animal that’s going to scamper off if we don’t act quickly. But that’s not really the case. After all, the value of public improvements attaches to land, and we know where the land is – especially in this day and age, when one can find so many excellent examples of private, corporate “value capture” in 15 minutes, using free online tools.


The Gilded Age: Then and Now

Earthsharing readers will want to tune in to PBS’s American Experience on February 6th for a new documentary on the Gilded Age. This trailer will whet your appetite: it describes the period of the last three decades of the 19th century as “an age of possibilities,” “an age of extreme wealth,” and simultaneously — like today — “an age of extreme poverty.

The term Gilded Age comes from th    e 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain. (The book was cowritten by Charles Dudley Warner; it was the only one of Mark Twain’s books to have a co-author, which probably explains why it was his least-popular book.) It’s revealing that the term is “Gilded” rather than “Golden” – implying a surface prettying-up, a patina applied over a much grittier underlying reality.

Just this week, we heard Donald Trump brag about the strong economy over which he is presiding, the GDP growth, the record-setting stock market. President Rutherford B. Hayes offered a similar message in his 1877 State of the Union speech:

There has been a general reestablishment of order and of the orderly administration of justice. Instances of remaining lawlessness have become of rare occurrence; political turmoil and turbulence have disappeared; useful industries have been resumed; public credit in the Southern States has been greatly strengthened, and the encouraging benefits of a revival of commerce between the sections of the country lately embroiled in civil war are fully enjoyed.

In those days, America was being made great again following the withdrawal of federal troops from the defeated states of the South, ending the reconstruction period, and ushering in that Renaissance of American race relations that came to be known as the Jim Crow era.

The big question in my mind, though, is whether this “Gilded Age” program is just about the past, or about what’s happening now. One of the things, after all, that swept Donald Trump so unexpectedly into office is the growing number of Americans who feel left behind, who are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet every month, and whose wages have not kept pace with the stock market and productivity growth. Over the last few decades many people have been talking about a new “Gilded Age.” Indeed, the immigration issue amounts to another side of the same question: many people fear that their standard of living is threatened by competition from workers in other countries – or willing to come here – who’ll work for less.

Many commentators, pointing to many charts like this one, note that the huge trend starting in the mid-1970s: for wages to diverge from overall rates of productivity. You’ll note that this chart shows both lines rising together before that – wages, in other words, increasing along with productivity, like they ought to. The clear implication here is that wage increases are supposed to track productivity increases, and that “something happened in 1970s” to disrupt that healthy trend.

The real truth of the matter, though, is that the long-term trend much more akin to the right side, post-1970s, part of the chart. Actually, something happened in the late 1940s: a confluence of new deal programs, the G.I. Bill, the rise of labor union membership and post-war prosperity in general. Prior to 1940, the long-term trend looked just like the left-hand side of our chart. In fact, just what the great American political economist Henry George described in his 1879 bestseller Progress and Poverty: “It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.” George also wrote in that book, “The association of progress with poverty is the great enigma of our times.” Clearly, the tendency for productivity to increase while wages get pressed downward is the long-term historical trend, not simply the result of “something that happened in 1970s.”

The PBS documentary devotes at least ten minutes to Henry George, who was one of the seminal voices of the Gilded Age. Progress and Poverty became an international bestseller largely because George, who had experienced extreme poverty in his own life, wrote with deep feeling and empathy about the abject suffering that seemed inextricably tied to economic progress. This made him an influential voice, and even led the combined labor parties to draft him to run for mayor of New York City in 1886 – and he nearly won, beating Theodore Roosevelt, only losing, some say, because the Tammany Hall candidate, Abram S. Hewitt, got illegal help.

There is even a separate trailer about this segment of the film, which elevates George to the level of fame enjoyed by Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. Unfortunately, though, filmmaker Sarah Colt emphasizes Henry George’s biography — his hardscrabble early years and his dramatic mayoral race — at the expense of his analysis. Viewers of this documentary will see the problem of deepening poverty along with material progress as a matter of society’s inevitable power dynamic between Haves and Have-nots — a state of affairs that Henry George poetically described, but for which he offered no workable remedy.

Henry George would’ve hastened to point out that the income-gap chart above only represents half the story, and not the more interesting half. Over time, the income gap leads inexorably to the wealth gap – which is far, far greater. “Wealth,” in this context, refers to assets can be piled up, stored, bequeathed and collateralized – not just to widgets made by widget-factories and sold in widget stores. Millions and millions of middle-class Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, storing up no “wealth.” Indeed, a big part of their income goes to paying interest on the consumer debt that they’ve piled up as they tried to keep pace with the lifestyle that their declining wages can no longer support.

The biggest point of Progress and Poverty and Henry George’s other books was that there is one asset, one form of “wealth,” whose importance outweighs every other kind. He stressed the point, which many had made before him, that no person can live, work or produce anything at all without access to land: the surface of the earth and all of the natural resources it contains. As technology and productivity improve, the value of land – which nobody is making any more of – can do nothing but increase. As social progress increases, the total of resources that we now call “natural capital” can do nothing but become more important in every way: environmentally, politically and – especially – financially. Yet the “natural capital” is owned by private individuals and corporations. Hence the new “Gilded Age.”

This point, by the way, was not lost on Mark Twain. The Gilded Age, in 1873, was all about land speculation. The quest to get rich from simply owning a piece of well-placed ground is the backbone of the book’s plot. Twain went further, though. He was acquainted with George in San Francisco, where Progress and Poverty was written. Twain was quoted as saying, “The earth belongs to the people. I believe in the gospel of the single tax.” The pointedly Georgist article “Archimedes” appeared in Henry George’s newspaper The Standard under the byline “Twark Main,” and Twain scholars have endorsed it as Mark Twain’s work.


Sandtown: Too Far Down?

When do we just walk away? How far down does a neighborhood, or a city (or a nation, or a planet) have to go before we accept that the cause is lost, that no reform or movement can save it?

Ursula LeGuin’s “Hainish” series of novels deals with a federation of planets, far in the future. These stories represent our planet in a chillingly matter-of-fact way. Hundreds of years before, Earth had been rendered all but inhabitable by war and pollution. Little mention is made of this in any of the Hainish novels; it is just a sad fact of their history. As such — for LeGuin is a master at creating fully-formed, believable alternate worlds — this brief treatment of Earth’s possible future is deeply disturbing.

There are a number of islands and low-lying regions, around the world, that will likely have to be abandoned as sea levels inexorably rise over the next few decades. The Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, for example, averages 1.3 meters above sea level, and is disappearing rapidly. In Bangladesh, a third of the country’s land area floods every year, and farmers have been forced to develop rafted crops that can float above what used to be their land.

Mural of Malcolm X, Nina Simone and James Baldwin by Baltimore artist and teacher Ernest Shaw

And then there’s Baltimore, Maryland, the once-proud port and industrial city, home of the Orioles, distinctive marble front stoops that rowhouse residents would lovingly polish, and more registered historical monuments per square acre than any other US city. These days, though, it’s the setting of the dystopian TV hit “The Wire,” and the scene of epic conflict between the police and the populace.

Baltimore’s problems are particularly focused in the storied neighborhood of Sandtown (officially it’s called “Sandtown-Winchester”). In years past, Sandtown was the city’s preeminent African-American neighborhood. Prominent natives include Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall. Its nightlife was legendary; in the 50s and 60s all the top black performers made sure to perform in the nightclubs on Pennsylvania Avenue. The long-enduring Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania has been bringing men together for games, music and drinks since 1905. Now it is an outpost in a desert.

The Arch Social Club

Sandtown today is better-known as Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. If you’re just joining us, Freddie Gray was a 25 year old Baltimore man who was arrested for no reason other than fleeing the police (which Baltimoreans routinely do, just usually a bit less suddenly). After Gray was fatally injured in the back of a police van, six officers were initially placed on paid leave — and were then acquitted of homicide in his death. This led to widespread protests, some of which became violent.

Of course, there is more to it. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Baltimore endured riots that were much larger and more destructive than the “Freddie Gray uprising.” Furthermore, though Baltimore started losing manufacturing jobs in the 1960s, it was after the 1968 rioting that its population really started to fall. There are large swaths of abandoned houses in Baltimore that have stood empty since then. The sad truth of the matter is that many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods were abandoned after 1968, and have never recovered.

In 1960, Baltimore City was home to 939,000 people. Its population today is just under 615,000. Along with this decline, the city’s racial and economic composition changed drastically. The processes of “white flight and urban decay” were going on in many US cities during this period, but they seemed to hit Baltimore especially hard. The basic outline is well-known: the tax base dwindled, schools (and all manner of public infrastructure and services) suffered; crime burgeoned.

Nobody would deny that police officers in Baltimore have a hard job. Recently there have been reforms, body cams have been adopted and sensitivity training has been undergone. Yet these problems are deeply established. Addressing them will demand lots of time and patience. Today, 44% of Baltimore’s police force is African-American, and less than 50% is white. Nevertheless, about 65% of Baltimore’s people, and over 95% of Sandtown’s residents, are black. The police seldom live in the areas they patrol. It’s pretty much inevitable that they would come to be seen (and, perhaps, to see themselves) as an occupying force in hostile territory. In black neighborhoods there is no incentive to cooperate with the police, and strong reasons not to. “Snitches” are hated. In 2002 a family of seven died when their house was firebombed after they alerted the police to drug dealing and other crime in their neighborhood.

Jobs are scarce. For young black men, or for those with felony convictions, they are nonexistent. Drugs filled an economic void. There was a strong incentive to recruit kids, young enough to be prosecuted as juveniles, for handling and retailing illegal drugs. All of these factors led to a truly terrifying social spiral. In Sandtown, every socioeconomic indicator bottomed out. For example, unemployment in Sandtown stands at 21%; more than 55% of households have an annual income of less than $25,000. There are twice as many stores that sell alcohol and tobacco as in the average Baltimore neighborhood. One in every four buildings in Sandown is vacant. Not surprisingly, this neighborhood has the highest number of felony convictions per capita in Baltimore.

I have been reading about Sandtown with sincere interest, but I’ve never been there. Were I to go, I doubt that I would feel either welcome or comfortable. I’ve had to tour the neighborhood using Google Street view — which shows people walking around, or sitting on stoops, their faces blurred out. In my virtual strolls, I noticed three pervasive aspects of the neighborhood. First, of course, is all the abandoned buildings; they’re everywhere. Second is the striking number of churches. One can hardly travel more than two blocks without finding another one, and they range from proud century-old edifices to basement congregations with a cross painted on the street-side wall. Third, one sees how few businesses there are in this neighborhood. Baltimore counts a fairly high number of small markets and take-out places in Sandtown. But one soon sees that these “businesses” are very rudimentary. Any fool can see that there is little legal entrepreneurship in Sandtown.

As if to finally prove the hopelessness of the situation, in the 1990s the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood was given a big dose of special financial help. The Enterprise Foundation, an organization specializing in funding and constructing affordable housing, raised $130 million to spend in Sandtown in an attempt to show that a comprehensive effort could succeed in revitalizing a single neighborhood. Unfortunately, there seems to have been little to show for all this investment. A 2015 study examined Sandtown’s rates of various indicators of well-being, including educational levels, employment, lead-contamination, murder rates, etc. — and found that homeownership was the only indicator that improved during this time; it went up by some 30%. Unfortunately, this came at a time when homeownership in such a place is a precarious investment, for all the obvious economic reasons — and then, the great crash of 2008 delivered a body blow, causing home prices all over Baltimore to plummet, and creating a jump in foreclosures throughout the city.

Notwithstanding all of Sandtown’s scary challenges, there are still people who raise children there, send them to school, go to church and to work. There are still people there who have neither fled, succumbed to addiction nor joined street gangs. There are still people in Sandtown, in short, who are doing their best to make a living.

Such folks are aware that Baltimore, which has been struggling for decades to fund adequate schools and basic services, has a conventional tax system. There is a property tax on land and buildings; there is also a small state property tax. There is a personal property tax, falling on various forms of movable and capital property; this imposes a particularly tough penalty on small business. And there is a flat city income tax of 3.12%. Given the many economic challenges that face anyone trying to make a living in a place like Sandtown, it seems likely that these tax burdens put the last nail in the coffin of entrepreneurial opportunity.

By now, Earthsharing readers should be somewhat familiar with the Henry George Theorem. Briefly, this theorem, which is an accepted part of today’s economic canon, states that in any reasonably well-run city, the annual rental value of its land is a sufficient fund for all of its public infrastructure needs. As a city invests in public infrastructure and services, these things enhance its land values. Public services that are paid for by land rent, in fact, finance themselves.

This suggests a modest proposal that could be made for a place like Sandtown. There is precedent for a program that targets a single needy neighborhood. But what’s the use? Society threw $130 million at Sandtown and it didn’t work. Yet it is possible the local entrepreneurial choices, small at first, can be better-targeted and more effective than a clumsily-targeted outside initiative.

Here is a suggestion for a pilot program. Suppose, within the boundaries of Sandtown-Winchester, we eliminate the city taxes on buildings, personal property and income. This would mean that a renovated residential building, or any new small-business investment, would be tax-free. Say someone wants to open a grocery, a bar, an auto-body shop or even (dare one dream!) a bookstore. Suddenly it would be more attractive to establish these businesses in Sandtown than in surrounding neighborhoods that still labor under conventional tax burdens.

If Sandtown eliminated all those taxes, where would it get its revenue? It’s probably worth saying that today’s Sandtown is not a huge revenue source for the city of Baltimore. Its underground economy is likely considerably larger than its taxable economy, in any case. But in our pilot project, anyway, what revenue Sandtown did bring in — which will probably not be far short of, and might even exceed, what it currently brings in — would come from a tax on its land value.

We can’t expect miracles. Sandtown, along with other neighborhoods like it, has been deeply troubled for a long time. Yet one can imagine that the people who live there, who have had so little reason for optimism, might rally around new businesses and renovations — might help to support and protect them. If, indeed, it’s ever time to give up on a neighborhood, that day isn’t here yet. A basket case can still hold the building materials of a healthy community.


The Obscure Economist Silicon Valley Billionaires Should Dump Ayn Rand For

The Obscure Economist Silicon Valley Billionaires Should Dump Ayn Rand For He lived almost 200 years ago, but Henry George’s theories might have something to offer people who want to put their money to good use today. by Michael Kinsley September 1, 2017 8:00 am from VANITY FAIR So, you’re a Silicon Valley billionaire and … Read more

The Henry George Program Ep. 11 – James K. Galbraith on Inequality

In this May 20, 2017, episode, we speak with James K. Galbraith, whose most recent book “Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know” touches on the Land Value Tax. Galbraith is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the University of Texas at Austin, where he runs the University of Texas Inequality Project. His distinguished roles include a place on the executive committee of the World Economics Association and the role of chairman of Economists for Peace and Security.

Galbraith is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the University of Texas at Austin, where he runs the University of Texas Inequality Project. He also serves on the executive committee of the World Economics Association and as chairman of Economists for Peace and Security.

We spoke with Galbraith about the problems with the way in which land is treated in theory and policy, beginning fundamentally with the exclusion of land from traditional factors of production.

“This is a major problem with the way in which economics has been constructed, in a way which the two factors of production that you’re going to encounter in a typical textbook are capital and labor, and resources in general and in particular are not separated.

“I tell my students that as an exercise would they please go back to their workshop and bring something in at the next class that they have constructed purely out of capital and labor; that is to say, out of the machinery that they have at hand and their own labor. They say ‘And nothing else?’ and I say ‘Yes, nothing else’, and they point out to me that it’s really difficult to do that unless you have some resources.

“If you pick up the textbook it appears that everything is made by some miraculous process without the intervention of material products of the land. And that is something which would have astonished the economists of the 18th and even to the end of the 19th century, for whom of course these questions were fundamental.”

Bringing land into the inequality conversation and into tax policy would be challenging, considering the political reach of what Galbraith has called the “predatory class” of the wealthy elite and the ingrained incentives of developers in construction and ownership. Nevertheless, the idea of a Land Value Tax is one he endorses in theory.

“If you take the tax off of labor, it’s going to be much easier for people to have employment. Now, if you take it off of non-rent economic profits, then you’re going to expand the scope for profitable investment. What you want to do is then to place the tax burden, to the extent that you can, on speculative gains, and that has the effect of encouraging people to use land in appropriate ways to take advantage of the high value of land. In order to meet the tax burden on that value you have to put it to a productive use, so you get a double advantage by having a tax system of this kind.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Starting in 2017, has been collaborating with KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM to create a weekly hour-long radio show. The Henry George Program is a platform for interviews, roundtable discussions, and debates on economic justice and policy.

Tune in for challenging content on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, economic stagnation, widening wealth inequality, and environmental degradation ― can Henry George’s ideas offer a path forward that unfettered capitalism and incremental socialism lack?

An archive of the Henry George Program can be found here.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons


The Henry George Program Ep. 8 – Stephen Barton And The Berkeley Landlord Tax

In this May 30, 2017, episode, we speak with Stephen Barton, co-chairman of the Committee for Safe & Affordable Homes, established to support passage of a windfall profits tax on residential landlords. Last November, Berkeley passed Measure U1, nicknamed the “Landlord Tax.” It increased the tax rate for landlords of five or more rental units. Behind the bill was Barton, who’s been working for affordable housing for decades. On the side, he’s been writing about the Georgist history of Berkeley’s leadership.

Barton explained that Measure U1 in Berkeley was targeted at residential landlords in the San Francisco Bay Area, who “are reaping tremendous windfall profits from rising rents and the result is a massive transfer of wealth from tenants to real estate investors.”

“So the idea was to recapture some of this windfall and put the money to use to create permanently affordable housing for the low-income tenants who are hardest hit by all this, and to help prevent homelessness.”

Value captured by landlords, even those owners of rent-controlled properties, was primarily the creation of the community due to its attractiveness and was thus owed to everyone, Barton said.

“We have businesses that thrive off of that diverse and creative culture and happen to be creating quite an economic boom in the area, so the entire community is making this a really great attractive place to live. And the result is you get increasing demand for moving into the area that’s increasing far faster than the housing supply can possibly increase, and the result then is that landlords — a small sector of the community, those people who own real estate  — are particularly able to take the value that the whole community has created and charge higher rents.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Barton previously served as Berkeley’s Housing Director, and Deputy Director of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Program. His work on affordable housing received a National Planning Award from the American Planning Association and an Affordable Housing Leadership award from the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.

Barton also serves on the Board of the Bay Area Community Land Trust, which specializes in the development of limited-equity housing cooperatives and is active in East Bay Housing Organizations and Democratic Socialists of America. He is the author of numerous articles on housing policy and economics, as well as on the history of the Georgist and Socialist movements and has a Ph.D. in City & Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley.

Starting in 2017, has been collaborating with KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM to create a weekly hour-long radio show. The Henry George Program is a platform for interviews, roundtable discussions, and debates on economic justice and policy.

Tune in for challenging content on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, economic stagnation, widening wealth inequality, and environmental degradation ― can Henry George’s ideas offer a path forward that unfettered capitalism and incremental socialism lack?

An archive of the Henry George Program can be found here.

Featured photo: Committee for Safe and Affordable Housing


Movin’ On Up: A Winning Strategy For Housing And Prosperity

Well we’re movin’ on up,
To the east side,
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Movin on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie…

We Can Have it All

Image result for paris buildings
Typical Parisian architecture in the 7th arrondissement.

Who says that a big house surrounded by nature can only be found in the country? Do you have to sacrifice high wages and the convenience of city life for some peace and quiet?

We want everyone living in cities to have space, views, and creature comforts. This sounds like a pipe dream, but it isn’t. To house more people without displacement, it is possible to stimulate the construction of new affordable housing and guarantee existing residents at least the same size home for no more than their current rent.

Paris, for instance, is one of the densest cities in the world. It’s also arguably the most beautiful. They do not have many skyscrapers. Instead of capping the height of buildings at 2 stories, as San Francisco does, Paris consistently has 6 story buildings. Whatever a city’s needs are, and however tall people feel comfortable building, rapid construction is not an external physical constraint.

We’ve been building tall stuff for centuries, and construction technology has only become safer, faster, and more modular. Chinese company Broad Sustainable Building has broken numerous records with its prefabricated construction, completing a 15-story hotel in 48 hours and a 57-story complex in just 19 days. With the right economic incentives, this technology could improve faster even as it becomes more sustainable. Necessity is the mother of invention and if there is one thing that the San Francisco Bay Area has in spades it’s the ability to take innovative ideas and run with them.

But skyscrapers alone do not improve density. There are tall buildings everywhere that sit empty for much of the year. What’s more, landowners in the urban core won’t build if they can coast along on the increases in value of their land being generated by all of the activity around them. Their lot becomes worth more and more simply because of location, so there’s little incentive to use land to generate as much rent as possible. There is really only one way to make sure that urban core landowners actually improve the real supply of housing for everybody and thus lower market rents throughout a city. There must be a strong incentive to use land and buildings for people’s needs.

In Brief

  • Strong Cores: Restrict Land Value Tax to the urban core as a transitional measure.
  • Reduce other taxes such as sales and wage taxes in and outside the core.
  • Freeze the rent of urban core renters.
  • Movin’ On Up: Offer a free upgrade, in terms of location, unit quality, and cost, for those whose building is replaced.

The Transition to a Winning Solution

Land Value Taxation is a proven and sorely needed policy. If you need a primer, start here. With LVT in place, landowners have to use their land productively to cover the tax.  Rather than construct luxury units to be held vacant as a store of wealth, they are going to build sites for rich, middle class, and poor renters alike that actually generate rent. Right now, new development in the urban core simply spurs new speculation, and new development outside the urban core is either met with fierce resistance or it doesn’t happen at all.

In New York, Manhattan’s Upper East Side now sees a huge proportion of apartments left vacant for most of the year. According to the New York Times, about one in every 25 Manhattan homes has an owner or renter who lives there less than two months of the year, and the number of absentee owners and renters grew more than 70 percent between 2000 and 2011. Ownership of this space in the urban core is being used as an investment by the wealthy all around the world, while local residents are pushed out of the city.

Photo: smith_cl9 East River Esplanade, Yorkville via photopin (license)

In the long run under an LVT, city centers become more accessible to all. The problem with LVT is not the end result but that without a slow transition, it too could temporarily push poor people toward the periphery.

Freeze Rent and Free Apartment Upgrades

To get around even the temporary downsides of LVT, a sensible and politically feasible solution would be to restrict the tax to the urban core, freeze the rent of all urban core residents, and guarantee them a new better and more centrally located home if their building is replaced. Heck, we’ll even pay their moving costs. This will stop the banishment without turning newcomers away.

For renters and newcomers alike in the SF Bay Area, this will mean an enormous new supply of housing in the city center. When housing is no longer in such short supply, landlords won’t be able to charge such exorbitant rents. Less disposable income will be lost to rent, and young tech industry employees can rest assured that they are not creating gentrification and displacement.

Here’s a table showing how key players will be affected by such an Urban Core Land Value Tax policy, coupled with a few other transitional measures:

Landowners Outside the Core

  • No new proposed subsidized housing in their communities
  • Lower taxes
Urban Core Landlords & Developers

  • Lifts on zoning requirements
  • Land values increase faster than the tax
  • LVT will offset income and sales tax
  • Bigger workforce, less pressure on wages
Renters Outside the Core

  • Much greater supply of housing near their jobs
  • Lower rents as supply in the core increases to satisfy demand
Urban Core Renters

  • Rent freeze
  • Possibility of upgrade
  • Keep their community

Among those worried about higher taxes on land are suburban and peri-urban NIMBY (not in my backyard) landowners, and they are the source of many uninformed and polemical attacks on Land Value Tax and those who would seek to get rid of Prop 13. They are a barrier to the system we need, but they have legitimate needs too. It has to be made clear that these people will pay the same taxes or less and that they won’t be forced, by this measure, to adopt new zoning laws.

In fact, all of the people they may currently want to keep out of their single-story neighborhoods will stay out, not merely via zoning laws and blocks on subsidized housing, but because living in the urban core will become possible again. Everyone will flock there. These outlying communities can be run however local residents see fit, and the increase in the supply of real housing in the city centers will reduce the push to build affordable housing in these neighborhoods. Pressure will be taken off the periphery.

Savings for Everyone, Everywhere

In addition, NIMBYs outside of the urban core could actually pay less tax than they currently do, even under Prop. 13! This is because land in the center of the city is exponentially more valuable the closer it is to the urban core. Outlying landowners will see a drop in what they pay in taxes, in most cities, under LVT. However, if it’s salient to these owners that an Urban Core Land Value Tax will be restricted to the core, outlying land owners will not be affected. In fact, their tax bills would probably go down. One reason for this is that the city would be enabled to eliminate sales and wage taxes with the revenue obtained from taxing the value of the land in the urban core. It might even be possible to offer a rebate on federal income taxes. Everyone will want to flock to the urban cores for these reasons, and this will increase land values and the revenue it generates, even more.



With a radically greater supply of housing and business space, renters will gain leverage and everyone’s taxes will be reduced. It’s a win-win, even for the property developers who want to build higher but are prevented from doing so. As long as the buildings are safe and conform to zoning, there is no reason why this should not be implemented. If it makes it more politically feasible, the urban core land value tax can be slowly raised as opposed to being done all at once.

SF’s Historical Barriers to Housing

The Mission Yuppie Eradication Project began in the summer of 1998, encouraging the destruction of property of dotcom-era newcomers to the Mission District. Photo: Found SF

Kim-Mai Cutler, writing for TechCrunch in 2014, described how the “formidable permitting process” in San Francisco is a product of tenant action and environmental movements over the past 50 years.

“Even back in 1967, thousands of Latino residents in the Mission — the heart of the gentrification battle today — organized and convinced the city’s Board of Supervisors to vote down an urban renewal program in the neighborhood. They saw what happened to the Fillmore — once the “Harlem of the West” —when the city’s re-development agency razed it, displacing tens of thousands of black residents and the businesses they had created after World War II.

To this day, there’s distrust and fear that the same thing will happen again, especially if it’s carried out by private developers. Advocacy group Causa Justa has been documenting this displacement through Census data, noting that the Mission has lost 1,400 Latino households while adding 2,900 white households between 1990 and 2011. In the same time period, Oakland lost 40 percent of its black residents.”

In 1986, a resolution was enacted that set annual limits on new commercial real estate space. Cutler highlights the side effect of this preservation movement as a barrier to housing for all. The city has added 1,500 units per year for the last 20 years, while between 2010 and 2013 alone the population grew by 32,000.

What about the eyesore of tall buildings? A more consistent use of the land — say a limit of six stories like Paris versus the height limit of two stories (see image below) — would allow SF to accommodate a lot more people at more affordable rents. This will undoubtedly be the solution in certain areas of the city where buildings are more vulnerable to earthquakes and other considerations.

Map of San Francisco’s building height limits. Yellow represents a two-story limit.


Luxury Apartments for All!

Though this article is focused on SF, the same key insights apply to other cities as well. In essence, the idea is that if you’re a renter somewhere in an urban core, you are either going to keep living there at the same rent, or (if your building is demolished) be moved into a much nicer building. Your rent won’t go up, and you’ll either live on the same lot or move on up closer to the center. This would not be a scheme to force all the low-income people into the same shoddy inner-city housing, and they wouldn’t be singled out or ridiculed for receiving one of these apartments.

It would be a bona fide upgrade and sustainable means of protection from erratic forms of displacement and gentrification. Note, that this is a slightly different conception of the idealized end-stage Georgist model of housing where the market is flooded with centrally located supply and the lowest income residents live only slightly outside the core. It’s also not the YIMBY(yes in my backyard) ideal of “Build Baby Build” –anywhere and everywhere. This would only affect urban cores and would leave other communities alone. There would a boom in housing for all, not just the rich, and not just existing privileged residents. Everyone could put down their pitchforks and get along.

We all have a right to space. We all have an equal right to the social value that we collectively create in city centers, with all of their passion and innovative dynamism. Here’s a realistic and economically sensible way to achieve that.

Featured photo: ShanePix Fly with me! via photopin (license)


Ageism, Power, and Intergenerational Animosity

Ageism is a two-way street, but is usually thought of only in terms of discrimination against the old. In federal employment law, protections are afforded to over-40s, but favoring an older worker over a younger one is not a problem.

In terms of power in society, almost every area is completely dominated by old people, from billionaires and boards of directors to major shareholders and company executives. In academia, tenured professors hold all the power and associate professors are disposable and work for scraps. The average age of the 113th Congress was 57.6 years, and our last presidential election was between two 70-year-olds.

The only voting blocs that politicians really cater to are “homeowners”, which is a codeword for landed upper middle-class people who are older and financially secure. They vote the most and donate the most because they want their land titles propped up in value through government policy. They want their healthcare and pensions. They want all taxes shifted away from accumulated wealth, which inevitably means that they want taxation redirected to the young. Meanwhile, political participation for the young is intrinsically a more altruistic endeavor, because they really don’t draw on government privilege for their existence.

Unfortunately, this also results in low turnout for young adults. More than half of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 stayed home for the 1998 midterms. Those young people who are politically inclined tend to care about a more diverse spectrum of issues, which creates divisions within liberal politics and keeps deciding power in the hands of older, more cohesive voters. This imbalance is likely to get worse, as declining fertility rates among younger generations will see seniors account for much higher proportions of overall population growth in the future than they did in the past. While the population aged 65 and older accounted for 18 percent of overall population growth from 1950 to 2010, they will account for 51 percent of population growth between 2010 and 2050.

Despite the imbalance of power, most conversations about age discrimination involve the young victimizing the old. Why is it that the reverse is rarely considered? Historically, the perception is that old people are responsible, with traditional moral values, and are inherently worthy of respect and capitulation. But at this point in time, statistically speaking, young people have far fewer vices.

Rates of teen pregnancy are at an historic low, and young people smoke less, exercise more and make better choices about what they put in their bodies. They are frugal, more secular, and more tolerant than any previous generation in memory. Millennials are the most educated generation in American history, with more than 63 percent of millennials having a Bachelor’s Degree. More than half either want to start a business or already have started one.

Sociology professor Judith Bessant has explored how two early-twentieth-century writers encouraged the perception of the young as less capable: psychologist G. Stanley Hall introduced the concept of ‘the adolescent’ and sociologist Talcott Parsons began the discussion of so-called ‘youth culture’. Both these men focussed on the most troublesome among young people, popularizing the notion that they are unpredictable, emotionally turbulent, and rebellious across the board.

Photo: Mikey G Ottawa Boom Box – Montreal 1987 via photopin (license)

Surely the expectation of rebellion or failure is partly responsible for that same rebellion, or that failure. A lack of rights, responsibilities, and respect can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if young people are not afforded treatment as equals in society, they will continue to boycott full participation. Intergenerational animosity can manifest itself as a healthy and friendly competition, or it can mutate into genuine resentment. In many cases, we seem to be trending toward the latter.

The generalizations they made have persisted for decades. Meanwhile, young people are showing themselves to be more purpose-driven in their work than any previous generation. Research from Deloitte showed that while millennials in leadership positions believe profit is important, they prioritize purpose, innovation, and the wellbeing of themselves and the workforce. Despite their demonstrable ability and ambition, young people have been walled off from many avenues of power in society.

Having started out with huge student debt, many young people have trouble getting jobs at all, and old people are living longer than ever, closing leadership opportunities off even more. Further confounding this is that there are formal and informal metrics by which the old judge the performance of the young based on the values of the old. Often times these metrics are outmoded in certain fields.

This is particularly true of technology. Consider the ‘rapid iteration’ work style of software development, whereby timeliness and planning are discarded in favor of live progress-tracking and goals that can be discarded as quickly as they are set. How does this compare to the clunky, paper-pushing environment in which much of business and bureaucracy still operates?

Older people will thus downplay the importance of technological understanding as a metric for leadership abilities and play up the importance of skills with which older people have more experience, even if these skills are outmoded.

Older people, being in the position to create rules and regulations, have the ability to subtly introduce ways to increase their perceived value to an institution. This makes the legitimacy of authority in an institution circular in its reasoning. Why do we do what we do? Tradition! Why should this be done? Because I said so! If there are no definable goals, there are no checks and balances on power. No newcomers can challenge that power on a strategic or meritocratic basis because strategy and merit are nonexistent.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the erosion of the union movement has made it more difficult for those with blue collar jobs to rise to the middle class. Males with high school diplomas in 2010 actually made less money than their 1980 counterparts: $30,000 versus $39,750 in annual salary adjusted for inflation. The younger worker is more likely to be laid off if a “Last In, First Out” policy is in place, simply because she has not been with the company for as long. The assumption persists that experience equates to merit, when in many cases the opposite may be true.

Despite the genuine difficulties young people face, it’s not uncommon to hear it suggested that the young are lazy, entitled, or incapable. It is socially acceptable to vent frustration about dealing with young people and children in public places, or in extreme cases to implement high-frequency sound technology only audible to young people as a deterrent to keep young people away from certain areas entirely. The fact that more millennials are still living with their parents is easy fodder for mockery. Yet, it is the economic policies of previous generations that have caused the current economic climate.

Photo: Kurayba For Rent via photopin (license)

As a brief thought experiment, consider these common criticisms:

  • “Oppressed ethnic groups shouldn’t be treated like children!”
  • “Women shouldn’t be treated like children!”
  • “Disabled people shouldn’t be treated like children!”

Maybe there is something deeply wrong with the way that we treat children and young people. The ageism that flows towards the young is insidious, since it is the powerful attacking the powerless. Whereas the faintest hint of ageism towards the elderly is met with grave condemnation.

Experience is sometimes correlated with merit, but it is not merit itself. Furthermore, people “rise to the level of their incompetence.” Young people are less likely to have reached their capacities yet. Therefore, there is a lag that needs to be accounted for when comparing young and old. There should be more active competition on objective standards of merit instead of simply discounting a person on the basis of age. Certainly, people at their peak physical and intellectual capacities stand an increased chance of being the best choice for a position, if irrational biases against the young are properly accounted for.

WIthout young people, we simply wouldn’t have seen the kind of power that brought the civil rights movement to the United States. Many young people postponed their studies and early careers for the sake of fighting for change, against entrenched powers that were not necessarily malicious but which had no reason to upset the present structure of society. There are countless other instances of young people being the engine of critical improvements throughout history.

How do we create the best situation for everyone? Public office, corporate boards, taxes, and voting laws disproportionately favor the old. The old need young people’s new talents and energy. The young need to learn from the experiences of the old. Both groups can work for the benefit of the other. If people are given power in proportion to their merits, irrespective of age and other irrelevant factors, we would see a more balanced age distribution and much more sensible policy outcomes. No rational agent wants to give up power, but there are rare occasions where doing so is better for everyone, including the powerful.

Featured photo: DonkeyHotey MSM Spotlights (license)


A New Resource For Advocacy And Education

Over the years, many reputable researchers and organizations have dedicated resources to examining the theory and the implementation of Land Value Taxation. This system of tax is not just a good idea, it is a demonstrably effective tool for reducing speculation, driving down land prices, and incentivizing the optimal use of centrally-located land.

EarthSharing has compiled a database of high-quality research on LVT, which you can access here. This is not a gathering of platitudes presented by people who are influenced by their pre-existing support for such a policy; this is serious academic work that scrutinizes LVT alongside other tax structures and has reached the same conclusions. Consider the following from a 2015 OECD publication:

Property taxes can underpin sustainable land use. A pure land tax can help contain urban sprawl and foster the conversion of developed land instead of greenfield development. The land-use effects of property taxes – which also tax investment – are more ambiguous. Specifically designed “green” property taxes (soil-sealing taxes, development charges, etc.) can further help internalise land-use externalities

This list is far from exhaustive, and we strive to create a resource for advocacy and education that is as comprehensive as possible. If you can contribute to furthering the goal of this resource with additional research, please contact us and we will add to it.

Land Value Taxation Endorsements

Prosper Australia Research Institute (2016)
Australian Dept. of Infrastructure & Regional Development (2016)
OECD (2015)
National Tax Journal (2015)
International Monetary Fund (2013)
Institute for Fiscal Studies (2013)
Land Values Research Group (2013)
Prosper Australia Research Institute (2013)
Romney Institute, Brigham Young University (2012)
United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2011)
SERC, London School of Economics (2011)
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (2010)
Kingston University School of Planning & Surveying (2009)
Motu Economic and Public Policy Research (2009)
Land Values Research Group (2007)
Oxfordshire CC & Vale of White Horse DC (2006)
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (2004)
Australian Tax Forum (2003)
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (2001)

Featured photo: Unsplash via Pixabay


Oregon And The Self-Sabotage Of Civic Cutbacks

At the beginning of April, 10 public libraries shut their doors all at once across Douglas County, Oregon. The mass closure of these critical civic institutions is the result of a democratic process in communities where every extra dollar on a tax bill is seen as an affront to personal liberty. The only hope for the future of these libraries rests on volunteers.

Oregon’s public purse has historically been filled by the spoils of logging the timber-rich regions of southern and western Oregon. Douglas County and its neighbors experienced a surge in demand for timber during and after World War II, and a flood of federal cash allowed small communities to provide all kinds of public infrastructure and services. For Douglas County, this included a public library system that would grow to encompass 11 branches.

Photo: courthouselover via Flickr.

Logging began to decline in the 1980s, and environmental protections on public land in 1990 sealed the fate of many communities reliant on timber. In Douglas County, federal timber revenues fell from $50 million a year to just several million. Once-free public services began to charge locals for use.

With library services firmly in the sights of further budget cuts, library supporters put together a proposal last fall that would have added about $6 per month to an average tax bill and saved the libraries from closure. This in a county where property taxes are subject to a cap set in 1990 that cannot be exceeded without a public vote, and specific county services like libraries must be funded out of special tax districts.

The taxpayers rejected the proposal, in the process generating a lot of negativity around the purpose of libraries in general and their perceived obsolescence. County authorities are seemingly ambivalent, caught between families and community groups on one hand and a complete lack of revenue on the other. Property taxes have always been one of the most effective and widely used mechanisms for public funding of vital services. This includes schools, roads, energy and waste infrastructure, and critical facilities like libraries and pools.

Thousands of small communities around the world are struggling due to a lost industry, and the only two options seem to usually be hoping for that industry to return, or tightening the purse strings exponentially as the community evaporates. There is a need for creative thinking in places like Douglas County, where an untold number of people have now lost access to essential services.

The many factors playing into this shameful development are summed up by Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, writing for Vocativ:

Just three hours south of Portland, where residents enjoy the fruits afforded by a tech and real estate boom, this rural community of loggers and agricultural workers is preparing to do without a publicly-funded institution considered by many to be as fundamental to American life as schools, paved roads, and the local police. In some ways, the demise of the public library system in Douglas County, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, is the outcome of a perfect storm of factors confronting towns and cities across the U.S. — the slow death of an industry; an exodus of young people and influx of retirees; an explosion of anti-tax fervor; and shifting perceptions on what government and people are willing to pay for today.

Featured photo: Daddy-David 137 – Look up! via photopin (license)