Since Britain voted to leave the European Union, global markets have dropped and people have begun to prepare themselves for a grim possibility: a world with a less stable Europe. But to foreign investors, particularly those with an eye to real estate speculation, the Brexit vote seems to present a golden opportunity. With the value of the British pound falling to its lowest level in decades, overseas buyers have snatched up London properties at a massive discount, with the consequence of an even more overheated housing market.
Significant currency devaluations can have devastating effects on a country’s economy as the costs of imports and exports fluctuates and the risk of inflation increases. For foreign investors, however, currency devaluations create an opportunity to make strategic purchases within the affected country that would not have been feasible before.
Since a dramatic 12% drop in the value of the British Pound Sterling, investors from Hong Kong, the Middle East, and nations with currencies linked to the dollar have begun to buy property in the United Kingdom. This activity has been concentrated in London, where property sales have increased 38% since the Brexit vote. The percentage of recent purchases that have been completed by foreign investors is unclear, but property investment firm Benoit Properties International and real estate consultants Knight Frank have reported a significant surge in purchases by buyers outside of the UK.
Foreign speculation in the London real estate market is not new. As the financial center of the United Kingdom and a rapidly growing metropolis, London’s real estate has generally been a safe, albeit expensive, investment. Between 2008 and 2015, investors purchased £100 billion of property across the city. These purchases mean more than lucrative long-term investment strategies – they provide an opportunity for the wealthy of other countries to move their money overseas, a financial strategy that is becoming increasingly attractive as economies such as China’s falter.
Considering the continuing rise of the tide of xenophobia in the wake of the Brexit vote, it’s important to clarify that foreign investors are not the enemy. Rather, they are driven by an economic and real estate system that makes UK property investments lucrative and accessible. The dearth of opportunities to invest gainfully in growing commercial goods and services industries spurs investors toward land speculation, fostering the housing crisis that is unfolding not only across the UK but worldwide.
The UK’s leaders must enact policies to ensure that Londoners have fair access to affordable housing. As it turns out, they have many other countries to turn to for ideas. Hong Kong and Singapore have instituted a 15% tax on properties purchased by foreign buyers, which has slowed the rise in housing costs. Australia has instituted a similar tax, citing decreasing affordability of homes while also legally interceding in the attempt by Chinese investment group Dakang Holdings to purchase the Kidman Farm empire, which controls 1.3% of the Australian landmass.
An alternative to such measures proposed by many economists is the taxation of land values rather than traditional property taxation. While other strategies limit land speculation by foreign investors, taxing land values would actually inhibit all speculative land grabs by making the holding of real estate for that purpose unprofitable. Instead, by making the ownership of idle land prohibitively expensive, taxation of land values would spur construction on prime locations, which in turn would decrease housing costs for all.
If foreign investors wanted to make money by purchasing land, they would have to develop that land with residential and commercial improvements. In other words, they would need to put forth effort and bear risk in order to see any returns, just as business ought to work. This would result in a growth of construction activity, meaning more residential units available at lower prices. In effect, taxation of land values would effectively convert the current foreign appetite for British property into a sustainablemeans for growing the British economy.
The movement to leave the EU garnered strong support in part for its assertion that too many UK citizens are being left behind economically in our globalized society. As uncertainty shakes the British economy, that problem will likely get worse. UK leaders must act immediately and decisively, and use the tax system to address the disparities caused by land speculation.
Berkeley, California, has long been a bastion for artists, intellectuals, and their progressive ideals. It is home to UC Berkeley (3rd-ranked university in the world), which hatched the politically seminal Free Speech Movement, as well as Telegraph Avenue and People’s Park, epicenters of the counterculture movement of the later 60s and early 70s, and the first enactments of a number of progressive policy measures including a soda tax and the first handicapped-accessible sidewalks. Now, however, skyrocketing housing costs are threatening Berkeley’s inclusive character, as the rising cost of residential rental housing space forces more and more lower and middle-income families to leave.
In 2010, the average monthly rent for a new apartment in Berkeley was $1,975. Today, that number stands at $3,308, a staggering 60% increase in just 6 years. With Berkley’s median household income of $65,283, such staggering rents can easily consume two-thirds of a family’s gross income, leaving little money for other expenditures.
Housing costs in Berkeley are being inflated by forces affecting the entirety of the San Francisco Bay: a burgeoning population, an increase in the number of well paying jobs, and a lack of new housing construction chief among them. A recent survey revealed that 78% of Berkeley residents believe affordable housing is the number one issue the city should be tackling. Elected officials are starting to take action.
In early June, Berkeley City Council unanimously approved a November ballot measure to levy a 1.8 percent gross-receipts tax on landlord rents. The tax, if passed by voters, is expected to raise $5 million annually, which would then be spent on affordable housing projects. It’s a clever way of circumventing California’s Proposition 13 which, along with a long list of municipal revenue limitations, caps the amount that real estate (encompassing both land and buildings) can be taxed at 1% of market value.
Low taxation on real estate–or, more to the point, on land values–effectively encourages the purchase of land for the sole purpose of speculation. Low property (land value) taxes paired with high taxes on improvements (structures) discourages commercial or residential development of that land, as rising land values reap financial reward for property owners without their having to undertake the risk and trouble of adding any improvements. Often times this means there is little, if any, incentive for property owners to build the quality low-cost housing needed by growing communities. In turn, they benefit from the resulting artificial housing scarcity much more than active building ever would.
In response to these condition and their effects, Stephen Barton, Berkeley’s former Director of Housing, has become a major proponent of what is being dubbed the “landlord tax.” Barton, drawing from the ideas of Henry George, explains that landlords are not creating the value that is leading to skyrocketing rents. Land values are a social product, directly inflated by a growing population and its subsequent economic development, which, in the case of the Bay Area, has in turn been buoyed by the region’s diverse culture and ample public infrastructure.Proposition 13’s limiting effect on the land portion of property taxes has enabled landlords to privatize this socially-created value for their own personal profit.
At present, Proposition 13 allows landlords in Berkeley (and all across California) to capture the increasing land values. When a tenant leaves a unit, even if it is rent-controlled, a landlord has the opportunity to increase the rent as much as the market allows. As a result, landlords have increased overall rents by $100 million annually, an amount well beyond what constitutes a fair return on investment. “This has been a massive income transfer from tenants to landlords,” Barton said. “It’s deeply hurtful to low-income people.” The result of this excessive transfer of income also serves to gentrify the poor right out of Berkeley.
The this new landlord tax is a distortion of land value taxation (LVT). LVT was originally proposed by American political economist Henry George, who recognized that land values are a social product (affected primarily by the size and productivity of the nearby community) and should be taxed so that their value can be returned to the community. The difference between LVT and the landlord’s tax arises when considering raw, vacant and underdeveloped land. LVT is a tax on land values, independent of improvements, that provides incentive for landowners and landlords to put all land to its best use. By comparison, the landlord tax depends on gross receipts, punishing those that increase tenancy and rewarding that hold their land idle, which is not a good way to encourage walkable and well-maintained communities with ample housing.
Taxes on land, in comparison to the ubiquitous tax on improvements we have in the United States, has been shown to actually increase the supply of both residential and commercial space by preventing the privatization of of socially-created land values by landlords. A sufficiently high LVT makes the ownership of land expensive, which then forces the landowner to develop the rental space needed to pay the higher land value tax. Conversely, the tax on improvements has the opposite effect, penalizing the construction of rental space by increasing the amount of one’s property taxes at pace with an increase in building.
The Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition, a landlord’s organization, says the proposed tax is too burdensome. They plan to put a similar, albeit smaller, tax proposal on the November ballot. Charlotte Rosen of East Bay Housing Organizations fears that two landlord tax measures on the ballot could split the vote and cause both measures to fail, which would be the landlords’ first preference. If the landlord tax measure proposed by the Berkeley City Council passes, cities across the Bay Area will be watching closely to see whether the new policy does actually stem the housing crisis.
Eleven years after the federal levee failures following Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the city’s tourism industry has rebounded to pre-storm levels. In 2014, 9.52 million people visited New Orleans and spent a total of $6.81 billion, the highest recorded tourism spending in the city’s history. But while the revenue from increasing tourism has been a boon to the city’s economy, the market for affordable housing has been strained as property owners and investors increasingly convert residential properties into short-term rentals.
Short-term rentals are furnished homes rented to tourists as an alternative to hotels. Although they have existed for some time, websites like Airbnb and VRBO, which make it easy for homeowners to connect with those seeking accommodations, have led to a rapid proliferation of short-term rental units over housing for the city’s workers. While they benefit property owners with a source of additional revenue and are often less expensive for tourists than a hotel, these short-term rentals are decried for straining the housing market in cities with limited housing stock.
This trend suggests that homeowners, despite the city’s economic resurgence, are finding it necessary to generate additional income. This may result partially from a lack of economic opportunity in other sectors, forcing property owners to venture into the short-term rental market. New Orleans renters have also suffered displacement as investors and landlords, seeing bigger dollar signs in reach, convert entire properties to short-term rentals, often evicting long-term tenants.
Housing advocates across the country, particularly in San Francisco and New York City, have rallied against this practice, citing increasing rents and a trend of landlords removing properties from the residential rental market to use them solely as short-term rentals. In New Orleans in particular, where rents have increased 20% over the past 14 months, shrinking housing inventory is squeezing out the lower-income renters and prospective homeowners who are already struggling to find affordable housing.
Such short-term rentals, though prevalent, are illegal in New Orleans. Local ordinances state that an entire home may not be rented for a period of less than 30 days, and citations can result in financial penalties in the amount of $500 or more. However, the city lacks the resources and personnel to enforce these laws. Of an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 illegal short-term rentals, only 72 properties received citations in 2015.
New Orleans housing advocates, concerned about the effect of these rentals on housing stock and rising rents, have issued recommendations for how the city should manage these properties. They recommend that legal short-term rentals, defined as the rental of a room within a home versus the entire home, be subject to taxes, the revenue from which would be used to construct low-income housing. This would be equivalent to introducing a new sale/income tax hybrid for homeowners seeking to create the value or income that some need to make ends meet. For illegal short-term rentals, housing advocates are requesting assistance from sites such as Airbnb in identifying them and recommend that fines be increased from the current $500.
With rents rapidly inflating, New Orleans must take immediate and drastic action to ensure that housing remains affordable for its citizens. The proliferation of short-term rentals–and its negative effects–stems from the rising popularity of New Orleans as a tourist destination, the lack of alternative income-generating opportunities, and the lack of any incentive system for landowners to build the necessary structures to increase in the city’s housing capacity.
The current rise in land values, a socially-created product of the city’s diverse population, manifests as increasing rent, which is a major draw for landlords. This means that this increased value, created by the community, is being captured by landlords rather than the community itself.
The government must enact policies that re-invest the rising value of land (created by city’s permanent residents) back into the city for the people. The best approach would be to implement a sufficiently high land value tax (LVT) as originally proposed by American political economist Henry George. George recognized that land obtains its value from the government granting legal privilege to exclude others from a portion of our common inheritance, the Earth. It is thus necessary for those benefitting from this exclusive use to compensate those they exclude.
In comparison with the ubiquitous property tax (which includes a tax on buildings) common in the United States, LVT has been shown to actually lower speculation of both residential and commercial space by preventing the privatization of socially-created land values by landlords. A sufficiently high LVT makes the ownership of underdeveloped land expensive, which then makes it necessary for landowners to develop rental space to generate revenue to cover the higher land value tax–especially when the land is most valuable, as in any city. By contrast, the portion of the traditional property tax which falls on improvements has the opposite effect, penalizing construction of residential and commercial space by increasing the amount of one’s property taxes via the higher tax on improvements. Without the developmental incentives of land value taxation, the success of New Orleans’ expanding tourism industry will continue crowding its underdeveloped housing market. The cruelest aspect of this is that travel and tourism workers, who are the backbone of the entire industry and often musicians and artists, often find themselves priced out of their own neighborhoods as the tourism industry that depends on their labor booms. Efforts to enhance the affordable housing supply, therefore, are essential to maintaining the stock of service workers, artists, and musicians who entice tourists to love, and go spend their money in, New Orleans.
New York City is the poster city for rising rents. Given current trends, don’t expect that to change any time soon. New York’s municipal leaders, however, have not been idle in addressing this. The City and State are actively pursuing measures such as implementing city-wide rent freezes to slow rising rents. Yet, with so much money at stake in the rental and leasing sector, there are those who seek to create and exploit loopholes. New Yorkers are now fighting back against a bill that, due to such a loophole, not only failed to preserve and improve affordable housing but gave landlords and developers millions of dollars in tax breaks.
In 1995, the New York State legislature sought to revitalize Lower Manhattan, which was riddled with aging buildings and had few development projects on the horizon. A proposed bill gave developers tax incentives if they converted old office buildings into apartments. In exchange for these tax incentives, landlords would limit rent increases, therefore assuring reasonably affordable housing stock for the foreseeable future. It seemed like a win-win situation for developers and tenants alike.
Hours before the bill was set to pass, Republican lawmakers pulled it from the voting schedule, citing the need to consult Rudy Giuliani, New York City’s mayor. Giuliani wrote a letter to Republicans stating that an exemption should be granted to units that initially rent for greater than $2,000 per month. Republicans reinterpreted the rent-stabilization component of the bill by introducing a reading of Giuliani’s letter into the public record just before the final vote. The bill, 421-g, passed 53-1.
Between 1995 and 2006, before the law expired, 421-g helped create close to 10,000 new rental units in Lower Manhattan. However, nearly three-quarters of those units were not rent stabilized because they initially rented for more than $2,000 per month. So while 421-g accomplished its goal of sparking revitalization in Lower Manhattan, it did not protect tenants as intended. And even though the law expired in 2006, some buildings continue to benefit from tax breaks that totalled nearly $75 million in 2015.
Some legal experts believe that developers have misused the law at a large cost to the city and tenants. Lawyers claim that the intent of the state legislature was to encourage the creation of rent-stabilized housing units by offering tax incentives. Therefore, having 75% of units created under this program exempt from rent stabilization not only defies the spirit of the law but is costing the city tens of millions of dollars each year in lost tax revenue.
There is substantial debate regarding whether or not the law has been applied properly, and it is centered around one major issue–namely, the exemption. The bill was not officially amended before it was passed to stipulate exemptions to units that initially rent for greater than $2,000 per month. That policy was instated by the attachment of the letter from Rudy Giuliani recommending the exemption.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against landlords by tenants alleging massive rent overcharging. Decisions from the bench have been varied. In one instance, a judge ordered Skyline Developers to re-instate rent stabilization status on a number of its rental units, citing the Giuliani interpretation of the law as invalid. Another judge came to the opposite ruling on a similar case with developer UDR.
A number of other lawsuits are working their way through the courts, and legal scholars are hopeful that clarity will finally be reached regarding proper interpretation of the law.
That said, there are better ways to promote the creation and preservation of affordable housing units. Common Ground NYC activist Scott Baker argues the following:
If the city wants to have affordable housing AND new building AND condos people can afford to buy AND a reliable and large revenue stream to replace many if not most taxes, there is only one proven way to do this: The Land Value Tax.
It works like this: over a period of time, phase out taxes on buildings and replace them with taxes on location. This discourages hoarding and inefficient use of location because there is an increasing tax on that, while it encourages building because there is no tax on that (eventually).
Every location is to be taxed at its full rental value. This means more apartments, which means lower rents and costs due to competition.
The idea for taxing land values originated with classical political economists like Adam Smith and were popularized globally in the 19th century by two-time New York City Mayoral candidate Henry George. Today, economists refer to Land Value Taxation (LVT) as the most efficient of taxes, meaning that it is difficult (if not impossible) to evade taxation or paying what is owed to society. That’s because land, unlike money, cannot be moved, hidden or tax-sheltered, a quality that would have made LVT succeed where 421-g failed.
In retrospect, 421-g was designed to legislate additional affordable housing into existence–contrary to the demands of the market and their underlying forces, and regardless of any shortages this may cause. Rent controls also have the pernicious effect of privileging older residents at the expense of younger residents.
By contrast, the function of land value taxation is to make the ownership of raw and underdeveloped land prohibitively expensive. This encourages landowners to make use of the space in order to accrue the rental income necessary to pay the land value tax. Consistent with Baker’s statements, this would effectively turn the housing market into renters’ market due to the increased supply of housing and working space, leading to increased competition to attract renters. Thus,we could expect lower housing costs while realizing the improvement of the conditions of affordable housing. Ultimately, LVT achieves organically what 421-g was designed to accomplish artificially.
Laura Luevano, a homeless woman struggling with severe diabetes and arthritis, failed to find an apartment in Los Angeles after searching for several months–despite holding a federally subsidized rental voucher. She is one of more than 2,000 people in Los Angeles who remain homeless despite holding these rental vouchers. Her story represents one of many that demand a fair and just solution.
In Los Angeles, a city known for its pristine beaches and Hollywood glamour, 35,000 people are without homes, and the situation is not improving. Just last year, the homeless population increased by 5.7%, which has been deemed a crisis by Peter Lynn, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. City and state officials are hoping that rent vouchers will help abate this crisis, but that measure so far has shown poor results.
Rent vouchers are, in the eyes of officials, a quick and easy solution to the increasing homelessness problem. The voucher, subsidized by the federal government, can be used to pay rent to a landlord. But quick fixes often fail to provide long-term solutions, and the rent voucher approach has been no exception.
While vouchers increase the capability of the poor to access housing, they provide minimal incentive for landlords to increase the residential housing supply. Thinking in terms of supply and demand, vouchers serve to increase demand, but a lack of increase in supply to meet that demand ultimately defeats the program’s purpose. People tend to attribute the lack of supply to zoning and rent control–and indeed these issues are a part of it. However, the most overlooked factor is that the supply of land is fixed, and thus the owners can make an easier buck just sitting on undeveloped property and waiting for it to rise in value.
As a result of these simple market dynamics, recipients of vouchers are facing a harsh reality – the Los Angeles rental market is crowded and extremely competitive. LA County currently has very little housing inventory available for immediate rental – an incredibly low 2.7% rental vacancy rate. At a vacancy rate below 5%, the power dynamic between landlords and renters shifts dramatically towards landlords. Landlords can afford to be selective about tenants, choosing those that are least likely to fail to pay their rent. Often, the tenants that lose out are veterans and minorities.
These landlords have been reluctant to take on the homeless as tenants, citing concerns that they will be troublesome tenants and will fail to pay rent. But the County is taking action to erode these barriers by providing financial incentives to landlords. Through the voucher program, the city guarantees first and last months’ rent, as well as a security deposit, to landlords. Santa Monica County has gone a step further and gives landlords a $5,000 bonus for accepting rent vouchers.
In general, subsidies such as guarantees and bonuses have much the same effect on housing supply as vouchers. Subsidies of all kinds spur demand without any significant increase in supply, resulting in even higher rents for everyone. This goes to benefit landlords while hurting renters.
The city is educating landlords to reduce stigma and make the benefits of accepting vouchers clear. Vouchers are guaranteed rent, and voucher tenants have substantial support from the city in the form of case managers and tenant mediation, helpful in the case that a disagreement arises. The city also hopes that appealing to landlords’ sense of civic duty will increase their willingness to accept vouchers. Convincing hesitant landlords, however, is just one piece of the homelessness puzzle.The best additional measure would be one that encourages building more housing units.
Rent vouchers cannot be applied to 1- and 2-bedroom apartments that rent for greater than $1,150 and $1,500, respectively. With housing costs in Los Angeles soaring, and new rentals averaging $2,094 per month, federal vouchers cannot be applied to a large swath of available housing. Some counties have eased restrictions on these caps but have still not seen an increase in the number of voucher recipients renting apartments. This further validates the notion that this is a supply problem that calls for incentives to build the necessary units.
The voucher program is, in addition, actually squeezing low-income families that do not qualify for vouchers, creating a problem where there previously wasn’t one. When a homeless person receives a voucher, they are competing for the same rentals as low-income families, says Santa Monica housing administrator Jim Kemper. So while the program has had some success in taking homeless people off the streets, it is often at the expense of the working poor, making a bad situation even worse. Legal analysts have long criticized the City and State for focusing on voucher programs instead of building new units at the rate necessary to decrease rents. Ultimately, for the voucher program to succeed, Los Angeles must enact policies to ease its housing shortage.
To address the housing crisis, Los Angeles should consider implementing a land value tax (LVT) to replace its current, traditional model of limited property taxation, which may well require changing California’s constitution via voter initiative. In the late 19th century, political economist Henry George observed that a tax on property improvements reduces a landowner’s incentive to build, as improving the value of his or her property would increase the amount of taxes owed. Henry George hypothesized that, by eliminating the tax on improvements and implementing a relatively high LVT–which depends only on location value and surface area–landowners would be incentivized to increase residential and commercial space in order to create the necessary revenue to pay the LVT while generating desired return on investment.
Despite the proven success of the LVT in several countries around the world, Los Angeles cannot, at present, implement such a change. The California constitutional change known as Proposition 13 makes it exceedingly difficult to enact any measure of change to either land or building value taxation. Enabling such changes would require either changing or circumventing Proposition 13’s limitations.
At present, the human cost of inaction is quite severe. While a reaching an effective long-term solution requires bold measures, the humanity in us demands that we commit to positive change for all.
Imagine a society in which each citizen is guaranteed a minimum monthly income. People do not work to survive; they instead work to contribute to their country, supplement their income, and enrich their minds and bodies. Poverty rates have plummeted, and socioeconomic divides across an entire populace have shrunk. It may sound like a socialist utopia, but a number of countries are considering the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), with some poised to implement it in 2016.
The concept of a UBI has found support across the political spectrum. The Cato Institute, an American Libertarian think tank, has proposed that a UBI could be the better way for governments to redistribute income versus complex entitlement programs. Andy Stern, former president of one of the largest unions in America, the Service Employees International Union, believes a UBI is an effective way to target poverty at its core – a lack of income.
Centuries of hypothesizing notwithstanding, there have been few concerted efforts to implement a UBI until now. Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley-based company that provides seed money to startup companies, will be giving 100 families in Oakland between $1,000 and $2,000 per month for up to one year. Researchers will measure “happiness, well-being, financial health, as well as how people spend their time.” Finland is currently drafting a proposal for a UBI that would give each citizen 800 euros per month, and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom is considering backing a similar initiative.
The addition of a Land Value Tax (LVT) to funding the UBI would limit, if not eliminate, the amount of income absorbed by rents while providing the necessary revenue stream to support it. Martin Farley, author of the “Transformation Deal,” has calculated that this approach would create a revenue stream to support at least a moderate UBI. Furthermore, since the burden of an LVT is on landlords, excessive rents captured by them would be recouped by the LVT and re-injected into the UBI program. In addition, LVT has been shown to promote the best use of land, generating more lower-cost yet high-quality residential and commercial space, a further benefit of UBI. It has been argued by many that the dual combination of LVT and UBI would work extremely well together to resolve a number inequities in any economy.
Economists from across the political spectrum will be watching Y Combinator, Finland, and other test programs closely as they experiment with a UBI. Success could mean an entirely new approach to the welfare state. Most important will be whether and how socioeconomic conditions change. And from those changes, new understandings may well arise to support ideas such as Land Value Taxation. For now, the world is watching.
Elizabeth F, of St. Louis, Missouri, is yearning for something different. “I don’t know what it is, but I just want to get out of my car for once,” she says. “I feel like I am in a cage all the time. I want my city to seem more like a neighborhood and less like a huge mesh of cul-de-sacs. I want to actually be able to walk places; to take public transit, without having to move to New York. I love St. Louis, but we have to start planning better. I just want to be able to walk to the park or the store instead of driving there. I want to see my neighbors more. I just want…more connection.”
Elizabeth is not alone. The development goals of many metro areas are changing with the times. Sprawl is out; compacted development is in. Public transit and pedestrian by-ways are taking the place of the public-private space of the personal car. Many communities are devoting more time and more planning to the process of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). TOD focuses on building up rather than out in order to provide more walkable neighborhoods. These pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods both include a healthy mix of retail, residential, and industrial areas centered around public transit and encourage the interpersonal connection that has been lost.
City planners across the country are taking residents such as Elizabeth and others seriously and are making strides in TOD planning. Because TOD planning is unique to each region, cities and towns are learning from the implementation successes and mistakes of others, and they are creating individualized plans for future development.
This radical change in developmental demeanor has its costs–mainly the destruction of affordable housing and a lack of sustainable funding for capital improvements on public lands. The Land Value Tax can curb the potential negative consequences of TOD and ensure its success in the future.
How Do Transit Costs Affect Disposable Income in Lower-Income Households?
Residents of auto-dependent exurbs, the wealthier areas of cities that sprawl past the suburbs, spend up to 25% of their incomes on transportation costs. However, communities that have more public transit options spend considerably less on transit–only 9% in “location efficient environments.”
Lower-income households in compacted development areas retain 59% versus 43% of their disposable income. This difference goes to pay for any expense that is not transportation or housing related. As incomes decrease, available disposable income also decreases. Decreasing disposable income by even a few percentage points can be the difference between financially making it, or not, for lower-income families.
Arlington County, VA: A TOD Success Story
Arlington County, Virginia, is often cited as a successful metro area that has addressed their transit and lower-income housing issues. It has not only created an environment where affordable housing is preserved, but it has taken steps to cluster affordable units around public transit hubs.
How Does Arlington Pay for TOD?
Some of the tactics used by Arlington County include:
Federal tax credits that rely on transportation as a stipulation: HUD’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, which are distributed to each state, allow individual states to determine the criteria for which projects are funded. Some states use transportation as a factor in the allocation of these funds.
The Special Affordable Housing Protection District: The Arlington Special Affordable Housing Protection District mandates that affordable housing units near transportation hubs are to be replaced on a one-for-one basis in new developments.
Together, these tactics create an environment in which transportation and housing are able to develop in tandem.
Elizabeth’s hometown of St. Louis plans to mimic Arlington’s success.
Case Study: Transit and Housing Development in the St. Louis, MO, Metro Region
How can Transit-Oriented Development Planning be used to protect low-income housing units while maximizing transit options and new development?
Released in January of 2011, the (TOD): Best Practices Guide outlined the first regional attempt to marry long-term transit planning with sustainable development.
How Does St. Louis Plan to Pay for Transit-Oriented Development?
Funding is the primary killer of TOD. TOD is a good idea that, unfortunately, will remain a good idea without the money to back it. Land Value Tax could be the answer to the financing dilemma TOD-planning creates. LVT naturally incentivizing high-density development goals and provides more housing options that for lower-income families.
However, the St. Louis Metro Area plans to rely heavily on federal block grants to fund regional improvements. St. Louis also focuses on sales and property taxes as a way to fund TOD.
Avoiding Increased State Income Tax: Sales and Property Taxes
The St. Louis Metro Area has historically used sales tax to fund capital improvement projects while avoiding raising income tax. As it stands today, there are areas of St. Louis County and St. Louis City, which are burdened by sales-tax rates in upwards of 10%. Sales-tax is highly regressive and downgrades the spending power of every citizen. Sales tax is especially harmful to those who do not generate enough income to offset the tax. High property taxes come with another set of problems.
High taxes on the development of the land creates disincentives to develop the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that the region craves. By taxing capital improvements on the land near transportation hubs, the St. Louis stakeholders encourage blight and reduce economic competitiveness.
The primary goals of TOD are similar to the Land Value Tax. The emphasis is on creating pedestrian friendly, higher-density urban and suburban areas. TOD and LVT also protect low-income residents by reducing the amount of time and money spent on transportation. Finally, property values increase as a result of intrinsic capital-improvement incentives.
Elizabeth is optimistic about TOD planning in St. Louis. “It’s going to take a long time; it’s a huge shift in the way we all think about our neighborhoods. I’m willing to stick with the process, though,” she says. “This is my home, and I think if we do it right, we can make it whatever we want it to be.”
If you’ve considered moving to San Francisco recently, you might have abandoned the idea when you learned that median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment is an astonishing $3,500 a month, essentially requiring an income of over $100,000 for a basic standard of living in the city. Those figures are very real. San Francisco rents are out of control.
As a San Francisco resident, Eric Fischer wanted to know exactly what was driving those figures. He dug into housing data and discovered that comprehensive records on city-wide rents only go back to 1979, which is coincidentally the year that rent control became law and mere months after the passage of Proposition 13, which effectively limited both the amount of growth and rate of property taxes statewide. This information inspired Fischer to unearth and examine previous data trends and answer the question of how rent control has affected rent prices.
Fischer spent hours studying pre-1979 “for rent” ads in the San Francisco Chronicle archives, amassing sufficient data to draw conclusions about rental rates from 1956 to 1979. He released a number of informative charts in his blog post on the topic. I have included one of the more telling charts below:
The chart above shows the increase in median rents over the past 70 years. This chart is surprising for two major reasons. First, with the exception of the tech boom around the year 2000, rent prices have consistently risen 6.6% each year, which is about 2.5 percentage points above inflation. Second, rent control had no effect on year-by-year rent increases.
After tracking trends in rent prices, Fischer wanted to figure out exactly why rent prices have increased at this rate and what we might do to slow, and even reverse, this incline.
As the chart above shows, Fischer identified key variables affecting rental rates: total housing inventory, the number of jobs in San Francisco, and the total amount of money paid to every person with a job in San Francisco. Based on this information, Fischer has an idea for how we can drop the cost of housing in San Francisco by 66%. According to Fischer, “It would take a 53% increase in the housing supply (200,000 new units), or a 44% drop in CPI-adjusted salaries, or a 51% drop in employment, to cut prices by two thirds.”
Fischer’s discovery mirrors an idea from the 19th century British political economist, David Ricardo. Drawing from Adam Smith, Ricardo formalized what is known as the Law of Rent. It shows that the productivity of labor compared to the best available rent-free land determines rents. Just like in Fischer’s data, if productivity goes up, rents go up, and vice versa. By extension, real wages are determined by the best available alternative to renting. In his day, the New World was full of decent opportunities to homestead, and this gave laborers bargaining power in the labor market. You can’t force someone to sell their labor for less than what they could go out and make for themselves. Workers in the Old World of Europe didn’t have this luxury.
Extending Ricardo’s law of rent, the American political economist Henry George argued that tax policy canes on buildings penalize building, resulting in a dearth in both housing and commercial sites, and reducing the wages left over to working people. To encourage more construction, he recommended abolishing taxes on buildings, and, crucially, argued that high land value taxation would encourage landowners to put more residential and commercial space on the market in order to meet the cost of the land value tax.
Both in the United States as well as abroad, this concept of shifting taxes off buildings and onto land has proven to increase residential supply and provide a general economic boost. The barrier to this in California lies in the limits imposed by Proposition 13, the altering of which would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment. Whether the political will exists to enact such a change remains to be seen.
Considering Fischer’s findings and the reality of what’s happening in San Francisco, the situation looks particularly precarious. Heeding his conclusions could prevent similar crises in rapidly growing urban centers like Denver, Portland, and Seattle. The biggest takeaway for these cities: either build sufficient housing to accommodate a growing population or face an out-of-control rental rate crisis like the one in San Francisco.
Numerous articles and studies published over the past eight years on the effect of the 2008 financial crisis on the future of America’s “millennial” generation have reached the same conclusion: at its best, the future is uncertain; and its worst, the future is downright bleak. It’s not difficult to understand why. While the most highly educated generation of young adults in the nation’s history, Americans born between 1980 and 2002 also carry the highest loads of student debt and suffer one of the highest rates of underemployment. As a result of their strained economic situation, many millennials are delaying marriage, starting a family, and buying homes—once considered central components of the American Dream.
Despite all this, millennials report feeling “hopeful” about their own futures and that of the country. And many have channeled that hope into the 2016 presidential race, in which recent polls show that young voters aged 18 to 29 are participating in larger numbers in primaries and caucuses than in previous elections. The two candidates who have thus far attracted the most support from millennials include Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the so-called “anti-establishment” candidates who have promised to radically transform America’s rigged political and economic systems. Although they stand on the opposite sides of many issues, both Sanders and Trump employ a certain type of rhetoric called “economic populism,” that decries crony capitalism and especially resonates with millennials and others who have yet to benefit from America’s economic recovery.
Before millennials cast their vote for one or another of these candidates, however, they should consider the modern origins of economic populism and the particular lessons of one of America’s most famous “economic populists”—Henry George (1839-1897). Never heard of Henry George? Think again. If you’ve played the popular board game Monopoly, at the very least, you’re familiar with his ideas which inspired the game’s founder, Lizzie Magie.
In the wake of one of the worst economic disasters in the nation’s history—the Long Depression of the 1870s—George, a middling California journalist, set out to expose and explain why industrial and technological progress seemed perversely to deepen poverty, inequality, and economic instability. In 1879, George published his findings in the aptly titled economic treatise, Progress and Poverty. The work became an international success and likely outsold every other book published in the nineteenth century except The Bible.
More than 135 years later, Progress and Poverty still holds key insights into the polarizing character of American capitalism and helps explain why vast disparities of wealth continue to accompany economic growth. More importantly, George’s ideas—and the amazing story of their life—provide important lessons to those seeking to build a more just and sustainable economic system. George’s ideas not only provide the necessary context for understanding the origins of America’s broken economic system but also the steps for constructing a more just and viable one.
The failure to treat land and natural resources as the common property of all people—as opposed to the private property of individuals—perpetuates crony capitalism, accounts for the growing divide between the wealthy and poor, and causes the pernicious boom and bust cycle that has afflicted the American economy since the late-eighteenth century.
Living and working in California in the post-Gold Rush Era, George closely observed the new and perplexing realities of industrial capitalism. Over the past century, human civilization had experienced unprecedented levels of technological development and industrial production. New sources of power including steam and electricity as well as improved methods of transportation such as canals, turnpikes, and railroads enabled mankind to produce and distribute more goods than ever before.
Despite the fact that society could produce exponentially more food, families continued to starve. Despite the fact that the nation’s leading industrialists earned more profit than at any other time in history, workers struggled to support their families. Despite the fact that America’s economy had become larger and more diversified, the nation continued to face worsening financial panics and industrial depressions.
Unlike other social commentators of his generation who attributed these conditions to overproduction, under-consumption, or a unsound monetary policy—Congress had recently passed the Coinage Act of 1873, which drastically reduced the price of silver—George concluded that at the heart of this dilemma was land. As he explained:
The reason why, in spite of the increase of productive power, wages constantly tend to a minimum, which will give but a bare living, is that, with the increase in productive power, rent tends to even greater increase, thus producing a constant tendency to the forcing down of wages.
By “rent” George referred not only to the monthly fee a tenant paid to their landlord, but to “economic rent”—which economists define as the profit one earns simply by owning something of value, such as land.
Land being necessary to labor, and being reduced to private ownership, every increase in the productive power of labor but increases rent—the price that labor must pay for the opportunity to utilize its powers; and thus all the advantages gained by the march of progress go to the owners of land, and wages do not increase.
George defined land broadly to include not just the surface of the earth, but all the materials, forces, and opportunities freely supplied by nature. To George, buildings, houses, farms and other improvements to land represented wealth or capital, whose values could be separated from land. Unlike the value of capital, land value increased not as the result of any effort on behalf of the individual owner, but to the increase in the demand for land as a result of advancing population, the building of a railroad, the construction of a school, or a multitude of other public improvements. In other words, George argued that land values are social in origin, completely dependent on the development of the surrounding community.
The relationship between public improvements and an increase in land values was especially apparent in California and other western states. Following the announcement of a new railway route, for example, land values skyrocketed and investors raced to purchase large sections near the planned route. Speculators made a killing following the completion of the railway when they could sell the land for many more times what they had initially paid. Railroad officials often colluded with speculators to increase the price of land to help finance construction.
Unbridled speculation in land values, George correctly surmised in Progress and Poverty, had preceded every major North American economic panic since the late-eighteenth century.
To break the boom and bust cycle and prevent deepening wealth inequality, the federal government should replace all taxes that penalize the working and middle classes with one “single tax” on the full value of land rent.
Prior to the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, which enshrined the modern federal income tax into the Constitution, Congress mainly relied on public land sales and tariffs—taxes on imported goods—to finance the activities of the federal government. State and local governments raised revenue almost entirely from the general property tax. Both tariffs and property taxes, George pointed out, unfairly privileged the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle classes.
By design, tariffs protect manufacturers by restricting and raising the price of imported goods and materials. Defenders of high tariffs claimed such taxes protected American jobs by reducing foreign competition. Opponents like George, however, pointed out that high tariffs make most goods purchased by laborers more expensive and thus, reduce the true value of wages.
Property taxes also tended to benefit the rich by failing to differentiate between the economic value of land and the value added by capital improvements. In many places, only improved land—that is, land with houses, farms, buildings, etc.—reached tax rolls, while the owner of many acres of valuable albeit undeveloped land entirely escaped taxation. Additionally, the rich were rather adept at “hiding” certain types of property—valuable jewelry, stocks, paintings, etc.—while also convincing tax assessors to underreport the value of property they could not hide—land.
To reduce corruption and more fairly distribute the tax burden, George proposed to eliminate all taxes save one tax on the full value of land minus the value of improvements. As he explained,
Were all taxes placed upon land values, irrespective of improvements, the scheme of taxation would be so simple and clear, and public attention would be so directed to it, that the valuation of taxation could and would be made with the same certainty that a real estate agent can determine the price a seller can get for a lot…
A tax upon land values is, therefore, the most just and equal of all taxes. It falls only upon those who receive from society a peculiar and valuable benefit, and upon them in proportion to the benefit they receive. It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community.
George’s proposal became known as the single tax and those who supported it were called “single taxers.”
Through the single tax, George hoped not only to reform the system of taxation, but also abolish the system of private property in land, which allowed individuals to horde resources nature bestowed to all of mankind and profit from the efforts of the entire community. According to George:
The wide-spreading social evils which everywhere oppress men amid an advancing civilization spring from a great primary wrong—the appropriation, as the exclusive property of some men, of the land on which and from which all men must live…
It is the continuous increase of rent—the price that labor is compelled to pay for the use of land, which strips the many of the wealth they justly earn, to pile it up in the hands of the few, who do nothing to earn it.
Beyond righting a wrong, the single tax promised a host of other social benefits. Taxing only land values would generate all the revenue needed to operate government and doing so would produce ever greater levels of opportunity, as man’s right to the bounty of nature and his desire for a productive life was strengthened. Taxing only land values would ameliorate and one day eliminate the hardship caused by continually bursting bubbles of land speculation. Taxing only land values, George believed, was not just the application of sound public policy, but the acknowledgement of a spiritual duty.
The unprecedented popularity of the single tax and all that it stood for prompted the beneficiaries of crony capitalism—the defenders of the status quo—to accept half-measures such as the federal income tax, while at the same time burying George under a mound of lies and epithets.
The simplicity and inherent fairness in the single tax drew followers from different walks of life and from all over the world. In 1886, the United Labor Party selected George as its candidate for Mayor of New York City. In a hotly contested and nationally followed race, the Democratic candidate Abram Hewitt narrowly defeated George, who earned more votes than any other third party candidate in the City’s history. He also outperformed the Republican in the race, Theodore Roosevelt, who placed third.
George was a profound influence on the religious reform movement known as the Social Gospel, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. One of his best known followers was the popular New York City priest, Edward McGlynn, whose outspoken efforts to bring a Georgist solution to the deepening poverty and inequality led him to be ex-communicated—and then re-communicated, in his lifetime and under the reign of Pope Leo XIII.
George’s growing religious influence in Europe and the United States coupled with the McGlynn controversy prompted Pope Leo XIII to issue the famous 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which he reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s support for private property rights in land and also reminded Catholics of their spiritual duty to charity and the less fortunate.
Because he campaigned against private ownership of land, George’s detractors labeled him a socialist. In supporting private ownership of capital, however, George was clearly not a socialist. Karl Marx vehemently opposed George and the single-tax movement for misleading workers into believing that landowners rather than capitalists were to blame for their suffering. “Theoretically the man is utterly backward!” Marx wrote of George in 1880.
Despite the economic nature of his subject, George wrote for the common reader. He rejected the idea that one must possess a good deal of formal schooling to grasp the laws of political economy. His lack of academic credentials and increasing popularity threatened a growing number of professional economists who dismissed George’s theories as “half-baked” and “dangerous.”
The widespread appeal of the single tax together with the growing demand to lower tariffs, led many in Congress in 1913 to support a federal income tax. Although a good deal more progressive than today’s version, the federal income tax was a poor substitute for a tax on economic rent. The main problem with an income tax, according to George, was that it failed to differentiate between incomes justly earned and those earned from the labor of others. As he explained:
Nature gives to labor; and to labor alone…
Now, here are two men of equal incomes—that of the one derived from the exertion of his labor, that of the other from the rent of land. Is it just that they should equally contribute the expenses of the state? …The income of the one represents wealth he creates and adds to the general wealth of the state; the income of the other represents merely wealth that he takes from the general stock, returning nothing.
Despite attempts to discredit George, his ideas inspired a generation of social activists on multiple continents who successfully built the single tax into a number of Progressive Era reforms and programs—particularly at the state and local levels—that continue to provide such basic human services as clean water, electricity, and public transportation to large populations all over the world.
Although the single tax was never fully implemented anywhere in the world, George’s ideas animated many of the most notable social reform movements of the era of high industrialism. In particular, local government leaders of the Progressive Era pulled heavily from the single tax to justify their efforts to raise taxes on public service corporations and transfer the provision of water, power, and transportation from private to public suppliers—a movement known as municipal ownership.
Similar to George’s single tax, which aimed at reclaiming and distributing socially created land values, advocates of municipal ownership targeted the socially generated wealth of public service corporations, which amassed huge profits by providing services required by all residents and using public property, such as streets, waterways, gas lines, and franchises, to do so. As Ohio State Senator and single tax advocate Frederic C. Howe explained in 1907,
The value which these corporations enjoy in the market is social in its origin. It is created by the community itself. No act of the owner gives them the earning power which they enjoy…Moreover, the franchises and privileges that these corporations enjoy are granted by the people themselves. They are created by law. No labor enters into their making. They are a free gift from all of the community to a few of its members.
In states with constitutional provisions against municipal ownership, urban reformers utilized the single tax in their efforts to increase taxation on the property of public service corporations, particularly that of railroads and streetcars.
The reach of the single tax into such seemingly disparate movements as labor politics, religious reform, and municipal ownership testifies to the importance of land and natural resources to the fundamental dilemma facing democratic society: how to encourage economic growth and provide an equal opportunity to all persons to engage in and benefit from the advancements of human civilization. To George the answer was simple: one tax based solely upon the wealth produced by land—the resource from the time of its creation that has always existed for the benefit of all men.
As the presidential election rolls nearer, young voters might fare well to remember George’s lesson that so long as the government continues to treat socially generated wealth as the private property of individuals, the benefits of industrial progress and economic recovery will not be shared equally; instead, those benefits will flow to those who control the greatest shares of economic rent.
On a July night in 2009, Sophia Ramos and her two grandchildren pitched a tent on a family-owned patch of property in a rural area of Hawaii. The two boys were crying. These weren’t spoiled kids reluctant to go camping –they were homeless.
The Ramos family lost their home amid the mortgage foreclosure crisis that began in 2007. The story is a familiar one. Like so many homeowners’, the roots of Ramos’s troubles were in a loan she took out against the value of her home. She was, at the time, free of debt, having bought her family a modest house in Florida outright with the proceeds of the sale of her mother’s home back in Hawaii. Ramos, her three grandchildren, and her elderly parents shared the three-bedroom home. In 2004, Ramos took out a loan against the property to buy a lawn-care business to support the family. She was a hard worker and enjoyed mowing grass. Everything was going well until 2005, when driver pulled out in front of her minivan.
Ramos suffered a broken arm and other injuries, rendering her unable to work. Six months later, she fell behind on her mortgage payment. Bills piled up. Collections agencies started calling. Ramos was desperate. And then help came—in the form of another mortgage. Less than a year later, still unable to work and after months of financial struggle, Ramos took out yet another, much larger, loan. At this point, she owed $240,000. This may seem like an alarming amount of debt for someone with no job, but at the time, Ramos’s home was valued at around $400,000 and expected to keep gaining value at $40,000 a year. In that light, her loans seemed conservative. She just needed a little help until things turned around. It was December 2006, and Ramos’s financial world was about to collapse, along with that of the entire country.
Ramos’s plight is one of millions that followed similar trajectories in the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Last week, at Columbia University, I (Jacob) attended a screening of Rahman Bahrani’s thriller film 99 Homes, which dramatizes the human toll of the foreclosure crisis through the fictional story of Dennis Nash, an Orlando construction worker supporting his mother and son. Dennis falls behind on his mortgage payments when he becomes unable to find work in the construction industry. In the beginning of the film, Dennis pleads with a judge, explaining that the bank said it was trying to modify his mortgage. In the next scene, the Sheriff arrives and the family is forcibly evicted from their home. As the panicked family packs up everything they can in the few minutes they are given, Rick Carver, the real estate agent in charge of the eviction, drawls, “This ain’t your house anymore, son.”
Following the screening was a panel that included Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, whom I had the pleasure of meeting after the event. Dr. Stiglitz discussed the causes and conditions of the mortgage meltdown. From 2004 to 2006, housing prices skyrocketed in a bubble fueled by frenzied speculation and the availability of cheap loans. Like so many Americans, Ramos pulled funds from the rapidly growing equity in her home. In those two years, Americans extracted 1.5 trillion dollars from the value of their property. Just as Ramos did, a large portion of them did so through subprime loans. Subprime loans are loans made to risky borrowers, usually at high interest rates. Subprime loan brokers encouraged homeowners to borrow huge amounts of money against the speculative rise in the value of their homes–to pay off debts, improve their properties, to start businesses, or just to spend on luxuries such as vacations and new cars.
Keep in mind that to say people were speculating on “homes” is somewhat misleading. Often times, the lot a house is on is worth more when the structure is removed. This is because structures, like all physical assets, depreciate over time, while the location of the property appreciates, as it did rapidly in the years preceding the crash. So, it was really the land–or more precisely the locationof the home–that was being speculated on, not the home itself. We’ll talk about the importance of that later.
The loans for such land speculation came with variable interest rates that could double or triple, as well as large penalties for paying them off early. In many cases, the borrowers could not afford the loans, and the brokers knew it. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers had incentive to make bad loans, as they could simply take their hefty servicing fees and then sell the loans off to investment firms. Often they used fraud, including falsifying people’s incomes, to get the loans approved. Then, such loans were packaged with hundreds of others and sold and resold. A block of subprime loans might be owned by thousands of investors in mortgage-backed securities.
Beginning in 2007, the bottom fell out of the housing market and the economy tanked. As unemployment climbed, people defaulted on their mortgages, many of them subprime loans that they couldn’t afford in the first place. With housing prices on a steep decline, people could no longer sell their homes to pay off the debt. All too often, those homes were now worth less than what they owed.
This all became a self-perpetuating cycle as the value of mortgage-backed securities dropped, the economy crashed, and more and more people lost their jobs—especially those in the construction industry. As people struggled to make payments on their mortgages, it fell to the mortgage service companies (often banks) to deal with the avalanche of defaults, which cost them money to actively manage. They also saved on payroll by under-staffing the offices handling the defaults, often with under-qualified employees, leading to massive mismanagement of paperwork and wrongful foreclosures.
In 2009, the Obama administration launched the Home Affordable Modification Program, a $75 billion program meant to help homeowners avoid foreclosure by offering banks incentives to modify mortgages for borrowers who were in trouble. However, applications for loan modifications were egregiously mishandled by the loan servicers in the form of delays, errors, and lost paperwork. According to sworn statements by Bank of America employees, they dealt with the glut of paperwork by routinely denying applications en masse with made-up reasons such as missing documentation. Foreclosure proceedings went on in parallel with the mortgage modification process, meaning homeowners who qualified for the program lost their homes before they could be approved.
As this catastrophe unfolded, fingers pointed in all directions–mostly to “irresponsible” homeowners or “predatory” lenders–to cast blame. Hands were wrung and barrels of ink spilled by economists trying to explain just what went wrong and how we could prevent it in the future, including many reasonable proposals such as not lending money for land and avoiding the inflation of location values caused by artificially low interest rates. All of this, however, could have been prevented by a simple fiscal measure –taxing the value of land. Taxing land value would have stopped the bubble from inflating in the first place. This is because a strong land value tax would have reduced land’s selling price in the same way that our current low property taxes do to a small degree–by creating a liability on the part of the de facto owner, the holder of the deed or the bank that owns the mortgage, to regularly pay a tax. Think of it this way: the greater the tax you will have to pay for holding onto land, the less you will be willing to pay up front. Pay more now, pay less later. Pay less now, pay more later. For this reason and others, Dr. Stiglitz is a supporter of the land value tax as a means of keeping such bubbles from inflating in the first place.
“One of the most important but underappreciated ideas in economics is the Henry George principle of taxing the economic rent of land…” -Joseph Stiglitz
Behind all the statistics, terminology, and tangled interplay of economic mechanisms that caused the foreclosure crisis are the tales–each unique in the manner of snowflakes–of families whose worlds were turned upside down in their pursuit of the fabled “American Dream” that, in those two heady years of economic boom, seemed so vivid. In 99 Homes, Dennis and his family find themselves living in a motel filled with other families in like situations. Desperate to save them from this fate and get his house back, Dennis goes to work for Carver, the unscrupulous real estate agent who had evicted them. Under Carver’s direction, he starts by cleaning up foreclosed homes and stealing the appliances only to replace them–for a cut of Carver’s ill-gotten gains. In an ironic twist of fate, Dennis is groomed to carry out evictions himself. The morality play of the film unfolds as Dennis accepts handfuls of cash from Carver to show up to door after door and throw people just like him out of their homes.
In one scene, Carver places the blame for his decisions on the system. His father, he says, was “a sucker,” a construction worker who played by the rules but lost his home anyway. Carver is determined to “survive.” While we must hold the Carvers of the world morally accountable for their decisions, we also need to turn a critical eye to the system that pushes them toward such despicable tactics in the first place. If people can make more money speculating on the rising value of land than they can working an honest job, then we have a problem much deeper than a group of greedy bankers.
We need to attack the root of the problem–taxes on wages and subsidies for owning land. In this drama, we are the serfs, and the financial institutions are acting as lords of the manor. We pay taxes on our earnings and pay the rest to them in the form of rent and mortgages. But who rightfully owns the land? We the people, or the oligarchs? By forcing them to pay a tax on land value, we can take back our earnings and fix the root of the problem.