Can Tiny Homes Solve San Francisco’s Housing Crisis?

“Tiny homes,” residential structures that typically measure between 100 and 400 square feet, have been touted by some as an elegant solution to de-cluttering one’s life and embracing a minimalist lifestyle. Examples have graced the pages of every prominent home and garden magazine, and HGTV has three (yes, three!) shows dedicated to tiny homes. In San Francisco, housing activists and city planners are now looking to the tiny home movement as a potential tonic to the city’s worsening housing shortage.

With a vacancy rate at 0.3% and a population influx to the Bay Area to the tune of approximately 90,000 people per year, San Francisco, known for its stunning Victorian homes and hilly streets, is running out of housing. Chelsea Rustrum, a consultant on the sharing economy, believes that tiny home villages have the potential to increase housing inventory at a greatly reduced cost. Compared with the $1000-per-square-foot cost for traditional construction, the per-foot cost of constructing tiny houses falls between $200 and $400. Eager to develop the first tiny home village in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rustrum has assembled a team of 10 people and is scouting for a plot of land. However, she has run into a problem that plagues most new housing initiatives – zoning.

The tiny homes that Rustrum and her colleagues seek to build violate a number of common zoning rules as set by the International Code Council, a domestic trade group. Most notably, they are below the minimum square footage necessary to be classified by as a residence. Rustrum hopes to overcome such zoning obstacles through negotiations with city governments, but changes to zoning laws have become a flashpoint in the debate over the housing shortage and development in the Bay Area. Homeowners consistently try to stymie new construction because they assume that an increase in population density would decrease their own property values. (In actuality, the opposite effect has been shown to occur: increased population leads to increased land values.)


Tiny Houses via photopin (license)


Even if zoning obstacles were overcome, could the construction of tiny home villages truly reign in the careening San Francisco rental market? Eric Fischer, a San Francisco resident, recently analyzed 30 years of rental prices (the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment having reached an astonishing $3,500) and created a model that explains housing costs in the city. According to Fischer, it would take a 53% increase in the housing supply (200,000 new units) to reduce costs by two thirds. Given that the entire land area of the city is 7 x 7 miles, most of which is developed, tiny home villages do not pose a realistic solution in San Francisco County, because there just isn’t enough unused land to construct them on.

The Bay Area, by comparison, is comprised of multiple cities, some of which have far more available land than San Francisco. However, there is concern over the effect tiny home villages would have in these areas A criticism of proposed tiny homes developments is that, though less environmentally damaging than traditional tract home developments, they still represent a form of urban sprawl. And more sprawl is not something that the Bay Area can handle right now. The area’s burgeoning population is already crushing public infrastructure. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a major transportation system, has $5 billion in unmet capital needs over the next 10 years, and interstate highway commute times are at all-time highs. Any housing solutions that place people further outside of urban centers could add pressure to already strained transportation infrastructure.


Nothing Gold Can Stay via photopin (license)
Nothing Gold Can Stay via photopin (license)


With this in mind, it would seem that any new housing construction should occur where economic activity is most concentrated: downtown San Francisco. Problematically, downtown areas tend to have the greatest land values, and traditional strategies for construction in the city center tend to be very expensive (using subsidies and eminent domain), politically treacherous (due to entrenched residential and commercial landlord interests), and ultimately ineffective. While tiny home developments might make the area more affordable for a handful of individuals and families, to effectively turn the tide of this crisis and resolve the housing shortage, government officials must take steps to build up housing inventory in urban centers, particularly in downtown areas near the business district. To this end, the city and state must consider a land value tax (LVT).

American political economist Henry George hypothesized that both property taxes and taxes on the value of improvements (structures) discourage new construction, as any residential or commercial development will result in higher overall property taxes. To expedite construction, Henry George recommended eliminating taxes on improvements and shifting the revenue burden towards higher land value taxation (LVT), which would encourage landowners and developers to increase residential and commercial space in order to pay the land value tax while providing them a respectable return as they provide value to others. LVT naturally becomes even more effective wherever land values are higher, such the urban core of cities. Implemented in cities, LVT leads to a substantial increase in both living and working space.

California faces a unique challenge due to the limits imposed by Proposition 13. Overcoming those challenges in the long term would require a difficult–but not impossible–voter-approved constitutional amendment to completely overhaul the property tax system. State legislators as well as regional and city planners would be remiss not to consider the solution of the LVT, which has had demonstrated success in increasing residential space the United States as well as abroad. For the moment, housing advocates have their eyes on Rustrum and her tiny home villages, a pop culture trend that could provide a short-term solution to a steadily worsening housing crisis.

Cover Image: Boneyard Studios. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International LicenseCreative Commons License


London Congestion Tax Reduces Traffic Pollution While Improving Infrastructure

Is traffic a daily problem for you? Bad news: If you live in a major metropolitan area, chances are that traffic congestion is only going to get worse. The nation’s roads and highway systems are being crushed as Americans flock to urban areas for economic and social opportunities. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, traffic on some highways has increased over 25% in the past 5 years. With a cost to Americans of $124 billion a year, plus the unquantifiable impact on quality of life, cities must take action to abate worsening traffic congestion. For some ideas on how to do that, they should look to London.

London is a global financial center with a burgeoning population of over 8 million. As London’s economy and population ballooned in the 1990s, so did traffic, earning the city its reputation as one of the most congested cities in Europe. Government officials took notice and hatched a plan to reduce traffic in the city center, boost ridership of the London Tube and buses, invest in public transportation, and improve quality of life. Their solution? A congestion tax.



Piccadilly Circus via photopin (license)
Piccadilly Circus via photopin (license)


Officials in London created a “congestion zone,” which motorists are charged for entering. First implemented in 2003, this tax was introduced at £5 per day and has since risen to £11.50. Resulting tax revenues, amounting to over £200 million in 2008, have primarily been invested in public transportation improvements. The number of public buses has increased, bus routes have been modified to take advantage of reduced traffic congestion, and roads and bike lanes have been improved.

13 years after its implementation, the congestion tax has been hailed as a success. The number of cars entering the city center has plummeted by 34%, traffic speeds improved between 20 and 30%, and bus ridership increased by more than a third.

The benefits of the tax are not limited to improvements in transit times and increased use of public transit; it has also been a powerful tool for reducing the environmental impact of transportation. The tax has reduced CO2 emissions by a total of 100,000 tons annually, cut fuel consumption by 40 to 50 million liters annually, and led to greater than 15% reductions in atmospheric levels of major air pollutants NOx and PM10 levels.


Buses and Bikes via photopin (license)
Buses and Bikes via photopin (license)


London’s success has inspired other cities to consider congestion taxes. Singapore and Stockholm introduced congestion taxes several years ago, and Beijing and Mexico City are in the planning phases. Efforts to implement congestion taxes in New York City have typically failed due to partisan gridlock, but have gained momentum in recent months.

London’s congestion tax is a powerful example of the positive urban development that occurs when revenue derived from the value of land is invested in public infrastructure. Traffic congestion is largely a consequence of economic growth, which is made possible by a city’s populace and infrastructure. Motorists enter London for economic opportunity. The congestion tax functions as a mechanism by which the city can capture a portion of the wealth earned by non-residents and create the incentives to effectively align self-interest with the public-interest.

A number of economic scholars have compared London’s taxation system with the theories of Henry George. Henry George, an American economist and political theorist of the 19th century, postulated that land is social capital, and profits drawn from land should be shared by all citizens via the use of land value taxation (LVTs). In the case of London, government officials are taxing the use of land by motorists and distributing that revenue to public works projects designed to increase the quality of life for the city’s residents.

As metropolitan areas across the world see traffic congestion worsen rapidly with intense development, a congestion tax is a proven solution worth considering. Not only will traffic decrease, but cities will be able to re-capture wealth generated by its land and use it to improve the city for all.


Cover Image: Street Art: Camden via photopin (license)



The UK Can Harness Post-Brexit Foreign Investment for Economic Growth

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.


Brexit Scrabble via photopin (license)
Brexit Scrabble via photopin (license)


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.

None of this is good news for the average Londoner. Foreign nationals have been buying real estate at a faster rate than UK nationals for several years, a trend which has been credited with causing to the steep surge in housing costs in London. Last year alone, average London housing costs increased 10.6% to $681,500 for a single family home, more than twice the national average, which was itself excessive. Renters especially have felt this squeeze, as rents increased 12.5% in the same time period, reaching a staggering £1,500 per month for a 1-bedroom apartment.

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.


Brexit tea via photopin (license)
Brexit tea via photopin (license)


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 sustainable means for growing the British economy.


Has City of London lost its voice with Brexit? via photopin (license)
Has City of London lost its voice with Brexit? via photopin (license)


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.


Cover Image: Dis United Kingdom [Explored] via photopin (license)


The Surprising Way Inequality is Driven by Taxes

The old story continues. In the United States, income inequality is getting worse as wealth continues to concentrate excessively in the upper classes at the expense of the lower and middle classes. This is becoming more evident as lower-income individuals and families are forced to tighten budgets to cope with the rise in housing and transportation costs, which are outpacing gains in wages and making it difficult to afford basic necessities. As a result, low wages earners are losing economic self-determination, and forced to depend on their employers or the government for assistance.

It was never meant to be this way. One of the most important natural laws of political economy is that human desires are unlimited, which means that there are always markets with which to create exchangeable value as measured by currency. This intersects with another natural law: the creation of value requires access to forces and opportunities within the physical world, referred to by political economists as “land.” Every occupation requires both space to operate and raw materials extracted from the physical world. In more developed economies, tools such as machines and structures crafted from those raw materials–“capital” in the discourse of political economy–help create larger amounts of exchangeable value from human exertions, referred to as “labor.”

Economies work for everyone when people (labor) using tools (capital) access the physical world (land) and create exchangeable value in the form of goods and services. They then trade those goods and and services for what they want and need. When this ideal is realized, everyone is able to economically self-determine.


 via photopin (license)
via photopin (license)


Unfortunately, that is not what’s happening. Startling new data from the Pew Charitable Trust shows the extent of economic suffering for lower-income households, for whom, unsurprisingly, housing is the primary factor driving budget woes. In 2014, low-income earners on average spent $9,178 on housing, up from $6,897 in 2013. The Pew Charitable Trust notes that this is the largest single-year increase in housing spending over the past 19 years. Such a steep increase in housing costs makes it even more difficult for these low wage earners to afford adequate food and transportation. Workers in all income brackets are finding it increasingly difficult to generate the necessary income to meet housing costs, but the weight of this particular dual challenge bears greatest on the poorest of Americans.

Those numbers are more startling when put into perspective. Low-income is defined as a family of four making less than $45,622 annually, which accounts for 32% of all families in America. Currently, basic necessities such as food, transportation, and housing consume nearly 50% of these families’ total budgets. As housing costs continue to rise, this percentage will increase, preventing low-income families from accumulating any substantial wealth over time.

So why exactly are housing costs increasing so dramatically?

At present, U.S housing inventory is at a historic low and continues to shrink. Widespread foreclosures over the past 9 years drove many families into the rental market, increasing competition. Increased demand for housing should spur an uptick in housing construction. However, we have not seen this happening. A decrease in average wages and assets in the wake of the financial crisis has put home ownership further out of reach for many Americans. Consequently, investors are not jumping to construct new properties. Construction of residential properties is at its lowest level in 40 years.


185 Fore Street Construction via photopin (license)
185 Fore Street Construction via photopin (license)


Fortunately, steps can be taken to ease this housing crunch for all, and especially for low-income families. The Land Value Tax (LVT) (instead of traditional property taxation), first proposed by American political economist Henry George, has been demonstrated both in the United States and abroad to increase the stock of residential and commercial space while enabling greater economic self-determination for all. The enhanced economic self-determination stems from an increase in commercial space, which makes it easier to both start and expand businesses, leading to an increase in employment and wages.

Henry George hypothesized that the tax on the value of structures (“improvements”) in the traditional calculation of property taxes penalizes landowners for building on their property. To encourage more construction, he proposed that taxes on improvements be abolished and replaced with higher land value taxation. Such a system would encourage landowners and developers to build residential and commercial space to generate the income necessary to pay the land value tax, thus providing them a respectable return on investment as they provide value to others.

Given that no end in the housing crunch is in sight, government leaders must take action quickly to abate the high housing costs that are strangling low-income households.

Cover image: left! via photopin (license)


Berkeley Poised to Address Affordable Housing Crisis With New “Landlord Tax”

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.


CC BY-SA 3.0,
CC BY-SA 3.0,


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.


Joe Mabel [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Joe Mabel [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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.


"Trust Your Struggle" via photopin (license)
“Trust Your Struggle” via photopin (license)


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.

Interested in helping Berkeley City Council pass this measure? If you are local, contact the Council and see how you can help get the word out! Another way to help would be to modify Proposition 13 to avoid loophole abuse by helping organizations like Make It Far and Daughters for Charity.

The best way, though, to help everyone would be to support broad implementation of Land Value Taxation, which may well require altering or even repealing Proposition 13. Everything else is either a band-aid or a half-measure.


Housing Advocates in New Orleans Take on Short-Term Rentals

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.


New Orleans my love via photopin (license)
New Orleans my love via photopin (license)


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.


Hard Rock on Bourbon Street via photopin (license) The tourism industry in New Orleans is driven by the culture created by the permenant residents.
Hard Rock on Bourbon Street via photopin (license) The tourism industry in New Orleans is driven by the culture created by the permanent residents.


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.


Street musicians in New Orleans
Dancing in the streets via photopin (license) Local street musicians are a major draw for tourists in New Orleans.


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.


Jim Fairchild of New Orleans Steamcog Orchestra
Photo by Michelle Gomez. Jim Fairchild of New Orleans Steamcog Orchestra

Rudy Giuliani Tax Break Continues to Hurt Tenants and Help Landlords

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.

rudy via photopin (license)
rudy via photopin (license)

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.

By David Shankbone - Own work, CC BY 3.0, Jimmy McMillan founded The Rent is Too Damn High Party and ran for Mayor of New York in 1993 and 2013
By David ShankboneOwn work, CC BY 3.0 Jimmy McMillan founded The Rent is Too Damn High Party and ran for Mayor of New York in 1993 and 2013.

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.

Park Slope (9th Street, Brooklyn) via photopin (license)
Park Slope (9th Street, Brooklyn) via photopin (license)

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.

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Rent Subsidies Fail to Help Homeless in Los Angeles

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.


Homeless man and his dog sleeping via photopin (license)
Homeless man and his dog sleeping via photopin (license)


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.


FOR RENT - Central Avenue via photopin (license)
FOR RENT – Central Avenue via photopin (license)


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.


Haley Pk 01 via photopin (license)
Haley Pk 01 via photopin (license)


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.


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The Simple Two-Part Solution to Poverty: Universal Basic Income and LVT

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.

UBI has existed as a concept for hundreds of years. The idea was first posited by Johannes Ludovicus Vives in the 14th century and evolved via the work of Enlightenment figures like Thomas Paine and then,  in the 19th and 20th centuries, by Western economists and politicians . The idea even surfaced in the 1972 United States presidential campaign in the form of a negative income tax, with both candidates expressing some form of support.

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.


Child Living in Smokey Mountain Dump, Manila Philippines via photopin (license)
Child Living in Smokey Mountain Dump, Manila Philippines via photopin (license)


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.

Some economists warn that a UBI would be ineffective if not paired with other policy changes. A potential downfall of UBI is that the greater income of citizens would be captured by landlords via rising rents. Therefore, efforts must be taken to ensure that rents do not absorb government-supplemented income.


bbb low-cost housing, tegnestuen vandkunsten via photopin (license)
bbb low-cost housing, tegnestuen vandkunsten via photopin (license)


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.

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Transit-Oriented Development and Land Value Tax: Sharing Common Goals

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.


I-70 via photopin (license)
I-70 via photopin (license)


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.


ART - Arlington Transit Bus via photopin (license)
ART – Arlington Transit Bus via photopin (license)


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.


South Saint Louis Sunset via photopin (license)
South Saint Louis Sunset via photopin (license)


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.”