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Liberalizing Land Use Regulations: The Case of Houston (2020) (mercatus.org)
119 points by jseliger 14 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 279 comments



For a long time, Georgism and other land-centric ideologies were dismissed as out-of-date holdovers from a far more agricultural area. But in recent years, it's been great to see a widespread rediscovery of the fact that, yes, land really is still paramount, even though society and the economy have greatly changed.

Related was the discussion in https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26994175 the other dya of land appreciation underwriting fast food and small businesses. Very nice to see.


TIL a LVT is currently implemented throughout Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Singapore, and Taiwan. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to analyze these countries rather than Houston when proposing such a dramatic policy shift?

EDIT: while Denmark and Singapore are considered very expensive places to live, the rent in Denmark is actually cheaper (while Singapore could be forgiven to some degree due to the country's high density).


The devil is in the details. Just because a jurisdiction has an LVT doesn't mean it achieves the lauded goals. Strictly speaking, the only difference between an LVT and traditional property tax is whether or not improvements are included in the valuation.

What that allows you to do is more aggressively tax the land--faster readjustments, and with a much higher tax rate. To the extent you do this, you incentive more efficient land use. But in practice jurisdictions don't do this. If you read the literature on Pennsylvania and Mexicali it becomes clear that this isn't politically viable, and so LVTs there are watered down w/ tons of exemptions and a very skittish assessor's office, and don't actually behave much different than regular property taxes.

Lo and behold, when I dig up the details on Estonia I find the same thing. AFAICT, 1) principles residential homes are exempt (specifically, the land the principal residence sits on). 2) The tax rate is capped at 2.5%, but can be as low as 0.1%. I'll bet that property reassessments in Estonia aren't particularly aggressive; but even if they were, 2.5% isn't very much for just the land value. The median rate in the U.S. is 1%, but that includes land value and improvements; and is as high as 2% in some places.

LVTs just aren't politically viable. When a property assessor's office is faced with reassessing the value of land in a way that forces existing homeowners to sell, they're just not going to do it. And even if they tried, a pro-Georgist LVT assessment tends to be much more speculative because they need to guess what could be built on that land, not what is actually being built nearby. Where they've tried to do that, you either see corruption, a "reluctance" to reassess (see Mexicali and elsewhere), or voter revolts. This is very much how California got Prop 13--the fear of reassessments forcing people out of their homes.

Don't forget, a regular property tax can also be used to promote densification. In theory it's not as efficient, but in most cities vast swaths of land have uniform density, so this efficiency concern isn't implicated nearly as much. And yet, predictably, attempting to use property taxes for social engineering always falls flat. Threaten the [perceived] security of family and retiree homeowners and see how well you do in the next election. All the promises of a better, more equitable future won't save you.

I bet if you look at how LVTs are implemented in all those other countries given by Wikipedia, you'd see the same thing: an LVT in name only, a pliable assessor's office, giant loopholes, etc.


Yup, details are important here. At least in Denmark, there is no LVT for private residences either (you do pay for undeveloped land). Also, rate is around 0.2%.


Denmark has LVT for private residences. It's based on the price of the undeveloped land, but it's still in effect for private residences [1].

[1] https://skat.dk/skat.aspx?oid=2244323


Exemption of principal residence isn't a bad thing for LVT. It still disincentivizes people from treating housing as a store of wealth, which is literally the root of all evils about various social/economic issues.

The cost of housing would have to infinitely keep growing if we expect every generation of homeowners are guaranteed a lucrative ROI when they retire. I don't understand how that would be sustainable other than a "Après moi, le déluge" mindset expecting the later generations to pay the bill (yeah, literally our pensions included). This problem is even compounded when considering the consequence of the HGT (the Henry George Theorem).

I am already getting a bit struggling to afford a home that is not as good my parents' even though I have a much higher-paying job. But I can't imagine how my children are going to afford it without my financial aid or they have to move to somewhere cheaper.

That said, I somehow agree with you regarding the political aspect, which probably needs a profound wisdom to figure it out.


LVT in Singapore? Most of Singapore is 99-year lease. At the end you give the land back to the government. Property taxes are quite low.


> At the end you give the land back to the government

I hear this complaint a lot about Singapore, especially from Australians, who seem to forget that most of SG's 99-year leases are until the 2070's.

Meanwhile nearly every single property in the Australian Capital Territory has its 99 year lease finalised in the next decade. Most Australians generally don't want to have an honest conversation about those people returning their homes to the government and seem to pretend the leasehold system doesn't even exist.

I get the feeling that leasehold and the returning of property to their rightful owners won't stand up well in a democratic society where the majority decides.


I find the 99 year lease thing in Singapore fascinating so have done a bunch of background reading on it. You are correct that most of the leases are good until the late 2000's (since most construction happened in the 1970-90's, but there are some properties built in the 1960's that are on the "downhill slope" of the lease - basically the remaining time is less than the average adult life expectancy (say buy at 30 and live another 60 years).

As you said, it's going to be interesting when these start to "expire" in large quantities. What the conversation has been in Singapore so far:

- the gov't will "buy out" the remaining lease for some developments and put up new housing. Existing owners will get a payment and a new subsidized house. However, the gov't has said this will be rare (the problem was when this started is people assumed all owners would get this deal so housing prices jumped, even on properties with little lease life left).

- if you do an NPV analysis of the value of a 99-year lease, it's pretty much worth the same as a freehold lease for the first couple of decades, then it starts to be priced as a true lease - e.g. what would the NPV of renting it be for X years? that's the purchase price. So if a home rents for $3k per month and has 2 years of lease left, the purchase price would be $72k (minus any time value of money)

- the Singapore gov't has also said that it will be proactively initiating the lease-end process 5-10 years prior to avoid masses of people dealing with expired leases at the same time.


You'd want to do both. You want to see the variation and effects across countries but Houston has a very different culture than all of those places.


What's interesting about Georgism is that he seems to nail the problem, and the proposed solution might work, but it's also an approximate equivalent to doing something else.

Heavily incentivizing new construction.

Because that's what LVT would do. If you pay the same, high, tax no matter what then you might as well build skyscrapers until rents fall below the construction cost.

At which point the "land value" would trend asymptotically to zero because rents would equal construction costs and the value of the land is only what you can collect from it as rent.

It kind of implies that LVT wouldn't generate a lot of revenue if it was implemented faithfully, because land values would crash and with it the "tax base."

But in that environment you don't need that much tax revenue. How much social assistance is necessary if an apartment is $100/month and overall cost of living is correspondingly lower because all local businesses are paying similar rents and it's that much easier to start a small business?

Which implies that you could get to the same, good, place by heavily incentivizing construction/densification on its own, and in general doing everything possible to reduce market rate rents.

Though "stop taxing the building component of real property" is perhaps still a necessary component of that, at which point the argument is maybe only over whether LVT should be the tax we use instead of property tax vs. the tax we use to the exclusion of all others.


Isn't your floor not "rent falls to the construction costs" but "rents fall to the point of the best alternative investment to construction"? Which is going to be a (much?) higher floor?

(I suspect that residential property ownership and use will also break the math here a bit, where the primary purpose of the purchase is not as a money-making investment, but instead as a place to live, so competition for that will also push up the floor of land prices.)

You're still gonna potentially need a lot of tax revenue for stuff like advanced healthcare assistance, so in terms of flattening out cost of living why not just go with a straight wealth tax?


> Isn't your floor not "rent falls to the construction costs" but "rents fall to the point of the best alternative investment to construction"? Which is going to be a (much?) higher floor?

So that was assuming that "construction costs" includes the opportunity cost of any existing use of the property. Obviously for a vacant lot this is negligible. But even for e.g. an existing single family home, the value of one unit of housing isn't much of a loss when you're replacing it with 50 units on the same land. But you're right that this could be non-negligible.

And this is another place where zoning is a bane, because you have a place that has a bunch of single family homes and reaches saturation (no more empty lots) so you have to start building taller buildings. That means land values start to go up, which means developers have the incentive to start rationing land. No sense in building five 4-story buildings when you can build one 20-story building for roughly the same total construction cost and a fifth of the land cost. Except that 20-story buildings are prohibited by zoning, and by the time they're allowed you're already thick with 10-story buildings whose opportunity cost of replacement is much higher. High enough to justify replacing them with 50-story buildings, except that zoning still prohibits those. Restrictive zoning sucks.

> I suspect that residential property ownership and use will also break the math here a bit, where the primary purpose of the purchase is not as a money-making investment, but instead as a place to live, so competition for that will also push up the floor of land prices.

Not really. If you can build a high rise condominium tower and sell units for $50,000, who is going to pay $400,000 for the same number of square feet from a detached single family home two blocks away? Most people would take the $350,000 profit, move into the condo and sell their existing home to the developer to make into more condos.

> You're still gonna potentially need a lot of tax revenue for stuff like advanced healthcare assistance

A lot of these costs really do go down significantly with rents. Hospitals for reasons of emergency response time have to be located in high density areas and take up a lot of real estate. Those costs fall. The cost of living in the area declines, which allows the hospital to attract workers without paying such high wages. Everything gets less expensive, even healthcare.

> so in terms of flattening out cost of living why not just go with a straight wealth tax?

Wealth taxes are crazy inefficient. You have a company which is trying to invest all its profits into R&D, which is what we want, and here comes the government to say that's not a deduction. You have a company which is just scraping by in an efficient competitive industry with high capital costs and low consumer prices, owes the same in taxes as those guys who monopolize healthcare products and raise the price 10,000%; goes out of business and causes the industry to consolidate and raise prices. You have a company which is still owned by the founder, who understands the industry and cares about the customers, but now has to sell shares to pay the tax and control of the company falls to MBAs focused on quarterly profits.

It's basically an attack on efficient capital-intensive businesses with low margins in favor of bloated monopolistic rent-seeking businesses that can produce yields in excess of the wealth tax rate.

Plus, perverse incentive to move wealth into anything the wealth tax doesn't count, or capital flight into other jurisdictions. And promotes consumption over savings for the middle class, increasing wealth inequality (higher shift from savings to consumption for the working class than the rich) and financial vulnerability to e.g. job loss, which suppresses wages by making it harder to quit or hold out for a better offer when unemployed.

The correct way to deal with r > g is to do nearly the opposite of this -- give every regulatory and tax advantage to upstarts, efficient competitors and small businesses so they can unseat incumbents and create new wealth not in the hands of old money, only to be themselves defeated in the next generation if they don't stay lean and competitive. There is no Mark Zuckerberg if there is no single social network with a billion users under the control of a single company, no Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates without the Windows desktop monopoly. They'll fall to competition, not taxes.

But if you really need tax revenue, try taxing rents. Promotes home ownership.


> the value of one unit of housing isn't much of a loss when you're replacing it with 50 units on the same land.

While there are many spots where this may make sense, I'm sure glad this hasn't been a universal approach. There are many neighborhoods with wonderful centuries-old homes, these are often the most desirable areas to life because the areas have character. Not everything has to be constantly torn up to build cheap apartments.

> Most people would take the $350,000 profit, move into the condo and sell their existing home to the developer to make into more condos.

Most people seems like a stretch. I'd imagine most people who have opted into a house have zero interest in going back to a condo.


You're right that if you capture 100% of land rent, the price of land effectively drops to zero. At that point you'd need some other way to estimate the land rent.


If sales prices of land deviate from zero, and the land value tax is meant to take the full amount of land rent, that's when the land tax is too high or too low. This can also be estimated by the replacement values of structures versus transaction prices. The devil is in the details of quickly changing markets, however. But with a full LVT markets would change far less quickly because there would be far less speculation, and less of a bubble on land prices, because more land would be opened up to the desires of society as a whole instead of the desires of the few rentiers holding it.

The other way of looking at this is imputed rent, the amount of money that somebody would be willing to pay to rent out their own home. Well, in theory it would be that amount. In high-demand areas, homeowners' actual imputed rent is higher than they would be willing to pay, because the act of buying property and paying low taxes let's then live in their place for far less than somebody else would pay for the same privilege. Which is how opportunity get hoarded, and how rentiers take over local governance structures.


> You're right that if you capture 100% of land rent, the price of land effectively drops to zero.

I'm not sure that's not what happens regardless, except for the two things preventing it right now.

The first is the existing property tax. If increasing the size of the building on your property increases your property tax, you have to recover that in addition to the construction cost from rents or it isn't worth it.

The second is, of course, zoning. Even if it would be cost effective to build a 20 story building on your lot, you can't do it if it's prohibited by law. If you can't build upwards then you have to build outwards, which requires land, which transfers the scarcity of land into a scarcity of housing and prevents rents from falling to the construction cost.

And you need to fix that for LVT to do what you want it to do. Otherwise the artificial housing scarcity persists and the money just goes to the government instead of the landlord, and gives the government a direct rather than indirect incentive to maintain (or increase) housing scarcity through restrictive zoning.


I think that if we maintain height restrictions, FAR restrictions, setbacks, and all the other tricks that city planners use to concentrate wealth in the hands of landowners, we need to also make these restrictions automatically scale based on the neighborhood.

For example, instead of a cap on a neighborhood of three stories, the cap could be 33% more than the tallest structure in the adjacent two blocks. Or 50% more than the median height of the adjacent two blocks. Or maybe the max or min of those two values. The key would be to have it be not subject to delayed political approval, but rather responsive to what's going on in the neighborhood.

The other thing that's necessary is something like the Greek polikatikia model where the owner of a house can easily have a larger structure built and get a new place in the larger structure:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-07-15/the-desig...


> For example, instead of a cap on a neighborhood of three stories, the cap could be 33% more than the tallest structure in the adjacent two blocks. Or 50% more than the median height of the adjacent two blocks.

I was just thinking about this a little more and I think this is actually quite bad.

Because rents falling to construction costs is relativistic. Suppose it costs a given amount to build a 20 story building and you can recover at least that much in net present value from it in rent. Then you're going to do it if it's permitted and you have an empty lot. But not if you have an existing 10 story building. Then it would have to generate double the construction cost in rents, because you're getting half that amount of rent from the status quo.

Which means that to minimize that inefficiency, you don't want to be replacing 10 story buildings with 20 story buildings. What you want is to be replacing 4 story buildings with 20 story buildings. Because then you only have to beat the construction cost by 20%. Which doesn't work well if you have to wait until the median building is 10 stories tall before you can build a 20 story building.

But it's not completely wrong if you use different numbers. Say, have three classes of zoning. One allows buildings up to 4 stories, the next buildings up to 20 stories, the last unlimited. You automatically transition from the first to the second when the median building height reaches 3 stories, and from the second to the third when it reaches 6 stories.


Yes, my actual cap may have been a bad fit for some construction practices, and I should have said that the actual numbers were not thought through.

The part I believe more strongly in is decoupling the political process from geographic-specific height restrictions. We need to have a political process to derive the general rules for automatically allowing increased density, but any specific site should not have special rules except perhaps for geographic or environmental reasons, and that should be decided at the same time as the general zoning rules.

The real error in California and most of the US has been to downzone everything to current structure levels, then only allow additional building through a political process of granting exceptions. This leads to massive corruption (see LA's city council, for example), as well as increased land speculation.


Economy hasn't changed much for what matters. Real estate/land is still the dominant market.

Economics changed however. Land is no longer a factor of production like it used to in classical economics. Real estate market, despite its size and 99% people involved with 50% of their salary in it, is just an afterthough for a modern economist.


I don't think I'd say it's an afterthought for economists, I would argue that it's not talked about because it's pretty simple, but politics is out of touch with economics.


Orthodox neoclassic economics does tend to overly focus on supply constraints, and if you like suburbs for misguided reasons well....we're no where close to actually running out of land!


Maybe it isn't completely dominant yet, but attention has had a strong run:

https://www.wired.com/1997/12/es-attention/


I find I really struggle to believe that a land value tax is progressive. It seems to me that if you are ten times as rich as me then you will use less than ten times the land value I do, making the tax regressive rather than progressive (the case if you would use more than ten times the land value.) While big farms may pay a lot of the tax, that gets pushed to food prices which will have a proportionally larger affect on the poor, even if wealthier people eat more land-intensive foods.

A wealthier person in a city could pay for an expensive skyscraper apartment or a taller or higher quality home on a narrow footprint and not pay significantly more tax than someone in a shorter house or lower apartment. It seems the only way for the rich to pay a lot more land tax is for them to go back to having large country estates (that mostly aren’t farmed) which doesn’t seem to be the way the rich are going—most people get and stay rich through businesses which, in western countries, tend to provide services and operate out of a small amount of land rather than farms or mines which exploit their monopoly on land.


> It seems to me that if you are ten times as rich as me then you will use less than ten times the land value I do

Why? Someone living in Manhattan or Queens is certainly using 10x the land value of someone living in rural Idaho. If I were to magically teleport a $3m brownstone from NYC to Idaho Falls, it would be worth perhaps $200k at most (it is old and crumbling).

> While big farms may pay a lot of the tax

As far as I understand, the vast majority of the farms are on rural land that has an unimproved value of close to zero. I don't see how they would pay much taxes.

> A wealthier person in a city could pay for an expensive skyscraper apartment or a taller or higher quality home on a narrow footprint and not pay significantly more tax than someone in a shorter house or lower apartment.

Why is this bad? They are now being very efficient with the use of their land. They have taken less of a rivalrous resource from the rest of society but have managed to shape it to their satisfaction.


>> It seems to me that if you are ten times as rich as me then you will use less than ten times the land value I do > Why?

The world's richest man own $500m of real estate. Sounds like a lot until you realise it's 0.25% of his net worth (and the unimproved land value's possibly sub 0.1%)

What percentage of the average American's net worth is tied up in the footprint of their home? Guess it's two orders of magnitude more than Jeff's, and potentially >90% of the value of the average farm. Hence not remotely progressive, even if it's less worse than a pure property tax in most circumstances and other even more regressive taxes.

> As far as I understand, the vast majority of the farms are on rural land that has an unimproved value of close to zero. I don't see how they would pay much taxes.

It takes a lot of land to make a farm. (Sure, per acre it's less than the city, but city dwellers don't own many acres and unlike the farmer have a realistic proposition of selling their limited acreage to a condo developer when the tax makes it unaffordable).

c.f. It takes zero land to make a much higher margin SaaS startup.


> What percentage of the average American's net worth is tied up in the footprint of their home?

I think a better question is what percent of the average person's net worth is tied up in the unimproved value of their land? I posit that unless they are pretty wealthy, it is nearly nothing.

This is a good representation of how housing (and therefore land) is valued: https://twitter.com/bufordsharkley/status/138799739507868467...

The tax incidence from a land value tax on someone living in a 300k home in rural California is nearly nothing, while it will be massive on a wealthy person living on a $5m home in Palo Alto. Their actual physical homes are fairly similar - the 4.7m difference is land value. I don't see why it isn't progressive. You give an unrepresentative example of literally the wealthiest person in the world - what about for 99.9% of people? Sure, it isn't literally the most progressive tax possible, but you can apply your argument to the progressive income tax we have today. Jeff pays literally 0 income tax, but that doesn't mean in general the income tax is not progressive.

If you are that concerned about it being progressive - and not the efficiency benefits of the tax - you can literally just make it progressive. 0% on the first $X/ft value of the land, 10% on the next $Y/ft, etc. This would solve your problem with farms as well (if you are not convinced by the graphic that 1000sqft in SF is worth more than 100 acres in Idaho anyway).


> Why is this bad? They are now being very efficient with the use of their land. They have taken less of a rivalrous resource from the rest of society but have managed to shape it to their satisfaction.

Their point of contention was in it not also being a progressive tax. So I guess they want the rich to pay more tax even if they use less of the taxed resource.


I don’t really want to argue about whether or not a progressive tax is good (the dual meaning of the word can make that difficult.) There is a claim that a land value tax is progressive, that is, the effective tax rate increases as one’s means increase, and I don’t really believe that claim. So “this is good [even though it is a case of the tax being regressive]” is irrelevant to the question.


Read these to understand:

http://www.ntanet.org/NTJ/63/1/ntj-v63n01p63-92-evidence-dis...

Here's the abstract summary:

> This study examines how replacing a uniform property tax with a land value tax (LVT) would shift the tax burden for single-family residential properties in Tarrant County, Texas, over the period 1997–2006. Results suggest that a LVT would shift the tax burden away from single-family properties and on to other property classes. For the more recent years in the sample, the average tax liability for single-family properties would decrease about 30 percent, regardless of household income, and SuitsIndices suggest that, within residential properties, a LVT would be slightly more progressive than a property tax. Horizontal equity problems would be greatest for the lowest-valued properties relative to other properties. This study also examines how a LVT would change property values due to the effects of tax capitalization.

https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/2653

In this one the book says:

> A land tax is considered a progressive tax in that wealthy landowners normally should be paying relatively more than poorer landowners and tenants. Conversely, a tax on buildings can be said to be regressive, falling heavily on tenants who generally are poorer than the landlords

So in general the idea is you tax the market value of the land, but not the value of what was done out of it. So an apartment building with 10 units would be taxed approximately the same as a single family home if their land is in the same area and of the same size. But since there are 10 units, each tenant of the apartment building would pay only 1/10 of the tax. Same thing if it's a Condo building. It also means that if someone wants to live near some "hot market" they'd pay higher tax for being there than if they were to move further away, since the tax is based on land market value.


I understand what a land value tax is. I just think that for it to be progressive requires the rich to behave like turn-of-the-century aristocrats with large estates, whereas I think today rich people are more likely to not use a proportionally large amount of land, and to own shares in companies (which themselves don’t need much land) instead.

Thank you for the link to the study around Fort Worth (my first guess was that this was some rural country which wouldn’t be very representative but that’s wrong. Most people in that county live in Fort Worth)


It's hard to visualize just how much more valuable land is in high-value areas. It far far outweighs the amount of land. And remember that it's a tax on the value of the land, not the amount of land. $1M of land in the Bay Area is not often enough to place even a house, but $1M of farm land far from economic opportunity will buy hundreds of acres.

What this does is make the Ricardo/Georgist of land more relevant in the current times than it was for agricultural land hundreds of years ago. The difference between good and bad land is amplified, not reduced.

Check out this map of the US, that switches from pixels proportional to acres to pixels proportional to real estate value. Georgism applies most extremely to these areas that metastasize:

https://twitter.com/bufordsharkley/status/138799739507868467...

It's also worth pointing out that the primary "critique" of Piketty's analysis of wealth inequality, with wealth increasing towards capital owners, by Matthew Ronglie, was two fold 1) depreciation wasn't properly analyzed, and 2) most of the wealth transfer went to capital in the form of real estate rather than other forms of capital. And the part of real estate that doesn't depreciate is the land, not the structure. So I view Ronglie not as a refutation of Piketty, but an addition that points the way to the real problem with capital: land.

For George, land was not capital, it had to be separated out because it behave differently than a set of tools. And for George, land doesn't refer just to the dirt on which we build structures, it also applies to things like patents and other monopolies that the HN crowd understands to sap wealth from society.

Georgism is a very unintuitive understanding of political economy, but I think that the HN crowd is far more likely to find it a natue thing to understand, since our "capital" in the form of computers are cheap and plentiful, most of us live in places where real estate demonstrates George's insights dramatically (the Bay Area), and we also encounter other forms of economics land like patents/IPv4 addresses/domain names.


Where I am from the majority of rich people are heavily invested in high value land. There have been many studies asssessing the question you describe. I will try to find them when I get some time, I think you will be surprised.


Transfer payments don't need to be in the tax code. You can e.g. tax land at a higher rate and write all people a check for the same number.

Sweden and Denmark and the Netherlands have less progressive income taxes than the US. Rather than encoding transfers in the tax code, they perform them via programs, leaving them with a more redistributive system.

> A wealthier person in a city could pay for an expensive skyscraper apartment or a taller or higher quality home on a narrow footprint and not pay significantly more tax than someone in a shorter house or lower apartment.

Sounds like pro-social behavior.

Today the rich buy shops in Manhattan and turn them into garages, lowering the value of the property and thus the tax revenue that New York gets. Rather than being rewarded for squandering, folks should be incentivized to make good use of the space they're taking up. If someone wants to turn a productive business into storage for their toys, that's fine, but we shouldn't be giving them a discount for doing it.


> Sounds like pro-social behaviour

I don’t want to get sidetracked on whether or not the incentives are good, or even whether a regressive tax is bad. (Though I admit I sidetracked with my comment above.) The question is why a land value tax is progressive in a modern industrialised country with a services-based economy?


Who cares if a tax is progressive?

There's no reason to care if a tax is progressive.

The thing to care about is whether the government is redistributing wealth in a desired way.

Progressive taxes are one way to redistribute wealth to the less wealthy. Payments are another.

If you want a more progressive system in a LVT world, double the tax rate and then send people checks.


Whether a tax is progressive or regressive tends to be quite a fundamental question economists ask. Lots of proponents of a land value tax claim the tax is progressive. So either they think that is a good argument in favour of it (in which case shouldn’t their argument be weakened if the tax is not progressive? Surely one should care about that?) or they think it is immaterial, but then why mention it at all?


Regressive taxes coupled with payments are a very powerful way to squeeze the lower ranks of the middle class, while preserving the rich and the higher middle class.


You can just structure the payments however you like to prevent that.


You can structure the rates however you like to place the squeeze at any place you want. If you structure it to completely get rid of the squeeze point you have just created a proportional or progressive tax.


You've created a progressive transfer system.

Whether those transfer payments are via taxes, payments, or services is not essential for the goal.

If you encode it in tax rates, you are subsidizing behavior that you are trying to deincentivize via taxes, which is unfortunate.

The idea of LVT or other taxes on externalities is to tax behavior you want to prevent. That's why we should tax the capture of land, the pollution of the environment, adding traffic to a transportation system, etc. That's why it's unfortunate to tax things like "making your house nicer" or "converting a parking lot to a veterinarian office" or "hiring another employee". You wouldn't sent checks to someone because they let their house decay or they fired someone, so why would you give them a tax break?

The point of the transfer system is to help people who need help, right? Not to discourage things we want to happen.


Does land value mean a flat fee based on number of square foot, or does it include fair market value of the property.

Because that penthouse downtown apt definitely cost more than a house in the middle of nowhere, even if its technically smaller.


I believe the original intention was to tax the market value of the land a structure sits on, not the structure itself. So in the case of apartments, presumably local density would have to be fairly high to make it a good place to build an apartment building there in the first place, and so the market value of the land would also be high; but the units would not be taxed directly at all, though their occupants would have to pay some fraction of the overall LVT. (Presumably that fraction would be higher for the penthouse.)

You can see why the LVT is relatively density-friendly: the taller the building, the less tax paid by each resident.


It corresponds to the value of the unimproved land. So the tax paid by a skyscraper would be roughly the same as that paid by an empty lot of the same size next to it. (You can imagine a system where a tall building would have to pay more tax for blocking out the shared light).

If the burden of the tax were shared equally than the penthouse would contribute the same amount as each of the floors below it—some small fraction of the total for a tall building.


It's taxing fair market value of the land. So, if you erased a skyscraper in downtown, how much would that barren plot of land be worth? Tax all of the value there. It's one of the only known taxes that doesn't negatively distort the economy


in many taxing jurisdictions, property tax is actually a combo tax on (unimproved) land (square footage/acreage) and on the value of the structure. sometimes these are the same rate and sometimes not. in other jurisdictions, market value dominates, though they often consider land value and structural value separately as well. once upon a time i managed a product to help assessors determine building values so they could do the necessary discrimination for property taxes.


Harberger tax gets around this problem.


It’s not. It’s a spin on property taxes favored by people on the internet and some libertarians.

Instead of taxing your property based in market value, you tax it based on what your neighbors value is. It’s basically a scheme to transfer wealth in a arbitrary and confusing way.

IMO it gets traction here because California has an outsized influence on HN for obvious reasons and California’s tax regime is bizarre and unjust. On the flip side, the economic influence of that tax policy makes it very obvious to some people that unjust tax policy can make you rich.


I'd be very surprised if many true libertarians supported Georgist principles. Georgists are all about socializing land, and other efforts include Community Land Trusts, social housing, and other ways to make sure that markets result in fair outcomes. The difference is in prioritizing the well-being of people rather than the primacy of markets or "freedom from government" style libertarianism.


Land is like attention: finite and there are no substitutes. Both are critical components of the economy.


And like attention it can go a very long way if you leverage it (by building multi-tenant buildings and other infrastructure) or you can let it rot and have it go nowhere.


Here in NJ we're getting screwed by property taxes. 2-3% per year! Try doing that when you're out of work or on social security. Its one of the main reasons people leave.


Other comments have alluded to this; but land value tax is very different from property tax in what it incentivises! Property tax just says your house is worth a lot, therefore you can obviously afford to pay a lot of tax, whereas land tax drives efficiency by encouraging density.


How is land value tax not just "your land could potentially produce a lot of value, therefore you can obviously afford to pay a lot of tax"?

From the perspective of the retired person on a fixed income who's lived on the same plot for 50 years while a city sprang up around them, the result is functionally the same.


Sibling comments have provided responses to other aspects, which all also seem right to me.

The proposed land tax in my state has land tax for seniors accrue against the property and is paid upon sale or death.

The objection to this is that it's a "death duty", to which the response is that you did absolutely nothing to help increase that land value. In fact, you worked against increasing efficiency by holding on when the land could be used for more productive purposes.

That's why the Georgist land tax is such a good idea; it taxes you based on the gains that the rest of society generated for you. Whereas a property tax also taxes you for your own investments.


I'd be fine with paying a tax "on the gains that the rest of society generated for you" upon me selling that land to someone else.

Just like capital gains on equities. I don't pay until I realize. I'm happy to pay some property tax in the meantime to keep gov't services running in the area.

But any other method is terrifying to me and makes me start thinking "What super rural state can I move to in retirement to buy a nice parcel and be seriously left alone these days?"


With equities you're helping the economy by keeping your money invested in our companies. We need investors capital to remain competitive and we should incentivze you to stay invested as long as possible.

With land you're continually depriving the local community of the space they need to live and work. Every hour spent commuting past your yard is an hour wasted. You should continually pay for the privilege of exclusive access to an in demand part of the nation.


Or put more simply: land ownership is a form of consumption. Stock ownership is not.


> I'm happy to pay some property tax in the meantime to keep gov't services running in the area.

That's precisely what this is though? Do keep in mind that the for land tax proposals suggest it replace at least a portion of income tax.

> upon me selling that land to someone else. Just like capital gains on equities.

But with your equities investments you don't get any personal gain until you sell. When you hold land, you're benefiting from it the whole time. We're not talking about only the financial benefits from value appreciation, but rather in the main the benefits that you get from society from having the land.


> you did absolutely nothing to help increase that land value

That's pretty unfair. People who lived a lifetime in that house did contribute their bit to making the area thrive and become more valuable by keeping the place nice, being good neighbors etc.

If you think that doesn't contribute at all, consider the opposite. If they lived there for decades and let the house go to ruin and were belligerently antisocial all the time, that drives away nicer people and helps turn the neighborhood into a bad place.


Land value tax doesn't punish development the way that property tax does.

>From the perspective of the retired person on a fixed income who's lived on the same plot for 50 years while a city sprang up around them, the result is functionally the same.

They can sell the land and move


> Land value tax doesn't punish development the way that property tax does.

If you can afford to pay 100% upfront for the cost of doing an addition to your house, then you can almost surely afford the ~1% per year additional taxes. This is technically a 'punishment' but it is a really minor one, and I doubt it actually impacts many people's decisions


Property tax itself is not the issue. The issue is caps on property tax increases that are meant to protect those poor fixed income people. Essentially, people do not make any change that would require the property to be reassessed, which may massively increase the taxes to where they should be. Hence people not doing some minor addition.


But those rules are specific to California? I'm confused why people seem to be suggesting that a land value tax is the only possible solution, when an alternative would be to just make taxes in that state work the same as elsewhere.


California is not unique in capping property tax increases in that way. Other states do it. California has a uniquely bad law though since the capped prices can be passed on to family. I agree that LVT is not the only way to fix those issues but LVT has some other benefits as well (such as discouraging empty lots).


Back when I worked at Google I got to walk past a decrepit shack next to the office everyday thanks to property taxes


This one? https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/15/google-ca...

My desk is right across the street. Used to see that shack every day before covid.

Can't see to find it on http://www.taxfairnessproject.org though


Can you really call the results of Proposition 13 "property taxes"? If an owner is currently paying next to nothing in taxes on their O($10M) plot of land, then practically any sane tax scheme is going to be better.

I'd argue actually charging the owner of the shack $100,000/year in property taxes (~1%) wouldn't have a radically different effect than charging them a 2% land value tax.


Under the property tax, they'd be penalized for developing the land. Their fallowing of the land would be effectively subsidized.

Under an LVT, the landowner contributes the same amount to their community regardless of their use of the land -- empty plot, slum, or well maintained building. This is good for the community overall.

So in your example the speculator sitting on an empty plot would see their carrying costs double. How could that not affect their behavior?


I'm arguing that a 10x increase in property taxes (or whatever 100k/year works out to) would already be enough to trigger the current owner to sell.

Once the property is sold, a developer will find that their profit from constructing a building is roughly proportional to the floor area regardless of whether there is a 1% property tax or not. This is because the profit they earn per-sqft is more than the resulting net present value of future property taxes on it. Therefore they maximize the density as allowed under zoning and we end up with an efficient use of the land.

(Of course dumb zoning laws messes everything up, but that's a whole separate topic...)


And the new development will ~~i~~ensure there be cheap apartments they can move too.


Unless the new development is writing premiums as well, I suspect you mean to say that the new development would ensure that there are cheap apartments to move to.


Yes, thanks :)


I thought the whole point was that they don't own the land, only lease it.


Yes. Henry George basically said it's too hard (utopian?) to just switch to everyone leasing their land, so a land value tax is a pragmatic approximation that still allows for the traditional sense of property ownership.


land value tax is not assessed on the basis of who is presumed able to afford it. it's assessed against the use of a public good --- the ability of more people to live and work in the city that perhaps makes the land more valuable than when the owner bought it.

also observe that the purpose of the tax is not strictly to raise revenue, but to address what would otherwise be an externalized cost and make the housing market more efficient.


> also observe that the purpose of the tax is not strictly to raise revenue, but to address what would otherwise be an externalized cost and make the housing market more efficient.

In a time and place where we can deficit spend well, and more demand unlocks more growth, this should be the primary purpose of most taxation.


California's property tax system is completely messed up to prevent that person from ever having to move or be impacted in any way. Why does that person get to be exempt from change when everyone else has to deal with it?


"The person causing change should pay for it" seems equally reasonable as a starting point. Perpetual growth has problems of its own.

California's mistake may be ONLY protecting homeowners from newcomers bringing change, and leaving renters out to dry.


I don't think "perpetual growth," is really what people complain about. what they really mean is that they want to shortchange everyone who does not already have housing.

There are a finite number of people with finite needs. Growing the housing stock to house this finite number of people is not "perpetual growth" and it's downright offensive to say that when we camps of homeless people, camps of people in RVs without other housing, camps of people in their cars, people working full time but only able to afford overcrowded housing, and at the same time enormous wealth within miles.

A society that allows such destitution while others have enormous wealth is not one that is running well. It shortchanges us all, economically.


They could just file for postponement or use a reverse mortgage/HELOC to pay their societal obligations. This idea that people should get to keep the entire windfall while shortchanging their communities is ridiculous.


If a retiree was sitting on highly valuable land, why couldn't they just get a reverse mortgage? High home equity plus short remaining life expectancy will support high monthly payments.


LVT should be quite high to make that not work: you should have to sell your land to someone that will develop it to cash in, otherwise your cashing in isn't worth it to society.


I don't think anyone's seriously advocating for a tax so high that you couldn't pay it with loans for a few years.


They actually are. As LVT goes up, the price of ownership goes down as land becomes a bit of a "hot potato". That's actually fine: what we are left with in the extreme is all land is rented from the state, and there is no permanent ownership. That's great!

You don't have to go that far, but it's good to know it's "safe" to do so. Land isn't produced so there's no "100 Laffer curve is 0" type problem in the slightest.


Even if you capture 100% of the increase in land value with land rents, that's only been about 5%-10% per year in hot markets. And even as you're taking out loans for last year, there's additional increases you can borrow more money from. So people that truly don't care about profiting from their land can handle it pretty much indefinitely.

However, once you can no longer gain money from speculating on its increase in value, that also means that there's going to be a ton more land available for increased use. The coercive effect of a land value tax is balanced by the a reduction in people speculating.


For practical purposes many reverse mortgages are rip offs. the idea is sound, but few get a fair deal.


Wouldn't a purely land value tax be even more punishing? The mere fact that you are in a desirable area and could build an expensive structure on your plot would mean that you have to pay high taxes.


If you live in an apartment in the tallest building around, you do just great. And that's the exact incentive we need.


Seems like NJ is ranked 2nd to Illinois for states with the most debt [1]. Not coincidentally, NJ has the highest property taxes of any state, and IL has the 2nd highest [2].

It's a rough spot, but I don't think there's any tax policy that could prevent that sort of outcome when you're dealing with such a high debt burden.

[1] - https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewdepietro/2020/11/23/state...

[2] https://www.illinoispolicy.org/illinois-again-ranks-no-2-in-...


Yes, there's a few tax jurisdictions where the per taxpayer debt burden is a few standard deviations from the norm.

https://www.truthinaccounting.org/news/detail/financial-stat...

NJ/CT/IL have $50k debt per taxpayer, and the next highest state is HI at $31k per taxpayer. And I assume those are understated amounts due to lack of laws requiring governments to perform proper calculation of present value of liabilities for deferred compensation.

Some of the cities are way out of the norm too:

https://www.truthinaccounting.org/news/detail/financial-stat...

NYC: $68k Chicago: $41k

The only way that works out for the average individual is if the economic growth in those places outpaces the alternatives to make up for all that debt, but I think there's a slim chance of that.


If someone has high property taxes and has trouble paying them, they either (1) bought a house they couldn't actually afford, or (2) have made a lot of money on their house.

For (1), that's unfortunate, but doesn't garner a lot of sympathy.

For (2), we should do some rebranding where the house itself pays the taxes and no one feels pressured to take it out of their own pocket if they don't want to.


That's an interesting way of putting it -- "the house itself pays the taxes". I guess you mean the solution I favor, which is to allow the property owner to defer some of the tax until the property is sold. I suggest that Prop. 13 in California, for example, should have limited not the growth rate of the tax, but the growth rate of the amount that actually had to be paid in a given year. The balance would be covered by a lien due at sale.


California already has a means-tested property tax postponement program: https://sco.ca.gov/ardtax_prop_tax_postponement.html

It should be expanded, state income tax ended, and prop 13 repealed.


This is already effectively how it works -- it's almost unheard of for a local government in California to kick someone out of their primary residence they own because of back taxes.


I guess if you aren't working over a period of years, you are just increasing commute times by occupying the densest areas and Georgism is incentivizing you to move farther out or build vertical (it's on land, not structures).


But how does that change the big question mark inherent to both taxes: "What's the value of the smallest defined unit of land?"


As long as land is bought and sold, it isn't hard to assess.

In the maximal form of LVT there is 0 value of owning land, the LVT becomes in effect rent to the state (which can be redistributed in a dividend to the people), and rather than assess at all land can be simply rented at at auction.


>>As long as land is bought and sold, it isn't hard to assess.

If I sell my land to someone for a dollar, does that mean the land is worth a dollar? Or is a county assessor pulling a magic number out of his hat that I would have to fight in court? I would say that so long as there isn't a dollar figure attached to the very atoms or molecules that make up the ground beneath one's feet, assessment will always be a blackbox.

>>In the maximal form of LVT there is 0 value of owning land, the LVT becomes in effect rent to the state (which can be redistributed in a dividend to the people), and rather than assess at all land can be simply rented at at auction.

In essence, this is Communism.


> Or is a county assessor pulling a magic number out of his hat that I would have to fight in court?

Or, you know, he can look at what the land around yours is going for to determine what the LVT should be.

> I would say that so long as there isn't a dollar figure attached to the very atoms or molecules that make up the ground beneath one's feet, assessment will always be a blackbox.

Considering that this is true for all atoms and molecules why is it a problem in this case and not in all the other cases where we figuratively attach dollar figures to atoms or molecules?

> In essence, this is Communism.

I would love to hear why you think that.


>>Or, you know, he can look at what the land around yours is going for to determine what the LVT should be.

And who determines what the land around me is worth? Or the land around that land ad infinitum? In all cases, there is an assessor pulling a magic number out of his hat. The only fair assessment is an agreed upon flat percentage multiplied by the sale price (what one has already paid) with depreciation factored in. Not what a "reasonable person" would want to pay on the basis of what my next-door neighbor pays (property taxes as currently calculated) nor what the government expects to extract from the ideal "best person" (land value tax). These latter two taxes are speculative (that is if they aren't worked backwards as sneaky graduated taxes on top of paying for local services) and ultimately punitive to the people who rightly purchased their property but somehow live "economically wrong" to the county/government. It's the burden of a country club without any of the benefits.

>>Considering that this is true for all atoms and molecules why is it a problem in this case and not in all the other cases where we figuratively attach dollar figures to atoms or molecules?

LVT assumes that land has a tangible and intrinsic value and that ownership provides solely to its the owner opportunity to derive a monetary value that is upto and including its "best use". Does that assumption hold? If we are discussing fiefs and manors. Yes. Mines and riverways? Yes. 19th century factories? To a lesser degree, but still yes. Thus there would be a basis in multiplying a dollar amount by some base unit of hydrocarbon, nitrogenous compound, water, or metal ore. But these days what constitutes a "best use" of land is completely divorced from where people derive their monetary value. In one year, people can make more money with a laptop in a tiny cubicle in New York than they do running a corn farm in Idaho. Does one then come to the conclusion that corn farming is an inefficient use of the land compared to an office tower and ought to be taxed as such? If you do, you're being consistent (to the possible detriment of the national diet). But if you don't, the only way to settle the value of a corn farm is the price at which someone makes a voluntary real sale (by private contract or open market) or by fiat. And that brings us to your next point.

>In essence, this is Communism

>>I would love to hear why you think that.

If an LVT was administered by a private group of individuals and was backed by some sort of resource value table with reassessments made every 2-5 years reflecting market value, I wouldn't have as strong an opposition as I do (although I would still have reservations). However, the scenario posited by the previous poster is that (from what I understand) a maximal land tax allows for a de facto monopoly over the land by government while private individuals merely become renting stewards of the soil they supposedly own. Should the net value of owned land being zero be a good thing to achieve as a policy? If so, how is this any different than collectivization in results, if not means? My statement wasn't a remark on LVT per se but what the previous poster expected to see achieved with it.

LVT, while ostensibly fair if one only looks at the separation between land and real estate, possesses many of the same problems as regular property tax. Ultimately it's not a much of a difference so long as the government is both assessor and rentier. I'd rather have a verifiable and justifiable reason to pay a fee based on what I own and my usage of it rather than quibble over the kinds of financial weapons that government uses to extract value from its citizens as though owing taxes at all was a forgone conclusion. A motive behind the tax must justify itself on its terms before justifying it's means or ends.


Lucky! Here in Portland we get the 3% per year plus nearly every election has a property based bond that always pass. Such that over the last 10 years our property taxes have more than doubled.


Measure 50 is super toxic -- if the real number is 5%, it's ridiculous to limit to 3% and ensure that you never get there. It creates a system where the friction for selling a house is even higher than it already is, and where new and less-established people are paying more for the same thing as richer, more-established people.


Property value have doubled in Portland in the past 10 years, from a median of $250k [1] in 2010 to $500k [2] in 2020.

Whatever small pain home owners feel from this, it's absolutely nothing, nothing, compared to the pain of renters. If you bought in 2010, and property taxes were 20% of your housing cost, and increased to 40% of your housing cost, your total housing costs only increased 20%, plus your home doubled in value, dwarfing any cost from an increase in taxes. In contrast, renters' housing costs increased 100%, and they saw zero equity gain.

Complaints about property tax should not be even entertained, IMHO, until there is a more fair way of distributing the massive economic gains that property owners enjoy through rentierism. If their gains were due to their labor, fine, but their gains are not, it's only through the suffering of others. It's from creating a zero sum gain where the homeowners profit and those with less starting money pay for it, regardless of who was more productive.

[1] https://www.oregonlive.com/business/2010/01/portland_home_pr...

[2] https://www.oregonlive.com/realestate/2020/11/portland-homes...


To be clear, you mean that Oregon limits property tax increases by 3% every year -- independent of property value. So if your house goes up 25% in value one year your taxes only go up 3%. No?

NJ charges 2-3% assessed at current market value.


Yes.

> independent of property value

I think the word "value" is mis-used here. The potential sale price of my home has no value at all to me unless and until I decide to sell.

I pay taxes on my home based on the price I paid for it -- based on what I can afford. Neighbors coming in and paying 2x that for their houses will not change what I can afford. Is it right that my taxes should go up because of their wealth? It's not unlike changing the terms of a contract after I've signed it.

And should I decide to sell, the buyers will pay taxes based on the new sale price -- based on what _they_ can afford. This seems eminently more just than people being forced to sell due to rising taxes simply because their new neighbors can afford to pay more.


If you don't value your home that much, but somebody else does, then why don't you move?

The reality is that you value the location, just as others value it, and you also value not having to move probably, but you don't want to pay for it.

I think that you should have a right to stay where you are. And more than that, I think that everybody should have that right, be they renter or owner, as housing should be a human right.

However, land is a limited resource. And by limiting its use, you stand to profit handsomely. You may not think of yourself as a land speculator, but if you profit not through your own labor but because you are manipulating access to a scarce resource, land, then that is actual speculation.

If you truly do not care about the speculation and profit, and just want to keep your place and the labor you put into it, then may I suggest a compromise: you can keep your low taxes, while others pay more to support the community, as long as the increase in the value of the land is taxed at 100% at sale. Because unless you are putting labor into improving your house, any increase in value comes only from the increase in value of the land, something that you did not create, and claim that you do not even want.

If you are willing to agree to this, full capture of the land value increase, then I think we can create a reasonable society. But if you insist on profiting without labor and also at the same time denying people access to something that lots of people want, I'm not sure that society can continue for much longer.


> home has no value at all to me unless and until I decide to sell

Buy. Borrow. Die.


Why isn't the NJ Senior Freeze a sufficient solution for you?


Does your comment imply that people who are out of work or on social security are better off renting? A property tax seems manageable like any other expense if you live within your means.


No, it means if you're not working you can't afford to live here. Maybe that is a fair result, but its not a place you can raise a family who live their whole lives here.


Where can you afford to live without working in the USA? It can't be many places.


Are you in a single family home? If so, I have 0 sympathy. Downsize.


NJ has the highest property tax (I think). Note it’s property tax not land value tax so while it has some effect on real estate prices it doesn’t quite create the same incentive for more efficient land use.


I'd say it may have an inverse effect.

Build a nice house on your lot, pay a ton every year.

Stay in a shack on that same lot, save a ton every year.


The value of the land still counts towards the total property value, so it's not an inverse effect, but it does decay the more is built until there's no marginal incentive one way or the other.


No I'm in an 2br apartment with my wife and teenage daughter. Taxes are $1600/mo. Still cheaper than the suburbs with good schools.


Glad to hear you are in an apartment in the good transit part of NJ!

Then a LVT is definitely in your interest as the others say. More stories => less taxes!


You’re apartment is valued at $700,000?


Probably higher. I'm not saying I'm struggling, I'm just trying to get some push back on property taxes and how toxic they are. When I was laid off the taxes are a huge burden. I have a mortgage that fixed for 30 years, but property taxes keep going up every year.


To reiterate on the original reply, a land value tax is on the value of the land your apartment sits on, but crucially, not on the value of the apartment. If there's a derelict tyre place next door that's on the same area of land and selling for significantly less, your entire building combined pay the same LVT as its owner.


Why would you assume that a LVT would be lower than current property taxes? If your land is built up the same as the average density of the surrounding area, then you probably were already paying comparable taxes to all your neighbors and your taxes should be unchanged under LVT.


I didn't actually say that. I said that if you have an apartment you'd pay less than a derelict tyre place on the same amount of land. If you live in high density residential apartments you'll pay less than lower density neighbours.

If the entire area is equally high density, then congratulations, it sounds like you live in a very desirable location in the middle of a lot of public and private infrastructure: if that's the case, you should be taxed, to encourage even higher density development and even more productive use of the land you're on.


Aha! we'll here's the joy of different types of averages / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jensen%27s_inequality

How do we take the average density? Is it the average height weighted by land area, or floor area?

"average height of building on a piece of land" vs "average height of building a piece of floor is in"

Well, unless all buildings are the same height, the second average will always be higher, because taller buildings have more floor!

Most people would go with the former for the average. And it does make sense in general to average over the fixed thing. But that mean building will pay a greater portion of the total tax revenue than before.


That’s not a lot for a 2BR with a reasonable commute to New York.


$700k+ is objectively a large amount of money to spend on housing, more than double the median US home price. Even if it's a middle class home in its local market.


In California we have Prop 13 which is the polar opposite of the situation in NJ.

$700k is half what I'd need to buy a place and still end up with an hour long freeway commute.

Also our schools are a joke compared to NJ.

But at least taxes are low here. Wait...


Yes. What Prop. 13 has done is taken all the tax money that would go to fund local services, and instead given it to former property owners. From a cash flow perspective, there's no difference between paying a large mortgage and small property tax, or a smaller mortgage and larger property tax that total to around the same amount. But the difference to the local economy is that the tax money would stay in it, while the mortgage payment effectively funds a large payout to the previous owner, who then most likely takes the money out of local circulation.


> From a cash flow perspective, there's no difference between paying a large mortgage and small property tax, or a smaller mortgage and larger property tax that total to around the same amount.

Not initially. When you pay off the mortgage around the time you retire and have no more steady income, it's night and day difference.


> $700k is half what I'd need to buy a place and still end up with an hour long freeway commute.

Yeah, but that’s because you live and work in a place that is ridiculously expensive by California standards. (I'm guessing SFBA.)


Housing is inherently local. You can't aggregate over multiple commute sheds and have your conclusion mean anything.


Is there some way to look at $700,000 and not think, "Holy shit that's a life changing amount of money for nearly any American."?


FOMO is the biggest reason I find not to sell and rent for a while. If I want to buy again in a few years, there is no way to know if the equivalent house would be out of my price range. And I can't think of too many places I would feel safe investing that amount of money given current asset price inflation.

Becoming a landlord while renting out something new may be a good option though. Or moving to a low cost of living area.


Life-changing would be living in nicer arrangements, consuming more stuff, doing less work, being more secure.

That’s not what’s going on here.


Georgism is not so much a solution looking for a problem as a problem looking for an excuse to be inflicted.


It sounds like you disagree with Georgism. Personally, it makes a lot of sense to me, so I was wondering if you wouldn't mind elaborating on your complaint.


Can you elaborate more? Do you mean that people are seduce by a land value tax because it's non-distortionary and fail to consider other downsides? Or do you disagree on other principles?


Houston also let a lot of people build on areas that were almost sure to flood later, without any accompanying regulation around insurance or meaningful notification on subsequent sale. So some of that more liberal policy didn't work out well.


Traffic is also miserable and public transit is reportedly pretty inadequate, so yeah there are other costs/considerations. You can't ever really talk land-use without talking transportation. (Although this pandemic has brought us closer than ever before to being able to plausibly consider the two separately.)


The public transit is poor because it wasn't liberalized along with the property zoning. If the government is the only one allowed to do public transit then a company won't come along as trying to compete with the government (which would be suicide). People all over the west (US, Canada, and Europe) try really hard to ignore the amazing success that is Japan's public transit system (that's mostly privatized).


> People all over the west (US, Canada, and Europe) try really hard to ignore the amazing success that is Japan's public transit system (that's mostly privatized).

Most metropolitan public transit systems receive only about 50% of their income through ticket prices, the rest come from subsidies in various forms. That doesn't mean those public transit systems are dumb and useless, they add a lot of economic value to their cities, it's just they can't recover that value add through ticket prices alone.

Now, back to Japan's privatized railways, they also get about 50% of their income through ticket sales, however, crucially, the railways own the land around the stations, where they run hotels, grocery stores and whatnot in addition to renting. This allows them to capture some of the value add of the railways through higher land values, and enables them to work without subsidies.

This is nice and all, but probably quite hard to replicate in other countries; What you gonna do, have the government expropriate the most valuable land in the cities and give it to the railway companies? Yeah, that will go down really well...


Japan by far had the most confusing and hardest to use metro of any major city I've been to. Stations with the same name that could only connect by exciting and reentering. Platforms with the same number at the exact same station. It's amazing what happens when multiple companies all own different parts of the network, but success would definitely need a better defined metric here.


And yet, if we look at actual migration rates, it's pretty clear that Americans are overwhelmingly voting with their feet for Houston's overall set of policies.


IIRC, the census data showed Houston in the top-five fastest growing cities, but it may have been number five, notably well behind Austin. San Antone and DFW weren't far behind. Houston's the only one with Houston's policies.


Houston's policies definitely aren't a dealbreaker. People are voting for Houston's overall set of conditions, which includes climate, job availability, culture, policies, and other factors.

Don't lenders require flood insurance for high risk areas?


They do, but most people get their flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, which makes determinations of risk based on data collected back in the 80s, and doesn't have premiums that cover the actual risk, which means it doesn't really dissuade people from building in flood areas.


My first job out of college was doing flood zone determinations with this data. FEMA updates their FIRM (Flood Insurance Risk Maps) flood zones in most places every few years.

Just checked here in Austin and it was last updated in 2016. https://msc.fema.gov/portal/availabilitySearch?addcommunity=...


In theory, but a) many properties are owned outright, for one reason or another, b) the flood maps assume flood control measures all work properly (e.g Harvey necessitated intentional release of water in order to prevent dams/levees from failing), c) over a 30 year mortgage you have a 26% chance of experiencing a "100-year flood", d) 100 year flood definition is inherently imprecise in the first place, not to mention climate change issues...

I could go on, not sure how much of this is really Houston's fault, the only flood insurance program is federal and they exert so much influence because they do establish the requirements for ~everyone who has a mortgage. Feds should probably take the lead on this.

Also Houston is just really flat to begin with, basically at sea level.


Houston is apparently sinking as fast as New Orleans. 2 inches a year in some places (up to 12 feet since 1920).

https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/circ1182/pdf/07Houston.pdf

Venice isn't just dealing with sea level rise, it's also sinking into the sea due to ground water pumping.

As sea level rises we are probably going to have to find ways to get water back into the aquifers faster. Both to stop subsidence and to keep it out of the oceans. More the former than the latter, but here are some numbers:

The surface area of the oceans is about 361.9 million square kilometers. Since a millimeter is a millionth of a kilometer, every millimeter of sea level rise is over 361.9 km^3 of water. The USGS pegged our aquifers as down 800-1000 km^3 in 2008 an the rate per year is over 25 km^3, and different sources seem to say we're now globally somewhere around 300-400 km^3 net loss in ground water. Per year.

And in the worst places the ground is sinking 2 feet per year due to pumping.


"the worst places the ground is sinking 2 feet per year due to pumping."

Is that number accurate? Thats would be bonkers, any kinf of infrastructurr or houses would crumble it it's foundations move at that rate.


I don’t know, but that’s what the usgs doc said, and another list said Houston and New Orleans are tied for first place (in NA presumably). I saw a video the other day about subsidence in some valley in California that’s almost as nuts. Bridges that are now underwater during every rain because they’ve sunk, things of that sort.


Houston does have unique local situtations, such as "we're going to allow you to build homes inside of our flood management reservoirs [1] and not require you to disclose to buyers that they're in a flood management reservoirs."

[1] i.e., the land that is intentionally flooded to prevent worse floods from happening downstream.


I know that happens but I'm not sure this is really unique to Houston, it seems to be a problem throughout the US in low-lying and/or coastal areas.

https://www.governing.com/archive/gov-flood-zone-floodplain-...


"not require you to disclose to buyers that they're in a flood management reservoirs."

I live in Uk, and this sounds downright fraudulent. Its basically knowingly selling defective product.


Wouldn't the logical conclusion be to build the homes, but to build the foundation higher than the forecast flood line? Or even to build the house raised above the foundation?


Yes, they very much do. I'm not entirely sure how to square the GP's comment.

Most of the issues as-of-late have been areas that didn't previously flood. The areas which flood change as development increases.

Houston also has pretty substantial regulation around flood mitigation and such these days. I'm not sure how that relates to this article in any way, which is focused on zoning, minimum lot size changes, and neighborhood-based opt-out on loosened regulations.


>Yes, they very much do. I'm not entirely sure how to square the GP's comment.

It happened. Lots of the flood plain homes that were destroyed in Hurricane Harvey were not flood insured. One of the reasons cited was lax updating of maps, another was builders gaming the system, another was loopholes for land near flood management reservoirs, etc. Things that happen less often if the local government is active around land use regulations.

And, in fact, Houston and Harris county did enact a bunch of new ordinances around all of this after Harvey.

https://archive.is/XxhE

https://wga-llp.com/blog/city-of-houston-adopts-new-floodpla...


"I'm not sure how that relates to this article in any way, which is focused on zoning, minimum lot size changes, and neighborhood-based opt-out on loosened regulations."

Most flood mitigation regulations are essentially zoning/planning/building permit related. They include restrictions on impermeable surface area, lot grading, etc. Let's say you cut lot size in half and are essentially doubling impermeable surfaces. That water has to go somewhere. This can increase the amount of run off and the chance of flash flooding. It can also complicate grading since existing houses might have been graded on the assumption that their runoff can go to the other side of the lot... where the new house now exists.

So they are connected.


i’d vote enthusiastically for a superlinearly-escalating tax on impervious surface area as a percentage of lot size to counteract runoff and groundwater issues, as well as flood control. we have entirely too much concrete and entirely too little permeable ground with trees and plants in cities like houston and LA.


That's interesting, but I'm missing how that will help. Most people want their house, driveway, and patio. I don't know that the tax would change any behavior.


it would encourage developers to minimize those things. in LA, for example, the city had a subsidy to replace thirsty lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. many property owners replaced lawns with fake plastic grass... that requires a concrete substrate. so we got more heat-concentrating surface and worse water/drought management. this kind of tax would have encouraged property owners to consider better alternatives.


It seems that's more of a poorly thought out policy that is being subsidized. It's focusing on removal of an attribute (grass) rather than an outcome (drought tolerant native plants replacing lawns to manage water requirements, tempature management, and rain water). A better option would be to fix the poorly implemented subsidy program to set specific criteria that creates a beneficial environment.


it's one example of a swath of problems that can be discouraged in one go, rather than having to mitigate each poor policy one at a time.

natural ground cover is beneficial in many ways over impervious surfaces so incentivize the former and disincentivize (rather than prohibit) the latter. if you want to cover your whole lot with concrete, go for it, but expect to pay for the negative externalities of that.


I really don't see a benefit to creating conflicting/competing policy. You have people who would rather keep their lawn than go to concrete based on the tax being more than the subsidy (assuming one time subsidy vs yearly tax). The policies undermine each other. You can't just slap a single policy over a multitude of others and think that's more beneficial, right? You have to look at it from a systems thinking perspective, which would require evaluating the interactions and n-order effects between that one police and all the others. If you're doing that work already (clearly politicians don't, based on the existing poor policies) then you might as well fix the underlying issues since it will allow the policies to function more effectively.

"but expect to pay for the negative externalities of that."

But what do you think that money will actually do? Is it going to prevent issues? I don't think so. It won't even cover the costs of actual damages in many cases.


The federal government provides flood insurance when private insurers won't.


The federal government requires flood insurance, even if you own your house outright. They also expanded those flood zones substantially over the past decade or so.


I’ve never heard of the federal government requiring flood insurance for your own property, house or otherwise. Is there a source where I can read about this?

All I can find is this:

https://www.floodsmart.gov/flood-insurance/requirements

>Homes and businesses in high-risk flood areas with government-backed mortgages are required to have flood insurance.

Which makes sense. I've never seen a government requirement for insurance for a loss only the asset's owner will incur.


I forgot the details. It's not a blanket requirement but has to do with FEMA money. Basically, they don't want people relying on FEMA instead of buying insurance.

"If you receive disaster relief funds following a disaster declared by the president, that money often comes with a caveat that you buy flood insurance to cover the cost of repairs or a replacement building if it is in a high-risk area for flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires that you maintain flood insurance on the property for as long as you own it. You’re also required to notify the next owner of the requirement if you sell the property. If you fail to cover your home with flood insurance after you receive federal disaster aid, you’re ineligible to receive future relief."


Interesting! That makes sense too.


And also the building itself and the increased concrete ground cover massively contributes to flooding


> or meaningful notification on subsequent sale

I'm never buying a house that isn't on a hill. I want to literally be able to see where any water would run away. I don't know why anyone would buy a low-lying house now, except if they were financially constrained.


There are a lot of areas and regions that are very flat. It's hard to build on a hill if there aren't any hills around. It's similar to telling people not to live in overpriced areas like SV. If that's were the jobs are and there are also people that want to live in that environment/area, then they keep moving there and driving prices even higher.


There are no hills in Houston


And if it seems like a hill, you're just next to a huge ditch. Like this: https://www.uh.edu/news-events/stories/2012/october/Easement


Land taxes are one of the few taxes that don't disincentive productive activity.

Are there any others like it (aside from externality taxes)?


Anything that's a monopoly good whose supply is fixed & unchangeable. Things like the electromagnetic spectrum, satellite orbitals, fisheries, carbon emissions, rights-of-way, drilling rights, etc. Note that there's a bit of a continuum between "natural resource" and "externality" - on one hand you have something like land, on the other carbon emissions, but those are just two sides of the same concept.

If we moved to a system where data about a person was owned by the person rather than the corporate entity that collected the data, then usage of that data is another good candidate for taxation.


The reason why these "taxes" are efficient is really because they are payments for privileges the monopolists get from the government on behalf of the community.

They are perfect pay-per-use scheme, the more privilege you consume, the more you pay. One can argue whether these are really taxes or just privilege fees. That's why groups such as single-tax or zero-tax propose that society can be run efficiently without taxes, because really the only "taxes" you need are those monopoly based ones.


They really are excellent taxes. If you are a Keynsian though, other distributive are also good as they "unlock" more demand which is the bootstrapping tension for the everything else.


Theoretically, any good with a perfectly inelastic supply.


Luxury goods

Progressivity on residential structure value i.e. “mansion tax”


Taxes on luxury goods actually discourage economic activity more than income taxes, because the elasticity of luxury goods is very high. It's just that the average voter doesn't care that this economic activity is discouraged because they never partake in it anyway.


Taxes on financial transactions, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobin_tax


I'm not sure I agree. This only doesn't disincentive productive activity if you think that secondary financial markets (including speculation and market making on those markets) aren't contributing anything productive.

I'm of two minds about this but I lean towards the notion that speculation is a net value add.

Think about the trillions raised in the secondary market, which is all contingent on valuations set by supply and demand, where these valuations are determined by speculators. The more accurate the speculators are, the more productive the capital is that's injected into the secondary market.

So I think we definitely don't want to disincentive the institutional speculation that happens, which is what a tax would do.

On the other hand we want to disincentive retail hype bubbles like GME, which lead to the opposite to the above - capital going the wrong way. However it's not clear to me that the tax would achieve that. Retail hype seems rather price inelastic. The bitcoin craze in late 2017 was good evidence of this, since fees for trading crypto are very high.


A common misconception about Houston is it doesn’t have zoning. Which is true. But it effectively achieves the same thing with a number of city ordinances and with covenants that subdivisions place on their land use which are enforced by the city.


It goes into that in the article and states it was one of the ways to make the liberalization of zoning digestible by allowing concerned communities being able to opt out under certain democratic conditions.


Trying to find examples of optimized land use in Houston seems to be a bit....um....what is the word for "absurd beyond the point that reason and logic would allow"?


The optimization is that it’s affordable to live there.


Is it affordable because of the zoning, or because it's a mind numbingly boring flatland with no geographic barriers to endless sprawl?


It’s also a wildly diverse multi-cultural melting pot full of interesting entrepreneurs from all over the word, and a place that offers significant upward mobility to millions of people.


Could you expound on this, please? I'm not too familiar with Houston's milieu, and I think hearing a reason why you believe this'd be really interesting.


Houston is 700 square miles of low-density sprawl, with what feels like 400 of them occupied by roads and parking lots.

That pattern of development optimizes for... Well, a couple of metrics, but most of them don't have much to do with efficiency or optimization.


Yes getting rid of zoning and things (which as the artificial nicely points out means going beyond what Houston has done) is still not enough.

Cars are still uniquely terrible. I'm beginning to view them re development like a gene drive is to geneics: a single piece of technology that upends the careful balance from before and takes over everything.

Public transit + anti-car urbanism, while much more fragile due to today's rich hating it, still also has increasing returns though. Do a LVT and Carbon tax too to accelerate that.


>Public transit + anti-car urbanism, while much more fragile due to today's rich hating it

Then why does every billionaire and national newspaper support those things? For that to be true, your definition of "rich" would have to include the approximately 90% of Americans who bought a car and a home in a place that requires driving.

Having a back yard and guest bedroom and driving 15 minutes to the grocery store is preferable to the vast majority of people to living in a small apartment and relying on public transportation. If it wasn't these western US cities would have developed differently.


America has laws (zoning) that almost require a car. Thus people drive and then more car centric areas are built which requires more driving and more cars. It is a loop that reinforces itself. Most Americans do not have a choice of car ownership since it is effectively required because of lack of other options. You say that it is preferable, but that is difficult to say since car ownership is so subsidized and prioritized.


a) We have terrible transit even in places that approve ballot measures about transit, suggesting part of the problem is the administrative state's inability to deliver rather than the fundamental policy preference.

b) Small transit-connected apartments fetch much better prices than many sprawl houses, suggesting that the preferences people express with their wallets and they preferences they speak into the microphone at zoning board meetings are pretty different.


a) Its too late at that point. Denver is a good example of a suburban car-based city that is pouring billions into pubic transportation that can never compete with cars. pick two random spots and compare the driving directions with public transportation. The city would need to be rebuilt as high-density.

b) You have cause and effect backwards here. Apartments are built in those areas because real-estate is already expensive. The real-estate is not expensive because they built an apartment building in the middle of nowhere. Things have to be high-density from the beginning for it to work, and everyone building housing since the automobile has chosen to go low-density whenever possible.

Building a high-density city today would require preventing people from building low-density just outside city limits and driving into town, zooming past all the suckers who bought a cramped apartment waiting at the bus stop.


> Building a high-density city today would require...driving into town

Actually you just said the solution. Let them buy all the exurb crap the want, but make driving hell in all the main destinations. Do that, and your transit investments will actually work.

Only spinless politicians that want to appease both sides make transit fail and let the car win.


>Only spinless politicians that want to appease both sides make transit fail and let the car win.

Welcome to democracy. The only way this could work is if you could decide to have a city where all the people who want cars aren't allowed to live there (or at least aren't allowed to vote there). In other words, a hard boarder with immigration controls, and ideally an independent budget so the Federal or State government can't tax you are require you to build highways to get your tax money back in the form of grants.


Not at all. Small towns and cities have been pedestrianizing a few key blocks for years.

In the case of Denver or some place like it, do a few blocks around the light rail stations. The car owners won't really notice (yet), but the small businessmen will complain. Ignore the small businesses, they are wrong about their own situation: Foot traffic will more than make up for any lost parking.

In fact there is a name, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tactical_urbanism, for this sort of bootstrapping, to build a loyal constituency over people defending their new car free privileges rather than merely imagining an alternative future.


This sounds wonderful. I would love to live somewhere like that. Cars suck to be around and having a massive boulevard all to yourself to walk down is a fantastic feeling. I'm not sure Tactical urbanism will be enough to overcome the problem you identified above.

I mean, America is deeply behind and I'm not sure it can be reformed. Maybe the best thing to do is move some place that does it better and hope to help set an example, I'm not sure.

But stuff like congestion pricing, the 14th street bus lane, and bridge conversions, in NYC gives me a little hope. Manhattan can also set a better example for the rest of the US --- active measures rather than simply basking in good decisions made 100 years ago.


The same metro area can present a tradeoff between short train ride/tiny apartment and long drive/big house. If your statement were true there would be little demand for the former. But it turns out there’s a lot.


Ok. I gave mine, so what's you're theory on why post-automobile cities are so spread out?

Anywhere that’s a candidate to become high density is low or medium density first. Crossroads becomes village becomes town becomes city becomes megapolis. Incumbents were not consulted about these changes; they were economically inevitable. Then progressivism took hold, institutions got more democratic and accountable, we stopped letting economics run roughshod over the hapless little people. Plus the high modernists did some incredibly tone-deaf fuckups which prompted every community to develop a hair-trigger immune system against sweeping changes from above. Heavy consultations and veto points mean a handful of motivated people can kill any project.

The first time a place is developed it’s almost always going to be low density. And once a place is developed the first time, the only way it can be substantially changed is with near-unanimous consent. There are enough people with an innate distrust of change that this consent is not forthcoming. So the initial conditions are permanent. Cities can’t evolve anymore.


> There are enough people with an innate distrust of change that this consent is not forthcoming.

No amount of 'trusting change' will transform the millions of spread out homes already constructed over 80 years into densely packed apartment buildings without tearing the houses down and putting the apartment buildings up. Pre-car cities were built high-density from the beginning. They were never low-density.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_New_York_City#/medi...

Even New York started out looking like a small town. There are lots of places that look like this in California today, and are under comparable economic pressure to grow. They're just choosing not to respond.


Sorry, which national newspaper supports anti-car urbanism?


My local paper regularly rails against an imaginary phalanx of anti-car jihadists. Any dollar not spent in support of automobiles is sufficient evidence of a nefarious anti-car agenda. Meanwhile, pre-apocalypse, mass transit is chronically under funded and over capacity.

Apparently commuters choosing to not drive is an unforgivable affront to Freedom Markets™.

Cite: The Power Broker, Robert Caro


There are definitely some activists for whom the label "anti-car" might be fairly applied, as these activists appear to reflexively oppose any project involving cars. However, virtually every time I've seen the charge of "anti-car" labelled at an organization or individual, it's generally by the sort of people you describe, people who define "anti-car" as spending a dime on anything that doesn't support cars, irrespective of whether or not the targets also support car projects.

The national newspapers I've seen have broadly been pro-infrastructure of all kinds, whether car or mass transit.


Right but mass transit are cars in inherent conflict. There's no way to "do both" and not be incredibly wasteful.

A lot of newspapers are for a little for-show light rail with park and drive for 9-5 commuters only, but this is a waste that just begets more car-oriented suburbs.

True urban development is going to force a lot of people comfortable in their subdivisions and predictable slowly-to-the-moon single family home prices to comfort a different world, and nobody likes change.

So it's rich people + status quo inertia. That's a lot to confront.


Rich people aren't anti-car. They are pro-car for themselves and anti-car for everyone else. Donald Trump will have no problem affording the Manhattan congestion tax. All the food service workers in Long Island will have to abandon their homes and communities or pony up an extra $300 per month.


Well, I welcome this. Cars do exclude people so it's about time they divide the rich and the aspirational.

There is plenty written about making the LIRR more than a rich suburbanite's 9-5 commute booster, and likewise making the long island buses complement rather than ignore a train service that runs east-west throughout the day.

Nobody need pony up 300 a month because there's no other choice.


Ok. But "the rich" have instituted the congestion tax without instituting any of those improvements to public transportation. Donald Trump is not taking a bus to Mar a Laggo.

> it's about time they [cars?] divide the rich and the aspirational

I'm somewhat shocked by this. Why would you want rich people to be able to avoid all the problems they create for everyone else with their greed?


> Ok. But "the rich" have instituted the congestion tax without instituting any of those improvements to public transportation. Donald Trump is not taking a bus to Mar a Laggo.

In NYC the congestion tax at least was going to be linked to more MTA funding pre-pandemic.

> I'm somewhat shocked by this. Why would you want rich people to be able to avoid all the problems they create for everyone else with their greed?

So right now cars and homeownership are still broadly popular. People view them as the hallmark of prosperity and essential middle-class-and-up status symbols. There's still a deep sense in many parts that urbanism is just part of the the Democrats fetishizing poverty, non-white people, etc., and that apartments and public transit are palliatives for people that didn't make the American dream or whatever.

And indeed "middle class" in general is the aspirational LARPing the landed rich. Big cars because fancy carriages. Suburb houses with lawns to mimmick country estates (and feudal manors before that). And yes ownership to mimic the land ownership itself.

So for urbanism to win, we need to break the coalition between the rich and the wannabes, break wealth in homeownership as a safety net when the state provides none, and break car ownership as the normal way to travel etc.

If congestion taxes heighten the underlying truth car usage always excludes others from the street, that's great. Hell, if wall street keeps on buying up subdivisions to rent out, I can approve of that in an acceleration way: better we pay rent than mortgages if realigns class consciousness. Likewise with some super-car-sharing world where no one can afford a car if they don't rent out rides.


>mass transit is chronically under funded and over capacity.

Ironically in most places it's hardly used at all and the few places where people actually use it are where its underfunded and overcrowded.


> Then why does every billionaire and national newspaper support those things

1. Most national news, by number of publications leans left. Conservative publications get more eyeballs per outlet, though. Most local news, of course, takes the installation of a single bike lane as evidence that the ghosts of Pol Pot and Stalin have just succeeded in an unholy socialist coup of the local city council.

2. Right leaning billionaires tend to keep their mouths shut more than left-leaning ones.


Where I live (not the US) has clean, efficient public transit and high density urban planning.

What do most of the middle class want? To move out of their cramped apartments into a single family home. And to own a car.

People act like suburbanism was forced on people when the reality is it’s preferred by many.


>People act like suburbanism was forced on people when the reality is it’s preferred by many.

That some people prefer suburbanism does not imply suburbanism is not being forced on a large proportion of the population that prefers affordable housing in cities dense enough to support efficient public transit. When people moved to the suburbs, large corporations followed and built sprawling offices, often in areas with poor public transportation and without sidewalks. When the choice is between an apartment with a hellish commute and a house close to work, of course many opt for the suburbs, but that does not imply that this is their preference. A suburban home and a car are nice to have if it's an option, but too frequently it's a requirement to own a car, and painful to not live near your suburban office.


> And to own a car.

Who wants to own a car? Between tolls, parking, insurance, maintenance, and the sticker price, it's a large hole in the ground that I throw money into.

I do want to be able to use a car... To go out of town a few times a year.


Plenty apparently. Like I said, the public transportation is great here but owning a car is very popular. No more waiting for transit. No more trips that take 30 min that you can drive in 15 min. Easier to cart your kids around.

And it’s not cheap at all (import tax of 100%), yet people are more than willing to pay it.


Ah, so the problem with this is that it stops being something to aspire to when everyone gets one. Because then, that 15 minute trip turns into 30 minutes of gridlock, followed by 15 minutes of looking for parking.

That's the problem with cars. They are great in theory, but absolutely ruin a city in practice. Which is fine if you are the only person on your block who owns one...


This is mentioned in the article. The city did reduce the minimum lot size considerably in the late 90s. But, that wouldn't have undone decades of too-large lots for SFH and lot size so large THs were completely untenable.

All that said, it sounds like Houston could be a good "experiment" for something more efficient/optimal than the normal US city/suburb zoning scheme. Reduce the lot sizes a bit more, remove parking minimums, etc.


> The city did reduce the minimum lot size considerably in the late 90s.

Only inside the loop, which is a small fraction of the city's area. They also point out the pervasive use of restrictive convenants, which make most of the suburbs much like their counterparts in other cities.

One thing they didn't mention is that some parts of the inner loop are not getting any kind of development; mostly the south west loop. As always it's complicated but there are socioeconomic and race issues bundled up in it. At least that was true a dozen years ago.


> All that said, it sounds like Houston could be a good "experiment" for something more efficient/optimal than the normal US city/suburb zoning scheme. Reduce the lot sizes a bit more, remove parking minimums, etc.

The problem is that Houston is extremely lacking in offering any transit-based options for people, which means the "solution" is going to be extremely biased towards whatever is most comfortable to people who travel exclusively via single-occupant vehicles.


One example I vividly recall when visiting Rice University (in Houston):

Literally across the street from my hotel room, on the 16th story, was a single-family detached house.


What's the problem?


If you are placing 16+ story housing buildings down, it's because you need the density. No one puts an apartment building down that size in a ghost town.

Odds are good that density is still desired across the street. Or maybe one step down into something more mid-rise. A single family home uses an entire lot to house a single family, maybe just 1-2 people.

It's an inefficient use of our limited resources, and artificially inflates housing prices by limiting supply.


> If you are placing 16+ story housing buildings down, it's because you need the density

Who is "you"? The way your sentence is structured is from the perspective of a city planner zoning a city or a powerful central authority actually building these structures.

In Houston, "you" is an individual and if you are placing a 16+ storing housing building down, you're doing it because you think you can make money renting or selling the units. The idea of relaxed land use regulations (zoning) is to allow demand to plan the city.

> It's an inefficient use of our limited resources, and artificially inflates housing prices by limiting supply.

Efficiency isn't the most important thing to all people. If it was, we'd all live in dormitories and eat in the cafeteria because private bathrooms and kitchens are wasteful. I don't understand what you mean by "artificial" inflation of prices, what's artificial about it?


You means the developer. If a developer has decided to put a big building there, it's because there is demand. Obviously there's no central planning authority, just developers building where they can.

I should have been more specific in 'need the density'. Yes, in today's climate that means 'because someone thought it would be profitable. That's because they saw there was demand for housing there.

> Efficiency isn't the most important thing to all people.

You've constructed a strawman position I don't hold. There's clearly a difference between "we should live in dorms" and "maybe we should discourage single family homes holding the land that could be use to house hundreds of families in apartments or condos."

> I don't understand what you mean by "artificial" inflation of prices, what's artificial about it?

Speculators are buying houses and renting them out in hopes that the land prices will skyrocket as demand for city life increases. By holding the stock of single family homes near urban cores in reserve, they are preventing the land from being used to build large housing developments. Because there is a lack of large housing developments, housing costs are higher than they would be if speculators instead sold all their lots to developers for developing low/mid/highrise housing.


> You've constructed a strawman position I don't hold. There's clearly a difference between "we should live in dorms" and "maybe we should discourage single family homes holding the land that could be use to house hundreds of families in apartments or condos."

I did that entirely on purpose but it wasn't to say that you hold that position. The point was to show that efficiency isn't black and white and, if your justification was efficiency (which it was), there was an even more efficient position than yours. What you're asking for is something more efficient than a multi-acre unoccupied vacation villa and less efficient than military barracks. I wanted to demonstrate that, on the spectrum of efficiency, you're choice of preferring a multi-level housing to a small single family home is just as arbitrary as any other choice.


This illustrates the issue (IMO) at the heart of all of these discussions:

Is personal ownership of land like other property ownership (like a chair), or is it somehow different? To what degree does society at large retain some ownership rights to all land, and a say in how it should be used?


It's different, but similar. We do actually care about other property ownership -- we tax various parts of its production to encourage the outcomes we want. That might be taxing based on country of origin, of materials used, of cost to dispose of, etc.

But land is intrinsically tied to housing and food production. We should be strongly discouraging allowing usable land to lie dormant because someone wants to speculate on it. Land should be taxed in a way that encourages maximizing housing/business/service utilization. A city block dedicated to surface parking provides almost no utility compared to placing a forty story mixed use residential building on the same lot. Even worse are property speculators who purchase abandoned sites and do nothing with them for years in hopes that property values will rise considerably in an urban core.


Land is something that comes in an (essentially) fixed supply, and is (almost never) human created.

Chairs are created by human (or machine) labor.

Since the provenance of the owned thing is entirely different in each case, it seems likely the legal/social/moral understanding of ownership in each case would be quite different.


If there is shortage of chair, you can start a business making chairs.

If there is shortage of land there is nothong you can do.


I know the land use disaster in the SF Bay Area, and much of it comes from allowing the community around a piece of property a say in how it's used.

It turns out that what he community does say when given a voice is NO!


You think Houston has artificially inflated housing prices due to limited supply?


The land under the single-family home might carry a tall building that would bring much more business into that city block. A city might incentivize that through a land value tax, which would be high for this lot.

But Houston has relatively little urban fabric; to me it looks mostly like a really large suburban agglomeration, a place where you cannot get anywhere without driving a few miles in a car.


I've lived in Houston the majority of my life, and my anecdotal experience is reinforced by this article. Over the past 5 years Houston has seen a lot of development specifically with clusters of vertical townhomes. This seems to be happening all over inside the 610 loop with concentration in specific areas such as east downtown.


Re: Georgism. I ran across the wiki article on this a few weeks ago (I only recall George as being an also ran candidate for NYC, like Roosevelt). There is utopian quote after utopian quote about both George the man and what Georgism could accomplish.

Basically, you tax land value (unincorporated) and therefore business/people are encouraged to pay for the most valuably located lots while still encouraging development elsewhere and to discourage land speculation. The modern version is land value tax.

I recently saw sama proposing what sounded a lot like it (though he didn't directly cite it as an influence) and it is certainly something that would be popular among the tech elite because another component of this is those taxes could theoretically fund UBI.

Houston does seem like one of the best places in the world to test this out (exploding population, tons of existing value, zoning laws) but in the progressive era when this was but one of a lots of idea trying to gain traction, it was ruled unconstitutional by the state.

It's something I'd love to see more discussion about.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgism

Geoism seems to be the modern cultural correct identifier.


I wonder if a place like Houston would experience pretty dramatic shifts in culture as a result, particularly around the usages of cars and transit. IIRC, there are parking lots everywhere in Houston. A LVT would presumably make putting in denser uses more valuable or drive up the cost of parking. A lot in Downtown would surely bring in more rent as offices/housing/retail than just a surface lot.

But then this applies pressures to those who commute in single occupancy vehicles, reduces the amount of available parking, and generally makes the downtown less desireable for those in the suburbs.

To me, this is what we should be doing -- making driving into city centers for work quite unpalatable relative to transit -- but I wonder if Texas is culturally ready to even consider a change like that.


I'm in the eighth largest city in Australia (similar car-oriented like the USA, public transport is poor unless that's your #1 priority in housing). It's absolutely ridiculous that there can be large surface lots of parking right in the centre of town.


For an example of how stark it is in Houston: https://goo.gl/maps/DZmmyzuMczBzas967 -- that's a surface parking lot (not even a garage!) surrounded by >30-story buildings, and kitty-corner to the second-tallest building in the state.

I can't think of anywhere else I've seen such a thing. Ridiculous is an understatement.


That's crazy. Makes my complaint pale in comparison.


Houstonians by and large don't drive into city centers for work. Workplaces are distributed throughout the area.


Related video from City Beautiful on YouTube: https://youtu.be/TaU1UH_3B5k


Had family that lived in Houston region for a couple decades... I would not hold it up as a template to follow! I recall them pointing out to me day-care centres beside buildings storing industrial chemicals. Many more absurd examples.


While it's fair to criticize components of the exact zoning and regulations they have, you can take a lesson from this as an effective system and make adjustments as necessary. It's not perfect but better than the single-family zoning in a lot of cities causing massive sprawl and increased expenditure in roads for commuters.


> but better than the single-family zoning in a lot of cities causing massive sprawl and increased expenditure in roads for commuters.

I can't make sense of this, Houston has massive sprawl and all that entails. They cut costs a bit on roads by underspending on maintenance, but that hardly tips the balance.


Fair enough.

What I took issue with was that the article glosses over what I would suggest are significantly more problematic issues with Houston zoning.

Their only mention: "the Bayou City is not without any land use regulations"... is one that prevents sex shops next to schools.


The west Texes disaster comes from the same state and is considered one of the worst industrial disasters in US history because people built housing right up against heavy industry.


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