Housing Choice - Help Today’s Owners or Future Buyers - NYTimes.com.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
The unexpectedly deep plunge in home sales this summer is likely to force the Obama administration to choose between future homeowners and current ones, a predicament officials had been eager to avoid.
Over the last 18 months, the administration has rolled out just about every program it could think of to prop up the ailing housing market, using tax credits, mortgage modification programs, low interest rates, government-backed loans and other assistance intended to keep values up and delinquent borrowers out of foreclosure. The goal was to stabilize the market until a resurgent economy created new households that demanded places to live.
As the economy again sputters and potential buyers flee — July housing sales sank 26 percent from July 2009 — there is a growing sense of exhaustion with government intervention. Some economists and analysts are now urging a dose of shock therapy that would greatly shift the benefits to future homeowners: Let the housing market crash.
It seems as if the suggestion is that we ought to let the housing market crash, and then hope that we will pick up again where we left off, and experience this boom-bust cycle again.
There doesn't seem to be much discussion of the factors that produce the boom-bust cycle, or of the notion that we can actually prevent the next boom-bust cycle through wise policy.
What policy? A tax shift. Shift taxes off wages (starting at the bottom); off sales (starting with essential items); off buildings of all kinds and equipment. What's left to tax?
That which we should have been taxing all along: the value of land. Henry George (b. Philadelphia, 1839; died NYC, 1897) introduced the idea in his 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, which remains 130 years later the best selling book ever on political economy. It sold over 6 million copies by 1900, and George, Thomas Edison and Mark Twain were perhaps the three best-known public figures of their day. George's "remedy" came to be known as the "Single Tax." It was a recipe for small government -- right-sized government, funded by the only legitimate revenue source: value created by nature and by the community. Land, to the classical economists -- Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Henry George, etc. -- was distinctly different from capital. (The neoclassical economists -- and those who only know their sort of economics -- can't seem to see the difference, and conflate them, leading to all sorts of stupid -- and unnecessary -- messes!) Land includes not just the value of locations (on earth, in water, in space) but also electromagnetic spectrum, water rights, non-renewable natural resource values, pollution "rights," and lots of other like things. (Mason Gaffney provides some excellent lists.) Those locations include urban land, land made valuable by favorable climate, water supply, access to ports, to transportation systems, to desirable views, to vibrant cities with jobs, cultural amenities, educational opportunities; geosynchronous orbits; congestion charges; parking privileges, etc. Those of us who claim title to a piece of land ought to be required to compensate the community in proportion to the value of that land, for the right to exclude others from it. That compensation should be paid month in and month out, to the community.
Our current system is perverse. We must purchase the rights to the land from the previous holder at whatever price the market will bear, or what the seller's circumstances require him to accept. Rich landholders can hold out for higher asking prices; poorer ones may be forced to accept lower prices. Few of us enter the market with more than a few percent of the asking price in hand; we mortgage our future earnings in order to pay the seller's asking price.
In most coastal cities, that price is predominately for the location, not for the building itself. A May, 2006, Federal Reserve Board study found that land represented, on average, 51% of the value of single family housing in the top 46 metro markets in 2004; in the San Francisco metro, land represented 88.5% of the value, and in no metro in California did it represent less than 62%. Boston metro was around 75%, NYC metro was about 70% (I'm doing this from memory), Oklahoma City about 20%; Buffalo about 28%. Extrapolating from some of their tables, I found that the average value of a single-family structure across the 46 metros was about $112,000, with a range from perhaps $88,000 in the lowest metro to a high of perhaps $130,000 in the highest. The range of average land values across the 46 metros, though, was much wider, from perhaps $25,000 to $750,000!
Suppose we did let the housing market crash, and then shifted over to George's proposal, collecting our tax revenue first from land rent, and only after we'd collected the lion's share of the land rent, tapping other less desirable revenue sources such as wages, sales and buildings. What would happen?
- The selling price of housing would drop to approximately the depreciated value of the structure in which one would live. A large new house would be more valuable than an older house of the same size. A large house would cost more than a smaller one. But one would not pay the seller for value that related to the location of the home.
- One would pay, month in and month out, the rental value of the land on which the house sits. Fabulous locations would require high monthly payments; less fabulous ones would have lower monthly payments. Small lots would pay less than larger lots nearby. Owners of condos in a 20-story building would share the cost of the land rent for the site, perhaps in proportion to the quality of their location within the building (fabulous views would pay more than ordinary ones; larger footprints and/or more floors occupied would pay in proportion to their share of the total space).
- That monthly payment would go to one's community, and would replace one's property tax, sales taxes, wage taxes. A portion of the payment would be forwarded to one's state, and at the state level, a portion would be forwarded to the federal government.
- The selling price of housing would drop, requiring one to borrow far less. The difference would be quite pronounced in San Francisco, Boston, NYC, etc. One's monthly mortgage payment would be significantly lower.
- Housing would no longer be an investment, in the sense that one expected to sell a property for more than one paid for it.
- Housing would be more liquid; one could own a home, but have a reasonable expectation of being able to sell it if one wanted to move elsewhere.
- The credit not used to purchase homes would be available for businesses. Businesses, too, would not be "investing" in land, but would have capital available to invest in equipment and to pay better wages to their employees.
- Land which under our current system is both well-located and underused would either be redeveloped by its owners, or come onto the market so that someone else could put it to use. There would be no incentive to keep it underused, as there is today. The redevelopment process itself would create jobs in construction-related businesses, and the resulting buildings would either provide housing or commercial venues -- or both: whatever the market was asking for. And that housing would be at a wide range of points on the income spectrum and the ages-and-stages spectrum: young people starting out, families, retirees, singles, couples -- not just the luxury market. And those newly-created homes would be closer in to the jobs which would support them, rather than separated by long commutes and drive-till-you-qualify.
- Land made valuable by public investment in infrastructure and services would provide a continuous revenue stream to the community, providing funding for next year's services, instead of funding for self-selected individuals' retirement.
- So if one can't hope to get rich from the appreciation of the land under one's home, how is one to have security? How does one participate in the economy? By investing in businesses that serve customer desires. And when one's housing plus taxes are lower, one has more left over for that. When there is enough housing for all, one isn't paying so much of one's income for it. When no one expects to grow wealthy automatically, people can dream up the business which they will enjoy working in. And with so many businesses competing for workers, wages will tend to rise. With so many businesses competing for customers, services will improve, and specialization increase.
Back to the title of the article: "Grim Housing Choice: Help Today's Owners or Future Buyers?" Maybe economics doesn't HAVE to be the dismal science. Maybe our choices are not so grim after all. Maybe we can put ourselves on a firmer footing, without the boom-bust cycles we've been experiencing so regularly. (See Mason Gaffney's recent book, After the Crash: Designing a Depression-free Economy. And while you're on that site, you might read "The Great Crash of 2008" and "How to Thaw Credit Now and Forever.") Maybe we can leave our children a society in which all can prosper.
Not too much to ask for, is it?
Or shall we leave them a society in which 10% of us are receiving 48% of the income, and 10% of us possessing 71.5% of the net worth.
Which side are YOU on?