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Thoughts on land-value taxation

Yesterday I wrote about a new book that was just released called The Next Urban Renaissance

The first essay in the book, written by Ingrid Gould Ellen of New York University, is centered around three ideas to help cities deal with the affordable housing problem. This is something that successful cities all around the world are grappling with.

The first idea is land-value taxation, which is also known as a “split-rate” tax. I’ve touched on land-value taxation before on ATC, but I never really dug into it. So this was a good reminder to do that.

The idea behind land-value taxation is to split property taxes into a land tax and an improvements tax (i.e. the building), and then shift more of the burden over to the land side. Economists tend to really like this model because taxing buildings/improvements can discourage property investment and development, whereas taxing land doesn’t impact supply. The supply of land is fixed.

So in the context of affordable housing, land-value taxation is thought to be a way to encourage more development and to increase the supply of new housing – which is usually a good way to keep home prices in check.

Here’s how Ingrid Gould Ellen described it:

…a land tax would discourage speculators from hoarding
undeveloped land and incentivize them to develop their parcels to the
full extent allowable. Regardless of whether a parcel sits vacant, houses a
partially occupied, one-story retail strip, or holds a 30-story apartment
tower, the annual tax bill would be the same. By switching to a land tax,
a city could therefore increase the supply of housing and, by doing so,
reduce prices across the board.

But I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t more applicable to cities or areas that are currently struggling to encourage development. For instance, would boom town Toronto really benefit (in terms of affordable housing) from a tax change that ends up encouraging more high-rise development?

It also strikes me as being exceptionally difficult to implement, particularly in city like Toronto that is growing and changing so quickly. Is it reasonable to ask the owner of a small downtown parking lot to being paying property taxes as if a 90 storey supertall had been built on top of it? Because that is the reality in some parts of this city.

And if we opted to phase in this new land tax, would it then become a game of arbitrage where developers look for properties with the lowest land taxes but the highest achievable densities?

Finally, I wonder if it wouldn’t exacerbate some of the problems that already exist in rapidly growing cities, one of which is the preservation of smaller heritage buildings in centrally located neighborhoods:

In the case of a split-rate tax,
the losers will be owners of parcels with high land-to-building value
ratios, or owners of small buildings on valuable, centrally located parcels,
who will likely see an increase in their tax bills after the switch to
a split-rate tax.

Land-value taxation is something that I’ve been thinking about for a number of months now. But I am struggling to come up with a decisive position. If you have any thoughts on this, it would be great to hear from you in the comments.

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