Land Value Tax Holds Promise for Cash-Strapped Cities and Towns

Viernes, Febrero 19, 2010

For Immediate Release
Contact: Anthony Flint 617-503-2116

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (February 19, 2010) – At a time when local governments are increasingly strapped, the land value tax – taxing the value of land more than buildings – is an efficient source of revenue that avoids the negative effects that can accompany other taxes, such as local wage or income taxes, a new report says.

The land value tax, a concept dating back to the 19th century political economist Henry George, has had a checkered history in the U.S., but it can be more successfully implemented with a few simple adjustments such as better assessing techniques, more flexibility in rate setting, a gradual phasing-in process, and targeted tax credits for land-rich but income-poor property owners, according to Assessing the Theory and Practice of Land Value Taxation, the latest Policy Focus Report published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, co-authored by Richard F. Dye and Richard W. England.

“The bottom line is that land value taxation provides city officials with a revenue source that does not damage the urban economy. It allows the city to avoid reliance on other taxes that can undermine urban development, such as local wage and income taxes that encourage businesses to locate elsewhere,” said Joan Youngman, senior fellow and chair of the Department of Valuation and Taxation at the Lincoln Institute.

A land tax is an efficient tax because it can make the economy more productive and create wealth, because raising the tax rate on land has few undesirable effects, while lowering the rate on improvements has many benefits. A conventional property tax tends to discourage investment in new structures and maintenance of existing structures by reducing the return on such expenditures. A land value tax can be a better method of property tax reform than assessment limits, which have undesirable side effects, including unequal treatment of similarly situated taxpayers and distortion of economic incentives.

Assessing the Theory and Practice of Land Value Taxation shows that a land value tax can raise the same revenue as a standard single-rate tax, changing the distribution of the tax but not the overall revenue collected. Because these changes will redistribute the tax burden, this report recommends a phase-in of dual tax rates, and inclusion of tax credits to ease the transition to a new tax system.

“It can work, but needs to be implemented with care. The devil is in the details,” said Youngman. The land value tax can fail if assessments are not kept up to date, as in the case of Pittsburgh, and it cannot be asked to take the place of land use planning, as it was in Hawaii.

The report also notes that land is in fixed supply, so an increase in the tax rate on land value will raise revenue without distorting the incentives for owners to invest in and make use of their land. By contrast, the part of the property tax that falls on structures or other improvements discourages investment. The land value tax is neutral with respect to the choice of when to develop a parcel and the density of its development, whereas the taxation of improvements is likely to increase low density sprawl.

Economic theory suggests that switching to a land value tax might result in a number of outcomes: lower house prices; more improvements per acre of land; higher population density; more employment and higher wages; and less sprawl.

More than 30 countries around the world have implemented a land value tax. In the United States, land value taxation dates back to 1913, when the Pennsylvania legislature permitted Pittsburgh and Scranton to tax land values at a higher rate than building values. A 1951 statute gave smaller Pennsylvania cities the same option to enact a two-rate property tax, a variation of the land value tax. About 15 communities currently use this type of tax program, while others tried and rescinded it. The report also details Hawaii’s experience with two-rate taxation, as well as the recent authorization by Virginia and Connecticut for municipalities to implement a two-rate property tax.

There may be legal impediments to land value taxation. Since property taxation in the United States is within the purview of local governments as permitted by the laws of each state, implementation of land value taxation in most states would require new statutory authority, and in some cases a constitutional amendment.

A land value tax also raises administrative issues. The land and improvements of each parcel need to be assigned a taxable value in a timely and accurate fashion. Special attention must be paid to best practices in assessment, in recording separate values for land and improvements. For a land value tax to be successful, accurate assessments need to be kept up to date, and tax rates need to be flexible in order to respond to changes in total assessed value.

More detail on theory and practice is in the volume Land Value Taxation: Theory, Evidence, and Practice, co-edited by professors Dye and England.

About the Authors

Richard F. Dye is a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute. He is professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Ernest A. Johnson Professor of Economics Emeritus at Lake Forest College in Illinois. His research focuses on state and local government finance as it relates to economic development.

Richard W. England is also a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute, and professor of economics and natural resources at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics, University of New Hampshire. His recent research has examined how local property taxation and zoning rules affect land use change in the United States.

Assessing the Theory and Practice of Land Value Taxation

Richard F. Dye and Richard W. England

2010 / 36 pages / Paper / ISBN 978-1-55844-204-7

The report can be downloaded free here. For print copies, contact Anthony Flint at anthony.flint@lincolninst.edu.

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