Nearly 45 leading writers and editors came to Cambridge last month to consider the central role of land in addressing an array of socio-economic and environmental challenges at the 2018 Lincoln Institute Journalists Forum. Land and property rights, land-based financing mechanisms such as value capture, the role of land markets in the affordable housing crisis, and the management of land to adapt to the impacts of climate change were among the conversations over the course of two days.
Lincoln Institute President George W. "Mac" McCarthy described land policy as the “rules of the game” reconciling often emotional individual connections to land with long-term sustainability for all. “We don’t make more land. It’s a commodity in fixed supply. We have to do our best to mediate human needs and stewardship responsibilities.”
In welcoming the journalists on behalf of Boston Mayor Martin J. “Marty” Walsh, Boston Housing Chief and Director of Neighborhood Development Sheila Dillon noted that the limited amount of developable land – in a hot-market city of 48 square miles – has made it challenging to increase housing supply. “There are no cornfields to develop,” she said. “We have to use land more wisely,” she said, acknowledging a “love-hate relationship with density.” The city has a multi-pronged approach, collecting $120 million – $340,000 for every luxury home built – for affordable housing through linkage fees; an inclusionary housing policy making new residential development minimally 15 percent affordable; encouraging accessory dwelling units and compact living; increasing density at transit-oriented development sites; increasing use of public land; and density bonuses for more affordable housing – a form of value capture. “We’re harnessing the boom.”
Land use regulations and permitting need to be streamlined to encourage the construction of more housing to accommodate a range of incomes and welcome migrating workers,like cities such as Chicago used to do, Harvard professor Edward Glaeser said in a keynote presentation. “Every time we say no to building we say no to a family that could move in. Our talent as a species is to learn from people around us, and we only get that in a town. (Yet) we have land use policies that say no.” Increasing housing supply means more height and density, more judicious designations of historic preservation, and more creative approaches such as value capture, user fees, and land value taxation to foster good urban development. “It’s why Henry George was so right,” he said. “Land is intrinsic to solving this problem.”
- There will almost certainly be another challenge to policies such as inclusionary housing by private property owners asserting a regulatory taking, Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner and Harvard Design School professor Jerold Kayden agreed in the session Land and the Law. City-building innovations centered on land raise interesting questions about what it means to own land, and what rights are inherent versus acquired. The journalists viewed a trailer for the just-released film Little Pink House, which portrays the fight by Susette Kelo against eminent domain in New London, Connecticut, resulting in the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that allowed government to seize Kelo's home for private development. Beyond its place in property rights jurisprudence, the case suggests that planning land assembly needs to be more artful and flexible, and not a blunt instrument.
- A special panel on Land Value Capture, moderated by Ginia Bellafante from The New York Times, included a look at how cities are recovering increases in land and property value that are prompted by public investments in infrastructure or government actions such as a rezoning. Lourdes Germán, director of International and Institute Wide Initiatives at the Lincoln Institute, presented six examples of mechanisms, ranging from charges on building rights to special assessments and betterment contributions, from around the world. Camila Maleronka from P3urb detailed the system of charging developers for increased floor-area ratio, known as publicly traded CEPACs, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Land value capture is a prominent feature of Crossrail II, said Transport for London Senior Principal Julian Ware, as that huge infrastructure investment continues to increase private property values all along the transit line. “What we’ve been studying is those who enjoy the benefits of that uplift,” he said. Private developers and landowners will have to be further educated about value capture mechanisms, said L. Carson Bise, president of TischlerBise – although a functioning city with good transit and amenities such as parks clearly enhance real estate values.
- Community land trusts can be used as a bulwark against real estate speculation and gentrification in informal settlement, according to Catalytic Communities founder Theresa Williamson, who works in the favelas of Brazil. In the session Land and Informal Settlement, moderated by Juan Pablo Garnham from CityLab Latino, Cynthia Goytia, head of the Research Center on Urban Policy and Housing at Torcuato Di Tella University, Buenos Aires, reviewed the challenge of “integrating” the informal community known as Villa 31 by renovating houses and locating city services there. A shift in perception is slowly taking hold, from viewing informal settlement as a problem that needs to be eradicated, to a more nuanced understanding of land markets, housing, and economic opportunity, said Enrique Silva, associate director for the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean at the Lincoln Institute.
- Advances in technology are enabling new ways to tell stories about land – a key for greater understanding given complex emotional and cultural connections – through satellite imagery and user-friendly digital mapping methods. In the “Practicing the Craft” session Making Sense of Place, Jeff Allenby, director of conservation technology at the Chesapeake Conservancy, showed how high-resolution mapping can guide more effective policies, whether farmers in Maryland helping to blunt saltwater intrusion in Maryland, or emergency teams girding for flash floods in Arizona. Jenna DeAngelo, program manager for the Department of International and Institute-Wide Initiatives for the Lincoln Institute, and Bernie Langer, senior data analyst at PolicyMap, demonstrated The Place Database, which can zoom in to the parcel level for information on zoning, affordable housing, brownfields, and structurally deficient bridgesall across the United States. The session was moderated by Forbes writer Scott Beyer.
- The quest for affordable housing can seem similar to the Red Queen, running hard but never gaining ground. “We’re barely able to increase supply, and it’s a zero-sum game,” said Grounded Solutions Network National Policy Director Emily Thaden,during Land and Housing, moderated by Liam Dillon from The Los Angeles Times. Given that roughly two million affordable units in federal and state programs are set to expire, she said, the goal remains permanently affordable housing – achieved in part by community land trusts, where typically a non-profit owns the land underneath the housing, and sets caps on resale profit. There are 1,300 programs in the US requiring a portion of new residential development to be affordable, said Rick Jacobus, principal at Street Level Advisors and co-author of Inclusionary Housing: Creating and Maintaining Equitable Communities, published by the Lincoln Institute in 2015. “Cities are encouraging development – they need density. When we rezone, remove parking requirements, or increase the building envelope, we’re creating value. Inclusionary housing captures back some of that value.” Another solution is more choices in housing styles and sizes, including micro-apartments or accessory dwelling units situated in walkable neighborhoods with parks, said Nathanael Lauster, associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and author of The Death and Life of the Single-Family House.
- New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, moderator of Land, The Environment, and Resilience, shared his reportage from Mexico City, China, The Netherlands, and Houston, and confessed he was awed by the challenge of adapting to the “threat multiplier” of climate change. As she showed maps of Cambridge area, the site of the Forum, Kate Cell, climate campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that about 170 communities will face “chronic inundation” by 2035, and nearly double by 2080 – in many cases no matter what is done about emissions in the years ahead. Jonathan Barnett, co-author of Reinventing Development Regulations, said local governments are on the front lines, and must overhaul the rules governing land use to make up for climate-vulnerable development patterns over the last half-century. “Mistakes were made,” agreed Lincoln Institute senior fellow Armando Carbonell, noting the additional complexity of “human attachment to dangerous places.” Part of any resilience plan must include restoring natural systems at the coastline and pulling back to higher ground, measures detailed in the 2016 Lincoln Institute report Buy-In for Buyouts.
- The property tax is a mainstay of local government, providing $500 billion in annual revenue, but it is politically controversial in some places and even some mature systems like New York City’s are shot through with inequities. In Parsing Land and Property, moderated by Governing magazine writer Alan Greenblatt, Lincoln Institute Fellow Daphne Kenyon used the 50-State Property Tax at a Glance tool to show how big-box retail owners are trying to reduce property tax obligations by claiming the structures can’t be used for anything else, a phenomenon known as dark store valuation. Numerous classifications and exemptions, as well as an array of stakeholders, are making it difficult to create equity and transparency in New York City’s system, said George Sweeting, deputy director of the New York City Independent Budget Office. Lincoln Institute Senior Fellow Joan Youngman, author of A Good Tax, noted that the property tax, and even more so the land value tax, is acclaimed by many economists for its efficiency. “You can’t pick it up and move it – nor can you make more of it,” she said of land.
- The Forum ended with a flourish with Tax-Increment Financing: Public Investment or Private Giveaway. The moderator, Frederick Melo from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, asked the journalists if they had ever written stories about TIF, and nearly everyone raised their hand. Yet there is still a lot of misunderstanding about the mechanism for sequestering property tax to fund economic development activities, said University of Illinois at Chicago professor David Merriman, author of an upcoming Lincoln Institute report, Improving Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for Economic Development. TIF can be effective as a catalyst or to “prime the pump,” but should be used on a limited basis and set for a shorter time period such as 15 years, said Ron Rakow, the recently retired chief assessor for Boston. More transparency is key, to show precisely where the money is going and why, said Rachel Weber, professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to a commission examining TIFs.
The Journalists Forum is an annual event bringing together leading journalists covering urban affairs and writing in some way about cities. The two-day, by-invitation event is designed as a short fellowship to allow reporters and editors to step back from daily deadlines to consider new perspectives, innovations, and research related to cities and land policy.