Municipalities across the United States face social problems caused by high land prices and a shortage of affordable housing. Dick Netzer, professor emeritus of economics and public administration at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, discusses the role that land taxation might play in addressing these issues. Netzer is a long-time faculty associate of the Institute and is the editor of several Institute publications, including Land Value Taxation: Can It and Will It Work Today (1998).
Land Lines: Could a land tax affect the building portion of the housing supply?
Dick Netzer: Yes. This is a point on which it is useful to distinguish the effect of taxes on land, capital and labor. A change in the tax system that affects the return on an investment in any of these factors will affect the amount that is invested, because a higher rate of return will encourage more investment in that factor and increase its supply. Here, of course, land is an unusual factor of production, because for most purposes we can consider the supply of land as fixed. An increase in demand will not produce an increased supply of land, and reduced demand will not decrease the supply.
On the other hand, lower taxes on capital and labor will cause their supply to increase because of the increased net return to these factors. So a tax shift that reduces taxes on capital and labor and increases taxes on land will increase the supply of capital and labor but not reduce the supply of land. Building construction is a very capital-intensive industry, and an increased supply of capital and labor, reflecting their higher after-tax rewards, will allow more building construction to take place.
LL: How would a land tax affect the price of land?
DN: We can assume that the pre-tax prices reflect “what the market would bear,” and that imposition of a tax will not increase demand or raise the amount that buyers would be willing to pay for land. In that case, the total amount buyers will pay, including the new tax that they will face, will be unchanged. But the division of that payment will change. Less will go to the seller, and that will be balanced by the increased tax that will be paid to the government. We need to distinguish here between short-term and long-term effects. In the long term, the price does not change—it just is divided differently between the seller and the government. But the short-run outlay does change, because the tax is a periodic charge over time, while the price paid to the seller is a lump sum, or requires a mortgage and a down payment. Reducing the lump-sum component and increasing the periodic charge can ease liquidity problems, making land more accessible to purchasers who cannot readily raise large amounts of cash but who can meet their tax obligations.
LL: So the overall effect would be to help make housing more affordable?
DN: Yes. Together these effects on building supply and on land prices should result in lower rents and lower housing prices. Note that this is not a direct effect of increasing land taxes, but an indirect effect as a consequence of untaxing labor and capital.
LL: How do you analyze our current shortage of affordable housing?
DN: Since landowners are currently able to command an outsized return on their landholdings, tenants are paying higher rents than one would expect if the returns to land ownership were more modest. We are fortunate to live at a time when demand for housing is increasing—and so is demand for land on which to build new housing or to renovate existing housing. When demand rises for a product in fixed supply, prices generally rise as well. But this rising demand and these rising prices are not the result of actions by landowners themselves. So there is neither an economic need nor an equitable requirement that this increasing demand produce larger returns to landowners.
LL: What would the economic transition to higher land taxes look like?
DN: In a period when housing demand is rising, one solution would be to increase the tax on land values while reducing taxes on labor, machinery and other productive equipment. First, let’s consider the effect of untaxing labor and capital to some extent. A reduction in taxes on labor and machinery will allow people who offer their labor and savings to earn more after taxes. When these earnings increase, we would expect that more labor and savings will be offered, which in turn will cause some reduction in earnings, but not enough to drive the supply to its previous levels. Because the costs of construction and the cost of equipment will be lower, the prices that consumers pay for new housing will decline.
I don’t want to overstate the scale of this effect. If housing demand is very strong, the effects on prices are likely to be modest, but the supply of housing will increase. The net result will be to dampen increases in housing prices and rents.
LL: What about the effect of the transition on land prices themselves?
DN: That is the other part of the tax shift. Right after such a change in the tax system, the prices of land for new buyers will fall sharply, because along with the land they are buying an obligation to pay the new, higher land taxes. So homebuyers and renters, as well as homebuilders, will face lower immediate prices for land, offset by the higher taxes they will pay over time. Even with this offset, they will be in a better position than they were before the tax shift. There will be a significant lowering in the need for cash when homebuilding begins, when a home is purchased, and when rental property is sold to new investors. These are critical times for homebuyers and for investors in residential property, and a reduction in their cash requirements at these points can be a great benefit. Of course, they will have to pay the higher land taxes each year. But these taxes do not require an advance lump-sum payment, and they require no mortgage or construction loans. These positive liquidity effects can be very important in housing markets—perhaps not to the very largest commercial homebuilders or to the most affluent buyers, who may not require a mortgage at all, but very important to ordinary participants in the housing market.
LL: What about existing landowners who suddenly face higher taxes?
DN: This is a genuine issue, and there may well be negative liquidity effects for them. The sale value of their land will fall immediately and substantially. If so, they may be less willing or able to withhold their land from the market in hopes of gains from increases in market values in the future.
We can expect another impact on land taxes, in a different direction. The lower prices on labor and equipment will cause a greater investment in housing and other construction. That means there will be more demand for land, and this increased demand will raise land prices. However, this rise will be of a different character from the price increase that we considered at the beginning of this discussion, which represented an outsized return to landowners. Unlike speculative price increases that stem from expectations of even higher prices in the future, the rise in land values resulting from increased investment in labor and equipment will not outpace the increase in income generally. The knowledge that a large portion of the future gains will have to be paid to the government in the form of a high land value tax will prevent buyers from bidding up the price of land simply in expectation of those gains. This is a good example of the distinction between two types of price increases. The purely speculative increase produces outsized returns to current landowners but does not benefit society as a whole. A price increase that reflects greater availability of labor and capital can serve the function of allocating land among competing uses, which helps the economy function efficiently.