From the President

Land Policies for Urban Development
Gregory K. Ingram, July 1, 2006

The Lincoln Institute sponsored a wide-ranging international conference in June on “Land Policies for Urban Development.” A few of the major themes and messages from the presentations are summarized below.

The three most populous developing countries, China, India, and Indonesia, with 40 percent of the world’s population, are entering the stage of rapid urbanization simultaneously. By 2030, they are projected to add an additional 2.2 billion persons to urban areas, increasing the world’s urban population by nearly 80 percent over the 2000 figure of 2.8 billion. The related infrastructure investment needs are likely to reduce or eliminate any perceived savings surplus in the world. Economic growth and urbanization in most East Asian countries have occurred in coastal regions and near ports. In India, however, urbanization and growth are currently focused on inland cities and on information technology rather than on labor-intensive manufacturing. This may be due to weaknesses in traditional infrastructure services, particularly in transport.

A review of property tax practices across 25 countries found an extremely wide range of practices in terms of tax base definitions, tax rate levels, and assessment practices. In most developing countries property tax rates are very low (a fraction of one percent of market values). Nevertheless, property taxes are one of the few revenue sources under local control and are an important component of local government revenues. Simplicity was found to be a virtue of property tax regimes in developing countries, because complexity raises administrative costs and erodes public support for property taxes.

Efforts to measure land values in urban areas of the United States—either by analyzing vacant land sales or by subtracting the value of the structure from property sales—indicate that they have appreciated more rapidly than construction costs since 1985, with a 2005 value between $12 and $24 trillion. This compares to estimates for 1980 of about $3 trillion, suggesting that land values have increased four to eight times in a period when consumer prices have increased only 2.4 times. In addition, land values have been volatile, falling by around 40 percent from 1989 to 1995 in many urban markets before increasing rapidly in the past 10 years.

While average housing prices across the United States have increased faster than construction costs, increases in housing prices have been particularly sharp in urban areas on the West Coast and on the East Coast from the mid-Atlantic region to New England. In these coastal metropolitan areas, median single-family housing prices are nearly five times larger than median prices in the least expensive metropolitan areas in other regions.

Analysis across all U.S. metropolitan areas shows a strong association between the level of housing market regulation and the level of prices—metropolitan areas with the most regulations on residential development have the highest housing prices. Moreover, areas with the highest prices also have low growth rates of housing stocks. Together these findings suggest that rapid growth in housing prices in coastal cities is due in large part to growing impediments on the supply side of the market. Supply constraints may not be only a U.S. phenomenon. A review of planning experience in the United Kingdom showed that urban development corporations, which have the power to overrule local regulations, have been more effective than most other approaches in fostering urban revitalization.

The ownership of second homes (for own use, not for rent to others) has been growing rapidly in the United States, and about 5.6 percent of all U.S. housing units were second homes in 2004. The main determinants of second-home ownership are income, wealth, and age of the household head. Second-home ownership is highest for those in their sixties, suggesting that the aging of the baby boom generation will increase second-home ownership. Additional research (and better data) is required to determine if this trend is related to the location or characteristics of a household’s primary residence.

The complete collection of papers and commentaries presented at the conference will be published as an edited volume in 2007.