A $1.6 billion proposal

At City Observatory:

Second, this case highlights the fact that rising home prices create massive capital gains—not just for landlords and developers, but regular homeowners as well. In some cases, this is a actually a big win for equity, particularly when property values increase rapidly in neighborhoods where homeowners are predominantly lower income or people of color. That might represent a small blow against the racial wealth gap. (Although it is likely to be quite a small blow indeed, given research showing that black first-time homeowners actually lost wealth on net in housing over the course of the entire decade of the 2000s. Neighborhoods that see large increases in property wealth are actually disproportionately likely to be white.)

But from a policy perspective, these capital gains represent a huge opportunity. In this particular case, the homeowner was able to earn a nearly 700 percent return on her investment and still leverage half a million dollars to determine the occupancy of her home after she left. But even if we could count on other private residents to use that power as “ethical landlords,” it would leave the housing market open to private discrimination, as we already argued. Moreover, as Kriston Capps pointed out, there’s no guarantee of long-term, let alone permanent, affordability: the next owner is under no obligation to be similarly “ethical.” And finally, very few landlords, no matter how “ethical,” are likely to give up enough profit to provide deep subsidies: even in this case, the film teacher ended up selling for $650,000, which stretches the definition of “affordable” even in San Francisco.

What if, instead, we could harness a small percentage of these private capital gains for publicly-funded, truly affordable housing? After all, we already leverage the profits of developers for affordable housing in the form of inclusionary zoning requirements. But those programs almost never create very many affordable units, simply because preserving five, ten, or even 20 percent of newly constructed units for low-income people doesn’t add up to much when all newly built homes make up a tiny proportion of the community as a whole. In the five years from 2010 to 2014, San Francisco’s inclusionary zoning program produced, on average, 140 units of affordable housing a year—not nothing, but also hardly enough to make a real dent in the issue.

But a small tax on the capital gains of homeowners whose property values grew the most could produce funds to build or preserve a meaningful number of affordable units. To be more progressive and protect wealth for working- and middle-class homeowners, the tax could be structured so that it only fell on those who earned significantly more than “normal” returns, or whose homes were extremely valuable to begin with. It could also be collected only when a home is sold, to avoid adding to the burden of people with valuable homes but only moderate incomes. (As an added benefit, such a tax could have the effect of deterring other exclusionary behavior by homeowners, if William Fischel’s ideas are correct.)

The money collected could be used, not to sell a $650,000 home to whoever had the best organic produce, but to create permanent (or at least long-term) affordable housing to whoever needed it at prices actually targeted to the low income. How much money are we talking? Well, in 2013, the total value of homes in the San Francisco metropolitan area grew by $159 billion. A regional tax that captured just one percent of that value would generate nearly $1.6 billion a year. San Francisco’s Proposition A, by contrast, passed this November, creates a one-time bond issue of $310 million; and the in-lieu fees raised by SF’s Inclusionary Housing ordinance in 2014 were $30 million. Of course, it’s not quite fair to contrast a regional measure with a municipal one—but the point is that $1.6 billion a year is a lot of money, equivalent to thousands of new affordable units a year. And it’s money that Bay Area governments are currently leaving on the table.

Harnessing these capital gains in places where real estate values are rapidly appreciating to create a stream of truly affordable housing funds is an ethical housing policy. Asking current homeowners and landlords to discriminate based on their own private biases is not.

One thought on “A $1.6 billion proposal

  1. Interesting ideas but tax policy is a slippery slope my friend:

    1. Property taxes should already capture more revenue when property values increase. Sometimes this is a problem for low/middle income homeowners, that need property tax relief in order to be able to stay in the home they own.

    2. Putting an extra tax on top of capital gains tax for selling real estate is going to create a lot of incentives to keep property from exchanging hands. Those would probably effect commercial properties more than residential ones, and should be thought through before enacting policy changes.

    3. The amounts from San Francisco are eye catching but completely unsustainable, the anecdote obviously but also the metro-wide number. The $159bn increase corresponds to a 19% increase in one year. At that rate property will be twice as expensive every 3.7 years. There’s no way that incomes can keep up with that. Indeed that kind of growth is what got San Francisco into this affordability problem in the first place. For the US as a whole, 2012 real estate values were up 8% and 4% in 2011.

    4. Re-capturing some of the wealth effects on real estate can be good policy, especially at a municipal level when a city is spending tax dollars to directly improve the desirability of a location (such as investments in transportation infrastructure, education, or parks). This is basically how Chicago’s TIF dollars are supposed to work (whether they actually work that way or not, is probably the subject of a multitude of Political Science and Urban Planning theses).

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