Monday, August 08, 2016

Use up-zoning, but don’t give it away

Los Angeles has three interrelated issues: for a city of its size, it is not, by world standards, very dense (see Figure 1.  The pictures of London and Los Angeles taken from the same height—the two metros have similar populations, but settlement in LA takes up far more land); its housing is expensive relative to its incomes; and its infrastructure (transport and water) should be better.  The absence of density has created a land shortage, which in turn has driven up land (and therefore house) prices, but density is not politically popular, in part because of the perception that Los Angeles hasn’t the infrastructure necessary to support more density. 

Yet cites far denser than Los Angeles—such as London, Singapore and Hong Kong—manage to remain quite pleasant and at the same time provide large numbers of people housing subsidies.  Los Angeles can learn from Hong Kong how to fund infrastructure and housing, and from both Singapore and Hong Kong about the provisions of subsidized housing.

The government of Hong Kong uses its greatest asset—land—to fund its operations, and particularly infrastructure.  When the Special Autonomous Region grows, the government puts undeveloped land up for bid, and the highest bidder at auction wins the land.  The reservation price of the land is sufficient to finance the infrastructure needed to support the new development.  Because Hong Kong uses well designed auctions to sell properties, it extracts substantially more revenue than it would if it went through an RFP process.  The revenue allows the government to subsidize housing for more than half the residents of the SAR.

While the city of Los Angeles does not own a lot of land (relative to its size), it does effectively own a lot of development rights, in the form of air rights.  Some cities, such as New York, have given developers air rights in exchange for the production of deed restricted affordable housing (within the deeds, rents or prices are restricted to being affordable).  While the goals of the New York policy are laudable, there is some evidence that the newly created affordable housing crowds out older affordable housing (the same is true of inclusionary zoning policies).  A policy that extracted the maximum amount of revenue from developers in exchange for air rights would be more effective.  It would allow the city to fund the infrastructure necessary to support denser development, and/or acquire property for a housing trust fund that would allow for affordable purchase housing (this is essentially Singapore’s model), or provide subsidies to tenants.

We know auctions are an effective mechanism for the government to raise money; the federal government has generated far more revenues from the sale of the broadcast spectrum and drilling rights since it starting using auctions as its sales mechanism. 

One final note—while Los Angeles needs far more housing, housing supply will not alone solve our affordability problem.  Large, attractive cities around the world all have high house prices.  Building a lot will mitigate the affordability problem, but not solve it.  To accommodate those workers that all cities need, LA will need to provide subsidies, which means it needs to generate revenue.  In a Proposition 13 world, where pure ad valorem property taxes are not available, using auctions for air rights might produce just that revenue.
LA from 40 miles above.
Note: LA cannot be contained within photo.

London from 40 miles above. 

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