Value capture isn’t going to solve Australia’s infrastructure problems

Some Australians building some apartments. Image: Getty.

Is “value capture” a wonderful untapped opportunity to fulfil all Australia's infrastructure dreams? Or is it just a new way to sting the taxpayer? Our new report casts a cold, hard gaze over value capture, and finds that it’s a good tax in theory, but will prove very hard to put into practice. The Conversation

Value capture is the name given to a policy whereby governments capture some of the increased value of land that results from building a new piece of infrastructure. Typically, the money the government “captures” is used to help fund the project.

At first glance, value capture seems marvellously fair, because it applies only to those who benefit from the particular project. So the people of western Sydney do not help fund a new railway station on the North Shore. But look a little closer: it also means that affluent inner-city residents don’t help fund a better railway station in Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs.

Federal ministers from the prime minister down are enthusiastic about value capture and are pushing the states to embrace it. Only last month, urban infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher reiterated that the Commonwealth does not want to be “just an ATM” for the states. But if the federal ministers face up to some home truths, they may find value capture less to their liking.

Value capture is a tax

Home Truth No. 1 is that a value-capture scheme is a tax. That’s how it raises revenue. Politicians tend to shun the “T word”. They prefer to present value capture as an innovative financing mechanism. Sorry, it’s a tax.

Some advocates point to Hong Kong, where a private company builds and operates the rail lines, in return for cheap access to development rights around the new stations – a non-cash subsidy. Yes, integrating new infrastructure with rezoning and other planning changes is a great idea. But a similar model in Australia would have to be much smaller in scale.

That’s because in Hong Kong the government owns all the land. In addition, the city is dramatically denser than Australian cities: more than 7m people live in a built-up area of around 285 square kilometres, compared with Sydney’s population of about 5m in around 2,000 square kilometres. In a very dense city, good access to mass transit is highly valued.

Others in the value-capture camp point to tax increment financing (TIF) schemes. These have been used in the US with mixed success.

TIF schemes don’t involve a new tax, or indeed a funding source of any kind. Instead, they are financing schemes that earmark an expected increase in future revenue from existing taxes, such as land taxes, which can be attributed to a new piece of infrastructure. This increase is then used to repay special-purpose bonds.

But TIF schemes are of little value in the Australian context, since Australian governments have strong credit ratings and can borrow at extremely low rates of interest – more cheaply than private sector financiers can. Not only this, but TIF schemes generally do not offload project risk. They may instead come with a hidden government guarantee.

Family home would be captured

Which brings us to Home Truth No. 2: to raise a reasonable amount, a value-capture tax would need to include the family home. Owner-occupied housing accounts for around 65 per cent of total land values in Australia, and increases in its value are taxed very lightly (see the chart below).

Click to expand. Image: author provided.

To minimise the distortions value capture could have on the economy, it should be charged on unimproved land value, as a flat proportion of the land-value uplift attributable to the new infrastructure, with no exemptions.

A tricky question of who’s in and who’s out

Home Truth No. 3 is that many taxpayers are likely to feel aggrieved. Property prices go up – and down – for many reasons.

Drawing a boundary around a new piece of infrastructure to distinguish between those who must pay the new tax and those too far away to benefit is bound to involve rough justice.

Also, it won’t be easy for governments to convince people that their new tax bill still leaves them better off. Homeowners get the benefit of the new project on paper, but have to pay the tax bill in cash. Is this sounding like a political nightmare yet?

A way to reduce the political heat

There is, however, a way to implement value capture that could take a bit of the political heat out of individual decisions. Governments could pass general legislation that applies value capture to every transport infrastructure project with certain characteristics:

  • an identifiable beneficiary catchment;

  • a project that’s expected to makes an area significantly more accessible;

  • the amount of revenue to be raised far outweighs the cost of administering the scheme.

So, for example, value capture might apply to all urban passenger rail projects costing over A$50m. The tax might then be levied on all properties within 800 metres (i.e. walking distance) of a new station.

Once such legislation is in place, each value-capture tax may be slightly less politically fraught. This approach will minimise the opportunities for rent-seeking or corruption that arise from designing bespoke schemes for every individual project.

Broad-based land tax is better still

A better answer still could be a broad-based land tax. Such a tax is highly efficient, because land is an immobile tax base (see the chart below).

Click to expand. Image: author provided.

While it would not zero in on the beneficiaries of new infrastructure, a land tax would capture the effects of all infrastructure, old and new, as these translated into land values, making it scrupulously fair. A broad-based land tax would also be simpler to administer than a value-capture tax. That’s because there would be no requirement to police the geographic boundary of the catchment area.


So a broad-based land tax has some distinct advantages over a value-capture tax.

Some will say our conclusions are pessimistic, that a little more creativity could devise a way to design value capture so it painlessly funds public infrastructure. To which we would say: there’s no magic pudding when it comes to public money – the only sources of funding for public infrastructure are user charges or a tax. Value capture may involve taxing beneficiaries more than the general taxpayer, but it’s not a bucket of free money.

Yes, if value capture is done the right way, as a tax that embraces the principles of equity, efficiency and simplicity, it could make a positive contribution to infrastructure funding in Australia. But the truth is, there is nothing easy about capturing value.

Marion Terrill is transport program director and Owain Emslie an associate at the Grattan InstituteThey are the authors of the new Grattan Institute report, What price value capture?, available here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.