The UK keeps sinking deeper into property inequality – and it's not alone

Oh, good, more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Outrage has been mounting over the untaxed incomes of the global elite, foreign ownership of urban land and soaring rents in the private rental sector. Much of this boils down to two key matters: who owns property, and how they are treated.

The UK, it seems, is a place that makes it very easy for individuals to generate a great deal of wealth from property, with little concern for social justice or the provision of affordable housing.

But this problem is not uniquely British. Across the world – and particularly in many developing countries experiencing fast economic growth – capital is flowing rapidly into real estate. And increasingly, governments are waking up to the need to effectively capture some value from these investments, for the public good.

Yet, as my research shows, this can be extremely difficult to achieve due to complex historical legacies around land, as well as deeply entrenched vested interests.

Consultants from the UK and other rich countries are often the first on hand to provide advice and propose systems of property and land taxation, to enable governments in poorer countries to bring in revenues that reflect the real value of developments. Meanwhile, ironically, the UK’s primary property tax – a monthly “council tax” paid by residents to local authorities – remains scandalously out of line with modern property values.

House prices are rising – but council tax isn’t. London, 1995 to 2015. Image: Alasdair Rae, University of Sheffield.

Of course, property inequality looks very different in British cities than it does in cities in developing countries. In many African cities, a clear majority of people live in slum conditions, the like of which are (thankfully) consigned to the past in Britain. Yet the property markets are being transformed by very similar processes.

International capital flows are central in both cases: wealthier migrants from low-income countries now based in the US and Europe often channel their earnings into untaxed property back home, while the UK solicits property investments from footloose international elites. Whatever the context, the outcome is largely the same: luxury properties abound, often unoccupied and almost always undertaxed, while governments fail to provide proper incentives for developers to invest in cheap housing.

These issues are particularly concerning in poorer countries, not only because of the scale of inequalities and gaping absences of affordable housing, but also because investments in luxury properties divert funds from other sectors, which urgently need capital to make the nations' economies more productive.

What to tax?

It seems clear that governments of both poor and rich countries need to find ways to reduce the appeal of massive investments in high-end property, and to spend more on housing and services for low-income groups. The question is: how?

Stamp duty is obviously one mechanism for capturing some of the value of property, but as this is a one-off payment it deals with only part of the problem. Updating the council tax is an important step in the UK – though this will be very politically difficult.

More fundamentally, however, simply updating council tax bands sidesteps major questions about exactly what we should be taxing when we tax property. Given the state of the UK property market, a proper debate is needed on these issues. But as this is also a global issue, the UN’s biggest conference on urban development issues in 20 years should also provide a forum for discussing this at the global level.

One possibility that has aroused significant interest is a land value tax. The idea is that public investments in infrastructure – rather than private individuals’ effort – make land valuable. So, the government should “recapture” this value for further public investment, by taxing property owners a proportion of the annual rental value of their land.

Less vacant land. Image: Sinkdd/Flickr/creative commons.

Some argue that taxing land also encourages people to use land productively, and deters speculation; in other words, if you are paying a relatively large amount of tax on a plot of land, you will want to make the best possible use of that land (by building a tall tower, for example), in order to maximise your profit.

By contrast, taxing buildings discourages investment and development, so many proponents of land value taxation argue that structures should simply be ignored. There is a certain progressive logic to this: for the most part, growth in land value provides a windfall to the owner, so it seems like a fair revenue to tax.

Should buildings be off the hook?

But a land value tax could have some undesirable consequences: exempting buildings from taxation encourages developers to build for maximum profit – and this often means constructing expensive, luxury residences for wealthy investors. What’s more, large buildings impose on the surrounding residents and public spaces in a number of ways which can be seen to warrant taxation – for example by blocking light, generating traffic and adding to pollution and noise.

In countries where forms of land taxation are relatively high, but building taxes small or non-existent, there is a tendency to speculate on buildings for which there is no obvious demand. This can be particularly harmful when there isn’t sufficient public infrastructure or services to support these looming edifices.


If we consider property tax as a means of redistributing wealth from the rich to the less well-off, then it makes sense to tax buildings. After all, why should one person be able to own a large, immovable asset without paying tax on it, when others pay tax on so many goods, services and incomes? Is it really fair for the residents of high-rise developments to pay a small fraction of a land value tax, regardless of the actual value of the luxurious apartment which they occupy (or, more accurately, don’t occupy)?

No – taxing property wealth is not only about taxing the windfall of increased land values: it is about acknowledging that the playing field of society is not level, and that the rich should pay more because they can. And it’s not just a question of social justice – it’s also about the kinds of incentives we want to create for investment, and the kinds of lifestyles that this promotes. We should not be so keen to encourage intensive investment in land that we exempt buildings – no matter how extravagant and unnecessary – from any kind of tax.

In many developing countries, innovative approaches to valuing and taxing property are being proposed and piloted, and concerted efforts are being made to overcome political resistance. The UK would do well to follow suit and bring its system of property taxation into the 21st century.

Politicians fear these issues, and public discussions about property tax has fallen all but silent since the Labour party failed to win the argument for a “mansion tax” at last year’s election. No solution is simple; but not talking about it won’t solve anything at all.The Conversation

Tom Goodfellow is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield.

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.