Is a land value tax the solution to our housing affordability problem?
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There’s been a lot of debate around property taxation in Australia - significantly negative gearing, which allows an investor to use the short fall between interest repayments and other relevant expenditure, to lower their income tax.
The policy promotes speculative gain meaning the strategy is only profitable if the acquisition rise in value rather than holding or falling - therefore, in Australia, investor preference is slanted toward the established sector – the sector that attracts robust demand from all demographics and as such, in premium locations, has historically gained the greatest windfall from capital gains.
Aside from the impact this creates in terms of affordability (pushing up the price of second-hand stock, burdening new buyers with the need to raise a higher and higher deposit just to enter ownership), it also negatively affects the the new home market, which traditionally struggles to attract consistent activity outside of targeted first home buyer incentive; albeit, the headwinds resulting from planning constraints and supply side policy should also not be dismissed.
Additionally, capital gains tax and stamp duty have also received much debate. Both are transaction taxes, and therefore have a tendency to stagnate activity, acting as a deterrent to either buying and selling.
Stamp duty, as modelled by economist Andrew Leigh, is shown to produce a meaningful impact on housing turnover, leading to a potential mismatch between property size and household type – a deterrent to downsizing and therefore selling.
Additionally, it burdens first time buyers by increasing the amount they need to save in order to enter the market and frequent changes of employment concurrent with a modern day lifestyle, are hampered as owners, unwilling to move any meaningful distance outside their local neighbourhood, search for work in local areas alone.
But, outside of academia and intermittent articles, there is scant debate in Australian mainstream media regarding land value tax and it’s practical impact.
The theory is taken to its extreme and best advocated by American political economist and author, Henry George, who wrote his publication Progress and Poverty - an enlightened and impassioned read - and subsequently inspired the economic philosophy that came to be known as ‘Georgism.’
The ideals of Henry George reside in the concept that land is in fixed supply, therefore we can’t all benefit from economic advantage gained from ‘ownership’ of the ‘best’ sites available without effective taxation of the resource.
George advocated a single tax on the unimproved value of land to replace all other taxes – something that would be unlikely to hold water in current political circles. However, his ideals won favour amongst many, including the great economist and author of Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman, and other influential capitalists such as Winston Churchill, who gave a powerful speech on land monopoly stressing:
“Unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit, but they are the principal form of unearned increment, and they are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public.”
In essence, raising the percentage of tax that falls on the unimproved value of land has few distortionary or adverse affects. It creates a steady source of revenue whilst the landowner can make their own assessment regarding the timing and type of property they wish to construct in order to make profit without being penalised for doing so.
However, when the larger percentage of tax payable is assessed against the value of buildings and their improvements – through renovation, extension or higher density development for example – not only can those costs be transferred to a tenant, there is less motivation to make effective use of the site. This has a flow on effect which can not only exacerbate urban ‘sprawl’, but also increase the propensity to ‘land bank.’
The Henry tax review commissioned by the government under Kevin Rudd in 2008 concluded that “economic growth would be higher if governments raised more revenue from land and less revenue from other tax bases,” proposing that stamp duty (which is an inconsistent and unequitable source of revenue) be replaced by a broad based land tax, levied on a per square metre and per land holding basis, rather than retaining present land tax arrangements.
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Group attempted to mimic the proposed changes using their AHURI-3M micro-simulation model in a report entitled The spatial and distributional impacts of the Henry Review recommendations on stamp duty and land tax .
And whilst it’s difficult to qualify how purchasers may factor an abolition of stamp duty into their price analysis, perhaps adding the additional saving into their borrowing capacity, and therefore not lowering prices enough to initially assist first homebuyers. It does demonstrate how over the longer-term falls in house prices have the potential to exceed the value of land tax payments, assisting both owner-occupier and rental tenant as the effects flow through.
Additionally, increasing the tax base would provide developers with an incentive to speed up the process and utilise their holding for more effective purposes.
And importantly for Australia, it can provide a reliable provision of revenue to channel into the development of much-needed infrastructure.
The rational for this is coined in the old real estate term ‘location, location, location.’ Everyone understands that in areas where amenities are plentiful – containing good schools, roads, public transport, bustling shopping strips, parks, theatres, bars, street cafes and so forth – increases demand and therefore land values, invoking a vibrant sense of community which attracts business and benefits the economy.
The idea behind spruiking a ‘hotspot’, such a common industry obsession, is based on purchasing in an area of limited supply, on the cusp of an infrastructure boom such as the provision of a new road or train line for example, enabling existing landowners to reap a windfall from capital gains and rental demand for little more effort than the advantage of getting in early and holding tight whilst tax payer dollars across the spectrum fund the work.
Should a higher LVT be implemented, the cost and maintenance of community facilities could in part, be captured from the wealth effect advantaging current owners, compensating over time for the initial outlay. Imagine the advantage this would offer residents in fringe locations who sit and wait for the failed ‘promises’ offered, when they migrated to the outer suburbs initially.
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