The challenge is how to implement this compromise. Developers can’t pay existing homeowners directly for the right to build new homes—which homeowners would they pay, and how much? But cities could use property taxes to facilitate a side payment. They could charge new residential developments a higher property tax than existing residents, and earmark the additional revenue toward payment of existing residents’ property taxes.
If required, the city could even offer existing residents negative property-tax payments. This tax benefit would shift the political dynamic. Existing residents would support new housing supply because they would recoup in lower property taxes more than they lost from lower housing values. Even tenants would benefit as some of the lower taxes on existing owners would be passed on to renters.
Previous efforts to reduce property taxes for homeowners have made political opposition to new housing worse. In 1978 California’s Proposition 13 limited property taxes to 1% of the original purchase price plus appreciation, which is capped at 2% a year. Contrast that with Chicago, where property taxes are set at 2.1% of home values, which are assessed every three years. Suppose new housing supply were to lower home values in both places. In California this would have almost no effect on property-tax burdens. In Chicago, the assessed value of property would fall, lowering taxes. Relative to Chicago, California punishes existing homeowners for new construction.
Some might worry that raising property taxes on new construction would increase rents for the poor. But limits on housing construction already limit housing options for the poor, and high home prices raise their rents. My proposal would improve the distribution of wealth. According to Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Joseph Gyourko of the Wharton School, a small fraction of Americans, mostly concentrated in coastal cities, own a sizable fraction of all housing wealth. My proposal would relax restrictions on development, which would enable new middle-income residents to move to cities.
Politics is messy, as elected officials must balance the interests of competing groups. But policy reforms that increase the total welfare of a community should be possible if the gains can be distributed to potential losers. In housing policy, this can be done through the property-tax system. A straightforward reform could unleash development and expand opportunity in America’s cities.