Incentive, Vacant Lots and Your City
Harry Gunnison Brown
[A brief paper distributed by the Public Revenue
Education Council, St. Louis, Missouri. Approximate date of
To tax buildings and other improvements lessens the incentive for
construction and improvement in your city. Such taxation is a
hindrance to the growth and development of your city.
To tax just the value of the land does not lessen the incentive to
construct and improve and is not a hindrance to your city's
development. Instead, it removes one of the greatest hindrances to
development, the speculative holding of vacant land at prices that
keep it vacant, often for many years.
Moorabbin "is the largest of the municipalities which together
comprise Greater Melbourne" (Australia). For years "its
development lagged behind that of many smaller Melbourne
Municipalities" that exempted buildings and taxed land values. "Much
land was held vacant for speculation." In 1946, after a vote by
taxpayers in its favor, Moorabbin adopted land value taxation. Twelve
years later (Aug. 22, 1958) "the Moorabbin Standard-News
published a special supplement featuring the growth of the city from
obscurity to one of the most important municipalities in Victoria."
The Moorabbin Standard-News further stated that it "has
established its place as Victoria's fastest growing municipality . . .
and the second fastest growing city in Australia." This growth
had been in "all of its phases -- population, industry, commerce,
housing, parklands and civic amenities."
Does it make sense and is it fair to the majority of our people, for
our lawmakers in the United States to pursue a policy as a result of
which we have nearly thirteen million vacant lots (not counting
parking lots) in our cities, enough to provide housing space for a
third or more of our entire population? Has there ever been a strike
-- or a series of strikes -- by labor, of such magnitude as this more
or less perpetual strike by our owners of vacant land? And while
workers hold back their own labor, owners of vacant land hold back
from the use of others, a considerable part of the earth! How many of
our citizens have ever considered the economic waste involved?
Does it make sense and is it fair to the great majority of our
citizens, that they should have to suffer such evils as retardation of
saving and of investing in the construction of buildings and other
capital, lessened productivity of our economic system, high cost of
both rental housing and the acquisition of home ownership, widespread
and perpetually recurring deterioration and slums, and perpetual heavy
taxation to meet the perpetually recurring costs of government
directed slum clearance?
Suppose the amount of land speculatively held out of use, waiting for
a price that the holder considers "right," were enough to
provide housing space for half of our people, -- or for two thirds of
them, or three quarters of them! Would our people suffer that, too,
and continue the tax policy that permits it, for the sake of
encouraging -- by taxing them lightly -- our speculators in vacant
land? For of course such speculative holding makes land costly for
those who need it. How could the result be anything else?
To how great an extent should we, by our tax system, discourage
capital accumulation, handicap industry, keep down the productivity of
labor and, therefore, the wages of tabor, keep the cost of housing
high, make home ownership unnecessarily expensive and bring into
existence new slums faster than, at great expense to our taxpayers,
old slums are cleared, -- to how great an extent should we do all this
for the protection of the land speculator, whom the magazine HOUSE &
HOME has termed our "public enemy no. 1?"
But, some may ask, if tax policy in the United States is so bad, how
can any of our cities and towns retain any industries? And how can
they avoid depopulation?
The answer is that this tax policy is followed generally throughout
the United States and neighboring countries. In other words, industry
and people remain in your city and your area because conditions are
equally bad in surrounding areas. To find any considerable area where
these conditions can be avoided, they must migrate thousands of miles.
If there were a few Moorabbins in the United States, it would soon
become clear to serious observers that the rest of our cities and
towns were hopelessly handicapped in seeking to attract -- and, often,
even to hold -- both industries and people.
We have, indeed, many thousands (perhaps the number runs into six or
seven digits?) of holders of -- speculators in -- vacant lots. Each
hopes that the others will continue to ask more than they can get, so
that buyers will have to come to him. Many vacant lot owners dream of
fortunes they might make if a metropolis were to grow around or near
to their vacant lots. Because of such hopes and dreams, they are all
the more reluctant to let their lots go cheaply or for relatively
moderate prices. Hence, though there are indeed millions of vacant
lots in existence, relatively few are available except at
comparatively high cost. The high price -- and similarly, of course,
the high rent -- of vacant lots is obviously a barrier to new
industries, a barrier to expansion of industries already present, a
barrier to low-cost housing, a barrier to home ownership other than
via heavy mortgage indebtedness, a barrier to high productivity of
labor and, therefore, to high wages, -- and, along with all this, an
encouragement to deterioration and slums.
Is it worth while for us to suffer such evils, lest the effective
remedy of land value taxation make land speculation no longer
profitable and even make it quite unprofitable? The 1959 legislation
of the Pennsylvania General Assembly has given Pennsylvania
third-class cities a possible -- and an easy -- way out. Your city
council, if you live in such a city, can follow this way whenever they
so choose. Why not urge them to do so and encourage them by your
support if they do?
- Land & Liberty,
London, England (July, 1959), p.121.
- See Chapter entitled "Urban
Expansion, Will it Ever Stop," by Dr. M. Mason Gaffney, in
U.S. Department of Agriculture Yearbook for 1958, p.521.
- Editorial, June, 1958.