The Impact of Tax Reform on Real Estate

Cushman & Wakefield have posted The Great Tax Race: How the World’s Fastest Tax Reform Package Could Impact Commercial Real Estate. There is a lot of interesting insights in the report, notwithstanding the fact that ultimate fate of the Republicans’ tax reform is still a bit up in the air. Indeed, C&W estimates that there is a 1 in 5 chance that a bill will not pass this year.

Commercial Real Estate

C&W states that history

suggests that tax law changes by themselves are often not key drivers for transactions or for investment performance. However, there is likely to be a period of transition and market flux as investors restructure to optimize tax outcomes with implications for the underlying asset classes. Corporations are likely to separate the real estate aspects of their businesses. (2)

The commercial real estate industry is largely exempt from the biggest changes contained in the House and Senate bills. 1031 exchanges, for instance, have not been touched. C&W sees corporations being big beneficiaries, with a net tax cut of $400 billion over the next 10 years; however, they “anticipate that the tax cut will be preferentially used to return capital to shareholders or reduce debt, rather than to increase corporate spending.” (2)

Residential Real Estate

C&W sees a different effect in the residential real estate sector, with a short-term drag on home values in areas with high SALT (state and local tax) deductions, including California, NY and NJ:

The drag on home values is likely to be largest in areas with high property taxes and medium-to-high home values. There is also likely to be a larger impact in parts of the country where incomes are higher and where a disproportionate proportion of taxpayers itemize. Both versions of the tax reform limit property tax deductibility to $10,000. While only 9.2% of households nationally report property taxes above this threshold, this figure rises to as high as 46% in Long Island, 34% in Newark and 20% in San Francisco according to Trulia data.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) estimates that 22% of mortgages in the U.S. have balances over $500,000, with most of these concentrated in high costs areas such as Washington, DC and Hawaii—where more than 40% of home purchase loans originated last year exceeded $500,000. This is followed by California at 27%, and New York and Massachusetts at 16%. (6)

C&W also evaluated tax reform’s impact on housing market liquidity and buy v. rent economics:

The median length of time people had owned their homes was 8.7 years in 2016—more than double what it had been 10 years earlier. Now that interest rates have begun to tick upward from their historic lows, the housing market may face a problem called the “lock-in” effect, where homeowners are reluctant to move, since moving might entail taking out a new mortgage at a higher rate. This leads to the possibility of decreasing housing market liquidity in high-priced markets.

All things considered, the doubling of the standard deduction and the cap on the property tax deduction is likely to have the largest impact on the buy vs. rent incentive, especially as it seems likely that there will be minimal changes to the mortgage interest deduction in any final tax reform bill. (7-8)

Regulatory Approaches to Airbnb

photo by Open Grid Scheduler

Peter Coles et al. have posted Airbnb Usage Across New York City Neighborhoods: Geographic Patterns and Regulatory Implications to SSRN. Two of the co-authors are affiliated to Airbnb and the other three are affiliated to NYU. The paper states that “No consulting fees, research grants or other payments have been made by Airbnb to the NYU authors . . .” (1) The abstract reads,

This paper offers new empirical evidence about actual Airbnb usage patterns and how they vary across neighborhoods in New York City. We combine unique, census-tract level data from Airbnb with neighborhood asking rent data from Zillow and administrative, census, and social media data on neighborhoods. We find that as usage has grown over time, Airbnb listings have become more geographically dispersed, although centrality remains an important predictor of listing location. Neighborhoods with more modest median household incomes have also grown in popularity, and disproportionately feature “private room” listings (compared to “entire home” listings). We find that compared to long-term rentals, short-term rentals do not appear to be as profitable as many assume, and they have become relatively less profitable over our time period. Additionally, short-term rentals appear most profitable relative to long-term rentals in outlying, middle-income neighborhoods. Our findings contribute to an ongoing regulatory conversation catalyzed by the rapid growth in the short-term rental market, and we conclude by bringing an economic lens to varying approaches proposed to target and address externalities that may arise in this market.

I found the review alternative regulatory approaches to be particularly helpful:

City leaders around the world have adopted a wide range of approaches. We conclude by reviewing these alternative regulatory responses. We consider both citywide as well as neighborhood-specific responses, like those recently enacted in Portland, Maine or in New Orleans. A promising approach from an economic perspective is to impose fees that vary with intensity of usage. For instance, in Portland, Maine, short-term rental host fees increase with the number of units a given host seeks to register, and a recent bill from Representatives in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (H.3454) propose taxes that vary with the intensity of usage of individual units. Such varying fees may help discourage conversions of long-term rentals to short-term rentals and better internalize externalities that might rise with greater use. That said, overly-customized approaches may be difficult to administer. Regulatory complexity itself should also be a criterion in choosing policy responses. (2-3, citations omitted)

We are still a long ways off from knowing how the short-term rental market will be regulated once it fully matures, so work like this helps us see where we are so far.

The Economics of Housing Supply

chart by Smallman12q

Housing economists Edward L. Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko have posted The Economic Implications of Housing Supply to SSRN (behind a paywall but you can find a slightly older version of the paper here). The abstract reads,

In this essay, we review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of US housing markets to better understand the distribution of home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. We employ a cost-based approach to gauge whether a housing market is delivering appropriately priced units. Specifically, we investigate whether market prices (roughly) equal the costs of producing the housing unit. If so, the market is well-functioning in the sense that it efficiently delivers housing units at their production cost. Of course, poorer households still may have very high housing cost burdens that society may wish to address via transfers. But if housing prices are above this cost in a given area, then the housing market is not functioning well – and housing is too expensive for all households in the market, not just for poorer ones. The gap between price and production cost can be understood as a regulatory tax, which might be efficiently incorporating the negative externalities of new production, but typical estimates find that the implicit tax is far higher than most reasonable estimates of those externalities.

The paper’s conclusions, while a bit technical for a lay audience, are worth highlighting:

When housing supply is highly regulated in a certain area, housing prices are higher and population growth is smaller relative to the level of demand. While most of America has experienced little growth in housing wealth over the past 30 years, the older, richer buyers in America’s most regulated areas have experienced significant increases in housing equity. The regulation of America’s most productive places seems to have led labor to locate in places where wages and prices are lower, reducing America’s overall economic output in the process.

Advocates of land use restrictions emphasize the negative externalities of building. Certainly, new construction can lead to more crowded schools and roads, and it is costly to create new infrastructure to lower congestion. Hence, the optimal tax on new building is positive, not zero. However, there is as yet no consensus about the overall welfare implications of heightened land use controls. Any model-based assessment inevitably relies on various assumptions about the different aspects of regulation and how they are valued in agents’ utility functions.

Empirical investigations of the local costs and benefits of restricting building generally conclude that the negative externalities are not nearly large enough to justify the costs of regulation. Adding the costs from substitute building in other markets generally strengthens this conclusion, as Glaeser and Kahn (2010) show that America restricts building more in places that have lower carbon emissions per household. If California’s restrictions induce more building in Texas and Arizona, then their net environmental could be negative in aggregate. If restrictions on building limit an efficient geographical reallocation of labor, then estimates based on local externalities would miss this effect, too.

If the welfare and output gains from reducing regulation of housing construction are large, then why don’t we see more policy interventions to permit more building in markets such as San Francisco? The great challenge facing attempts to loosen local housing restrictions is that existing homeowners do not want more affordable homes: they want the value of their asset to cost more, not less. They also may not like the idea that new housing will bring in more people, including those from different socio-economic groups.

There have been some attempts at the state level to soften severe local land use restrictions, but they have not been successful. Massachusetts is particularly instructive because it has used both top-down regulatory reform and incentives to encourage local building. Massachusetts Chapter 40B provides builders with a tool to bypass local rules. If developers are building enough formally-defined affordable units in unaffordable areas, they can bypass local zoning rules. Yet localities still are able to find tools to limit local construction, and the cost of providing price-controlled affordable units lowers the incentive for developers to build. It is difficult to assess the overall impact of 40B, especially since both builder and community often face incentives to avoid building “affordable” units. Standard game theoretic arguments suggest that 40B should never itself be used, but rather work primarily by changing the fallback option of the developer. Massachusetts has also tried to create stronger incentives for local building with Chapters 40R and 40S. These parts of their law allow for transfers to the localities themselves, so builders are not capturing all the benefits. Even so, the Boston market and other high cost areas in the state have not seen meaningful surges in new housing development.

This suggests that more fiscal resources will be needed to convince local residents to bear the costs arising from new development. On purely efficiency grounds, one could argue that the federal government provide sufficient resources, but the political economy of the median taxpayer in the nation effectively transferring resources to much wealthier residents of metropolitan areas like San Francisco seems challenging to say the least. However daunting the task, the potential benefits look to be large enough that economists and policymakers should keep trying to devise a workable policy intervention. (19-20)

Urban Income Inequality

photo by sonyblockbuster

The union-affiliated Economic Policy Institute has released a report, Income Inequality in the U.S. by State, Metropolitan Area, and County. The report finds that

The rise in inequality in the United States, which began in the late 1970s, continues in the post–Great Recession era. This rising inequality is not just a story of those in the financial sector in the greater New York City metropolitan area reaping outsized rewards from speculation in financial markets. It affects every state, and extends to the nation’s metro areas and counties, many of which are more unequal than the country as a whole. In fact, the unequal income growth since the late 1970s has pushed the top 1 percent’s share of all income above 24 percent (the 1928 national peak share) in five states, 22 metro areas, and 75 counties. It is a problem when CEOs and financial-sector executives at the commanding heights of the private economy appropriate more than their fair share of the nation’s expanding economic pie. We can fix the problem with policies that return the economy to full employment and return bargaining power to U.S. workers.

The specific findings are very interesting. They include,

  • Overall in the U.S. the top 1 percent took home 20.1 percent of all income in 2013. (4)
  • To be in the top 1 percent nationally, a family needs an income of $389,436. Twelve states, 109 metro areas, and 339 counties have thresholds above that level. (2)
  • Between 2009 and 2013, the top 1 percent captured 85.1 percent of total income growth in the United States. Over this period, the average income of the top 1 percent grew 17.4 percent, about 25 times as much as the average income of the bottom 99 percent, which grew 0.7 percent. (3)
  • Between 1979 and 2013, the top 1 percent’s share of income doubled nationally, increasing from 10 percent to 20.1 percent. (4)
  • The share of income held by the top 1 percent declined in every state but one between 1928 and 1979. (4)
  • From 1979 to 2007 the share of income held by the top 1 percent increased in every state and the District of Columbia. (4)
  • Nine states had gaps wider than the national gap. In the most unequal states—New York, Connecticut, and Wyoming—the top 1 percent earned average incomes more than 40 times those of the bottom 99 percent. (2)
  • For states the highest thresholds are in Connecticut ($659,979), the District of Columbia ($554,719), New Jersey ($547,737), Massachusetts ($539,055), and New York ($517,557). Thresholds above $1 million can be found in four metro areas (Jackson, Wyoming-Idaho; Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut; Summit Park, Utah; and Williston, North Dakota) and 12 counties. (3)

The income threshold of the top 1% for individual counties is also interesting.  For example, New York County (Manhattan) comes in second, at $1,424,582 (following Teton, WY at $2,216,883) and San Francisco County comes in 24th at $894,792. (18, Table 6)

Income inequality is a fact of life for big cities and affects so many aspects of American life — housing, healthcare, education, to name a few important ones. The Economic Policy Institute focuses on union-movement responses to income inequality, but urbanists could also consider how to respond systematically to income inequality in the design of urban systems like those for healthcare, transportation and education. If the federal government is not ready to do anything about income inequality itself, states and local governments can make some progress dealing with its consequences. That is a far better route than acting as if income inequality is just some kind unexpected aspect of modern urban life and then bemoaning its visible manifestations, such as homelessness.



Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Are Billions Enough?

Jenner & Block has issued the Citi Monitorship First Report. By way of background,

The Settlement Agreement resolved potential federal and state legal claims for violations of law in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, structuring, arrangement, and issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) between 2006 and 2007. As explained below, in the Settlement Agreement, Citi agreed to pay $4.5 billion to the settling governmental entities, acknowledged a statement of facts attached as Annex 1, and agreed to provide consumer relief that would be valued at $2.5 billion under the valuation principles set forth in Annex 2.2 As part of the Settlement Agreement, [Jenner partner] Thomas J. Perrelli was appointed as independent monitor (Monitor) to determine Citi’s compliance with the consumer relief and corresponding requirements of the Settlement Agreement. This is the first report assessing Citi’s progress toward completion of those obligations. (3, footnote omitted)

Because this is the first report, much of it sets the stage for what is to come. I was, however, struck by the section titled “Impact of Relief Provided:”

To evaluate fully the impact of the relief that is the subject of this report and authorized under the Settlement Agreement would require a variety of activities not contemplated by the settlement and not easily achievable (e.g., interviews with individual homeowners). Isolating the effect of this settlement, the National Mortgage Settlement, and other RMBS settlements from the broader housing market is also difficult.

One question frequently asked is whether the relief provided to borrowers and for which Citi has received credit would have been provided in any event (e.g., is this really additional?) On this question, the answer is mixed. Given ordinary accounting practices, loans for which foreclosure does not make economic sense are frequently written-off by financial institutions. In that circumstance, however, the banks may not release liens as a matter of routine, leaving borrowers with an ongoing burden and impeding potential efforts to redevelop the property. To get credit under the Settlement Agreement, Citi was required to release the lien, thus giving an additional benefit to the homeowner to allow him or her to make a fresh start and to remove any legal obstacles from the transfer of the property. (17, footnote omitted)

As I have noted before, it is hard to truly assess the restorative and retributive impacts of the ten and eleven digit settlements of litigation arising from the financial crisis. Are individuals appropriately helped? Are wrongdoers appropriately punished? Are current actors appropriately deterred?  I find it bizarre that it is so hard to tell even when settlements are measured in the billions of dollars.

Reiss on Green Bonds

Law360 quoted me in Green Bond Bandwagon Promises Cash Returns For NYC (behind a paywall). It opens,

A New York City proposal to market billions in so-called green bonds could reduce debt costs for the city by enticing investors who have stampeded toward guilt-free returns elsewhere, but buyers must tread carefully lest their money ends up funding projects not seen as environmentally relevant.

New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer put forth a plan last week that would see the city’s capital spending program add municipal bonds for financing environmentally friendly projects to its plans to issue $30 billion in new debt over four years.

The proposal, which Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is studying, suggests moving quickly while there this still a focus on reinforcing the city after Superstorm Sandy and amid the strong demand for green bonds in the private sector as well as in California, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. As soon as next year, the city could being to convert a large portion of its Municipal Water Finance Authority debt — some $1.5 billion per year — into green bonds and could allocate up to $200 million per year in Transitional Finance Authority and general obligation bonds to similar use.

“Green bonds should be another example of how New York City leads the nation in finding solutions that work,” Stringer said.

While experts in public debt investment largely see the proposal as a promotional bid to market New York City debt, they note that the city’s high national profile could make such a move profitable amid investor hunger to capitalize environmentally friendly projects.

“The big question is: How much demand would this create? One of the main points of the green bonds would be to increase demand,” said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, an expert in real estate finance and community development. “If there really is pent-up demand, and New York City acts as an early mover, it might get a short-term benefit in the cost of borrowing.”

Stringer’s prediction that New York City could spark others to follow suit would also likely come true, Reiss said.

“If this is demonstrated to materially drive down borrowing costs, you’ll see others doing the same thing,” he said. “I’m a little skeptical, over the long term, that you’d have serious savings. But in the shorter term, you might.”