Decay at Donald J. Trump State Park

photo by Alan Kroeger

Yahoo News quoted me in New York’s Donald J. Trump State Park: A Story of Abandonment and Decay. It opens,

Donald J. Trump State Park is dilapidated and forgotten. No running path, no picnic table, no basketball hoop, no hiking trail, no ball field. It’s 436 acres of neglected land, overrun by weeds and brush. Most of the buildings that once stood on it have been demolished, and the few that remain are in utter disrepair: broken windows, rusted metal, corroded walls, missing or boarded-up doors and caved-in roofs.

That’s what became of the “gift” Donald Trump once gave to New York State.

Yahoo News sent several recent pictures of the park to Eric F. Trump, the president’s son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, to see what he thinks of its current state. He responded that the state has failed to maintain the property and that he’s disappointed by what he saw in the photographs.

“It is very disappointing to see the recent pictures of the Donald J. Trump State Park. My father donated this incredible land to the State of New York so that a park could be created for the enjoyment of all New York State’s citizens,” Eric F. Trump told Yahoo News. “Despite the fact that the terms of his gift specifically required the State to maintain the Park, the State has done a poor job running and sustaining the property. While we are looking into various remedies, it is my sincere hope that going forward, the State will exercise greater responsibility and restore the land into the magnificent park it was, and should continue to be.”

In the ’90s, then businessman Trump purchased a large swath of open meadows and thick woods 45 miles north of midtown Manhattan for a reported two million dollars, with plans to build a private golf course. But Trump couldn’t get approval from the towns of Putnam Valley or Yorktown and wound up donating the land to New York State in 2006. He claimed to the media that this “gift” was worth $100 million (though this was likely his characteristic hyperbole), and received a substantial tax write-off.

On April 19, 2006, then Gov. George E. Pataki announced Trump’s “generous and meaningful gift” would become New York’s 174th state park. He said the park would protect open space, increase public access to scenic landscapes and provide recreational opportunities in the city’s far-northern suburbs.

“On behalf of the people of the Empire State, I express our gratitude to Donald Trump for his vision and commitment to preserve the natural resource of this property for the benefit of future generations,” Pataki said at the time.

Trump said, “I have always loved the city and state of New York, and this is my way of trying to give something back. I hope that these 436 acres of property will turn into one of the most beautiful parks anywhere in the world.”

The establishment of Donald J. Trump State Park combined two parcels of land: the 282-acre Indian Hill site, which straddles the border of Westchester and Putnam counties, and the 154-acre French Hill site in Westchester County. Pataki’s office touted the new park as an example of New York’s role as a national leader in stewarding the United States’ natural resources.

But the promised recreational facilities never were built. New York stopped maintaining Donald J. Trump State Park in 2010 because of budget cuts, even though its annual operation costs were only $2,500, and it was cared for by workers at nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt Park.

Randy Simons, a public information officer for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, told Yahoo News that the park is currently open and serves “as a passive park offering hiking, birdwatching and similar outdoor recreational activities.”

Simons explained that the office recently removed several vacant and shabby buildings to address potential public safety and environmental hazards. This consisted of demolishing a 3,700-square-foot house, four other structures and a swimming pool. They also conducted asbestos and lead paint abatement.

 “Trail planning is underway for a formalized hiking trail network and mountain bike trails. The first step is a natural resources review and state environmental quality review to ensure that sensitive wetlands and plant and animal habitats are protected,” Simons said. “The ultimate timeline will be determined by this review.”

*     *     *

How much Trump benefited from donating the land is difficult to determine. Bridget J. Crawford, a professor at Pace University School of Law in nearby White Plains, N.Y., and a member at the American Law Institute, said it’s quite common for wealthy people to donate real property to a state or a local government for a park. The Rockefeller family, for instance, donated the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., little by little starting in 1983.“

“There’s nothing unusual about the donation,” Crawford told Yahoo News. “The problem of course here is that the donation of land was made but there was no additional cash gift made in order to maintain or create the park. It seems the state and municipalities don’t have the money to do that. If these sort of deals ‘fail,’ it’s always because of lack of funding.”

Crawford’s scholarship focuses on wealth transfer taxation and property law. She said people who are serious about establishing open space parks that the public can use in meaningful ways often make substantial cash contributions as well to fund the park’s maintenance.

As for how much money Trump saved, it would depend on what valuation the IRS accepted for the land; the figure of $100 million was Trump’s unofficial estimate, for public consumption. Another variable is whether he personally owned the property or purchased it via a pass-through entity like an LLC. Crawford explained that if it were owned through an LLC that was ignored for income tax purposes, which is not unusual, a $100 million donation would have saved Trump about $35 million in taxes.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the IRS would accept a $100 million appraisal of land that was sold for a few million dollars at fair market value in the 1990s.

David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School who focuses on real estate finance and community development, said he doesn’t doubt that Trump got an appraisal that “pushed the limits” to price it as high as possible, a move that is not uncommon. He said it’s possible that Trump got an appraisal that determined he would make more money by donating the land than he would by selling it. And it wouldn’t have to be as high as $100 million.

“If he claimed it was worth $10 million and he bought it for two or three million dollars, it’s conceivable that he came out ahead with this donation,” he said. “He actually could be better off financially. And this is not just for Donald Trump, but any donor in a comparable situation.”

Addressing NYC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

photo by Hromoslav

The NYC Rent Guidelines Board (of which I am a member) held a public hearing as part of its final vote on rent adjustments for the approximately one million dwelling units subject to the Rent Stabilization Law in New York City. My fellow board member, Hilary Botein, and I submitted the following joint statement at the hearing (also available on SSRN and BePress):

The Rent Guidelines Board determines rent increases for New York City’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments. We must weigh the economic conditions of the residential real estate industry; current and projected cost of living; and other data made available to us. To make our decision, we reviewed reams of data and multiple analyses of those data. We also held five public hearings at which we heard hundreds of tenants speak, sing, chant, cry, and demonstrate. These hearings are among the only opportunities that tenants have to speak publicly about their housing situations, and they made clear the extremity of the housing crisis in the City, and that it will get worse without significant intervention.

Tenants who came to the RGB hearings are not a representative sample of rent-stabilized tenants in New York City. But they told us a lot about the state of housing in the City.  We felt that it was incumbent on us to respond to what we heard, even where it did not relate directly to the jurisdiction of the Board.

New York City cannot expect any meaningful housing assistance from the federal government in the near term. Our observations therefore focus on state and municipal actions that could address some of the issues that regularly cropped up at our hearings.

There is a desperate need for affordable housing that is pegged to residents’ incomes. Housing is deemed “affordable” when housing costs are 30 percent of a household’s income. There is no guarantee that rent stabilized housing remain affordable to a particular household, and there is no income eligibility for rent stabilized housing.  This aspect of rent regulation explains its durable political appeal, but makes it an imperfect vehicle for meeting the needs of low-income tenants.

Mayor de Blasio is protecting and developing hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing through the Housing New York plan announced at the beginning of his term. More recently, his Administration announced a program to create 10,000 deeply affordable apartments and a new Elder Rent Assistance program.  But more can be done to help low-income tenants.

The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs have proven their effectiveness in “freezing” the rents of more than 60,000 low and moderate income rent-stabilized households. The state should create and fund a similar program for low-income rent stabilized tenants who pay more than 30 percent of their incomes towards housing costs.

State laws governing rent stabilization must be amended. Three elements of the law particularly penalize low-income tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods, and were behind the most distressing tenant testimonies that we heard. They are not within the RGB’s purview, but change is critical if the law is to operate as it was intended to do. The state legislature has considered bills that would make the necessary changes. First, owners can charge tenants a “preferential” rent, which is lower than the legal registered rent for the apartment. Preferential rents are granted most often in neighborhoods where the rent that the market can bear is less than the legal rent. This sounds like a good option for both tenants and owners, and perhaps that was its original intention. But now, as neighborhoods gentrify and market rates increase, the prospect of increasing a preferential rent with little notice has become a threat to tenants’ abilities to stay in their apartments. Preferential rents should be restricted to the tenancy of a particular tenant, as was the law before a 2003 amendment. Owners would then be able to increase rents for those tenants no more than the percentages approved by the Board.

Second, owners can tack on a 20 percent “vacancy increase” every time an apartment turns over. This increase incentivizes harassment, and should be limited to situations of very long tenancies, to keep owners from actively seeking to keep tenancies short.

Third, owners making what is termed a Major Capital Improvement (MCI) – a new roof, windows, or a boiler, for example – can pass this expense on to tenants via a rent increase that continues in perpetuity, after the owner has recouped her or his expenses. We also heard allegations of sketchy capital improvement applications that were intended to increase rents without improving the conditions in the building. The state legislature should review how MCIs work in order to ensure that they are properly incentivizing landlords to invest in their buildings to the benefit of both owners and tenants.

New York City needs a repair program for broken gas lines. We heard from tenants who had not had gas in their apartments for more than a year. We understand that fixing gas lines is particularly complicated and expensive, and that gas leaks raise serious safety concerns, but it is unacceptable for families to go for more than a year without gas, and we are concerned about fire safety issues resulting from people using hot plates. The city needs to step in and make the repairs.

We have a housing crisis. Low income tenants, who live disproportionately in communities of color, experience this crisis most acutely. We will not find systemic solutions within the housing market. All solutions require a lot of money, and we cannot count on anything from the federal government. But it is imperative that our state and local governments act, or New York City’s already burgeoning shelter system will be forced to take in even more people. Since the 1970s, New York City has been a leader in committing public resources to housing its low income residents, and that legacy must continue.  The Rent Guidelines Board cannot solve the housing crisis, but other arms of the New York State and City government can work together to reduce its impacts on low-income households.

Increasing Price Competition for Title Insurers

The New York State Department of Financial Services issued proposed rules for title insurance last month and requested comments. I submitted the following:

I write and teach about real estate and am the Academic Director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.  I write in my individual capacity to comment on the rules recently proposed by the New York State Department of Financial Services (the Department) relating to title insurance.

Title insurance is unique among insurance products because it provides coverage for unknown past acts.  Other insurance products provide coverage for future events.  Title insurance also requires just a single premium payment whereas other insurance products generally have premiums that are paid at regular intervals to keep the insurance in effect.

Premiums for title insurance in New York State are jointly filed with the Department by the Title Insurance Rate Service Association (TIRSA) on behalf of the dominant title insurers.  This joint filing ensures that title insurers do not compete on price. In states where such a procedure is not followed, title insurance rates are generally much lower.

Instead of competing on price, insurers compete on service.  “Service” has been interpreted widely to include all sorts of gifts — fancy meals, hard-to-get tickets, even vacations. The real customers of title companies are the industry’s repeat players — often real estate lawyers and lenders who recommend the title company — and they get these goodies.  The people paying for title insurance — owners and borrowers — ultimately pay for these “marketing” costs without getting the benefit of them.  These expenses are a component of the filings that TIRSA submits to the Department to justify the premiums charged by TIRSA’s members.  As a result of this rate-setting method, New York State policyholders pay among the highest premiums in the country.

The Department has proposed two new regulations for the title insurance industry.  The first proposed regulation (various amendments to Title 11 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York) is intended to get rid of these marketing costs (or kickbacks, if you prefer). This proposed regulation makes explicit that those costs cannot be passed on to the party ultimately paying for the title insurance.  The second proposed regulation (a new Part 228 of Title 11 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York (Insurance Regulation 208)) is intended to ensure that title insurance affiliates function independently from each other.

While these proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, they amount to half measures because the dominant title insurance companies are not competing on price and therefore will continue to seek to compete by other means, as described above or in ever increasingly creative ways.  Proposed Part 228, for instance, will do very little to keep title insurance premiums low as it does not matter whether affiliated companies act independently, so long as all the insurers are allowed to file their joint rate schedule.  No insurer will vary from that schedule whether or not they operate independently from their affiliates.

Instead of adopting these half-measures and calling it a day, the Department should undertake a more thorough review of title insurance regulation with the goal of increasing price competition.  Other jurisdictions have been able to balance price competition with competing public policy concerns.  New York State can do so as well.

Title insurance premiums are way higher than the amounts that title insurers pay out to satisfy claims.  In recent years, total premiums have been in the range of ten billion dollars a year while payouts have been measured in the single percentage points of those total premiums.  If the Department were able to find the balance between safety and soundness concerns and price competition, consumers of title insurance could see savings measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Department should explore the following alternative approach:

  • Prohibiting insurers from filing a joint rate schedule;
  • Requiring each insurer to file its own rate schedule;
  • Requiring that each insurer’s rate schedule be posted online;
  • Allowing insurers to discount from their filed rate schedule so that they could better compete on price;
  • Promulgating conservative safety and soundness standards to protect against insurers discounting themselves into bankruptcy to the detriment of their policyholders; and
  • Prohibiting insurers from providing any benefits or gifts to real estate lawyers or other parties who can steer policyholders toward particular insurers.

If these proposals were adopted, policyholders would see massive reductions in their premiums.

Some have argued that New York State’s title insurance regulatory regime promotes the safety and soundness of the title insurers to the benefit of title insurance policyholders.  That may be true, but the cost in unnecessarily high premiums is not worth the trade-off.

Increased competition is not always in the public interest but it certainly is in the case of New York State’s highly concentrated title insurance industry.  The Department should seek to create a regulatory regime that best balances increased price competition with adequate safety and soundness regulation.  New Yorkers will greatly benefit from such reform.

Secrets of The Title Insurance Industry

The New York State Department of Financial Services has proposed two new regulations for the title insurance industry. Premiums for title insurance in New York State are set by regulators, so title insurance companies cannot compete on price. Instead, they compete on service.  “Service” has been interpreted widely to include all sorts of gifts — fancy meals, hard-to-get tickets, even vacations. The real customers of title companies are the industry’s repeat players — often lawyers and lenders who recommend the title company — and they get these goodies.  The people paying for title insurance — owners and borrowers — ultimately pay for these “marketing” costs without getting the benefit of them.

The first regulation is intended to get rid of these marketing costs (or kickbacks, if you prefer). This proposed regulation makes explicit that those costs cannot be passed on to the party ultimately paying for the title insurance. The proposed regulation reads, in part,

(a) As used in this section:

(1) Compensation means any fee, commission or thing of value.

(2) Licensee means an insurance agent, title insurance agent, insurance broker, insurance consultant, or life settlement broker.

(b) Insurance Law section 2119 authorizes a licensee to receive compensation provided that the licensee has obtained a written memorandum signed by the party to be charged, in accordance with such section.

(c) A licensee shall not charge or collect compensation without such a memorandum, nor shall any such licensee charge or receive compensation except as provided in Insurance Law section 2119.

(d) The memorandum shall include the terms and date of the agreement, and the amount of the compensation. Where compensation is permitted, to the extent practical, the licensee shall obtain the written memorandum prior to rendering the services. The licensee shall not stipulate, charge or accept any compensation if the licensee has not fully disclosed the amount or nature of the compensation or the basis for determining the amount of the compensation prior to the service being rendered. (5-6)

The second regulation is intended to ensure that title insurance affiliates function independently from each other.

While these proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, I wonder how effective they will be, given that title companies cannot compete on price. Maybe it would be better to let them do just that, as some other states do . . .

These are mighty technical proposed regulations, but they will have a big impact on consumers. Have no doubt that industry insiders will comment on these regs. Those concerned with the interests of consumers should do so as well.

The Department of Financial Services is accepting comments on these two proposed regulations through June 19th, 2017.

Mortgages for Grads

Realtor.com quoted me in College Grads Can Get Home Grants—but There’s a Catch. It opens,

Recent college graduates hoping to buy a home have one more reason to toss their caps in the air these days: Programs offering home grants to new grads are popping up across the country, offering thousands of dollars in assistance that could put homeownership within reach. Talk about a nice graduation gift!

In New York, for instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced a $5 million pilot program, “Graduate to Homeownership,” providing assistance to first-time buyers who’ve graduated from an accredited college or university with an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree within the past two years. That aid can take the form of low-interest-rate mortgages, or up to $15,000 in down payment assistance.

The catch? You’ll have to live upstate—in Jamestown, Geneva, Elmira, Oswego, Oneonta, Plattsburgh, Glens Falls, or Middletown—eight areas that many just-sprung college students tend to flee as soon as they have their diploma in hand.

“Upstate colleges and universities have world-class programs that produce highly skilled graduates—who then leave for opportunities elsewhere,” Cuomo admitted in a statement. “This program will incentivize recent graduates to put down roots.”

The trade-off for college grads

New York is not the only state offering this type of assistance to college grads, many of whom are saddled with significant student loan debt. According to analysis by Credible.com, nearly half of states offer some form of housing assistance to student loan borrowers, with a handful focusing on recent grads.

For instance, Rhode Island’s Ocean State Grad Grant program offers up to $7,000 in down payment assistance to those who’ve earned a degree in the past three years. Ohio’s Grants for Grads program offers down payment assistance or reduced-rate mortgages to those who have graduated in the past four years.

Still, what’s noteworthy about programs like New York’s is that you can’t just buy a home anywhere. Rather, you have to plunk yourself down in semi-ghost towns. That’s hardly ideal for someone who’s trying to kick-start a career.

So as tempting as this home-buying “help” might appear at first glance, you have to wonder: Is it enough to offset what these students give up? Some experts say it’s a risky bet.

“The New York program aims to retain highly educated people in economically depressed regions and revitalizing struggling downtowns in those regions,” says David Reiss, research director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “It can certainly help people who are dealing with high student debt burdens. But programs like this have to deal with a fundamental issue: Do these communities have enough jobs for recent college graduates? Time will tell.”

Find a job first, then a home

Experts say students should think carefully before they pounce on this “gift” and make sure they can be happy in one of the designated locations—and gainfully employed.

“No question, they should have a job lined up first [before buying a house],” says Reiss. After all, “a good deal on a house or a mortgage is not a good deal if we don’t have a job to go along with it.”

Property Tax Exemptions in Wonderland

 

Cea

NYU’s Furman Center has released a policy brief, The Latest Legislative Reform of the 421-a Tax Exemption: A Look at Possible Outcomes. This brief is part of a series on affordable housing strategies for a high-cost city. It opens,

Since the early 1970s, New York City has provided a state-authorized, partial property tax exemption for the construction of new residential buildings. In the 1980s, the New York City Council amended the program to require that participating residential buildings in certain portions of Manhattan also provide affordable housing. Most recently, New York State extended the existing program through the end of 2015 and created a new 421-a framework for 2016 onward. However, for the program to continue beyond December, the legislation requires that representatives of residential real estate developers and construction labor unions reach a memorandum of understanding regarding wages of construction workers building 421-a program developments that contain more than 15 units.

This brief explores the possible impacts of the new 421-a legislation on residential development across a range of different neighborhoods in New York City, including neighborhoods where rents and sale prices are far lower than in the Manhattan Core and where the tax exemption or other subsidy may be necessary to spur new residential construction under current market conditions. We assess what could happen to new market rate and affordable housing production if the 421-a program were allowed to expire or if it were to continue past 2015 in the form contemplated by recently passed legislation. Our analysis shows that changes to the 421-a program could significantly affect the development of both market rate and affordable housing in the city (1, footnote omitted)

The 421-a program operates against the backdrop of a crazy quilt real property tax regime where similar buildings are taxed at wildly different rates because of various historical oddities and thinly-sliced legal distinctions. Like the Queen of Hearts, the rationale given by the Department of Finance for this unequal treatment amounts to no more than — And the reason is…because I say so, that’s why!

The brief concludes,

Our financial analysis of the possible outcomes from the 421-a legislation offers some insights into its potential impact on new construction. First, if the 421-a benefit expires in 2016, residential developers would lower the amount they would be willing to pay for land in many parts of the city. The result could be a pause in new residential developments in areas outside of the Manhattan Core as both buyers and sellers of land adjust to the new market.

*     *     *

Second, if the newly revised 421-a program with its higher affordability requirements and longer exemption period goes into effect in 2016 without any increase in construction costs, the city is likely to have more affordable rental units developed in many parts of the city compared to what the existing 421-a program would have created. Condominium development without the 421-a program may still continue to dominate in certain portions of Manhattan, though the program appears to make rentals more attractive. (12)

The first outcome — lower land prices if 421-a expires — is not that bad for anyone, except current landowners. And it is hard to feel bad for them, given that they should not have expected that 421-a would remain in effect forever (and not to mention the rapid increases in NYC land prices). The second outcome — the new 421-a framework — sounds like better public policy than the existing program.

But one wonders — what would it take for NYC to develop a rational real property tax regime to replace our notoriously inequitable one, one that treats like properties so differently from each other. Can we escape from Wonderland?

NYC’s 421-Abyss

Andrew_Cuomo_by_Pat_Arnow_cropped

New York City’s 421-a tax exemption has lapsed as of yesterday because of disagreements at the state level (NYS has a lot of control over NYC’s laws and policies, for those of you who don’t follow the topic closely). 421-a subsidizes a range of residential development from affordable to luxury. In the main, though, it subsidizes market-rate units.

This subsidy for residential development is heavily supported by the real estate industry. Many others think that the program provides an inefficient tax subsidy for residential development, particularly affordable housing development.

I fall into the latter camp. I would note, however, that NYC’s dysfunctional property tax system is highly inequitable because it taxes different types of housing units (single family, coop and condo, rental) so very differently.

With that in mind, let me turn to a policy brief from the Community Service Society, Why We Need to End New York City’s Most Expensive Housing Program. The reports key conclusions are,

At $1.07 billion a year, 421-a is the largest single housing expenditure that the city undertakes, larger than the city’s annual contribution of funds for Mayor de Blasio’s Housing New York plan.

The annual cost of 421-a to the city exploded during the recent housing boom as a result of market changes, not because of any intentional policy decision to increase the amount of tax incentives for housing construction.

Half of the total 421-a expenditure is devoted to Manhattan.

The 421-a tax exemption is a general investment subsidy that has been only superficially modified to contribute to affordability goals.

The 421-a tax exemption is extremely inefficient as an affordable housing program, costing the city well over a million dollars per affordable housing unit created.

The reforms made to 421-a in 2006 and 2007 have not resulted in a significant improvement of 421-a’s efficiency as an affordable housing program.

A large share of buildings that receive 421-a and include affordable housing also receive other subsidies, such as tax-exempt bond financing. Affordable units in these buildings cannot be credited entirely to the 421-a program.

The great majority of the tax revenue forgone through 421-a is subsidizing buildings that would have been developed without the tax exemption. (3-4)

The brief argues that 421-a should be allowed to expire and be replaced “with a targeted tax credit or other new incentive that is structured to provide benefits only in proportion with a building’s contribution to the affordable housing supply.” (4)

I don’t have any real disagreement with the thrust of this brief. I would just add that the fight over 421-should be expanded to include an overhaul of the City’s property tax regime. It is unclear, of course, whether Governor Cuomo and NYS legislators have the stomach for a battle so large.