Tag Archives: property values

Does Tax Increment Financing (TIF) generate economic development?

Tax increment financing, or TIF, is a method of financing economic development projects first used in California in 1952. Since then, 48 other states have enacted TIF legislation with Arizona being the lone holdout. It was originally conceived as a method for combating urban blight, but over time it has become the go-to tool for local politicians pushing economic development in general. For example, Baltimore is considering using TIF to raise $535 million to help Under Armor founder Kevin Plank develop Port Covington.

So how does TIF work? Though the particulars can vary by state, the basic mechanism is usually similar. First, an area is designated as a TIF district. TIF districts are mostly industrial or commercial areas rather than residential areas since the goal is to encourage economic development.

Usually, in an effort to ensure that TIF is used appropriately, the municipal government that designates the area as a TIF has to assert that economic development would not take place absent the TIF designation and subsequent investment. This is known as the ‘but-for’ test, since the argument is that development would not occur but for the TIF. Though the ‘but-for’ test is still applied, some argue that it is largely pro forma.

Once an area has been designated as a TIF district, the property values in the area are assessed in order to create a baseline value. The current property tax rate is applied to the baseline assessed value to determine the amount of revenue that is used for the provision of local government goods and services (roads, police, fire, water etc.). This value will then be frozen for a set period of time (e.g. up to 30 years in North Carolina), and any increase in assessed property values that occurs after this time and the subsequent revenue generated will be used to pay for the economic development project(s) in the TIF district.

The key idea is that municipalities can borrow against the projected property value increases in order to pay for current economic development projects. A simple numerical example will help clarify how TIF works.

In the table below there are five years. In year 1 the assessed value of the property in the TIF district is $20 million and it is determined that it takes $1 million per year to provide the government goods and services needed in the area (road maintenance, sewage lines, police/fire protection, etc.). A tax rate of 5% is applied to the $20 million of assessed value to raise the necessary $1 million (Tax revenue column).

TIF example table

The municipality issues bonds totaling $1 million to invest in an economic development project in the TIF district. As an example, let’s say the project is renovating an old business park in order to make it more attractive to 21st century startups. The plan is that improving the business park will make the area more desirable and increase the property values in the TIF district. As the assessed value increases the extra tax revenue raised by applying the 5% rate to the incremental value of the property will be used to pay off the bonds (incremental revenue column).

Meanwhile, the $1 million required for providing the government goods and services will remain intact, since only the incremental increase in assessed value is used to pay for the business park improvements. Hence the term Tax Increment Financing.

As shown in the table, if the assessed value of the property increases by $2 million per year for 4 years the municipality will recoup the $1 million required to amortize the bond (I’m omitting interest to keep it simple). Each $1 million dollars of increased value increase tax revenue by $50,000 without increasing the tax rate, which is what allows the municipality to pay for the economic development without raising property tax rates. For many city officials this is an attractive feature since property owners usually don’t like tax rate increases.

City officials may also prefer TIF to the issuance of general obligation bonds since the latter often require voter approval while TIF does not. This is the case in North Carolina. TIF supporters claim that this gives city officials more flexibility in dealing with the particular needs of development projects. However, it also allows influential individuals to push TIF through for projects that a majority of voters may not support.

While TIF can be used for traditional government goods like roads, sewer systems, water systems, and public transportation, it can also be used for private goods like business parks and sports facilities. The former arguably provide direct benefits to all firms in the TIF district since better roads, streetscapes and water systems can be used by any firm in the area. The latter projects, though they may provide indirect benefits to nearby firms in the form of more attractive surroundings and increased property values, mostly benefit the owners of entity receiving the development funding. Like other development incentives, TIF can be used to subsidize private businesses with taxpayer dollars.

Projects that use TIF are often described as ‘self-financing’ since the project itself is supposedly what creates the higher property values that pay for it. Additionally, TIF is often sold to voters as a way to create jobs or spur additional private investment in blighted areas. But there is no guarantee that the development project will lead to increased private sector investment, more jobs or higher property values. Researchers at the UNC School of Government explain the risks of TIF in a 2008 Economic Bulletin:

“Tax increment financing is not a silver bullet solution to development problems. There is no guarantee that the initial public investment will spur sufficient private investment, over time, that creates enough increment to pay back the bonds. Moreover, even if the investment succeeds on paper, it may do so by “capturing” growth that would have occurred even without the investment. Successful TIF districts can place an additional strain on existing public resources like schools and parks, whose funding is frozen at base valuation levels while growth in the district increases demand for their services.”

The researchers also note that it’s often larger corporations that municipalities are trying to attract with TIF dollars, and any subsidies via TIF that the municipality provides to the larger firm gives it an advantage over its already-established, local competitors. This is even more unfair when the local competitor is a small, mom-and-pop business that already faces a difficult challenge due to economies of scale.

There is also little evidence that TIF regularly provides the job or private sector investment that its supporters promise. Chicago is one of the largest users of TIF for economic development and its program has been one of the most widely studied. Research on Chicago’s TIF program found that “Overall, TIF failed to produce the promise of jobs, business development or real estate activity at the neighborhood level beyond what would have occurred without TIF.”

If economic development projects that rely on TIF do not generate additional development above and beyond what would have occurred anyway, then the additional tax revenue due to the higher assessed values is used to pay for an economic development project that didn’t really add anything. Without TIF, that revenue could have been used for providing other government goods and services such as infrastructure or better police and fire protection. Once TIF is used, the additional revenue must be used to pay for the economic development project: it cannot be spent on other services that residents might prefer.

Another study, also looking at the Chicago metro area, found that cities that adopt TIF experience slower property value growth than those that do not. The authors suggest that this is due to a reallocation of resources to TIF districts from other areas of the city. The result is that the TIF districts grow at the expense of the municipality as a whole. This is an example of the TIF working on paper, but only because it is pilfering growth that would have occurred in other areas of the city.

Local politicians often like tax increment financing because it is relatively flexible and enables them to be entrepreneurial in some sense: local officials as venture capitalists. It’s also an easier sell than a tax rate increase or general obligation bonds that require a voter referendum.

But politicians tend to make bad venture capitalists for several reasons. First, it’s usually not their area of expertise and it’s hard: even the professionals occasionally lose money. Second, as Milton Friedman pointed out, people tend to be more careless when spending other people’s money. Local officials aren’t investing their own money in these projects, and when people invest or spend other people’s money they tend to emphasize the positive outcomes and downplay the negative ones since they aren’t directly affected. Third, pecuniary factors don’t always drive the decision. Different politicians like different industries and businesses – green energy, biotech, advanced manufacturing, etc. – for various reasons and their subjective, non-pecuniary preferences may cause them to ignore the underlying financials of a project and support a bad investment.

If TIF is going to be used it should be used on things like public infrastructure – roads, sewer/water lines, sidewalks – rather than specific private businesses. This makes it harder to get distracted by non-pecuniary factors and does a better – though not perfect – job of directly helping development in general rather than a specific company or private developer. But taxpayers should be aware of the dangers of TIF and politicians and developers should not tout it as a panacea for jump-starting an area’s economy.

Detroit within months of bankruptcy

Over the past several weeks, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has offered a stark picture of the city’s near-term prospects. By April the government will run out of money. The city faces a shortfall of $45 million, with an accumulated deficit of $180 million.

Detroit’s problems didn’t start yesterday. As The Economist writes the combination of falling property values, shrinking population, the rising cost of public services in a sprawling city, and the effects of the recession, “have provided the trigger for the crisis.”

Mayor Bing’s plan to shore up the city’s budget includes raising revenues with an increase in the C-corporation tax, and collection of past receivables, cutting spending by eliminating furloughs, a 10 percent pay reduction, 1000 layoffs, minor changes to retiree pensions, modified contributions to employee health plans, outsourcing the management of bus services, and a 10 percent reduction in vendor payments. These actions are estimated to save $258 million.

The wild card is what will happen to Detroit’s pension system. Without reform the city’s rising pension costs will continue to batter Detroit’s finances. The city’s pension and health care costs represent 13 percent of Detroit’s budget, or $218.5 annually. Unless Detroit’s 45 unions agree to structural changes, the Mayor warns, Detroit will be taken over by a state-appointed receiver according to Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Mayor Bing’s plan doesn’t have a great deal of support from the City Council with the rhetoric becoming increasingly charged against the Mayor and the notion of a state takeover of the city’s finances. But in order to avoid a takeover the Mayor and Council must come to an agreement. In the meantime, Moody’s is reassessing the city’s general obligation debt and sewer bonds ratings. Standard and Poor’s rates Detroit’s long-term general obligation debt BB, with a stable outlook.

 

 

The Taxpayers’ Tab for the D.C. Trolley

Washington, D.C.’s taxpayers will be hit with a $3.5 million bill for the first year the District’s two new streetcar lines operate. That’s on top of the $100 million it cost to build them. Unlike the Metro with 79 percent of ridership costs covered by fares, the trolley system is only 30 percent dependent on fares. D.C.’s streetcars will be fueled by subsidies. For the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) that’s another way of saying the rail line might be free in some parts of the city. (Based on Portland, Oregon’s “fareless squares”)

Why is D.C. getting a heavily-subsidized transit system that was phased out mid-20th century? The DDOT beleives the planned 37 miles of 8 separate rail lines will connect people with neighborhoods and spur revitalization. The agency cites the effect Portland, Oregon’s streetcars had on property values. According to Randal O’Toole, the trolley revival is an effort by smart-growth planners to push American cities back to the pedestrian era. As he puts it, “Why should we design our cities for the 1.6 percent of people who take transit?” And of course, there’s the fact that it isn’t profitable. That’s another way of saying there’s not enough demand at the price it costs to operate. The D.C. trolley will cost $1.5 billion to complete and become a permanent fixture of D.C.’s budget. The price of trolley nostalgia is permanent taxpayer subsidies.

The Failure You Know

Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t. – Traditional idiom

Sayings become traditional if they contain sufficient truth, but truth can usually be graded on a scale, from absolute to non-existent; better writers have called this the “truth-of-the-head” and the “truth-of-the-heart.”

The truth-of-the-head is that American public schooling is failing. Expenses are too high, political influence is too systemic, and results are terrifyingly low. This isn’t news. We’ve written and talked about it extensively.

A new study from the National Center for Policy Analysis adds to the mountain of evidence that school choice overwhelmingly benefits students, especially the poor.

From 1998 to 2008, the Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation funded a $52.4 million voucher program for residents of the low-performing Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. The vouchers were available to any student in Edgewood whose family chose to participate, regardless of academic ability or income.

The evidence shows that the voucher students weren’t the only ones who benefited. The students who remained in the Edgewood public schools benefited from increased funding resources due to increasing property values, and improvements in the public schools in response to increased competition.

Those are impressive results. Yet anti-reform groups and their legislative supporters have almost successfully killed school choice in Washington, DC, arguably the flagship federal school-choice program. Reason.tv has documented the trials, triumphs, and tribulations of the D.C. program for several years.

The recurring arguments against choice have always been theoretical. Students might be worse off. Communities might be forced into educational ghettos. Students might be subjected to failing systems, where private educators care only about power and money.

But any reasonable person has to agree, replace “might” with “is,” and “private” with “public,” and you have a fair critique of the current state. When faced with possible problems but tangible benefits, the devil you know seems egregiously evil.

I guess that’s why “idiom” and “idiot” are only one letter apart.

Not Connecting the Dots

Public policy often seems that it should be intuitive. If a state needs more revenue, the easiest way to raise some is to increase taxes (easiest for elected officials, that is). Who has the most money to appropriate? Millionaires, obviously. Connect the dots, and raise taxes on millionaires.

Maryland did just that, but their experiment shows why political common sense and real life common sense are distinctly separate things. From the Wall Street Journal:

We reported in May that after passing a millionaire surtax nearly one-third of Maryland’s millionaires had gone missing, thus contributing to a decline in state revenues. The politicians in Annapolis had said they’d collect $106 million by raising its income tax rate on millionaire households to 6.25% from 4.75%. In cities like Baltimore and Bethesda, which apply add-on income taxes, the top tax rate with the surcharge now reaches as high as 9.3%—fifth highest in the nation. Liberals said this was based on incomplete data and that rich Marylanders hadn’t fled the state.

Well, the state comptroller’s office now has the final tax return data for 2008, the first year that the higher tax rates applied. The number of millionaire tax returns fell sharply to 5,529 from 7,898 in 2007, a 30% tumble. The taxes paid by rich filers fell by 22%, and instead of their payments increasing by $106 million, they fell by some $257 million.

Don’t feel sorry for the poor poor millionaires; that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Taxes are a serious driver of out-migration, be it small states like Maine, or more populous states like New Jersey:

New Jersey out‐migrants tend to move to states that have much lower property values (35% lower), property taxes (41% lower) and overall costs of living (17%lower). Destination states also have notably lower average incomes, substantially higher crime rates, higher infant and child mortality; slightly lower school quality, but somewhat warmer winters. Overall, it appears that net out‐migration is due to the high cost of living (especially the high cost of housing and property tax) in New Jersey.

Policy makers and their hangers-on have often regard taxpayers as little more than fiscal sheep, and periodically shear them. But people, unlike sheep, can vote with their wallets and feet. Usually the powers that be see this as something akin to letting the home team down, or not doing one’s “fair share.” The word “selfishness” is also thrown around.

Policies like the levels of taxes, services, and entitlements that a government prescribes are hardly a form of science. Law makers and interest groups would like to portray them as a serious commitments, and not self-interested social experiments. Again from the Journal:

Thanks in part to its soak-the-rich theology, Maryland still has a $2 billion deficit and Montgomery County is $760 million in the red. Governor Martin O’Malley’s office tells us he wants the higher rates to expire “as scheduled at the end of 2010.” But there are bills in both chambers of the legislature to extend the surcharge. The state’s best hope is that politicians in other states are as self-destructive as those in Annapolis.

The “Soak the Rich” phenomenon is a common-sense argument for redistributive policies, but it has significant flaws beyond the simple fact that it doesn’t work. Take a look at this chart of how tax burdens are distributed in Federal taxation. (here, either insert or link to this: http://www.mint.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/MINT-TAXES-R4.png)

Libertarians and liberals can mostly agree that there is too much money and influence in politics, but the policy prescriptions each group suggests are dramatically different. Advocates of punishing the rich ignore the simple fact that when a certain group bears so much of the tax burden, they have massive incentives to care about and influence politics. It’s that or leave the country, or just stop making money (by, for instance, not hiring new employees.)

See this graphic (or click below) for a good visual explanation:

Urban Farming

The collapse of Detroit’s auto industry and its related population loss have left the city with a large supply of vacant land, some of which has been returned to its historical use as farmland.  The LA Times reports:

Large gardens and small farms — usually 10 acres or less — have cropped up in thriving cities such as Berkeley, where land is tough to come by, and struggling Rust Belt communities such as Flint, Mich., which hopes to encourage green space development and residents to eat locally grown foods.

In Detroit, hundreds of backyard gardens and scores of community gardens have blossomed and helped feed students in at least 40 schools and hundreds of families.

While a widespread return to agriculture is unlikely to improve any American city’s prosperity, these cities demonstrate that flexible zoning and land use regulation allow entrepreneurs to find the most valuable use for any piece of land, benefiting local residents accordingly.  For areas where labor is relatively inexpensive and land is widely available, urban farming could be a viable short-term answer to economic growth.

Hantz Farms has found a way to profit amidst the economic turmoil and change in Detroit, profiting as a company and creating jobs simultaneously.  This success story demonstrates that job creation comes from the private sector. Producer profits lead to both new jobs and consumer surplus, whereas government “job creation” merely redistributes wealth, resulting in a deadweight loss.

However, Detroit city officials maintain reservations about urban farming.  The Times article explains:

Their concerns include figuring out who would pay for cleaning pollutants out of the soil and removing utility infrastructure, such as gas and sewer lines; how to rewrite the city’s zoning laws; and how to adjust property tax rates and property values to allow for commercial farming.

Incentives for Mixed-Use Developments

Followers of the New Urbanism movement in city planning believe policies should be undertaken to encourage people to move into city centers and discourage sprawl. A New York Times article reports:

Urban-style development may be the brightest spot in a generally gloomy market. A recent survey of developers and investors by the Urban Land Institute for its annual Emerging Trends in Real Estate report found that urban redevelopment had the best prospects among all types of housing, while urban mixed-use properties and town centers scored high among niche property types. “These are the places that will be creating and holding value,” Ms. [Shelley] Poticha [the president of a transit-oriented nonprofit] said. She said proximity to public transit could raise property values significantly.

[. . .]

That often requires collaboration between local governments and private developers. Local governments might invest in transit, parks and infrastructure, revise zoning laws and offer financial incentives in return for a developer taking the risk of building in an unproven area.

If in fact consumer preferences are changing, shifting demand toward higher density, mixed-use housing and away from suburban single-family homes, of course it makes sense for developers to cater to these desires.  Some urban planning scholars see benefits in these types of residences such as increased quality of life or a more ecologically sound lifestyle. Home buyers likely see these same benefits, which may explain why some people are wanting to leave the suburbs for areas that they see as having superior amenities.

When consumers’ tastes in housing change, developers do not need incentives from any level of government to create housing products that satisfy their customers; in fact, they will have to build houses that meet changing demand conditions in order to stay in business.

Relaxing zoning code in order to allow for more mixed-use development in some cities may allow builders to better provide housing of the sort people want and may make cities that allow for mixed-use development more desirable places to live. However, proposed government incentives for specific types of developments, whether enacted at the local, state, or federal level, will move the market equilibrium away from optimal variety and quantity of housing which is demanded, making the politically-supported new developments cheaper relative to existing housing stock than they otherwise would be.

Particularly now, as many analysts think that the current housing stock is still in excess of what consumers want to buy at prevailing prices, it seems bad policy to create incentives that will allow builders to profit off of new housing in a way unsupported by market demand. The fallout of the mortgage market should have made it abundantly clear to everyone, especially urban planners, that incentivizing home building is not without risk.