Chicago suburbs without property taxes – but perhaps not for much longer

In a region known for high property taxes, at least a few suburbs outside Chicago have no property taxes:

A town of about 40,000, Carol Stream managed to avoid a property tax even when another outlier, Schaumburg — a village with a much larger retail base — took the leap during the Great Recession.

But officials say Carol Stream is facing significant budget pressures from rising pension costs. If it maintains the status quo, projections also show the village would exhaust capital reserves during the third year of a five-year plan for roadwork and infrastructure projects…

In Oak Brook, another town that doesn’t charge a property tax, candidates in the last mayoral race took stock of the financial challenges from flat sales tax revenues. Carol Stream also saw a 2.4% drop in sales tax dollars — the village’s largest revenue source — from calendar years 2017 to 2018.

Suburbs have multiple ways to reduce or eliminate residential property taxes. Sales tax revenue can come from shopping malls, big box stores, and other retail options. Schaumburg and Oak Brook have sizable shopping malls surrounded by many more retailers. Communities can also seek out industry; Carol Stream founder Jay Stream intentionally set aside much land for industrial parks (which are still there). Some suburbs would not like this as industry could conflict with an ideal of quiet neighborhoods of single-family homes.

The article suggests these suburbs with no property taxes will have to reconsider because of declining sales tax revenues and rising pension costs. Given the fate of shopping malls and the problems facing retailers, even in successful malls in wealthy areas like in Oak Brook and Schaumburg, communities need additional revenue.

Suburbs typically do not have the ability to quickly counter declining sales tax revenues. In order to not have property taxes in the first place, certain decisions had to be made long ago. Then, later decisions build within a framework of no property taxes. Making changes to land use takes time for study, approval, development, and then reaping benefits. A suburb cannot say it wants to bring in more sales tax revenue and line up a set of retailers operating within a year.

The fate of these suburbs will be worth checking in five years to see whether they can hold on against levying property taxes.

(Reminder: this does not mean residents in these communities do not pay any property taxes. Rather, their suburbs do not collect property taxes even as school districts and other taxing bodies do.)

Housing bubble fallout: lost jobs in land subdivision

The long-lasting consequences of the housing crisis of the late 2000s continues: an analysis of the American industries losing the most jobs by percentage includes the land subdivision sector.

9. Land subdivision

• Employment change 2008-17: -49.3%
• Employment total: 40,207
• Wage growth 2008-17: +35.5%
• Avg. annual wage: $71,744

The U.S. housing market is beginning to return to normal following the Great Recession and housing market crash. Housing starts in 2017 were similar to 2007 levels, before the crash. The land subdivision industry, which divides land into parcels for housing and other purposes, suffered as a result of the market’s struggles. As of 2017, industry employment is just about half of what it was a decade before.

This was never a large sector but a drop in jobs of nearly 50% is substantial.

Since I know little about what land subdivision requires on a daily basis, I wonder if this decrease is primarily because of a slowdown in housing starts or are there other significant changes in the industry such as new efficiencies and approaches?

American land uses in a number of interesting maps

Bloomberg put together a set of graphics to illustrate how Americans use land. Here are a few of the maps interspersed with information. First, the general patterns of land use:

AmericanLandUseGeneral

The U.S. is becoming more urban—at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres a year. That’s the equivalent of adding new urban area the size of Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix combined. U.S. urban areas have more than quadrupled since 1945…

AmericanLandUseComparative

More than one-third of U.S. land is used for pasture—by far the largest land-use type in the contiguous 48 states. And nearly 25 percent of that land is administered by the federal government, with most occurring in the West. That land is open to grazing for a fee.

There is some data here that could be viewed as conflicting: urban areas are the fastest growing land use – watch out for sprawl! – but the biggest land use overall is pasture and range – open land yet given over to creatures that are land and resource intensive!

One nice feature of these maps is that they are helpful for making comparisons between land uses. Given the size of the country plus the limited day-to-day experiences of many in different parts of the country, it can be hard to get a handle on all the land uses.

After looking this all over, I wonder what Americans and policymakers would say an ideal land use mix is for the entire country. This is a difficult question to answer, particularly since many people would not necessarily regularly encounter all the uses. If people want more protected land, what other land uses should be reduced and how would this affect individual lives as well as the American way of life?

 

More land protected by private owners than the American National Parks system

Here is an interesting fact: private landowners have protected more land than all of the National Parks system.

More than 56 million acres of private land have been voluntarily conserved across the country, according to the latest National Land Trust Census, which is released every five years by the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance (LTA). For context, that’s double the size of all land in national parks across the lower 48 states.

“Land trusts are in a position to address many of society’s ills,” says Andrew Bowman, president of the LTA, in a statement about the census. “How do we stem a national health crisis and provide opportunities for people to exercise and recreate? Land is the answer. How do we secure local, healthy and sustainable food? Land is the answer. And land even has a role to play in mitigating climate change.”

Thanks to the flexibility of private land conservation, those 56 million acres play a wider range of roles than we typically expect from state or national parks. The owner of a small forest may prohibit any construction or public access, for example, while another may allow some hunting and fishing, or may even turn it into a community park with hiking trails. A family that owns a farm, meanwhile, could decide to protect certain parts of their property — like a stream buffer or a flowering meadow — while reserving their right to build structures or clear pastures elsewhere…

And while it’s not always as accessible as a national park — often by design, for the sake of wildlife or for the privacy of people who live there — protected private land is still valuable for public recreation, too. The census counts nearly 15,000 private properties with public access, including more than 1.4 million acres owned by land trusts and another 2.9 million acres under easement. More than 6.2 million people visited U.S. land-trust properties in 2015, according to the LTA, for the kinds of friluftsliv outdoor activities that boost public health without much public investment.

I’m guessing those landowners that do this like that both the National Parks and private owners are conserving this land. On the other hand, does this figure suggest that the National Parks system is not the best to preserve land? It may be the best way to preserve land for public use – and the busiest National Parks are indeed often overrun with visitors – but perhaps is not the best approach in the long run.

The Chicago of today influenced by 1920s zoning decisions

A new study suggests the beginning of zoning in Chicago had long-lasting effects:

Walsh and two other urban economists investigated zoning’s long-term effects in Chicago, using 1920s parcel-level data on land use and market values prior to, and immediately after, the adoption of the city’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1923. They compared these early quilts of land use to that of the present day (or, at least, to the most recent complete dataset available, which came from 2005).

Contrary to what many economists may believe, they first found that zoning did not merely ratify existing land uses. Lot by lot, they found significant variation between the activities that predated zoning and those that came after, especially as years went by. For example, some factories and shopping areas that didn’t conform to the 1923 code were allowed to stay in their respective locations, thanks to a “grandfather” clause. But over time, the vast majority of them disappeared. The powerful force of zoning can be seen on a citywide scale, too: Whereas 82 percent of Chicago’s developed blocks had some form of commerce happening in 1922, that share had dropped by about half by 2005, researchers found.

In other words, the way Chicago looks in the 21st century tracks much more closely with the desires of its planners in 1923 than it does with the city that preceded zoning. This fact has had a huge effect on economic patterns, too. For example, the researchers found that exclusive residential zoning had a significant impact on home prices, driving up values in neighborhoods cordoned off for single-family homes. On a citywide level, they used a regression analysis to find that the zoning code of 1923 had bigger role in shaping economic patterns—i.e., where commercial and industrial activity is going on today—than either pre-existing transportation networks or geography, two factors you might think would best explain why there’s a factory by the old railroad tracks, or a shopping district near downtown…

Although the present paper didn’t explicitly analyze how Chicago’s old zoning codes have influenced racial segregation, a companion paper published in Julyby the same researchers found that the laws drawn up in 1923 were discriminatory: Areas with more black residents were zoned for higher-density housing, and “neighborhoods with larger populations of blacks or recent immigrants were zoned disproportionately for manufacturing.” Chicago consistently ranks as among the most segregated cities in the U.S., and its present-day economic divisions track closely with race (as well as with municipally recognized community boundaries). It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that zoning laws (much like housing policy) dating back a century are in some ways responsible. That’s a theory that needs investigation, Walsh says.

Zoning decisions are political ones. The suggestion here is that if the decisions are good ones, they can have positive effects for decades. The converse – particularly when used to limit options for particular groups – is also true.

The last paragraph of the article hints at recent suggestions regarding significant changes to urban zoning. It would be interesting to see what average Americans think of such ideas: would they trade predictability for flexibility? Continue with the example of Chicago: would more flexible zoning allow for the construction of more affordable housing or would it mean that more land would be converted to non-residential uses, limiting housing options? New Urbanists have touted mixed-use zoning for a long time but their vision of this is often limited to particular kinds of businesses or offices as well as nicer housing (even if it includes different price ranges).

Race affects why Americans don’t like people walking on their property

One writer contrasts the approach in Europe and the United States toward walking through the countryside:

In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s “jokamiehenoikeus.” In Scotland, it’s “the right to roam.” Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to “mountain, moor, heath or down.”

Nordic and Scottish laws are even more generous. The 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened up the whole country for a number of pastimes, including mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, sledding, camping and most any activity that does not involve a motorized vehicle, so long as it’s carried out “responsibly.” In Sweden, landowners may be prohibited from putting up fences for the sole purpose of keeping people out. Walkers in many of these places do not have to pay money, ask for permission or obtain permits.

We’re not nearly as welcoming in America. Travel across rural America and you’ll spot “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs posted on trees and fence posts everywhere. And even where there aren’t signs, Americans know they don’t have the implicit permission to visit their town’s neighboring woods, fields and coastlines. Long gone are the days when we could, like Henry David Thoreau on the outskirts of his native Concord, Mass., freely saunter “through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”…

Roaming rights began to erode in the late 19th century, according to Mr. Sawers. In the South, states passed trespassing laws for racial reasons, seeking to keep blacks from hunting and fishing so as to starve them into submission. Elsewhere, wealthy landowners of the Gilded Era became concerned with game populations, and trespassing and hunting laws were passed to restrict immigrants, he said.

It is interesting to note both (1) the historical change in the United States toward property rights and exclusion and (2) European countries may allow walking through property but have restrictions such as committing damage, walking near homes, and hunting. But, perhaps even more noteworthy is the suggestion that race matters here as well: as the United States was moving toward more equality and racial/ethnic diversity, property rights were another means by which to keep groups separate. We know that this would soon matter tremendously in terms of restrictive covenants and segregated neighborhoods but even restricting the simple act of walking was seen as necessary to keep certain boundaries.

Santa Clara: from small city to Super Bowl host

How did Santa Clara come to be the home to Super Bowl 50? It involved particular decisions made from the 1970s on by local leaders about zoning and land use:

Newly elected mayor Gary Gillmor and city manager Don Von Raesfeld were determined to keep Santa Clara comprised of specific sections — with residential property assigned a large but non-elastic section.

This meant buying undeveloped land in the north and east parts of the city for business and industrial purposes and building a robust tax base. McClain doesn’t recall much about the vacant land other than a dairy where families bought their milk if it wasn’t delivered.

The city already had three major highways and expressways that funneled into the undeveloped area, where high-tech companies such as Intel, Applied Materials, McAfee and National Semiconductor gradually started and became a large part of what is now Silicon Valley.

Gillmor, 79, cited three factors that helped Santa Clara maintain its preferred blueprint: a strong middle class, a huge industrial base for tax purposes and its own municipal power plant that reduces residents’ electric bills to about half of what is charged in neighboring cities…

A convention center and another large chain hotel were built in 1986, but the city’s fondness for the 49ers surfaced during the height of the team’s dominance.

The 49ers were given a sweetheart deal to move their training facility from Redwood City — 18 miles north of Santa Clara. Then-mayor Eddie Souza enticed then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. with a deal that gave the team 12 acres at $1,000 an acre with a 4 percent annual increase for 55 years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Today, Santa Clara is a wealthy place as a city with over 122,000 residents: the median household income is $93,840, 53.9% of adults over 25 years old have a bachelor’s degree or more education, and Intel, Texas Instruments, and other semiconductor firms have thousands of jobs in the city. But, this sort of growth doesn’t just happen. Decisions made by civic and business leaders – operating as a growth machine trying to boost profits – often help execute a particular vision of growth. As suggested above, it sounds like land in the city was intentionally set aside for business use and the city was able to attract a number of companies. Not everything can be controlled by civic leaders but they can set themselves up to take advantage of particular opportunities.

On the other hand, having a football stadium is not necessarily a win for a city. This is particularly the case if local tax dollars are used for the stadium. The stadium might be a status symbol – note that the San Francisco 49ers now do not play close to San Francisco – but they often bring other issues.