there is no affordable housing without affordable land

The title says it all. There is no affordable housing without affordable land. All the talk we hear about possible solutions — new construction processes, new zoning regulations, an end to parking minimums, new materials — is meaningless without land. To argue otherwise is to ignore reality.

Every thinktank or activist or housing advocate or architect/designer who talks about solving the housing crisis without mentioning land is wasting their time and yours. As with the “war on [some people, mostly black and brown who are arrested for the use and sale of some] drugs” if you deal with demand, the supply will take care of itself. If we can make land available to developers at a price that allows them to build to the density we need, we’ll find that we have a lot of land to work with.

What this looks like is assessing land with tax that reflects the highest and best use…if we want a parcel to house some number of people and support jobs through retail or other activity, we need to tax it so that the owner has to find a way to pay that tax. They can hold it as idle land if they can afford it, but the higher tax burden will make it hard to sell. Better to develop it and put it to work.

If we take what we learned from the Mercer Megablock project, that an acre of land can pay $1M/acre every year, we can work out a value for other idle or underused parcels anywhere in the city. And other cities may well have their own benchmark valuations to work from…developers are probably offering to pay ground rents in other overheated cities as well. If you think about it, it’s a vote of confidence in that city, that the developer thinks there will be enough economic activity to justify the commitment to pay rent for 99 years.

The high cost to acquire land is why we see so many plain boxy buildings: it’s not an aesthetic choice so much as a reflection of how much the land costs and how little is left to spend on design. If the land costs millions of dollars upfront, that’s money you can’t spend on the actual design and construction. Given the option of $150 million upfront or $3 million a year, which one frees up more money for design and construction? Even if you pay more over time, through an annual rent, that is paid by the purchase or rental of apartments or commercial rents from businesses, just as landlords do now. The difference is that the land was cheaper to acquire and it became imperative that the land be developed.

So when you hear think tank operatives or local activists talking about their plans for more housing, wait to see if they mention the need for land, and if you get the chance, ask them about it. If they can’t tell you where they plan to put their 3D printed, recycled, organic, cruelty-free, artisanal housing project, they are wasting your time. There is no affordable housing without affordable land.

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