Private capital gain from houses eclipses government gain from progressive tax

Being a political junkie I have been following the Labour leadership issue closely. I have been addicted to twitter. I have read all the good commentators and I became especially enthusiastic when reading David Cunliffe’s speech called Dolphins and the Dole. It said all the right things. But when he announced he was standing, and just when I was getting really excited about his possible leadership, I heard him endorse higher taxes for the rich. Then I remembered why the policy of the New Economics Party is different from Labour’s.

I recalled a short video I had seen where Fred Harrison, the author of Ricardo’s Law – the Great Tax Clawback so I watched it again.

In this video Harrison visits the Hyde Park area near Harrods in London and says the houses are worth millions of pounds. The location of these houses means they benefit from the park, good transport and some superb businesses in the area. These improvements are the work of the community. It is the community that have added value to that land. The poor in apartment homes has paid for the infrastructire in their taxes. It is the poor who are subsidizing the rising land values of the privileged near Hyde Park.

Harrison says sure, the rich with progressive taxes pay about five times as much tax as the poor, but this is all made up for by the huge gains their well sited homes enjoy from these services to their sites.

I couldn’t help thinking about the houses in Parnell, inner Remuera, Epsom, Herne Bay, Freemans Bay and Orakei. It might be their homes. Yes, we owned one once in Mt Eden and made hundreds of thousands when we sold after 13 years. Although at the time we smiled and patted ourselves on the back for making such a good buy, we knew in our bones there was something really unfair about it all.

In Parnell a home might sell for $2 million and the 12% rise on that house price would bring in an extra unearned $224,000 in the first year. This money rightly belongs to society who provided the infrastructure, built the other homes, made the roads, developed the good schools, the CBD, Newmarket and the boutique Parnell shopping centre.

In swanky Herne Bay the capital gains made since 2000 have been astronomical. As one writer says of Herne Bay; “Nip/tuck surgeons live side-by-side with interior designers, ad agency chiefs, and entertainment lawyers.” (Jane Phare, NZHerald)

In 2008 houses in Herne Bay were the first to average $2 million. Their homes are worth 50% more than Remuera houses. Jane Phare in Dec 2008 said the average house price was $2.19m there, and there had been a gain of 24% in house prices over the last year.

A quick look at trademe shows a few houses for sale in the millions.

Dean Barker bought a house in Herne Bay for $5.6 million in 2007. An article on rising house prices TVNZ Aug 8, 2013 said “in Auckland the rate of increase has been even higher, at 12.8% over the last 12 months.” If Dean Barker had been experiencing an average of 10% yearly rise in property value since then (and this is quite likely), his home would be worth $9.9m today. That is a jump of $4.3 million. Even with the steepest progressive tax system, the government could never charge him this amount in income taxes. And whatever it was his tax lawyers and accountants would minimize it. The difference in the two amounts is what the taxpayers are missing out on by not recouping the cost of the government and community services to Dean Barker’s property.

And if the rise in house values on a $3 million Herne Bay property continues at its current rate of 12.8% a year, next year that house will be worth $384,000 more.

In September, 2012 Auckland businessman Grant Nola and his former Bulgarian tennis pro wife Pavlina sold their bungalow on William Denny Ave in Westmere for $2.25 million – $350,000 above its council valuation of $1.9 million. They had bought it three years earlier for $932,000. This is a cool $1.93m profit in three years – once again money belonging to society not to the owners. A progressive tax rate for him would be nothing but a nuisance to be dealt with by tax lawyers and accountants.

Now just imagine if all those capital gains had been captured publicly instead of by the landowner and the bank which issued higher a higher mortgages. The public purse is missing out on billions. And think of all those young people working for a pittance in cafes, bars and hotels and paying their GST and their income tax. Not fair. Or the taxidriver who made just $3 a hour on his long day’s work. Capital gains on houses in Orakei or Takapuna or Queenstown or Fendalton are in their dreams.

Some politicians, arguing for increased income taxes for the rich, will be telling the public they don’t mind paying this tax themselves. But the wealth of the wealthy comes from land ownership and not from a salary, no matter how high. An owner of a home in an elite street makes money from the monopoly privilege of owning this precious land, while Auckland develops round about him.

The gap between the rich and the poor is not the gap between those who earn big salaries and the others. It is the gap between those who own valuable property and those who don’t own property at all.

If we don’t tax what we use (land and other natural resources) but tax what we earn, then wealth pools with landowners while the poor can’t buy food for their children let alone buy land. The effect of progressive tax systems is minor compared with the gains made from rising house values. Those who have the privilege of living in inner Auckland grow rich on the work of others while those who live in small towns or those who rent grow ever poorer. While the part time professional working for a council pays GST on everything he buys and pays income tax, the landowner watches his house value rise.

I don’t know what the solution is for any one person. Martin Adams whose excellent new book Sharing the Earth, puts it rather more strongly. He says the capital gains you make from your house is really stolen from the public at large.

We must get a fairer tax system, where we tax what we hold or take, not what we do or make.