From Amazon’s failed attempt to establish a second headquarters in New York to demands for housing expropriation in Berlin, citizens across the world are awakening to the public costs of private real estate development. While scholars have detailed the social and financial consequences of this growth, however, they have largely overlooked a key mechanism perpetuating it: the structure of local public finance systems. As long as local governments depend upon private real estate growth for revenue via instruments such as the property tax, these municipalities will suffer the costs of this growth in terms of housing affordability, social equity, and democratic capacity. My research reveals the origin of and alternatives to this vicious circle by examining the history of urban public finance systems, tracing how patterns of public revenue and expenditure have structured the social, political, and spatial development of cities.
I established this research agenda through work on my dissertation “In Debt to Growth: Real Estate and the Political Economy of Public Finance in New York City, 1880-1973.”. Drawing from the archival papers of real-estate associations, tax-payer groups, and government officials, I traced how New York’s government debt-financed new infrastructure, underassessed new construction, and otherwise subsidized private development on the city’s periphery in the hopes of increasing property tax revenue during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Such policies, I reveal, undermined rather than augmented local finances while displacing and discriminating against working-class and minority New Yorkers. In response, widespread conflicts erupted over how, where, and whether real estate should be publicly promoted while raising broader questions of how citizens could democratically direct and benefit from their own growth. By 1940 these struggles had established a new public finance regime – one that systematically favored large central-city developers and white homeowners while discriminating against Black and Latinx tenants.
By investigating these forgotten struggles and applying a “fiscal lens” to questions of urban political economy, my project reveals how seemingly arcane decisions around taxation, expenditure, and public debts have subsidized the spatial, racial, and wealth inequalities that characterize American cities today. By doing so, it provides a new account of how the interrelated housing and revenue crisis currently facing these cities came into existence – not just through macro-level economic forces or the power of local real estate actors, but through the local fiscal policies which helped establish and promote that power.
Joseph Smith, photographer, "Dezendorf's Delightful Dwellings," Photograph. From Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division, https://lccn.loc.gov/2017759166
Note text indicating “tax exempt.” New subdivisions like this one were provided with property tax exemptions within New York City, foisting greater tax burdens upon the city’s older districts.
Note advertisement for “paved streets.” These streets were paved by municipal tax dollars– much of which were drawn from the city’s older districts. In combination with the tax exemptions mentioned above, New York’s growing subdivisions reinforced fiscal discrimination within the city.