Origins of the Silicon Valley housing crisis and how to fix it
Most of the wealth being generated in Silicon Valley is the result of advanced engineering, risky venture capital and cut-throat business acumen in the face of rapidly-evolving competition. Visa, HP, Intel, Adobe, Ebay, Apple, Google, Facebook – the concentration of multi-billion-dollar enterprises in this tiny pocket of Santa Clara Valley is staggering.
But not everyone making big money in Silicon Valley had to major in a STEM field or produce any real wealth to do so. For those who have speculated on rising land values, the last 40 years has been a gamble that keeps paying off. In the 1960s, when the land in Santa Clara Valley was producing prunes instead of circuits, John Arrillaga Sr. and Richard Peery could see the wheels of a new boom beginning to turn. These young entrepreneurs spent the next decade building the corridor through which much of Silicon Valley’s world-changing innovation would pass.
By constructing custom and cost-effective office units quickly for emerging tech companies, Arrillaga and Peery dominated the region and became its go-to developers. Their signature, low-slung concrete buildings called tilt-ups made for cheap and quick construction early on. The pair was also among the first to build before tenants were confirmed, in the hopes that immediate availability would be attractive to businesses. The land they had bought up as young men began to generate formidable returns, and the speed of technological progress coupled with an apparently insatiable demand for more space created today’s Silicon Valley, synonymous with skyrocketing land values. While this new value injected into Santa Clara Valley draws people to the area and creates prosperity for those in innovative industries, it also attracts speculation where it is possible to capture significant wealth simply by owning land.
Arrillaga is worth more than $2.5 billion, a fortune earned in part from unparalleled skills as a developer, but also because he was able to extract a great deal of unearned wealth. The contribution of pioneering land developers to economic growth is undeniable, but unfortunately, taxation structures have not kept pace with the rapid transformation of unproductive land into a cybercity of millionaires and billionaires. The wealth that has been obtained from constructing buildings is hard earned, but the enormous increase in rental income resulting from rapidly-increasing land values has not been earned. It’s not as if aging structures have grown more valuable, it’s the land underneath them that has skyrocketed in this hub of innovation, land values created by an aggregation of economic activity not attributable to any one person, developer, or tech company. The value of this land is indeed a socially-created value.
Today, the success of entrepreneurs starting tech companies has made Silicon Valley the most expensive place to live in the United States. As these tech giants grow, the reach of their impact on the housing market spreads, and migrant employees move with their money to suburbs farther and farther out from where they work. In so doing, they shape land values and make other lasting changes to the urban environment. The gains generated by developers like Arrillaga and captured by speculators can ripple out into the wider community and inflate the cost of living.
The incredible wealth now being generated by high-tech industries in Silicon Valley has put a premium on all surrounding land, both commercial and residential. Working-class residents can only hold on to rent-controlled accommodation for so long before the profit motives of private developers see them evicted, and their housing demolished. According to the Guardian:
Between 2000 and 2013, the number of low-income households in the Bay Area increased by 10 percent, but the region lost 50 percent of units defined affordable for this population, according to researchers at the University of Berkeley, California, who have closely studied gentrification and displacement.
The proliferation of wealth in our communities is a wonderful thing; the only reason it causes such polarization is because systemic inequalities go unaddressed.
We can have the best of both worlds. For men like Arrillaga and Peery to have the opportunity to create these cash cow business parks and bring thousands of talented professionals to Silicon Valley is incredible, it should be celebrated.
As people have come together to produce a great deal of wealth in the tech industry, land values have boomed. Those who were able to get on the property ladder before an oncoming swell in land values simply sell or rent for huge windfall gains, unearned wealth, while prior tenants are displaced. Incoming renters are squeezed or turned away entirely by the high rent.
The problem is not the tech companies or their workers, and it is not the vulnerable tenants; it’s not even the landlords who benefit from, perhaps unconsciously, playing the working class renters and the angry anarchists off the techies. It’s our system of property taxation. The best and simplest way to correct the imbalance, to give justice to everyone, is to implement a system of Land Value Taxation while reducing taxes that harm the poor and the production of new wealth.
From the developer’s’ perspective, a Land Value Tax would in no way detract from the incentive to build in the first place, as the taxes on buildings would be eliminated, after sales and wage taxes. Furthermore, the incentive to build on unused, centrally-located land would increase. They would have an even greater incentive to build immediately because owning the land without having tenants would leave them in the red after paying their Land Value Tax bill each month. The site would not be a speculative asset, but one that only yields a positive return if a developer uses it well to meet people’s needs.
For Arrillaga and Peery, the taxes due on their development portfolio would have grown with the unprecedented business success of their tenants, from dirt cheap taxes on empty lots to large tax bills on lucrative land accommodating high-end office buildings. This would have generated a massive amount of public revenue without harming incentives toward innovation. The seeds of gentrification are nurtured by insufficient housing supply, but Land Value Tax would mean that centrally-located land would be developed to accommodate increasingly more people at comfortable densities.
This policy encourages landowners to maximize the revenue they can generate by constructing and maintaining buildings of the highest caliber to attract tenants. As opportunity brings more people to an area for work, demand for housing pushes land values even higher, which increases revenue from the Land Value Tax even more. A landowner can then create more housing, often vertically, to cover the larger tax, or if they are unable or unwilling, sell to a developer who will. This applies not just to Silicon Valley, but to any in-demand area where the concentration of jobs forces living costs higher than many can afford.
Land Value Tax can be used as a source of revenue to fund great social programs, even while reducing wage and sales taxes -from health vouchers to housing for mentally ill homeless people, or even a universal basic income. Without a Land Value Tax, however, the benefits these social programs create will simply be captured by landlords through higher rent charges. Thus, the positive effects of these social policies would nearly be wiped out, funneled into the pockets of landlords as rent hikes. For example, if everyone was given a $10,000 basic income each year, all else being equal, what would happen to the cost of rent? It would go up by a comparable amount, and largely cancel out the benefits of basic income to the most vulnerable people. However, with Land Value Tax, incentives to increase housing supply would result in people being able to protect their basic income from rent hikes.
Governments will not be able to subsidize their way out of this housing crisis with palliative measures. Creating a system of incentives in which the market is enabled to correct itself is the most sustainable way forward, and offers the best hope of ensuring affordability for all while simultaneously giving a boost to incredible growth in future industries.