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urban sprawl and the property tax

'urban sprawl and the property tax'
International Tax and Public Finance, 10, 5–23, 2003 ?C2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in The Netherlands. Urban Sprawl and the Property Tax JAN K. BRUECKNERjbrueckn@uiuc.edu Department of Economics, Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL 61820, USA HYUN-A KIMhyuna@kipf.re.kr Korea Institute of Public Finance, Seoul, South Korea Abstract This paper explores the connection between the property tax and urban sprawl. While the tax’s depressing effect on improvements reduces population density, spurring the spatial expansion of cities, a countervailing effect from lower dwelling sizes may dominate, raising densities and making cities smaller. The analysis shows that this latter outcome is guaranteed under CES preferences when the elasticity of substitution σ is high. But numerical results for the Leontief case (where σ is zero) suggest that the property tax encourages urban sprawl when substitution betweenhousingandothergoodsislow.Thus,thedistortionsgeneratedbythepropertytaxmayincludeineffi cient spatial expansion of cities, suggesting the tax may belong on the list of causal factors identifi ed by critics of urban sprawl. Keywords: urban sprawl, property tax JEL Code: H71, R10, R14 1.Introduction Urban sprawl has become an important policy issue in the U.S. in recent years. While sprawl is partly a descriptive term, referring to the spatial expansion of cities, it also has a pejorative connotation, implying the normative judgement that urban spatial growth is excessive. Thus, critics of urban sprawl argue that long commutes, traffi c congestion, and the rapid conversion of agricultural land are evidence that American cities have expanded too much. This belief has spawned numerous policy measures at the state and local levels designed to limit the spatial expansion of U.S. cities (see Brueckner, 2001b for details). Urban economic theory tells us that the spatial growth of cities is a result of several fundamental forces. These include expansion of the U.S. population as well as the rise in household incomes, which spurs the demand for land by encouraging consumption of larger houses. In addition, urban spatial expansion is a natural consequence of heavy investment in transportation infrastructure (mainly freeways), which eases commuting and thus encourages suburban living. While urban growth purely in response to these forces cannot be faulted as ineffi cient, criticism of the growth process is justifi ed if the operation of the fundamental forces is distorted by market failure. The literature has, in fact, identifi ed several market failures that might cause such a distortion, potentially leading to excessive spatial expansion of cities.1 6BRUECKNER AND KIM These arise from the failure to internalize two externalities: the positive externality from open space around cities; and the negative externality associated with road congestion. Internalizing the open-space externality via
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