Build Back Better, Hold the SALT

As negotiations on President Biden’s Build Back Better plan continue, the spotlight is shining on a proposal by House Democrats to roll back the $10,000 cap placed on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Opponents of the SALT deduction cap rollback claim that SALT primarily benefits those living in high-tax coastal and Northeastern states, while for most Americans living outside of these areas, SALT offers little more than a net loss in federal tax revenue. In response to these and other objections, Senate Democrats now seem poised to order Build Back Better with no SALT added. Are Democrats right to reverse course and hold the SALT?

As part of an ongoing project, I recently prepared estimates of the various income tax subsidies that homeowners receive, including the SALT deduction. I estimate that the TCJA cap placed on SALT deductions increased federal income tax revenue by approximately $48 billion in the 2018 tax year. The map below displays the increased benefit that homeowners would have received in that year if the TCJA SALT deduction cap were eliminated and replaced with the tax law that existed just prior to the TCJA.* The colors in the map correspond to quintiles of the distribution of increased income tax benefits per homeowner from a SALT deduction cap repeal, with darker blues corresponding to higher tax benefits per homeowner.

As this map shows, most of the benefits from eliminating the SALT deduction cap would accrue to households living in the Northeastern Corridor, metropolitan areas surrounding Chicago, and coastal metropolitan areas in Florida and on the West Coast. Homeowners living in high-amenity, high-housing price regions such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming – along with homeowners living in areas with high local property tax rates such as the Texas Triangle – would also receive large tax benefits. Some Republicans have characterized Democrats’ SALT deduction cap reform proposal as a windfall that would only benefit those living in high-tax Democratic states, but this map suggests that many homeowners living in states that voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election, such as Texas and Wyoming, would also receive large benefits. The primary beneficiaries of any SALT deduction cap repeal are those living in areas with high housing prices and/or high state and local tax rates.  

This analysis does not consider the impacts of the various alternatives to a full repeal of the TCJA SALT deduction cap being considered by House Democrats, but it does suggest that any move to scale back the SALT deduction cap will likely exacerbate geographic disparities in the distribution of housing-related tax benefits.

* I prepared these estimates using the National Bureau of Economic Research TAXSIM microsimulation model with input data from the Census 2019 1% Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS). The sample identifies households by PUMS-defined geographies known as Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs), which enables me to map the geographic distribution of various homeownership tax subsidies. Stay tuned for a forthcoming paper that describes the methodology in more detail.

California Zoning Reform and Housing Justice


On Sept. 16, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed off on a variety of new initiatives designed to address the state’s housing affordability crisis, including the California Comeback Plan and Senate Bills 8, 9, and 10. In this post, I offer my thoughts on Senate Bill 9. This new law, in conjunction with several laws passed in 2019 to ease restrictions on the creation of accessory dwelling units, is a good example of the principle of “bundle flexibility” that I describe in my book, Just Housing.

During the Progressive Era, property theorists recognized that the right to own property was best understood as a bundle of rights that protect different types of privileges, claims, powers, and immunities. John Christman (1991) differentiates two distinct types of rights in this bundle: control rights (rights to use, possession, management, modification, and alienation) and income rights (rights to the increased benefit from relinquishing ownership temporarily or permanently).

In Chapter 7 of Just Housing, I define a “property regime” as the bundles of income and control rights held by property owners, inhabitants, and investors; the public regulations that constrain certain bundles of rights; and the tax and subsidy policies that redistribute income rights to property. A “secure tenure” residential property regime is one that recognizes the right to housing, understood as a control right to residential property, as the most important stick in the property rights bundle.

The idea behind the principle of bundle flexibility is that residential property regimes should allow bundles of rights to be easily disassembled and reassembled to promote the expansion of the right to housing. In some cases, it may be necessary to sever, reassign, or eliminate certain “sticks” in property owners’ bundle of rights to facilitate the expansion of control rights to residential property. For example, Washington, DC’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act grants tenants the collective right of first refusal to purchase apartment buildings being offered for sale, thereby enhancing the tenure security of individual tenants. Similarly, rent controls expand tenure security for individual renters by constraining rental property owners’ rights to earn rental income. Inclusionary zoning, shared equity homeownership arrangements, and community land trusts restrict homeowners’ rights to earn equity from the sale of their homes in exchange for deed restrictions that lower the initial purchase price of the homes.

The deconstruction and reassembly of property rights bundles do not always promote the expansion of control rights to secure residential tenure. Single-family zoning ordinances, for example, constrain and collectivize an individual property owner’s right to make decisions over property use, but this reconstruction of the property rights bundle reduces, rather than expands, an insecurely housed person’s right to housing.

Senate Bill 9 is a small step, but an important one, that restructures the residential property regime to put California’s housing market on the path towards housing justice.

The Domains of Spatial Justice

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the various kinds, or “domains,” of justice that we often discuss in urban planning: spatial justice, environmental justice, transportation justice, housing justice, etc. How are these domains of justice related to one another?

To make things even more complicated, we tend to equate “justice” and “equity” without necessarily probing deeper to see if justice and equity should be distinguished from one another. By now, I’m sure most are familiar with some version of the equality / equity image. This one is from the United Way:

What would a housing justice panel look like? A roof that spans the three spectators? How does housing justice relate to other domains of justice? To sort through this complexity, I decided to create the following Venn Diagram:

I understand justice to be an expression of what we owe to one another as moral equals in terms of actions, goods, or moral attitudes. Justice is the aspect of morality that is concerned with matters of considered judgement that appeal to a publicly justified set of principles that define a society’s terms of fair cooperation. Principles of justice determine who gets what according to these terms of fair cooperation. Racial and ethnic justice are inseparable from justice writ large. Respecting one another as equals requires respecting one another’s differences and treating one other with equal dignity and respect despite those differences.  

“Spatial justice”—the overarching category that encompasses all of the smaller spheres in the diagram above—addresses how things should be distributed and arranged in geographic space vis-à-vis the locations of human activity. Spatial justice addresses where things are located at any given point in time and how things flow from one location to another. One could argue that all things are distributed somewhere, so perhaps justice is inseparable from spatial justice. While this is true, not all spatial justice questions are relevant to justice writ large. The question of whether distributive principles should be based on a utilitarian calculus or deontological obligations can be answered independently of where distributive principles are applied, for example.

Environmental justice can be understood as the domain of spatial justice that pertains to the just distribution, arrangement, and flow of natural resources. Whereas spatial justice refers to the distribution of all things that are naturally occurring or produced by human labor, environmental justice is primarily concerned with the distribution of things that are naturally occurring, valued by human beings, and possibly transformed by human production or consumption processes. Most natural resources are nonexcludable (it is impossible or difficult to prevent someone from consuming it) and nonrival (one person’s consumption does not reduce the amount available to others), so environmental justice naturally concerns itself with the distribution of goods that exhibit one or both of these public good characteristics. Because we often believe that everyone should have equal access to a fair share of the earth’s most important natural resources, environmental justice often addresses the question of ownership—who owns the earth, and how do ownership rights get distributed? Environmental justice is also intertwined with racial justice. The spatial correlation between the geography of environmental pollution and the spatial pattern of residential segregation by race implies that people of color often suffer the most severe environmental injustices.  

Infrastructure justice is a term that I have not seen elsewhere, but I offer it as a way to characterize the just distribution of publicly financed or publicly owned goods, services, and infrastructure systems. Some infrastructure systems, such as public parks, can be classified as pure public goods, whereas others, such as public water systems that are financed primarily through user fees, may be excludable. The key question for infrastructure systems is whether justice requires that everyone have equal access to a given system, and if so, whether exclusion mechanisms that deny infrastructure access can be justified. Infrastructure justice also overlaps with environmental justice. For example, the recent Flint water crisis was caused initially by a fiscal crisis that triggered a shift in the city’s water supply source that ultimately exposed Flint residents—the large majority of whom were low-income people of color—to dangerously high levels of lead pollution. Infrastructure justice is shaped by fiscal and policy federalism. Questions about the distribution of infrastructure services across space are inseparable from the question of whether decentralized local units of government should have the autonomy to deliver (or not deliver) those services.

Material justice is also a new term (to me at least) that refers to the distribution of particular private goods or services. In contrast to environmental justice, material justice addresses the distribution of goods that are excludable and rival. While distributive justice addresses the distribution of goods and resources in the abstract, material justice is a form of local justice that is grounded, in part, by the nature of the good being distributed within a particular society. A conception of the just distribution of automobiles, for example, should acknowledge the fact that in the US, low-income people who are unable to purchase automobiles may be unable to access other resources and opportunities required to live a flourishing life.

As I see it, housing justice falls at the nexus of environmental, infrastructure, and material justice. Housing provides protection from extreme weather conditions and is often located in proximity to desirable environmental amenities. Homes are also stitched together by networks of transportation, water and sewer, electricity, and broadband infrastructure systems. Some homes fail to offer these services and subject inhabitants to exposure, pollution, or natural hazards. Those whose homes are disconnected from infrastructure systems may be unable to access the same social or economic advantages that are made available to others. The geography of environmental and infrastructure injustice cannot be separated from the discriminatory housing policies that exclude people of color from environmentally healthy neighborhoods and high-quality infrastructure systems.  

Materially, housing is a heterogeneous, durable, and spatially fixed good that is distributed in distinctive ways. Homes take several months to construct or retrofit, and once constructed, homes can last for tens or hundreds of years if well maintained. Because the distribution of housing is fixed over the short run, residential relocation and financial compensation are often the only feasible ways to alleviate short-term housing injustices. (Refer to my book, Just Housing, for more on these and other distributive properties of housing.)

This is how I am categorizing things today. I am curious to hear how others categorize the various domains of spatial justice.

Why I wrote Just Housing

My book, Just Housing: The Moral Foundations of American Housing Policy, was released earlier this week. Why write a book about housing justice, why now, and what can readers expect to take away from the book?

The book’s origins can be traced to my work in the fair housing policy arena, where community developers have clashed with pro-integration fair housing advocates, claiming that the aim of integrating neighborhoods through residential mobility and mixed-income housing strategies distracts attention from the more important goal of housing low-income people of color in the places where they currently live. Similar tensions exist beyond the fair housing arena. YIMBYs want to remove the regulatory constraints impeding private sector housing production, while PHIMBYs call for a large-scale social housing program. For smart growth advocates, the roots of the housing crisis lie in the geography of new housing construction: we have too few affordable high-density housing options in places that are accessible to the things that make urban life worth living.

Different sides of the US housing policy debates appeal to the idea of “housing justice” to defend their proposals for reform, but what is housing justice, and how does housing justice differ from other moral concerns? What is gained by modifying “justice” with “housing?” What does it mean to say that everyone has a right to housing, and who has a duty to fulfill that right?

In my search for answers to these questions, I discovered a gap. Political and moral philosophers have created a cottage industry around the topic of justice but rarely explore how to apply abstract conceptions of justice to real-world policy problems. At the same time, urban planners and policy advocates often speak the language of justice and rights without acknowledging the work done by philosophers to help us understand what justice means or requires.

In Just Housing, I tried to forge a path forward by constructing a conception of housing justice that was defensible, informed, interdisciplinary, and practical. The defense of the conception of housing justice offered in the book assembles the basic elements of justice—conceptions of value, principles, grounds, scopes, and bases—into a normative framework that acknowledges housing’s distinctive qualities and its socially constructed meaning. This book is my most interdisciplinary work to date. The normative arguments put forth in the book draw upon material from the disciplines of philosophy, history, law, political science, sociology, economics, and urban planning. I also tease out the practical policy implications of the book’s theoretical and conceptual arguments.

In thinking about housing justice, I have come to believe that housing policy debates can also help to inform larger conversations in social, moral, and political philosophy. In one section of the book, I explain how “luck egalitarianism,” the moral philosophy developed in conversation with John Rawls’s seminal theory of justice, provides a partial but incomplete framework for understanding housing justice. I also discuss how housing justice sheds new light on the tension between state neutrality and the ideal of personal autonomy. Finally, the book demonstrates how to navigate between ideal and nonideal theory when constructing a justice-oriented, right-based program for social reform.

I hope you enjoy the book. I have already begun thinking about the sequel, so stay tuned!

Is Gentrification Slowing Down in Portland, Oregon?

I’ve been digging through the 2020 Census Redistricting Data, and the population changes by race and ethnicity in Portland, Oregon, fascinate me. Figure 1 displays the percentage of nonwhite persons (those not identifying as non-Hispanic white alone) by census tract in 2010 (left) and 2020 (right). The 2010 Portland Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) is in blue, and Portland’s 2010 municipal boundaries are in red. The census tracts identified by Lisa Bates (2013) as being “at-risk” of gentrification (susceptible, early type-1, or early type-2 gentrification), based on 2010-2015 neighborhood changes, are highlighted in green.

Figure 1

For many, Portland has become the posterchild of gentrification. Yet, these maps suggest that during the 2010-2020 period, gentrification was less pervasive than is typically perceived (if we define gentrification as a reduction in a neighborhood’s share of nonwhite residents). Other than a few of the neighborhoods along Interstate 205, most neighborhoods at-risk of gentrification actually saw increases in the percentage of nonwhite residents. Moreover, large swaths of the city, including downtown, saw increases in the percentage of nonwhite residents.

Also interesting is the relationship between Portland’s UGB and patterns of neighborhood change. By 2020, most census tracts outside the city but within the UGB saw increases in nonwhite percentages. Importantly, because a large number of 2020 tracts exhibit a racial composition that closely approximates Oregon’s portion of the larger Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA metropolitan area (32 percent nonwhite), 2010-2020 racial transitions did not exacerbate regionwide patterns of racial segregation. White / nonwhite segregation within Oregon’s portion of the larger metropolitan area, as measured by the dissimilarity index, declined during the 2010s from 28 to 24 (a 13 percent decline). These findings are consistent with Nelson, Dawkins, and Sanchez (2004), who found that during the 1990s, metropolitan areas with urban containment policies such as Portland’s witnessed greater reductions in racial segregation than those without.

Breaking down the nonwhite population data by race and ethnicity reveals interesting spatial patterns for Black (those identifying as Black alone or Black plus any other race) and Hispanic (those identifying as Hispanic or Latino) persons. Figure 2 duplicates Figure 1 but replaces “nonwhite” with “Black.” Figure 2 displays different breakpoints for the racial composition categories to reflect the fact that few Black persons reside in the greater Portland metropolitan area.

Figure 2

Figure 2 paints a more nuanced picture of racial change. Overall, the Black population’s share declined in NW Portland and increased in SE Portland. Two census tracts farther from the city’s core saw increases in Black population shares. Of the neighborhoods initially at-risk of gentrification, two dropped to a lower Black population share category, while one rose to a higher Black population share category.

Figure 3 displays patterns of ethnic change for those identifying as Hispanic or Latino. These maps rely on the percentage categories displayed in Figure 1 to reflect the larger number of census tracts with high percentages of Hispanic persons.

Figure 3

Figure 3 suggests that Hispanic residents suburbanized and spread out between 2010 and 2020. Hispanic residents expanded into neighborhoods west of the city, while the area in NE Portland occupied by Hispanic residents shrunk in size over the decade.

This preliminary analysis suggests that other than a few isolated pockets of gentrification that affected Hispanic and Black residents in different ways, Portland has been fairly successful in slowing gentrification within many neighborhoods that were initially at-risk of becoming majority white.

I am curious to hear from Portland residents, scholars, and activists to see how these aggregate statistics compare to changes observed on the ground.

The Dispossessed and Alone

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is best known for its space operatic portrayal of moon-dwelling anarcho-communists, but what fascinates me most are Le Guin’s meditations on communal living arrangements. On the utopian world of Anarres, no one owns property, and Anarrestis rarely inhabit private rooms. Most dwellings are organized into dormitory-style living arrangements that are allocated upon request to those seeking shelter. If someone moves to another town, their previously occupied bed or room is reallocated to the next Anarresti.

At one point in the novel, Shevek, the novel’s protagonist, moves to the town of Abbenay to work on his magnum opus – a treatise that would unify space and time into a single theory of simultaneity. Upon arrival, Shevek is dismayed at being assigned to a private room. “As a child, if you slept alone in a single it meant you had bothered the others in the dormitory until they wouldn’t tolerate you; you had egoized. Solitude equated with disgrace” (p. 110).

Despite his initial misgivings, Shevek eventually discovered that “It was the right kind of place for his kind of work. If ideas arrived at midnight, he could turn on the light and write them down; if they came at dawn, they weren’t jostled out of his head by the conversation and commotion of four or five roommates getting up; if they didn’t come at all and he had to spend whole days sitting at his desk staring out the window, there was nobody behind his back to wonder why he was slacking” (p. 111).

To me, this passage captures something fundamental about the human need to have access to a private place in which to be free to think, reflect, dream, create, or simply relax – even in communal societies that disvalue privacy and ownership. As Hannah Arendt puts it (1958, 71), “The four walls of one’s private property offer the only reliable hiding place from the common public world, not only from everything that goes on in it but also from its very publicity, from being seen and being heard. A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow” (Arendt 1958, 71).

Even on the Urrasi moon, where the Anarrestis have created a society that resembles a scaled-up version of GA Cohen’s camping trip or Peter Kropotkin’s utopia, Shevek still needs a room of his own to write physics.

On the other hand, total isolation can rob us of our humanity. History Channel’s Alone, a show that pits ten wilderness experts against one another in a competition to see who can survive the longest while living alone in the wilderness, paints a vivid picture of the dehumanizing aspects of social isolation. The first thing constructed by most contestants is a basic shelter – a lean-to, A-frame, or other modest structure assembled to conform with an idealized image of a place recognizable as “home.” Some create kitchens, beds, or outdoor spaces that replicate those places that provided comfort in the past, while others experiment, crafting new spaces from memories of what worked on previous episodes of the show. (My favorite so far is Roland’s “rock house.”) Despite their efforts to reconstruct home in the wilderness, most contestants eventually come to the realization that while long-term wilderness survival is possible, long-term flourishing is difficult in total isolation. Most contestants eventually “tap out” of the contest after bouts of homesickness and a realization that their constructed existence is incomplete without the love and support of friends and family. Home is an empty vessel without the companionship that fills it.

This is the irony of home. The home satisfies our need to be isolated from time to time, but absolute isolation can rob us of our humanity. In Edgar Allan Poe’s last published work, “The Lighthouse,” Poe describes his elation upon arriving at his new lighthouse home: “My spirits are beginning to revive already, at the mere thought of being — for once in my life at least — thoroughly alone.” By the end of the passage, Poe unearths flaws in the lighthouse’s foundation, which is made of chalk, and realizes that similar holes compromise his plan to be thoroughly alone. The home’s ability to shelter and separate is among its most important functions, but if a home’s walls are impenetrable and disconnect us from the rest of humanity, the home that protects us becomes the home that neglects us.

Welcome to my blog

I’ve never written a blog before. Blogs seem appropriate for shareable thought fragments, ramblings that are too long for twitter, and the germs of ideas that may eventually blossom into something more. I am not sure yet if my blog posts will fall into any of these categories. Topically, most of what I will have to say will likely touch on topics related to housing policy, urban and regional planning, local government structure and finance, and applied social and political philosophy. The line between these topics and science fiction is very thin and fuzzy, so don’t be surprised to also find a post or two about the latest sci-fi novel I’ve enjoyed.