There’s a new state initiative currently in the signature gathering phase that would tie property tax rates to density in an effort to reduce sprawl. Opposition, led by the Single Family Housing Building Association, is already gathering to fight the initiative. Below the fold I’ll explain the initiative in detail, and why it’s a good idea.

Urbanization and IQ

The motivation behind the initiative is to reduce sprawl and thus its negative effects, both positives. Many people’s opinions on urbanization and suburbanization were formed in the 1970s and 1980s, and those people imagine cities as places full of crime and poverty. However, today, the suburbs are actually the more dangerous and poverty-stricken places. According to this study (emphasis in the original):

By 2008, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. Between 2000 and 2008, suburbs in the country’s largest metro areas saw their poor population grow by 25 percent—almost five times faster than primary cities and well ahead of the growth seen in smaller metro areas and non-metropolitan communities. As a result, by 2008 large suburbs were home to 1.5 million more poor than their primary cities and housed almost one-third of the nation’s poor overall.

The rise in poverty in the suburbs has already had many consequences, the most important of which is a drop in homes prices. Impoverished homeowners are more likely to default on their mortgages, which depresses prices further and results in more poverty. Suburban poverty is more serious because there may not be the systems in place in those communities to provide social services.

We know that density increases wages in addition to its poverty-averting effects. In this study, it was shown that increasing population density increases average wages as workers are better able to take advantage of “positive knowledge” spillovers from their neighbors and  have more access to job opportunities. Another study from the 1990s showed a remarkable effect of population density and  income, each 10% increase in density resulted in a $90 increase in annual wages. That was priced in 1997 dollars, so it would be even larger increase in 2011 dollars. We can increase average wages by $2000 per year just by tripling the population density.

Suburban and rural areas also have a startling effect on IQ scores. I took data from these two sources and correlated them in Excel and found that nearly half of the difference in IQ between countries could be explained simply by looking at their urbanization. It’s not a surprise that the countries with the highest IQs are those that are the most urbanized. Here are a couple more links to more rigorous studies if you are interested. They all find the same thing: higher densities lead to higher IQs, which means suburbanization is actually making people more stupid.


The suburbs have also become much less safe than cities:

[University of Virginia urban planning professor William Lucy]’s 2009 study analyzing Virginia’s major cities, suburbs and rural areas found that lower-density areas were the most dangerous, while the safest communities, for the most part, were high-density cities. Not only did low-density communities have more traffic fatalities, but they were also the most dangerous places for stranger homicides.

The number of fatalities is startling, according to the Post article, Rutgers University researchers “determined that a 1% increase in urban density translated into a 1.5% decrease in traffic deaths and a nearly 3.5% decrease in pedestrian fatalities.” Letting people live in low-density environments is tantamount to murder.


The bill would define four property tax brackets based on population density. The lowest bracket would be 2%, and would require densities above 10,000 people per square mile. The next bracket would be 4%, for densities between 5,000 and 10,000 people per square mile, and the last two brackets would be 8% and 16% for densities between 5,000 and 2,500, respectively.

Given all the empirical data, it’s clear that anyone choosing low-density, suburban living is seriously misinterpreting their own interests. That’s why, in addition to the nudge of differential property tax rates, the initiative harnesses market forces by altering the supply and demand of good and bad housing.

The initiative creates a “habitat restoration commission” that is required by law to identify 400 square miles of “low-density, environmentally destructive development.” These areas would be seized under eminent domain powers, and the property tax revenue used to carefully remove all traces of human habitation, in order to improve water quality, reduce car dependence, and restore habitat for wildlife. The areas selected are ultimately up to the commission and the selection guidelines, but the initiative website suggests Sammamish, Black Diamond, Maple Valley, and Duvall as likely subjects for this treatment.

Ideal Development

The true genius of the plan, however, is not in constricting the supply of low-density housing but increasing the supply of high-density housing. To save on the necessary outlays, landowners in demolished areas will not be compensated in cash, but instead in kind. The State would build high-density housing in cities near major transit corridors; since these are automatically more valuable than exurban tracts, landowners, our transportation infrastructure, and the planet all come out ahead. That’ll certainly be the case once the former sprawl residents get used to their surroundings and learn to appreciate the superior attributes of dense, urban, transit-oriented living, surrounded by green space as in the sample images, again from the campaign website (see “before” and “after”).

More specifically, 55% of the money would then be spent building subsidized high-rise homes in five urban centers across the state King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane, Walla Walla and Clark counties. Another 20% would be spent building new infrastructure in those counties and that last 25% would be spent demolishing the abandoned homes in the suburbs.

This initiative is a long-overdue to attempt to overcome decades of errant planning and inconvenient choices made by residents. It’s a farsighted plan that ultimately benefits everyone. Be sure to volunteer and donate between now and election day.

35 Replies to “Initiative To Tie Property Taxes, Density”

    1. Christine Gregoire, Richard Conlin and Dow Constantine have scheduled a news conference at 11:30am to discuss their lawsuit against the referendum and they apologize to the people whose time was wasted in signing the initiative.

      Oh, wait, that was yesterday

  1. Hopefully there will be farm, comercial & industrial exclusions to these property tax brackets ;)

    Lets say Farmer Joe got his 640 acres (1 sq mile) farm handed down from his Great grandfater. He and his family live in the city, but commute to the farm Daily, so the farm fals in teh 16% tax bracket. at $10,000 acre, the property would asses for $6.4M at 16% the anual taxes would be $1.024M

    Given that most farms run near break even, this adition would drive most farms out of business, causing the city to starve, or cause the cost of food to skyrocket.

    Probably not the right answer

      1. They’ll live in close-in neighborhoods in condos and townhouses, like families do all over the developed world.

      2. except the urban school systems are a wreck and the families can’t afford to send them to private school

      3. Garfield High doesn’t appear to be a wreck even though it covers the densest areas in Seattle. Urbanity != f***ed up schools. Poverty, social and economic dysfunction for generations == f***ed up schools.

      4. And you wonder why HALF of the school-age kids in North Seattle attend private schools

      5. “Garfield High doesn’t appear to be a wreck even though it covers the densest areas in Seattle. ”

        Garfield is essentially two schools in one. One school being the predominately white AP kids and the other half “Gangbanger U”

        “Poverty, social and economic dysfunction for generations == f***ed up schools.”

        Not to mention a school district more focused on social justice, money laundering, and building empires

      6. I call troll on groan.
        My wife and I moved to a condo walking distance to my work after we had a son. He is in preschool on my way to work. My wife can take light rail to her job, and we are looking at schools on either end of her commute, so the boy may be taking light rail to first grade.

  2. The church spires in the distance behind those red brick highrises look familiar. Is that the Jeffries project in Detroit?

    Great posting, Andrew. Only giveaway is that text is too comprehensible for the kind of piece- usually more bogus than this one- that actually gets published and taken seriously.

    Fix that, and you could be onto a PhD.

    Happy April 1.

    Mark Dublin

  3. Does a vote have to pass on this or can the house and senate do it? I’ve been waiting for something lime this. It should be illegal for one 60 year old xenophobic hermit to have a 4000 square foot house on 20 acres. I’d take it a step further and say that a household for one resident should not be allowed more then 500 square feet and every additional resident should be allowed an additional 300 square feet. If you use more then that you pay higher taxes.

  4. We know that density increases wages in addition to its poverty-averting effects.

    Correlation == Causation. That’s why Calcutta is one of the richest cities in the world. We know that.

    1. Hmmm… depends on what you mean by “increases”. Income in Kolkata is certainly higher than surrounding low-density areas.

    1. Well, and Norman and his ilk.

      Frankly, I think a piece that’s basically copping to the opposition’s worst stereotypes of our side is more than a little dangerous if they don’t get the joke.

  5. Actually some aspects of the idea make some sense, since in a urban enviroment it costs less to deliver the same amount of services than it would in a rural one. now the cost differencial probally wouldent be all that great but there is something to be said for parts of the idea.

    1. Huh? Land values are higher. Taxes are higher. You often have to pay higher wages because the cost of living is higher. I’m pretty sure that if you bought the same basket of goods it would cost more in Seattle than Lynnwood.

      1. Rural infrastructure is considerably more expensive per capita, much more than can made up for by differential consumption tax collection, if you compare apples to apples. Look at the number of road miles in Seattle per capita and compare it to county road miles in Ferry County. Of course, cities do levy higher taxes. Most of them are for local projects with primarily local benefits (e.g. transit improvements from Bridging the Gap) that rural areas do not even attempt to provide.

        On a state and federal level, there is a significant redistribution of wealth from urban to rural areas. If those transfers stopped, rural areas would either have to drastically raise taxes or cut fundamental services like police. Either way, many of them would be devastated.

      2. I know police protection in unincorporated King County is an issue. Lots of places to hide and not a large tax base to support operations to hunt out things like meth labs. But the market they supply is primarily the incorporated areas. It’s like blaming Mexico for the drug problem. Fire protection in unincorporated parts of the county has for decades depended on volunteer stations (never lost a foundation). As for legitimate business the reason retail outlet stores are out in places like North Bend are; one, land is cheap and two, zoning required that they be a certain distance from the upscale city markets. But I go back to my basket of goods argument. Lynnwood is not unincorporated King County. It’s got to be cheaper for Fred Meyer to operate in Totem Lake than Capital Hill. The reason Best Buy is at Northgate instead of Westlake is because it’s cheaper. Providing services is more expensive the higher the density. You don’t need a skyscraper unit to fight fires in Duvall.

  6. Sheesh, between you and ImprovEverywhere I just need to stay off the Internet around this time of year and just clear my Google Reader of all unread.

  7. The data in the post is all 100% accurate. Conclusions derived therefrom? Aprils Fools.

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