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Commentary: Are differing tax rates a de facto voucher system?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2011 - This is a tale of two neighborhoods. Both St. Louis suburban neighborhoods are impressive, and outwardly they look like twins. Hampton Park and Lake Forest sit on opposite sides of Hanley Road between Clayton Road and Highway 40, and they both boast large, stately homes. They are equidistant from the region's central business districts. With two exceptions, they have the same level and quality of public services and the same tax rates. With so many similarities, you might assume property values would be the same. But you would be wrong.

Hampton Park and Lake Forest illustrate how different people finding different solutions to their housing and educational needs can have a substantial impact on housing prices.

The two exceptions noted above are the neighborhood school districts and the differing tax rates they impose. Both neighborhoods are subdivisions of Richmond Heights, but Lake Forest -- west of Hanley -- is part of Clayton School District. In 2010, Clayton was the highest performing district in Missouri according to MAP scores. Over the past 10 years, residents have paid an average tax rate of $3.44 per $100 of assessed valuation. East of Hanley, Hampton Park is part of Maplewood-Richmond Heights school district. In 2010, the state ranked MRH's performance 315th out of 556 districts, making it an average district. Over the past decade, residents paid an average tax rate of $4.48.

Homes in Lake Forest are in a higher performing school district and have lower tax rates than those across the street in Hampton Park. Do homebuyers react accordingly and by how much?

Of course homebuyers adjust. According to a study of assessed valuations, the difference between the prices paid for a theoretical house of the same square footage and lot size in the two neighborhoods is $109,000, or a little more than 10 percent. Homebuyers in Lake Forest are willing to pay approximately $109,000 more to live in a higher-performing school district with lower tax rates. Conversely, homebuyers in Hampton Park are paying $109,000 less to live in a more average school district with higher tax rates.

Economists refer to this kind of difference as capitalization. It is the process that incorporates tax rates and other variables into the value of a piece of property.

Capitalization is a complex process, especially in regions that have as many taxing districts as St. Louis. Prospective homebuyers typically take the time to research local school quality and tax rates, but they usually stop short of researching fire districts. Although homebuyers may not investigate them, the insurance industry certainly has. A home in an area with a poor-quality fire district will have higher insurance rates, and those higher rates will be translated into lower home prices. The combined wisdom of thousands of individual decisions is sorted into a price that is readily understood by everyone.

Capitalization works in both directions, often simultaneously. A great school district will lead to higher property prices, while the high tax rates used to fund those good schools will lower the price. The low crime rates of the outer suburbs will increase prices, while the higher commuting costs will lower prices. As for Lake Forest, the lower tax rates lead to higher home prices, and this may result in the same final tax bill as higher rates on less valuable property.

The higher tax rates and lower-ranking school district do not automatically do economic harm to the residents of Hampton Park. A Hampton Park purchaser may intend to send their children to private or parochial schools and might be using the $109,000 discount to do just that. This appears to be the case for many residents, as the MRH school district offers no school bus service within Hampton Park.* In effect, the $109,000 price difference can be viewed as a voucher toward the cost of private education, the payment of future (higher) taxes, or both.

The larger point is that with the variety of cities, school districts, etc. that we have in St. Louis County, there is an abundance of choices, making it more likely that everyone can find a suitable combination of taxes and services. Homeowners vote with their feet -- by leaving cities that increase taxes too much or fail to offer quality services. This pressures cities to be efficient. That pressure and competition is reflected in property values, and that benefits all of us.

Gaudiet emptor-- Let the buyer rejoice!

Editor's note: An email from the Maplewood Richmond Heights district says that "we provide free transportation to any family in any area of our district, including the Hampton Park area.  From our Board Policy EEA: 'Resident students living one mile or more from school will be entitled to free transportation to and from school. The Board of Education may also provide transportation to resident students who live less than one mile from school for special circumstances'." If there are no stops now, press spokesman Tom Wickersham said, it is because no requests have been made for them.

David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, where Christine Harbin was formerly.