Kansas historic preservation tax credits should be eliminated

It’s time to recognize historic buildings for what they are: a premium feature or amenity whose extra cost should be born solely by those who chose to own them or rent them.

Supporters of historic buildings tell us that renovating them is more expensive than building new. Likewise, building a home with granite kitchen counter tops and marble floors in the bathrooms is more expensive than a plainer home. These premium features are chosen voluntarily by the homeowner, and it is right and just that they alone should pay for them.

There’s no difference between these premium features and choosing to live in a historic building. Those who desire them choose them voluntarily, and should pay their full cost. Forcing everyone to subsidize this choice is wrong. It’s an example of a special interest gone wild.

Supporters of historic building preservation subsidy tell us that these historic buildings define the character of a city. They have succumbed to the design fallacy, “the notion that architectural design is a major determinant in shaping human behavior.” It may be so for some people. Let each person decide for themselves, and then pay — or not pay — for its perceived benefit.

It’s often true that historic preservation tax credits go to subsidize the choices of well-off people. For example, at a meeting of government officials with Wichita-area legislators in January, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation president Jeff Fluhr presented examples of several buildings in Wichita that have been rehabilitated, including the Wichita High Apartments, which he said will rent for $1,000 to $2,000. He mentioned condos in the Grant Telegraph building, which he said range in price from $300,000 to $950,000. Do the taxpayers of the state of Kansas need to subsidize people who can afford rents and prices like these?

Wichita High ApartmentsWichita developer Dave Burk stood to pocket over $1 million in taxpayer money on this project.

The use of tax credits, however, leads many to believe that what the state is doing is not a direct subsidy or payment. In order to clear things up, maybe we should require that the state write checks instead of issuing credits.

Indeed, if the state issued checks to real estate developers, citizens would look at things differently. They’d wonder why they’re subsidizing the construction of apartments that rent for up to $2,000 monthly, or condos worth nearly a million dollars. They’d be angry. Using a semi-mysterious mechanism like tax credits shrouds the true economic transaction taking place.

These expenditures of tax money — being issued as credits rather than appropriations — go through a different process than most expenditures of state money. Recently some have started to use the word “tax appropriations” to describe tax credits. These expenditures don’t go through the normal legislative process as do most appropriations.

It’s time to recognize these historic preservation tax credits as payments to a special interest group. Unfortunately, as with most special interest groups, the group receiving the payment — tax credits in this case — has an extreme interest in the matter. They benefit greatly. But to the rest of the populace — well, does it really matter to them? John Stossel explains the problem like this:

The Public Choice school of economics calls this the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Individual members of relatively small interest groups stand to gain huge rewards when they lobby for government favors, but each taxpayer will pay only a tiny portion of the cost of any particular program, making opposition pointless.

That’s the situation we face with the historic preservation tax credits. A few real estate developers will enrich themselves at state expense. Well-to-do renters and condo buyers will get a better deal. To everyone else, it’s just another way that government nickels and dimes us to death.

It should be noted that one of the most vocal proponents of the tax credits is Christy Davis, a historical preservation consultant who operates a company that assists property owners and governments in obtaining funding for historic preservation projects. She’s the very definition of a special interest group.

7 thoughts on “Kansas historic preservation tax credits should be eliminated”

  1. Bob, I want to understand your point of view. I do not claim to be an expert in this area so these are observations / questions. 1. Wasn’t Wichita High School owned by the WATC and therefore tax exempt?
    2. If a developer puts, say $6M into the building to get it open the property with 68 units renting for $1000 to $2000 a month then I would assume it would have a value that in turn would generate higher taxes than the building now pays, correct?
    3. As I understand the Historic Tax Credit the person that put up the $6M and now has to pay the new property tax can take a credit of about 25% of the eligible construction cost (not all of the construction cost is eligible) against the new taxes he/she would pay to the state, correct?
    So if I have this right a building that is paying no taxes to the state has $6M spent on it and now is paying taxes into the state coffer but will pay 25% less in taxes than it would have if the building were not historic. Do I have it right? If so where is the payment you allude to being made by the state to the developer? Also don’t forget that when renovating a historical building you can not renovate it using the most economical methods but have to keep it “historically” correct and that in itself is more expensive.

  2. Larry, you are correct in that there is no money given to the developer by the state. No payments. Typically, the tax credits are used as barter for a developer to sell the credits at a significant discount on the open market to those that need are in need of a “credit”. On historic projects, the money raised by the sale of the tax credits has to be used on certain eligible costs. The building will not pay property taxes on a reduced valuation but will pay taxes on its fair market value.

  3. For Larry’s points 1 and 2, I’ll take his word that these are correct. I don’t think I’ve ever made a claim to the contrary.

    For point 3, the issue of the historic preservation tax credits and property taxes are entirely separate matters. The savings of 25% of building costs arising from the historic preservation tax credit is a one-time event, while property taxes are an ongoing event year after year.

    The payment made by the state to the developer is the tax credit itself, which might take the form of a document from the state containing language like “This certificate may be sent to the state of Kansas instead of a check for $1,000,000 in payment of taxes.”

    As Pat correctly notes, the recipient of such a certificate might keep it and use it to pay all or part of their taxes, or might sell it to someone at any price they mutually agree on. This ability to sell the tax credit document has been cited by WDDC president Jeff Fluhr as important.

    So how is issuing a tax credit not the same as making a payment to the developer?

    (By the way, Pat, if I knew I was getting a tax credit, I would immediately adjust my periodic tax payments to the state. It’s not necessary to wait until annual tax time to benefit from the credit.)

    Furthermore, the fact that the tax credit may be used for only certain purposes is a total red herring. If I gave you $100 on the condition that you could spend it only on a Monday, would you deny that I had enriched you by $100? Or would you contend that I had enriched you by something less than $100? I would think that you would simply shift your spending around and benefit fully from the $100 that I gave you.

    Finally, the fact that historic renovation is expensive is just like having granite countertops. It’s a premium amenity that is freely chosen by those who value it, it benefits those who choose it, and should be fully paid for by them.

  4. Why can’t everyone get these benefits instead of just a few? That is the beauty of the Fair/Flat tax in eliminating all of these special “loopholes” for the politically connected with the best tax attorneys and accountants.

    Our current income tax structure stinks and more special tax deductions and credits only makes this rotten structure worse.

  5. The state creates a limited supply of tax credits. “Everyone” and anyone can apply. It is a competitive process. There is no “loophole” for the “politically connected”. To portray it as such is incorrect.

    I agree that our current income tax structure stinks and am an advocate for the Fair Tax.

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