Romney's taxes in the spotlight

Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney finally admits to paying a lower tax rate than most of the popula

The big news from the campaign trail today is a number: Mitt Romney's "effective" tax rate. At an event in South Carolina yesterday, Mitt finally conceded (after weeks of probing) that he pays "probably closer to the 15 per cent rate than anything", putting him firmly in the 1 per cent, and firmly in the sights of people who want to change the tax system.

Mitt's rate is so low because most of his income is from capital gains, which is taxed more generously than other income. A Republican Congress cut the rate from 28 to 20 per cent in 1997, then to 15 per cent in 2001. Thus, the US has a fairly progressive employment tax system, where people pay more as they earn more, but a regressive effective one, where private equity windfalls and stock market profits get special treatment.

Warren Buffett, the legendary "Sage of Omaha", has famously called it iniquitous that he pays less tax, in percentage terms, than his secretary, or, as he wrote in the New York Times last year, the "other 20 people in our office" (whose rates range from 33 to 41 per cent). Barack Obama has tried to promote a "Buffett Rule" - a minimum tax rate for those earning more than $1 million a year. But both have gained little traction outside the progressive press, and the Occupy Wall Street protests. The question now is whether Romney's number will add any grist to the debate.

Commentators yesterday speculated on the timing of Romney's words. The conventional wisdom is that it is better for him to talk about his finances now, while he is doing well in the polls, and the real election is still months away. But it's also possible the admission will plant a seed that will grow and grow under careful cultivation from the Democrats, and sections of the media. Obama is already planning to make inequality a main focus of his rhetoric, hoping to channel some some of the OWS anger. An opponent who pays less tax than most of the population could be a perfect foil.

Ben Schiller is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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