Man on Moon


Wealth and political power often come from property ownership, but the dynamics of real estate transactions are often invisible to the general public. Absent a national property database, researchers in the United States are left sifting through tax parcel data scattered across 3,000+ counties or purchasing proprietary data on public transactions. Transparency is further clouded by the use of shell companies like limited liability companies, where no owner is easily discernible. Examining landownership at scale—crucial to studies of contemporary inequality—means contending with a bevy of structural barriers.  

A 2020 paper by LOKA ASHWOOD, JOHN CANFIELD, MADELEINE FAIRBAIRN, and KATHRYN DEMASTER delivers tools to confront this obstacle to research. While they focus on property ownership across US farmland, their framework and methodology lays out a crucial path for urban land and real estate researchers as well.  

From the paper: 

“We devised a new methodology for uncovering corporate organization and actors who benefit from farmland investment through an analysis of creditors and proprietors. Our study begins at the bottom, studying corporate landownership in west central Illinois, known for its landscape of flat black eighties—a descriptor for the richest, blackest plots of eighty acres, but an area that also includes lower-grade ground. We researched corporate names, ownership addresses, and creditor–debtor relationships by combining county-level tax parcel data with documents available through LexisNexis Public Records, a paid subscription database that includes Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filings and SmartLinx Comprehensive Business and Person Reports. We uncovered a suite of structures and practices unique to corporations that enable land investment, such as limited liability, subsidiaries, and internal markets for credit. We found that the extent of absenteeism increases with the more complex forms of corporate investment, which often are more recent, but increasingly powerful, actors. Those corporations most active in the financialization of farmland bring together constellations of subsidiaries, even making their own internal markets for the intra-company exchange of capital.”

Link to the text.

+  Focusing on Milwaukee, Adam Travis examines shell companies commonplace in rental housing markets, which are linked to absentee and neglectful landlords. Link. Margot Gibbs and Agustin Armendariz investigate how LLCs, trusts, and other shell companies hide wealth in offshore tax havens. Link.

+  How do you make data accessible and transparent? Two examples offer a path: a 2007 National Research Council framework for a US land parcel data (cadastral) system, and British Columbia’s 2020 Land Owner Transparency Act and registry. Link and link. Find more information on global property ownership resources and databases here

+  In 1978, Doreen Massey and Alejandrina Catalano’s Capital and Land: Landownership by Capital in Great Britain called attention to often the largest national landowner: the state. Brett Christophers’s 2018 update shows how the UK sold off £400bn worth of public land and buildings to the private market. Link

The spotlight of this newsletter was written by guest contributor Renee Tapp, Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests include housing, real estate finance and property ownership, taxation, and urban politics. Link to her website.


Community College & Local Labor Markets

Assistant professor of economics at Miami University RILEY ACTON studies the economics of education. In her job market paper, she looks at how enrollment in community college programs responds to local job losses. 

From the abstract:

“In this paper, I use administrative data on the postsecondary education choices of recent Michigan high school graduates to determine how local, occupation-specific job losses affect community college program enrollments. My empirical approach exploits plausibly exogenous variation in students’ exposure to local job losses resulting from mass layoffs and plant closings that differentially affect particular occupations. I find that, on average, an additional layoff per 10,000 working-age residents in a county reduces the share of the county’s high school graduates enrolling in related community college programs the following year by 0.8%. Correspondingly, a one standard deviation increase in layoff exposure reduces enrollment by 3.8%. This effect is driven by students substituting enrollment between community college programs rather than forgoing higher education opportunities. Leveraging data on occupational skill requirements from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network, I document that students primarily shift their enrollment into programs that require similar cognitive and technical skills to the field affected by layoffs.”

Link to the paper, link to Acton’s website. 

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

+ + +

+   “An environmental mandate, now what?” A new report by Yanis Dafermos, Daniela Gabor, Maria Nikolaidi, and Frank van Lerven on the BoE’s greening of its corporate bond purchases. Link. (And link to coverage in Bloomberg.) 

+   Jonas Meckling on the potential and limitations of green industrial policy. Link.

+   “To pursue the new policies within the old constitutional structures, policymakers engage in strategic ambiguity.” Jens van ’t Klooster on policy shifts without legislative change in the EU. Link

+   Michela Giorcelli and Nicola Bianchi on the Marshall Plan’s impacts on infrastructure in Italy. Link

+   “Combining new municipal and survey data from the Colombian armed conflict, I find evidence that the expansion of a land-intensive industry—African palm oil—precipitated opportunistic displacement by elites and paramilitary allies.” Juan Fernando Tellez on demand for land and displacement. Link.

+   “Efforts to marketize and commercialize agricultural credit through these projects often reflected mundane operational challenges as much as ideological shifts, and themselves largely failed even on their own terms.” Nick Bernards on the World Bank’s agricultural credit programs. Link.

+   Jason Feldman on the last year of the pandemic. Link.

+   A study of employment decentralization and the Black-White housing gap since the Great Recession, by Jared Ragusett. Link.  

+   “This paper focuses on the price of nails since 1695 and the proximate source of changes in those prices. First, from the late 1700s to the mid 20th century real nail prices fell by a factor of about 10 relative to overall consumer prices. These declines had important effects on downstream industries, most notably construction. Second, while declining materials prices contribute to reductions in nail prices, the largest proximate source of the decline during this period was multifactor productivity growth in nail manufacturing, highlighting the role of the specialization of labor and re-organization of production processes. Third, the share of nails in GDP dropped back from 0.4 percent of GDP in 1810—comparable to today’s share of household purchases of personal computers—to a de minimis share more recently; accordingly, nails played a bigger role in American life in that earlier period.” By Daniel Sichel. Link

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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