Occupy Vacant Buildings (With Valuable Economic Activity)

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 22 2011 12:15 PM

Occupy Vacant Buildings (With Valuable Economic Activity)

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The Franklin School

AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia

Via Julian Sanchez, I see that a misguided offshoot of the Occupy DC movement managed to briefly occupy the vacant Franklin School building which the city is looking to sell. Their idea was to stage a sit-in "vowing to stay inside the school until it is converted for community use." One of the protestors, Abigail DeRoberts, told The Washington Post "this building is not surplus, and we won't allow the city to give it away or turn it into a boutique hotel."

Obviousely the city shouldn't give the building away—it's valuable. But the presumption that it would somehow better-serve the public interest to turn a structure with a valuable location over to a non-profit use is mistaken. For starters, if the city sells the building that will raise funds that can be dedicated to public uses. Perhaps more importantly, if the building is in private hands it will generate enduring streams of tax revenue. Non-profits don't pay property taxes (which I think is a bad idea, but it is what it is) and don't generate taxable retail sales. Raising revenues through the tax code and spending them on useful service is a much more efficient way of providing services than is handing valuable property directly to non-profits at sub-market rates. Beyond the narrow question of revenue, downtown land in DC is scarce and it's important for the well-being of everyone in the city that it be allocated efficiently. There's a perfectly good reason "boutique hotel" is the idea that's out there. A location that's downtown, and specifically in the part of downtown that's near the Convention Center, is a location that provides a lot of benefits to a hotel operator. A historic structure seems to suggest a boutique hotel rather than a major chain. A social service provider doesn't gain any unique advantages from occupying a noteworthy structure or from having a downtown location. In the longer run, we'll have more employment and fewer social problems in the city if we let land that's ideally suited for hotel uses to be used for hotels. 

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Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.