Tag Archives: real estate

“Empire State of Mind”: The Land Value of Manhattan, 1950-2013

What’s Manhattan Worth? A Land Values Index from 1950 to 2013.
by Jason Barr, Rutgers University (jmbarr@rutgers.edu), Fred Smith, Davidson College (frsmith@davidson.edu), and Sayali Kulkarni, Rutgers University (sayali283@gmail.com).
Abstract: Using vacant land sales, we construct a land value index for Manhattan from 1950 to 2013. We find three major cycles (1950 to 1977, 1977 to 1993, and 1993 to 2007), with land values reaching their nadir in 1977, two years after the city’s fiscal crises. Overall, we find the average annual real growth rate to be 5.1%. Since 1993, landprices have risen quite dramatically, and much faster than population or employment growth, at an average annual rate of 15.8%, suggesting that barriers to entry in real estate development are causing prices to rise faster than other measures of local well-being. Further, we estimate the entire amount of developable land onManhattan to be worth approximately $825 billion. This would suggest an average annual return of 6.3% since the island was first inhabited by Dutch settlers in 1626.

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:run:wpaper:2015-002&r=his [this link will download a Word copy of the paper to your computer]

Review by Manuel A. Bautista González (Columbia University)

“All cultures have their creation myths, and according to cherished New York legend, the Manhattan real estate market was born when the Dutch paid $24 in shells to the Indians for an island that is today worth billions of dollars. The persistence of this story tells us more about the justifying strategies of our own times than about the past. The Manhattan real estate market, the myth implies, is as natural as its bedrock and harbor, and real estate magnates who today pursue “the art of the deal” are only fulfilling their forefathers’ vision of the profits embedded in Manhattan land. The conditions of Manhattan’s land and housing markets, far from being part of the natural order of things, are rooted in a social history. It is, after all, people who organize, use, an allocate the benefits of natural and social resources, and the value they assign to land depends on the larger set of social relations that organize property rights and labor. […] How did land become “scarce”? […] Who profited, who lost, and what difference did the flow of rents make to New Yorkers’ understanding of their social responsibilities within a shared landscape […] The myth that celebrates a real estate deal as New York’s primal historical act lends an aura of inevitability to the real estate market’s power to shape the city landscape and determine the physical conditions of everyday life. New Yorkers today live in the shadows of deals that have produced the glitter of Trump Tower, the polished facades of renovated brownstones, and the shells of abandoned buildings. These shadows especially darken the paths of those who are getting a bad deal: the more than 50,000 people who have been displaced onto the city’s streets and sleep in doorways, subway stations, railroad terminals, or temporary shelters. Contemporary politicians invoke this landscape of light and shadows to point to the contradictions of of our time: a city that can indulge extravagant displays of wealth cannot afford to house its people.”

(Blackmar 1989: 1, 12)


Debates over the high market value of real estate and the unaffordable price of housing occupy a constant place in the public spheres of the major cities of the world, especially in those where land is already a very scarce factor and vertical, intensive urban development takes place in the form of tall buildings, towers and skyscrapers. However, historical perspectives on the real estate and housing markets are for the most part lacking in these discussions. In their paper, Jason Barr, Fred Smith and Sayali Kulkarni attempt to fill the gap for New York City, a capital of capital like no other, to borrow from the title of the book by financial historian Youssef Cassis (Cassis 2007). In their work, published in NEP-HIS 2015-04-11, the authors develop a land value index between 1950 and 2013 in Manhattan, the island that defines the Big Apple like no other borough does.

According to the deflated value of their index, the real value of real estate in Manhattan since 1950 has increased at an (otherwise impressive) average annual growth rate of 5.1%. The authors identify three long cycles: the first one, 1950-1977, roughly coincided with the golden era of Western capitalism, a skyscrapers boom and the demise of urban industries; the second one, 1977-1993, began with the consequences of white flight to the suburbs and fiscal crises in the city and lasted until the financial Big Bang of the late 1980s and early 1990s; and the third one, 1993-2007, manifested the impact of financialization of the U. S. economy, the rise of Manhattan as a services powerhouse, and the emergence of New York as a truly global city, in the sense proposed by the sociologist Saskia Sassen (Sassen 2001).

View of Manhattan from Top of the Rock Observation Deck, Sunday, May 20, 2012, 5:13 PM EST. A gift from the author to the loyal audience of the NEP-HIS blog.

View of Manhattan from Top of the Rock Observation Deck, Sunday, May 20, 2012, 5:13 PM EST. A gift from the author to the loyal audience of the NEP-HIS blog.

The authors go through the methodological problems of developing a land value index. The first problem has to do with whether one assesses the value of undeveloped land or whether one incorporates the constructions on it. The second problem is that of using either market prices or assessment of values for taxation purposes, for example. A third problem derives from the divergence of market prices and assessed values, a divergence which is considerable in the case of New York City during this period.

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