Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day & Land Use

A very happy Veterans Day to all, with thanks to those who have served.  In honor of the day, here are a few desultory land use issues involving military veterans.

The idea of rewarding veterans for their service with grants of land is an ancient one.  I suspect it goes back at least to ancient Rome, and probably before.  Cincinnatus and all that.  It makes a lot of sense, historically, where cash-poor governments asking for or requiring military service have traditionally had one major asset to distribute: sovereign domain over land.  Part of this historical generosity is certainly due to gratitude for service, and part of it must also be the social concern over standing armies in peacetime.

After the Revolutionary War, the thirteen states and the Continental Congress had two major issues: (1) crippling debt from financing the war; and (2) a whole lot of land that was largely unsettled (by Anglo-Americans, that is) and unregulated--the territory from the Appalachian Proclamation of 1763 line to the Mississippi.  The solution?  First, get the states to cede their western claims to the national government.  After the Virginia Cession in 1784, Congress set about making a plan for the western lands.  The 1785 Land Ordinance and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance did not mention veterans  specifically, but they were part of the larger federal program designed to distribute and regulate the western territories with the notion of state land grants to Revolutionary War veterans in mind.  [I have a work in progress on the Northwest Ordinance and property rights].  For you property law fans, the ensuing government survey of the lands was part of what originated the political/geographic establishment of counties and townships across the western states.

So government policy has long favored helping veterans obtain land.  Harold Hyman wrote a really interesting book tracing the effects of this policy preference in the wake of major wars in American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a home loan guaranty program that allows qualified veterans to secure mortgage loans at favorable rates.  This has been around for a while.  Along with FHA loans, the VA loan program was instrumental in moving millions of veterans into single-family houses. 

The entire story of post-WWII suburban development is in large part a story about how to give veterans--who survived both the War and the Depression--a piece of the American Dream (and also about what to do with and where to put the 8+ million men and women suddenly out of uniform and getting to work on the Baby Boom).  The designers of Levittown(s) were mass-producing single-family suburban homes in large part because of the market imperative of housing returning veterans. 

At the state level, many states have additional programs that supplement the VA's federal benefits to veterans with respect to land- or home-ownership.  Texas, for example, has the Veterans Land Board, which is under the Texas General Land Office.  The Veterans Land Board has a number of loan programs with favorable terms for qualified veterans.  On November 3, 2009, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment to allow the Veterans Land Board to issue general obligation bonds to finance these programs. 

It's a credit to state and federal governments that we have these policies to reward those who have served.  The legitimate critical questions we should ask are whether these are the right policies to express that gratitude to veterans.  Like other government land use policies--such as Euclidean zoning, highway construction, tax breaks on mortgages--land programs for veterans have favored the single-family suburban lifestyle and have subsidized sprawl.  As Chad Emerson has blogged here, these policies seem to be continued in the federal government's responses to the economic crisis.  Can policy that favors veterans for their service be modified to mitigate today's land use problems?

Thanks again to all who have served.

Matt Festa

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