Photo illustration by Mark Byrnes

France is buzzing about a new book that tries to put a price tag on the city, while also tracing its pattern of property ownership over time.

If Paris were on sale, it could be yours for $956 billion. That, at least, is the price tag suggested by French historian Patrice de Moncan’s new book Que Vaut Paris? (How Much Is Paris Worth?), published in France this month. Written together with the head of the French National Real Estate Federation, Gilles Ricour de Bourgies, the book tallies up the total value of all property within Paris intra-muros, the historic core of the city's metropolitan area.

Residential apartments and houses, the book estimates, are worth $710 billion, while its office space could hypothetically be yours for $192 billion. Empty Paris's 84,000 shops of their contents, and their collective value is slightly under $54 billion. 

If that vast price tag nonetheless sounds a little cheap for a city packed with famous historic buildings, that’s because it is. The book’s authors have not included the price of monuments or important infrastructure like train stations in their figure, though they had a go at valuing 30 of these as a side project. The lavish Opera Garnier is a snip at $51.4 million, and the Louvre minus its contents would cost $10.5 billion. The Luxembourg Gardens, at the heart of Paris's most expensive arrondissement, would cost $13.5 billion, while the Eiffel Tower would cost just $3.8 billion.

Some of these estimates sure seem a little off. The figure for the Eiffel Tower is so low that, were it for sale, I might try to scrape the money together myself. The book has nonetheless sparked significant interest in France, and not just over this new set of hypothetical price tags.

It also looks at the changing pattern of property ownership over time. The conclusion: while Paris is old, its owners are actually quite new.

Paris's historical landowners, De Moncan points out, are just that – part of history. The church, which owned 55 percent of the city at the time of the revolution, now owns only 0.3 percent of inner Paris. While much church land was confiscated during the revolution, a substantial remaining chunk was also sold off in the 20th century, mainly so that the church could find funds to restore and maintain the historic properties they decided to keep. Proprietors of buildings hailing from the French nobility and haute bourgeoisie have also seen their share shrink. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90 percent of residential property was concentrated in the hands of a wealthy rentier class owning large buildings or portfolios of them. Now, that figure is just 16 percent. The state has partly filled this gap with social housing, while institutions have also stepped in to buy up property previously held by rentiers. That said, even banks and pension funds have sold off many of their Parisian holdings in the last 15 years.

It is individual owner-occupiers who have gobbled up the lion's share of all this relinquished property, beneficiaries of a post-war spike in living standards. Before World War II, the large majority of Parisians who didn't own an entire building rented an apartment from someone who did. Since then, Paris has largely switched to the condominium system, the number of condos growing from just 6,000 in 1950 to over 900,000 (out of a total of 1.3 million) in 2013. There are still many investors renting out apartments to others, but they tend to have smaller portfolios of individual flats. 

International absentee landlords have also muscled in, but they are not evenly distributed throughout the city, restricting themselves mainly to prestigious areas like the sixth and seventh arrondissements. At the moment, their presence in the Paris property market isn't radically altering it – in fact around St Germain des Pres, a key area for foreign buyers, rents are actually going down. With Paris rents stabilizing and tough new laws to keep them under control, Paris's half century of radical change could actually calm down. As De Moncan told L'Express, Paris's near future looks a lot like its present:

Co-proprietors [condominium owners] will remain the main owners of the capital, the city itself will keep Paris’ cultural patrimony and large scale property heirs will end up disappearing.

Top image: S.Borisov/Shutterstock.com, with illustration by Mark Byrnes.

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