Wednesday, 9 January 2013

SUMMER READING: Unaffordable housing? No wonder!

For your summer reading this part of January, some posts from this year’s archives you might have missed but are still relevant.

_HickeyONCE AGAIN BERNARD HICKEY offers the insalubrious example of a commentator who knows something is wrong, yet knows nothing about how to fix it. Nothing that is beyond yelling “Something Must be Done!” And by “something he means “someone.” And by someone, he means the government.

First, the problem:

Auckland and Christchurch now have massive shortages of waterproof and undamaged homes that regular families can afford to own…
    The Department of Building and Housing forecast this month that New Zealand needs to build around 20,000 to 23,000 housing units a year over the next five years to keep pace with population growth. Meanwhile New Zealand has been building at a rate below 15,000 a year for the last three years…
    The crisis has intensified since 1999 with the introduction of the Metropolitan Urban Limit and the revelations that an entire generation of homes is leaky and will have to be either reclad or rebuilt…
    This crisis is playing out in a variety of ways.
    There is, of course, a rise in homeless numbers. But the more obvious increase is simply in the price of homes and rents. Both are rising quicker than the wider inflation rate and price rises outside of Auckland and Christchurch. There is an inevitable reaction to this, which is for young Auckland and Christchurch workers and families, those who are not property owners, to simply give up.

He is right that rents are rocketing and new homes are becoming less and less affordable.  The annual Demographia study has shown for years that even during this Great Recession house prices as a proportion of income in New Zealand’s cities are among the highest in the developed world—and increasing*. And the Productivity Commission (from whom Hickey got his figures) point out that “for younger people and those on lower incomes there is a missing step on the property ladder, particularly in Auckland. The chances of them ever purchasing their first home are decreasing.”

He is right, too, that while would-be home-owners burn, governments in Auckland and Wellington continue to fiddle—with train sets in Auckland, and with a pathetic, partial, poorly-done privatisation programme in Wellington.

The problem then is this: what is to be done? And the problem with Hickey is, he has no bloody idea.

So like every simple statist who Wants Something Done, he simply cries that Gummint Should Do Something!

“Government-owned land would need to be opened up and town planners overruled,” says Hickey, getting it half right, before heading down the route of statists immemorial in calling for “taxpayer money … to be invested and lots of it.” Presumably building those affordable houses that the government has made it unprofitable for private builders to build, using resources that will cost more than the sale price.

imageIt’s the same “solution” put forward by Fran O’Sullivan (left) a few months back when she called for private land to be nationalised—expropriated outright by the grey ones—newly stolen land on which the Gummint Should Do Something.

Like O’Sullivan, Hickey is a business columnist. Yet just like her he has no idea how business works.

And they both write and talk about politics. But neither apparently have any conception of how politicians have caused the very “market failure” they describe. Because while calling for government to fix the problem by doing more, they never even bothered to ask themselves this fundamental question: whether it is government activity itself that has largely caused the problem.

And it has.

IN A NUTSHELL, THE big problem is that government has gone beyond right: it has passed laws giving the Reserve Bank the power to print money, bureaucrats the power to prescribe the methods and materials by which houses are built, and  planners the power to control and restrict people’s land.

Let’s look at these one at a time.

In recent years, the new money printed by the Reserve Bank (i.e., monetary inflation) has spilled over into the housing market, producing one housing “bubble” and thousands of NZers deluded into thinking their wealth has increased.

Meanwhile, the Department of Building and Housing were given the power to tell builders how to build houses. Rather than deregulation, which never happened here, builders have endured a flood of new regulation: producing pages and pages of gold-plated building regulations and a rise in the cost to build a house that has out-paced even the rate of house price rises.

And while the printing presses were going overtime printing new regulations and new money, the town planners were busy strangling land-owners and ring-fencing cities under the new powers given them by the Resource Management: the power, essentially, to restrict development of  new, affordable housing while charging builders and developers more for the “privilege” of trying to build something on their own land.

THE NET RESULT OF this three-pronged attack on property was to pump up demand with all those freshly-printed dollars while restricting the supply of the stuff they wanted to spend them on.

No wonder we saw a housing bubble.

No wonder price inflation on housing (which is all those price really increases were) went through the roof.

No wonder so many people were deluded by the price inflation into thinking they were becoming rich-instead of just seeing their dollars devalued.

No wonder land prices now account for up to 60% of the cost of a house in Auckland.

No wonder new homes tend to be at the top-end of the market.

No wonder things began to become insane, with the cost to build a house beginning to outstrip even the cost people were prepared to pay for it—meaning the model for speculative housing** (which has for decades been building the means by the vast majority of new affordable homes was built) is now permanently broken.

And as a simple measure of when affordable housing will be built again, it will be when the model for speculative house building returns.

How do we do that?

Simple. We stop what should never have been started.

We get rid of fiat money; we get rid of zoning; we shut planners up and put a stake through the heart of their Resource Management Act; we stop fighting so-called “sprawl” with “Urban Walls” and instead leave people free to develop their own land according to demand—according to people’s choices about how they actually want to live.***

In short, we give power back to builders and property owners to do what they do best, to properly service house buyers’ demand, while taking power away from those who only get in their way.

Yes, government could do more. It could do a whole lot more by doing a whole heck of a lot less.

And Bernard Hickey could either write less, or learn more.

* * * * *

* As the Annual Demographia Surveys ( ) clearly illustrate - households should not be paying any more than 3 times their annual household income to house themselves - with mortgage loads around 2.5 times.  Unfortunately in NZ’s major cities home-owners are now paying from 6 to 8 times their annual household income to house themselves , a figure that increases ever year.

** What is speculative house building? It’s when Joe Builder buys a site, builds a house on it, and sells it to Mr and Mrs New-Home-Owner for more than he’s shelled out—giving him a small profit which he can use to build his next one. This is how “spec” houses have been built since Adam was a lad—but now can’t be.

** The Productivity Commission in its recent report on affordable housing is only half-way there with its own solution, which would at least be a start. The Commission’s key recommendations include:

  • The urgent need for more land to be opened up for housing, especially in urban areas, because sections now average about 40% to 60% of the cost of a house.

  • Reconsideration of Auckland’s draft spatial plan. Auckland faces significant housing affordability challenges and the Commission found its current plan, with a target of accommodating 75% of new homes within existing urban boundaries, will be difficult to reconcile with affordable housing.

  • Improved processes for consenting, to speed up the service and lower costs.

  • Improving how local council development charges for infrastructure are calculated and applied, including making them reviewable. The Commission found the current model has too much regional variation and is not transparent.

Perhaps Mr Hickey and Ms O’Sullivan could read them?

(First posted Feb 20, 2012)

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