Housing affordability is a multi-faceted, complex issue. Concentration on just one aspect of the issue – be it housing supply, land supply, interest rates, construction costs or migration – will miss important aspects of why house prices vary in different locations at different times. In this briefing paper, we illustrate how differing facets of the housing market combine to produce diverse housing outcomes.
Common sense and observation of recent trends indicates that house prices reflect variables such as: population and migration, land availability (which is affected by both geographical and planning constraints), construction costs and financial factors (credit availability and interest rates). Government-funded rent and mortgage subsidies will also affect how much people can afford for housing and so will affect prices. These factors are included here in a simple framework, providing a systematic approach to understand house price outcomes. The approach is based on, and extends, published papers by the author as well as other influential papers on housing markets.
Four important relationships
The framework draws on four simple relationships that are at the core of determining housing market outcomes. These four key relationships combine to give outcomes (at the city level) for: house prices, population, land prices, and the housing stock (i.e. the number of dwellings in the city). These outcomes are driven by developments in other factors such as finance costs, construction costs and natural and civic amenities.
The first key relationship is for house prices. Theoretical and empirical work shows that house prices are determined primarily by the ratio of population to the housing stock and by finance costs. As the population rises relative to the available housing stock, house prices increase since people have to bid more to purchase (or rent) a dwelling. As interest rates (and other costs of servicing a mortgage) decline, people can afford to increase their expenditure on housing, so house prices rise. Another (often overlooked) feature of financing costs may also be very relevant for house prices. The greater are government-funded subsidies such as accommodation supplement, the greater is the amount that most renters and lower-income house buyers can afford to spend on housing, so rents and house prices will increase in price.
The second key relationship is for regional population. People are attracted to regions that have high wages, attractive natural amenities and attractive civic amenities. Their choice of location is also affected by the cost of housing (both rental and owner-occupied). If population is very responsive to housing costs then extra supply of dwellings may have little effect in dampening house prices since demand (through internal and external migration) will increase to fill the extra dwellings at near existing prices.
The third key relationship to consider is the responsiveness of new housing supply to changes in prices and costs. Over time, the supply of houses increases (or stagnates) until such time as the market price of houses equates to the sum of all costs of producing a new house. These costs include the price of land associated with the dwelling (i.e. the “lot price”), construction and other costs (including regulatory costs), plus a normal rate of return on capital. The sum of these costs ultimately equals the house price, with changes in the lot price being the most important factor in equating house prices to costs.
This brings us to the fourth key relationship, which is for lot prices. For a given city, the average lot price rises as the local population rises. As the population increases, the price of existing land close to the city centre (or to town centres) becomes more sought after so increases in price. While the lot price on the urban fringe may stay low – though this will be determined crucially by the strength of planning and geographic constraints – the increased price of land in existing parts of the city will increase the average lot price of the city.
The four relationships described above all relate to long term outcomes. While short term outcomes may diverge temporarily from the long term relationships (e.g. due to “fads” or to short term migration swings), an understanding of these four relationships enables us to trace through how economic shocks (e.g. a change in global interest rates) or policy shifts (e.g. a change in costs levied on developers) eventually affect house prices, land prices, population and the housing stock.
We demonstrate the inter-relationships within the housing market by adopting a systems approach that incorporates all four long term relationships just described. We can use this system to evaluate the effects of various developments on housing outcomes. We base our model on published estimates of the effects of the various factors on New Zealand housing market outcomes. Informed by recent Auckland experience, we allow the lot price to form half of the total house price (e.g. a $700,000 house comprises land worth $350,000 and a building worth $350,000). We do not have strong evidence on the effects of population increase on land prices, but assume initially that a 1% rise in population results in a 1% rise in average land values; we also assume that a 1% rise in house prices results in a 0.2% decline in population as people migrate out of the city.
These parameters give us a baseline estimate of responsiveness of the housing market to specific developments. The development that we will concentrate on here is an increase in the number of people wishing to move to Auckland. The assumed increase in population is equal to 10% of Auckland’s existing population holding all other factors constant (we term this a “population shock”). In fact, all other factors will not be constant and the adjustments to these other factors (such as house prices) will affect the final number of people who end up moving to the city.
The first group of bars in the accompanying figure show the baseline estimate of the impact of a 10% flow of people to Auckland on house prices, land prices, actual population and the number of dwellings. Land prices rise (by an estimated 9.1%) in response to the influx of people and this land price rise pushes up house prices by 4.4%. The rise in house prices has two effects. It leads to greater house-building, though this is constrained somewhat by the higher land prices, so the number of dwellings increases by only 6.9%. Higher house prices also deter some people from moving to Auckland, so the population rises by around 9% rather than the full 10% of people initially wanting to move to Auckland. There are now more people per house than previously since the population rises faster than does the housing stock (i.e. crowding increases).
The second group of bars simulates the same population shock but now we assume that land prices are very responsive to the extra population (e.g. because planning laws are very restrictive in allowing extra land for housing). Now we find that land prices skyrocket by almost 25% in response to the same population pressures. This leads to an 11.6% rise in house prices. These house price rises curtail the population inflow, so that population increases by only 7.6% (rather than the 9.1% in the baseline simulation). The skyrocketing land price restricts new housing development so that the stock of dwellings now increases by only 2.4% and household crowding becomes much more severe than before.
Thirdly, we assume the same responsiveness of land prices to population as in the baseline simulation, but now change the responsiveness of population to house prices. We now assume that every 1% rise in house prices reduces population by 1% (rather than by just 0.2% in the previous two simulations). This yields the third set of bars in the figure, again in response to the initial 10% population shock. The rise in land and house prices following the initial population pressures now deters people from settling in Auckland so that the population increase is just 6.6%. The reduced population inflow means that there is less pressure on house prices which now increase by just over 3%. Crowding pressures are no longer as severe as in the other cases as the housing stock increases by 5%, just short of the population increase.
What do we learn from these examples?
These simulations tell us that each aspect of the housing market interacts with each other aspect as a system. One cannot look just at housing supply, or housing demand or immigration to judge its impact on housing outcomes. All these aspects must be considered together. The same shock (e.g. a sudden rise in the number of people wishing to settle in Auckland) can have very different housing outcomes depending on the responsiveness of some factors to others.
Two facets of responsiveness that we have concentrated on here are: (i) the response of population to house prices, and (ii) the response of land prices to population. If population is very responsive to house prices, then house and land price movements will be more muted than when the responsiveness is low. This factor essentially reflects one aspect of the demand for housing.
The second factor relates to the supply of housing. If land prices are very responsive to population size, then house and land prices will react strongly to an influx of population. That the same shock can lead to either a 6% rise or a 25% rise in land prices depending on just these two factors shows the importance of considering all responses in determining what happens to housing outcomes following economic shocks.
We may have little power to affect how people’s location choice responds to house prices, but we do have some ability to affect how responsive land prices are to population pressures. Planning laws that constrain the amount of greenfields land available for new housing or that limit the ability to intensify in existing areas (i.e. the ability to use less land per dwelling) increase the responsiveness of land prices to population inflows. The increased rise in land prices then induces a larger rise in house prices for the same population shock.
Thus while many demand and supply factors interact with each other to affect house prices, we are able to moderate their final impacts through policy choices. It then becomes a political economy question as to whether or not we wish to implement policies to counteract a situation whereby house prices have become so high as to price many ordinary New Zealanders (and almost all poorer New Zealanders) out of buying a house in Auckland. Our work shows that we do not need to accept this situation.
One avenue to help address it is to increase the availability of land (both through enabling intensification and opening up greenfields land) so as to bring land prices and house prices back down to more affordable levels. Even then, however, we have to consider how all the factors appearing in our four relationships interact with each other to understand the overall effects of such a policy change on the outcomes of policy interest. If population flows are rather unresponsive to house prices, freeing up the land supply should bring down house prices and have little effect on population levels. By contrast, if population flows are very responsive to house prices, then freeing up land supply will be reflected principally in an influx of population with only a secondary effect on land and house prices. The responsiveness of population is an empirical issue, but one that may be affected by some policy settings such as migration policy and housing assistance policies. For instance, if housing assistance does not rise with an increase in housing costs, then a house price or rent rise may deter significant numbers of people from living in Auckland. Again, it is a political economy issue as to how the populace and policy-makers wish to treat these various outcomes.
 Arthur Grimes & Andrew Aitken (2010) “Housing Supply, Land Costs and Price Adjustment”, Real Estate Economics, 38(2), 325-353; and Arthur Grimes & Sean Hyland (2015) “Housing Markets and the Global Financial Crisis: The Complex Dynamics of a Credit Shock”, Contemporary Economic Policy, 33(2), 315-333. An analysis of regulatory costs in relation to Auckland housing is reported in: Arthur Grimes & Ian Mitchell (2015) “Impacts of Planning Rules, Regulations, Uncertainty and Delay on Residential Property Development,” Motu Working Paper 15-02, www.motu.org.nz.
 For instance, based on Grimes and Hyland, op. cit., we assume that house prices rise by 2.2% if the population rises by 1% relative to the housing stock in a city.
 Specifically we now assume that a 1% rise in population induces a 3% rise in land prices.
In 2014, Auckland University of Technology started up a great initiative called “Briefing Papers“. The aim of the project is to contribute to a more informed conversation on major issues facing New Zealand society.
Since July, Briefing Papers has been running a series on housing. They’ve solicited input from almost a dozen researchers and commentators (including me!) to take a look at all angles of the issue.
Briefing Papers has kindly allowed us to syndicate them. The first paper is by Shamubeel and Selena Euqub, based on their book Generation Rent:
Home ownership is a defining characteristic of being a Kiwi. It had been an attainable aspiration for more in each generation, but it ended with the baby boomers. After rising for nearly a century, home ownership has been falling since 1991 and is now at the lowest level since 1951.
Home ownership has fallen because houses have become unaffordable. House prices have risen much faster than incomes. Even for double income families, buying a home can now mean massive sacrifices, including some parents leaving their young children in care for up to 11 hours a day and facing long commutes to work.
Unaffordability is extreme, but it is relatively recent and only in some places.
Until the early 1990s house prices were around 3 times annual household incomes. Today, it is over 6 times. There are differences in interest rates, inflation and other policy settings when comparing generational experiences, but the end result is lower affordability and fewer homeowners.
Unaffordability is uneven across the country. While house prices are very cheap in places like Southland (around 2 times annual incomes), they are exorbitant in Auckland, at over 10 times.
In Auckland, the average house price is nearly $840,000. The average income for a family is around $80,000 a year. At current historically low interest rates, this equates to mortgage payments of nearly 60% of income. If interest rates rose to historical norms, mortgage payments would be two-thirds of a family’s income. The average family cannot buy the average house.
Too often we hear that house prices would be lower only if:
we just stop foreigners from buying; and
we just stop immigration.
Besides, there is no problem, all global cities are expensive. Right?
If we look at these claims in turn we find some truth in them, but they do not explain the situation in full. Data on foreign ownership is sketchy, but we estimate non-New Zealanders purchase fewer than 10% of homes. Foreign investors are the most prominent of this group. Immigration has certainly added about 20% to housing demand; most of the housing demand growth results from natural population growth and smaller families. In terms of the inevitability of expensive housing if Auckland is to be a truly global city, housing in Auckland is less affordable than housing in Sydney: Auckland’s population is a third of Sydney’s, and while house prices are similar, incomes are a third lower in Auckland.
There are some legitimate concerns:
poor tax policies (negative gearing rules are a form of reverse welfare for the rich);
a preferential bias to housing in our banking rules (its cheaper and easier for banks to lend to residential mortgages than businesses);
and a complete mess in supply of housing, which encompasses planning rules, funding and provision of infrastructure, NIMBYs and an immature construction/development sector.
The drivers of unaffordable housing are political, cultural and regulatory.
Unaffordable housing is locking Kiwis out of a critical part of our culture. But also a critical requirement for many other things, including getting capital to start a business or being able to retire on national superannuation, which is only possible with a fully paid off home.
Rising house prices have been a boon for property owners. But with falling home ownership, the benefits are accruing to fewer and fewer people. For future generations, there is an increasing risk that only those with help or bequest from their parents will own homes. The egalitarian dream of equal access to opportunities, including the opportunity to buy a home, will be a lie. New Zealand is well down the path of a hereditary system of wealth and success, like the ‘old country’. The new landed gentry will do everything they can to preserve their wealth and influence. Generation rent is fragmented and as yet voiceless.
Yet, generation rent is a pretty large and increasing segment of society. In the 2013 Census, 52% of over 15 year olds lived in a rental property (and 57% in Auckland). Renters are typically young (under 40) but people of every age are increasingly more likely to rent. Even though majority of adults rent, renting is a raw deal. Compared to our peers, New Zealand has some of the most restrictive rental policies in the world. Renting is a precarious existence, characterised by low quality buildings, short terms, and often few rights to small alterations or even owning pets.
Unaffordable housing is also pushing the poor further away, risking the kind of ghettoization that is the hallmark of unenviable places like Johannesburg. Being poor is getting more expensive, as gentrification pushes the poor to the least desirable locations with few resources like public transport and amenities.
Houses have become unaffordable over a long period, which is why home ownership has been falling for over two decades. Poor tax policy and easing financial settings have encouraged and abetted housing investment, which has driven out younger first-home buyers. Slow housing supply, encompassing density, height, ‘greenfields’ and all the infrastructure that goes with it, has been the main factor. A small and shallow construction sector cannot respond fast enough to rapid changes in demand from net migration and interest rates.
We propose a number of solutions in our book, Generation Rent. We think some immediate palliative care can be provided, by fixing the rental market (improving security of tenure and making a rental more like a home) and a shift in attitudes towards renting and property investments would stop alienating half of New Zealanders who rent. But the real deal are structural policy changes that are hard. We need to increase the supply of housing (change planning rules, deal effectively with NIMBYs, sustainable and equitable funding model for infrastructure). We need to fix banking sector biases to housing – current rules are inflating the property market and misallocating credit away from productive businesses. Fix tax rules on capital gains on investment property and investigate negative gearing to remove the tax bias to investing in housing. This needs to be hand in hand with improving financial literacy – so that people can invest wisely, not just in housing.
The housing market is broken as a result of broken policies of many decades. Fixing them will take time but we know what needs to happen. What is needed now is leadership from our politicians and policy designers – and intense pressure from the public to make these changes, which are unpopular with a small but powerful vested interest group.
House prices in Auckland are high and rising, which is causing concern in many quarters. But do we know what sort of effects high house prices may have on New Zealand society, now and in the future?
Politicians and commentators from all quarters have argued that they are undermining the equity of New Zealand society by making it harder for young people to buy houses and squeezing household budgets. Here, for example, are some recent comments from Finance Minister Bill English:
The Finance Minister agrees rising house prices in Auckland are making inequality worse by shutting low and middle-income earners out of the property market.
Opposition parties say rising inequality is not only hurting those who cannot afford to buy a home, but is also bad for the economy.
Bill English said house prices were making life tougher for low and middle income earners in Auckland and said inequality was a problem.
“We’ve been concerned about that for some time, that there’s parts of Auckland where there’s been really no new supply of lower value houses that low and middle-income families can afford.”
I’ve seen Minister English making similar comments elsewhere – saying that limited housing supply is worsening poverty and inequality. How true is this?
First, here’s a graph showing indexed house prices, rents, and consumer price levels over the last two decades. While housing prices have been rising faster than the CPI throughout this period, house prices have really only taken off dramatically since 2002. Meanwhile, rents have risen at a more consistent pace:
Keep that timing in mind. Most of the increase in Auckland’s house prices has occurred between 2002 and 2008, and again since 2012.
So now, let’s take a look at what’s been happening to inequality over the same time period. Here’s a useful chart from a Stuff article on the topic. It looks at the 80-20 ratio – i.e. the ratio of incomes for a household near the top of the earning distribution (80th percentile) to one near the bottom (20th percentile). While it’s not a perfect measure, as it misses outcomes at the upper and lower tails, it does seem to track with the Gini coefficient, another common measure.
Essentially, what this measure is telling us is that income inequality rose during the late 1980s and early 1990s, during NZ’s painful economic restructuring, flattened, and then trended down slightly since the mid-2000s. Importantly, the same basic trends hold true even after taking housing costs into account, which suggests that rising Auckland house prices haven’t altered the underlying dynamics of income inequality:
Hon BILL ENGLISH: Well, the facts as laid out in the annual report issued by the Government agency initiated by the previous Labour Government, and now backed up by the OECD, show that income inequality in New Zealand has been flat to falling in recent years, and, on average, it has remained unchanged for the last 15 years.
This does not necessarily mean that we can be sanguine about the impact of housing costs on New Zealand society. For one thing, statistics published in the Ministry of Social Development’s most recent (2014) Household Incomes in New Zealand report suggest that the share of households paying more than 30% of their income for housing has risen since the early 2000s. These changes seem to have affected households across all five quintiles of income, albeit to varying degrees. However, from an equity perspective they’re dwarfed by the impact of early-1990s changes to social welfare and housing policy:
Another issue is that rising house prices may be causing inequality of wealth to increase. The distribution of household wealth has received more attention in recent years, e.g. in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which analysed trends in wealth and income distributions over the past two centuries.
There are reasons to believe that higher house prices may increase wealth inequality. For example, 2013 Census data shows that upper-income households are much more likely to own, partly own, or hold in a family trust their primary residence. 80% of households earning over $100,000 per annum own their houses, compared with only 52% of households earning less than $30,000.
However, we simply don’t have enough recent data to form robust conclusions about the impact of rising house prices on wealth inequality. During the 2000s, the Survey of Family, Income, and Employment (SoFIE) did collect some data on household wealth. An analysis of the 2003/2004 data showed that wealth was much more unevenly distributed than income – 51.8% of all net wealth was held by the richest 10% of New Zealanders.
As SoFIE was discontinued in 2010, we have no way of knowing whether or not wealth inequality has increased during the most recent run-up in Auckland house prices. Consequently, I’d say that a hypothesised link between house prices and wealth inequality is potentially concerning, but unproven. If the Finance Minister is concerned about that issue, I’d recommend that he re-start SoFIE so we can get a better idea of whether rising house prices have coincided with rising wealth inequality.
Finally, commentators should note that this post isn’t arguing for or against any particular policy directed at inequality or the housing market. It’s just taking a look at the data (or lack of data) on the topic. With that in mind, what’s your perspective on the link between housing and inequality?
The Productivity Commission has released a draft report called Using Land for Housing which looks at options for how more land can be made available for development. At first blush that may sound like code for “open up lots of greenfield land for development” however the report appears to actually look at many of the issues in a holistic way giving a fairly balanced outcome. On a first skim through I agree with most of the changes the commission has suggested.
Before I go into the recommendations I think it’s useful to highlight that the commission start off by showing a good understanding of why cities are important. This is from a short summary document however there is a more detailed discussion in the draft paper. I think this is important as far too often if feels like many see and treat cities – particularly Auckland – like some kind of unnatural aberration sucking the value out of the rural areas.
Cities are national assets. They provide a wide range of jobs, higher incomes, generate higher productivity and raise the prosperity of surrounding regions. Cities also offer access to amenities not available elsewhere, such as specialised health and education services. Allowing cities to grow and accommodate new residents can help improve the wellbeing not just of the people who live there, but also those elsewhere in the country.
The main recommendations revolve around a few key categories, namely: planning/regulation, infrastructure and overcoming existing barriers/behaviour.
The recommendation that’s probably gained probably the most attention so far falls into that last category and is the suggestion of setting up Urban Development Authorities (UDA) – much like Auckland Council is already doing by merging Waterfront Auckland and their property CCO. They say a UDA could assemble, rezone and prepare for development large parcels of greenfield or brownfield and then partnering with private developers to build at scale. This seems pretty much identical to what’s being going on at Wynyard Quarter.
What’s gaining attention though is a suggestion that these UDAs could have powers of compulsory acquisition which would help in assembling suitable land and address issues such as land banking. It’s worth noting that compulsory acquisition was possible in the past and I believe is partly how the former Waitakere City Council was able to buy up large amounts of the town centre – although the government has currently removed the ability to do so in future.
They also suggest these UDA’s could help capture some of the increased value that occurs from the development. Overall I think the idea of a UDA is a good one although I can certainly understand the concerns about giving so much power to them.
Looking at the other parts of the report, they say that one of the current issues is that existing homeowners have a disproportionate influence on local political processes as they are the ones who benefit the most from restricting supply in their area – thereby inflating the value of their own property/s. This then gives those homeowners greater incentive to be more politically active and push for regulations that restrict development opportunities. This is of course exactly what we saw happen in the Unitary Plan discussions.
To counter this the commission suggest that councils engage in more sophisticated consultation processes and giving the government more say in planning processes. I do agree with the first point but the second I’m not so sure about given the past comments from the likes of Nick Smith.
The commission specifically call out a number of planning regulations that have been imposed – often by the processes above – that have made it much more difficult and costly to develop urban land thereby reducing density. They make the following recommendations in this regard saying we should:
remove District Plan balcony / private open space requirements for apartments;
review minimum apartment size rules in their District Plans, with a view to removing them (once the MBIE has completed planned work on updating Building Code rules and guidance related to air quality, lighting, acoustics and access in multi-unit dwellings);
remove District Plan minimum parking requirements and make more use of techniques for managing traffic demand;
lift current building height limits where it cannot be demonstrated that the benefits outweigh the costs; and
undertake robust cost-benefit analyses before considering the introduction of building height limits.
We have addressed all of these points in the past, especially the minimum parking requirement issue so it’s great to see the commission pick up on these points.
There is quite an extensive amount of discussion on the issue of the provision of infrastructure and how it is funded. In short they suggest funding constraints – often from the political processes mentioned earlier – makes it difficult for core infrastructure such as water and roads to be built in advance so it is done piecemeal which adds extra costs to the process.
They suggest that councils need additional tools to both help manage demand on existing infrastructure and to help fund new infrastructure that supports growth. They particularly point out that the government need to allow for road pricing on existing roads where it can be justified.
They also want to see more variable pricing in things like water connections. The example of Watercare is used which charges a flat fee for any new connection however they say that distorts costs and reduces transparency. Instead they think the charge should be influenced by local conditions i.e. if connecting a new dwelling an area has excess capacity in the network then that could be cheaper to connect to the network than a house on the edge of town in a new subdivision that needs new pipes installed.
Interestingly the specifically call out as not practical a few finance methods often suggested by those pushing greenfield growth such as Tax increment financing (TIF) and Municipal utility districts (MUDs). They do call for greater use of targeted rates to pay for local infrastructure though, for example the costs of the core infrastructure to new developments mentioned above could perhaps be paid off by a targeted rate levied against that area so it doesn’t impact on the rates of the rest of the city.
A few other recommendations around rates are made. This includes that council rates should be based on land values not capital values as it would encourage “land to flow to its highest value use”. It also suggests that the government should pay rates on core crown land including hospitals and schools. This is for the same reason as having rates based on land values, to encourage the best use of it. It’s one recommendation that I’m sure won’t be implemented. I would like to see rates paid by other organisations too such as churches. An example I highlighted the other day on twitter was this one up around Oteha with huge amounts of land dedicated to parking that pays almost nothing in rates due to being a church. Note: this is not a debate about or an attack on religion.
There are a number of other recommendations and in the interests of space and time I won’t cover them all. All up it seems like a fairly well balanced report that importantly recognises that cities and density are important. If you want to make a submission, you need to do so by 4 August.
I was a bit surprised to hear the Property Institute of New Zealand warn of an “apartment bubble” in Auckland earlier this week. I was even more surprised when I read their press release. The CEO, Ashley Church, is predicting a bubble as a response to 1) banks being likely to decrease their deposit thresholds on apartments from 20% to 15%, and 2) the Reserve Bank potentially bringing in “loan-to-income restrictions”, where mortgagees would then only be able to borrow X times their income.
The press release then gives a hypothetical chain of events:
1. The Reserve Bank restricts mortgage loans to a percentage of household income – effectively making the purchase of freestanding residential homes almost impossible to all but the very wealthy.
2. With median household incomes of just $76,500 – home buyers flock to the apartment market to find properties which comply with the new rules.
3. The relaxed deposit rules, by the major banks, allow buyers to borrow a little more if the apartment is new – (on average, a little over $400,000 if we adopt the Brit formula) – and this combination fuels a new wave of apartment building and streamlined marketing programs designed to entice buyers.
4. Property Investors – many of whom have also been caught by the new rules – also start buying apartments in large numbers.
5. The combined effect of this new wave of buyers quickly pushes up the price of apartments – fuelling an ‘apartment bubble’.
6. Perversely – the quality of new apartments suffers as developers focus on the ‘low-end’ of the market so as to appeal to as wide a range of potential buyers, within the Reserve Bank rules, as possible.
7. Meanwhile, the cost of renting free-standing homes in Auckland also increases as demand outstrips supply due to the absence of traditional property investors buying these types of properties.
8. Within 7 to 10 years Auckland becomes a highly ‘intensified’ city with large numbers of low quality apartments dotting the landscape and free-standing residential homes becoming the preserve of the well-off and wealthy renters.
However, this chain of events misses out half of what defines a bubble. He’s postulated a rise in prices, sure. But where does the subsequent decrease happen? To me, this sounds like a recipe for a one-off, permanent increase in apartment prices. A permanent shift in the demand curve, as it were. I’m not making any predictions on apartment prices, I’m just pointing out that the chain of events here doesn’t actually include a drop in prices, and therefore isn’t a bubble.
Moving on from that (rather important) point, there are a lot of other strange things in this press release. Firstly, it seems a bit far-fetched that the Reserve Bank would impose harsh restrictions to the extent that only “the very wealthy” could afford freestanding homes, and the press release also ignores the price response (i.e. prices would drop, and many people would still end up in those homes – there aren’t enough “very wealthy” people to fill them all up).
Secondly, if the Reserve Bank is going to clamp down on Auckland home loans, it’ll be because they’re worried about a city-wide bubble. I’d say this is a much bigger concern than an apartment bubble – it’d affect a lot more people.
Point 7 is one I’ve been reading a few variations of recently, which doesn’t follow from economic intuition. If landlords drop out of the market, do rents to rise? Given that each landlord dropping out of the market means there’s an owner-occupier there instead – and therefore a smaller rental market on both sides – the effect on rents might go either way.
Points 6 and 8 in the chain of events are odd too, essentially scaremongering about large numbers of low-quality apartments. The press release continues in a similar vein:
Mr Church says that he is aware that a focus on ‘intensification’ through building more apartments is consistent with the Auckland Unitary Plan and that some might see this outcome as a good thing – but he notes that this provision is also strongly rejected by a large number of Aucklanders and shouldn’t be forced on the city by the Reserve Bank.
“The drive for Intensification is based on a political ideology and is rejected by a large number of Aucklanders. It should only happen if Aucklanders want it”.
It’s a strangely political statement itself, coming from an organisation which began as the professional body for valuers. The PINZ’s statement in March that “the Reserve Bank Governor needs to “stop chasing shadows and stick to his knitting” seems a bit ironic.
As an aside, I think it’s great that the banks reviewing their lending policies on apartments; after all, it’s a more established market now than it was ten years ago, and there’s (hopefully) a lot less speculation going in that market than there was in the mid-2000s boom-bust. The banks will still be cautious about lending for leaky or leasehold buildings, and perhaps shoeboxes, and once those are taken out of the equation the apartments that are left should have a manageable level of risk.
As someone who uses statistics (and statistical methods) on a regular basis, I often find that the “headline figures” that get all the attention obscure as much as they reveal. For example, reporting a single benefit-cost ratio (BCR) for a project may conceal uncertainty about potential outcomes.
When talking about data, there’s a strong tendency to focus on the average value, without considering the variation in outcomes. So, for example, we get news articles like this:
Auckland house prices climbed to a fresh record last month, while the number of sales dropped from March’s peak, according to Barfoot & Thompson.
The average sale price rose to $804,282 in April, from March’s previous record $776,729, the city’s largest realtor said.
Averages are certainly useful, but it would also be helpful to know more about how the distribution of house values has changed. For example: perhaps the average is being dragged up by the sale of a small number of really expensive homes? It’s hard to know.
In fairness, the article does provide this data suggesting that there is a fair range of prices. But we don’t know whether the number of homes sold for under $500,000 is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same:
“157 homes sold during the month went for under $500,000, which represents one in seven of all homes sold. There is a good choice of homes in this price category but LVRs often mean potential buyers cannot meet the home deposit requirements.”
As an illustration of why we can’t rely solely upon measures of central tendency, such as the mean or median value, consider two hypothetical cities:
City A has an average house price of $500,000, and a standard deviation in house prices of $50,000. (As a rule of thumb, if your data follows a normal distribution, 95% of values will be found within two standard deviations of the average. In other words, in city A, 95% of houses are sold for between $400,000 and $600,000.)
City B, by contrast, has an average house price of $600,000 and a standard deviation in house prices of $150,000. (Implying that 95% of houses are sold for between $300,000 and $900,000.)
I’ve graphed the distribution of house prices in these two cities below. City A is in blue, while city B is in red.
We can immediately see two things. First, the average house in A – found at the peak of the bell curve – is cheaper than the average house in B.
A second key fact, however, is that B actually offers more affordable houses overall, in spite of its higher average prices. This can be seen pretty easily on the chart – B has a much fatter “tail” of low-priced houses than A does.
Let’s think about what these two cities offer for households on lower incomes. Consider what house-hunting looks like for a household earning $50,000 a year.
If these people were basing their decisions on where to live on average house prices alone, they’d clearly prefer to live in city A, where average prices are $100,000 lower. But once they got there, they’d have a lot of trouble finding a home that they could afford.
Because city A has such little variation in house prices, it’s hard to find any houses that sell for less than $400,000. Assuming a 10% down-payment and a 6% mortgage rate, our household would have to pay $26,000 in mortgage repayments every year for the cheapest house on the market. Over 50% of their annual income!
By contrast, if they’d looked behind the headline figures on average house prices, they would find that city B offers many more affordable homes. Around 5% of homes in city B sell for less than $350,000, and it’s possible to find homes for $300,000 or less.
Under the same mortgage assumptions, our household would have to pay around $19-22,000 in mortgage repayments every year to live in a cheaper house in city B. This still isn’t great – it’s around 40% of household income – but it’s better.
In other words, although the first city seems more affordable based on its average house prices, it is actually likely to be considerably less affordable for many of the real human beings that are trying to live in it.
How do you think we should measure and report on house prices?
On the Weekend TV3’s The Nation discussed what could end up being one of the defining issues of the next few decades, generational inequality. At its most basic it’s the idea that through various policy decisions older generations have effectively pulled up the ladder behind them on issues such as housing and infrastructure thereby making it much more difficult for younger generations. This is also something that’s not unique to New Zealand and the same issues are also being grappled with in many western countries.
First up on The Nation was Shamubeel Eaqub from the NZ Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) talking primarily about housing and how that it’s not just about home ownership but that it is likely to have other impacts throughout society such as pushing out poorer people further away from the city and the opportunities it can offer while saddling them with higher transport costs.
Following this The Nation hosted a debate (two segments) between a Baby boomers represented by former National MP Tau Henare, Former National Party President Michelle Boag and Otago University Economist Simon Chapple and ‘Team Gen X and Y’ represented by Morgan Foundation Economist Geoff Simmons, Green MP Julie Anne Genter and former Salient Editor Asher Emanuel.
In my view the contrast between the two groups was stark. The younger were much more calm and composed, they seemed to have come prepared with facts and were able to (or at least attempted to) use them. By comparison the boomers (with perhaps the exception of Simon) where shouty and arrogant and best summed up by Michelle Boag’s closing comment of “Don’t give me evidence”. Another thing I noticed was that quite often when trying to say that they had it tough the boomers were actually referring to the experiences of their parents struggling to get by which in many ways is one of the core points of the generational debate. Older generations worked hard to give their boomer kids a better future but those boomers are increasingly putting in place polices that make it difficult for younger generations to do the same.
The debate primarily focused on housing. As expected there were of the typical old chestnuts that often get trotted out in this kind of debate. These include:
That parents help out their children to get in to homes. This was quite well addressed by Shamubeel in the first section who noted that it’s only good if you happen to be born to parents who own a house.
That “Back in the 70’s/80’s we paid higher interest rates” came up fairly quickly but the reality is a high interest rate on a cheap house is still probably better off than a low interest rate on a very expensive house. It would be interesting if anyone has worked out the differences however a quick google search did find this from Stats NZ showing that we’re now spending over 2.5 times more on housing than we did in the past and given this is at a national level it’s probably even higher in Auckland
Our (our parents) generation used to move further out and buy a small bach and live in it for a couple years while saving up money to buy or build something larger. One of the issues with this is that we appear to be seeing a correction in land prices back to more historical trends where land prices closer to town are much higher, that means buying a house further out and saving money can still be a futile effort. Regardless, if anything this generations version of it is buying a small apartment or town house. The problem is if we want people to have starter homes we need to enable the construction of small and cheaper dwellings.
That also raises another issue that was highlighted in that there is an element of regulatory capture in urban planning. Existing home owners in desirable areas have used the planning process to prevent any new housing to be developed in their neighbourhoods, thus driving up the value of their houses. Any moves to change that are met with strong opposition come election time so politicians are too scared to do anything.
There were a few other related issues too such as education, employment and superannuation.
Demographia state that planning regulations – or, more precisely, metropolitan urban limits – cause houses to be unaffordable. Without planning, they claim that the median house would cost no more than 3 times the median household income.
Is this claim actually true? Last week, I took a look at some recent research by New Zealand economists that found that Auckland’s planning regulations had a much lower cost than Demographia think. (But still a substantial cost, especially for apartments.) So that’s evidence against Demographia’s claims.
But to really test the robustness of their analysis, I’m going to attempt what mathematicians call a proof by contradiction. My aim is to show that it cannot be the case that planning is the only factor that is pushing the median multiple above three for standalone houses. In order to prove that I will have to show that Demographia’s claims are mathematically impossible.
Somewhat to my surprise, this is not particularly difficult.
The first step in the proof is to consider the channels through which planning regulations can impact the cost of housing. They can:
Constrain the supply of bare land for development, which will tend to drive up the price of land
Limit the number or size of dwellings that you can build on a site
Impose cost, delay, and uncertainty in the regulatory process, which may scare some people off entirely.
Consequently, I’m going to look at what houses would cost if only construction costs mattered. No land costs, no consenting requirements, or anything else. That way, we can be certain that we’re not accidentally including any costs that arise as a result of planning regulations.
If the cost to physically build an average house is greater than three times the median household income, then planning regulations cannot possibly explain all of the difference between observed prices and Demographia’s preferred median multiple of three. For Demographia to be correct, land costs would have to be negative in the absence of planning regulations. As this is a logical impossibility, this would be sufficient to prove that Demographia’s estimates of the cost of planning regulations in New Zealand cities are too high.
Without further ado, here are my calculations. I’ve drawn this data from several reliable sources:
Construction cost data for different cities from a recent edition of Rawlinsons Construction Cost Handbook, a reliable source on building costs. I’ve used the midrange of their estimated costs for a single-storey weatherboard home – the most common, cheapest option on the market.
Statistics NZ’s building consents data, which shows that over the last 10 years the average size of new residential dwellings has been around 190 m2. (This is actually likely to under-state the size of new houses, as it also includes apartments. Also, note that it’s necessary to go into Infoshare to actually access the data.)
Median household income (2013)
Average build cost ($/m2)
House size (m2)
Total build cost ($/house)
Median multiple of build costs
Fairly remarkable results. The costs of physically building an average-sized house in four New Zealand cities ranges from 3.5 times the median household income (Wellington) to 5.7 times (Dunedin). The “median multiple of build costs” seems to always be above three.
We have just shown that planning regulations cannot fully explain the difference between house prices in New Zealand cities and the prices that would be implied by a median multiple of three. That is, in fact, a logical impossibility. Demographia seems to be over-stating their case, probably substantially. Quod erat demonstrandum.
However, it does look like construction sector productivity might be a bit of an issue. Different sources disagree on whether New Zealand faces higher construction costs than Australia and other countries. In its 2012 Housing Affordability Inquiry, the Productivity Commission suggested that pay more for construction. On the other hand, a rather excellent NZIER report that benchmarked construction costs against Australia found that we don’t.
So who knows what to think? Economists, eh?
That being said, it’s clear that productivity trends in the building industry are not flash. Here, for example, is the Productivity Commission’s graph of growth in construction industry productivity since 1978. In short, there hasn’t been much:
To summarise, there are many factors driving New Zealand’s house prices. Planning regulations are part of the picture, but as I’ve shown here they cannot possibly explain everything about our high housing costs. We’ve got to also consider other supply-side factors, such as construction productivity and the availability of building tradesmen, and myriad demand-side factors ranging from urban amenities to tax policy to interest rates. And, of course, we might want to ask why people aren’t choosing to respond to high building costs by building smaller houses. (Perhaps it’s an income effect – wealthier people spending more on big houses? Or perhaps there are some rules that make it difficult to build small, efficient dwellings?)
What do you make of the data on residential construction costs?
Since I moved to Auckland, I’ve been trying to make sense of local trends in house prices. Why have they risen over the last decade? Will they keep going up, or crash back down to earth? What’s driving all this?
Others are more confident that planning was what done it. For example, the annual Demographia Housing Affordability Survey states, quite confidently, that planning regulations – an “institutional failure at the local level” – are the main cause of high house prices:
The purpose of the Demographia Surveys is to alert the public and policy-makers if housing exceeds 3.0 times annual household incomes, that there is institutional failure at the local level. The political and regulatory impediments with respect to land supply and infrastructure provision must be dealt with.
Former Reserve Bank governor (and former leader of both National and ACT) Don Brash made matters even clearer in his foreword to the 2008 edition:
The affordability of housing is overwhelmingly a function of just one thing, the extent to which governments place artificial restrictions on the supply of residential land.
In short, planning rules – especially metropolitan urban limits – are bad. Very bad. They are the main reason that houses in some places are unaffordable, which Demographia defines, somewhat arbitrarily, as median house prices that are more than three times the median household income:
Now, according to Demographia, Auckland currently has a “median multiple” of 8.2: “severely unaffordable”. Based on their figures, the median house price in the city at the end of 2014 was $613,000. (This actually seems low – perhaps they’ve converted it to USD?)
In order for Auckland to meet Demographia’s definition of an “affordable” market, house prices would have to fall by $390,000, or 63%. Given that they think that urban planning/metropolitan urban limit policy is the main cause of high house prices, we can take this as their estimate of the cost of those policies. $390,000, per house.
This is obviously a very large number. If house prices fell back to the “affordable” level, it would have ruinous effects on NZ’s financial system and household wealth. (Frankly, this does not seem like a very good outcome.)
So that’s Demographia’s estimate. Recently, several New Zealand economists have taken a more detailed look at the costs of planning regulations in Auckland. For the most part, they analyse the impact of planning rules that were put in place by previous councils:
Motu’s paper on the costs of planning regulations concludes that they add between $32,500-$60,000 to the cost of a new standalone house and $65,000-$110,000 to the cost of a new apartment. These figures were sourced from a survey of developers and accounted for the impact of a number of individual rules ranging from balcony rules to section size controls.
NZIER’s paper models the impact of urban limits and height/density limits. (This paper uses a similar approach to the one I discussed here.) It concludes that these two rules cost households the equivalent of $1800 per annum. In present value terms, this is somewhere on the order of $30-40,000 per household (depending upon what discount rate you use).
[Disclaimer: I know the authors of both studies and have a great deal of respect for their work. In a professional capacity, I provided comments on earlier drafts of both papers. This is somewhat unavoidable given the size of New Zealand…]
Here’s a chart comparing Motu and NZIER’s estimates of the cost of planning regulations with Demographia’s estimate:
In other words, these estimates suggest that Auckland’s planning regulations explain only 10-30% of the difference between Auckland house prices and a median multiple of 3. Even if we add together the estimates from the two papers, we don’t get anywhere near explaining the gap.
So: whose estimates of the cost of planning should we believe?
Personally, I trust Motu and NZIER’s analysis, as it’s backed up by empirical research and/or economic modelling, whereas Demographia’s is mainly justified by rather repetitive and self-referential haranguing. Consequently, I don’t think we can conclude that planning regulations are a sufficient explanation for Auckland’s relatively high house prices.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be sanguine about planning regulations. While things will change under the Unitary Plan, the costs associated with existing rules are reasonably large. And, in contradiction to Demographia’s claims that constraints on greenfield land supply are the biggest problem, both papers find that existing regulations place higher costs on higher-density developments.
The Motu paper finds that existing planning rules add twice as much cost to apartment developments as to standalone houses. Similarly, the NZIER paper finds that height limits (and other controls on density) are slightly more costly than urban limits. (This is partly because Auckland is mostly surrounded by water, meaning that preventing land from being used efficiently is much more deleterious than it would be in a city with more land.)
A few weeks ago, I took a look at property taxation in the US, Canada, and New Zealand. I found that Auckland homes are taxed lightly by comparison – rates average 0.39% of house value. Property tax rates are twice as high in most of the other cities I looked at. In some cases – e.g. Houston, where property taxes average 2.31% of home value – they are much, much higher.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read the literature. For example, Grimes and Coleman (2009) find that New Zealand under-taxes property:
McLeod et al (2001; p.26) showed that the proportion of taxation raised through property taxes was lower in New Zealand than in Australia or the United States. Taking into account all levels of government (federal, state and local), Grimes (2003) found New Zealand’s share of property taxes in government revenue was relatively low, at 5.7%, compared with a (20 country) OECD average of 8.3%. As a share of GDP, New Zealand’s property tax share was also relatively low at 1.8% compared with the average rate of 2.4%.
They go on to suggest that introducing even a relatively small land tax could result in fairly large changes to land prices. It’s intuitively sensible that higher property taxes would discourage people from bidding up prices – the more they pay for land, the more they pay in taxes!
Stu recently took a look at the same research, and some of the broader trends, and concluded that higher property taxes could take some heat off the housing market. But how much does property tax really matter for housing affordability?
To get a rough sense of the relationship, I’ve put together a chart showing the relationship between property tax rates (x axis) and Demographia’s “median multiple” measure of house prices relative to incomes (y axis). It includes data on all 59 US, Canadian, and New Zealand cities with a population over 1 million.
Notice the substantial negative correlation between property taxes and median multiples. There is a strong tendency for places with lower property taxes to have higher house prices, and vice versa. The least “affordable” places all have relatively low property taxes.
Overall, this chart suggests two things: First, New Zealand’s relatively low property taxes may contribute to our relatively high house prices. Notice how Auckland’s house prices seem to fit the overall trend in the data.
Second, as I’ve previouslyargued, Demographia’s analysis is largely meaningless as they have failed to account for the full range of explanatory variables, from interest rates to tax policies to economic fortunes.
Here’s another view on the same data. I’ve taken the natural logarithm of both variables to smooth out the relationship, and put a trend-line through the data points. This simple bit of analysis suggests that:
About 44% of the variations in median multiple can be “explained” by differences in property tax rates. For a bivariate regression, this is quite high.
The slope of the regression line suggests that, within this sample of cities, a 10% increase in the property tax rate is associated with a 4.6% reduction in the median multiple. Again, that’s a quite strong relationship.
I don’t think we can draw any firm policy conclusions from this data, but it certainly suggests that our low property taxes are worth investigating as a cause of our high house prices. In the words of xkcd, “Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.”
Finally, it’s worth taking a closer look at the four US cities with the highest median multiples – the top data points on the left hand side of the first chart. They are all large cities in California – San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose (i.e. Silicon Valley), and Sacramento (the state capitol). They provide a great illustration of why failing to account for multiple, correlated explanatory variables can undermine an analysis of house prices.
There’s also a great irony underlying the use of LOS [traffic Level of Service] as part of CEQA’s environmental impact checklist. It seems self-evident that bike projects are favorable to the environment, but the use of LOS to evaluate them can sometimes imply quite the opposite. The person who filed the 2005 lawsuit against the San Francisco master bike plan, for instance, suggested that because bike lanes raise LOS they also raise congestion and car idling, and thereby cause pollution.
That’s not the only contradictory aspect of LOS. Case in point: a developer whose building fails an LOS threshold can mitigate the environmental impact by widening the street, which of course would attract more cars and pollution. So instead of encouraging dense development and lower vehicle mileage — the hallmarks of a transit-first city — San Francisco’s use of LOS as part of CEQA actually discourages livable design. In a three-part series on LOS at Streetsblog, one transportation consultant called LOS the “single greatest promoter of sprawl and the single greatest obstacle to transit oriented development” in California.
However, CEQA and its absurd requirements for traffic assessments (etc) aren’t the only thing going on in California. State-level laws have also constrained local governments’ ability to raise property taxes. Proposition 13, a citizen-initiated referendum passed in 1978, caps property tax rates at 1% and fixes them to the value of the house at the time it was purchased, plus a 2% annual increment for inflation.
This has had a number of perverse effects, including stripping away funding from California’s formerly excellent primary and secondary education and setting it on a path of decline. (Prop 13 is basically exhibit A in the case against binding referenda.) It has also distorted the housing market. Because home-owners know their property taxes won’t increase if the value of their house increases, they may be more willing to speculate on capital gains.
A 1982 paper by economist Kenneth Rosen offers empirical support for this hypothesis – he found that reductions in property tax rates were almost immediately followed by proportional increases in house prices.
Consequently, it would be foolish to analyse the Californian housing market without attempting to control for both taxation and planning policy. If you only looked at one policy, your conclusions would be biased by mis-attributing the effects of the other policy. (That’s precisely what Demographia seems to have done, by the way.)
What’s true for California is also true for New Zealand. I find it hard to take seriously the claims of people who attribute housing affordability solely to regulatory policy and fail to consider the potential impact of our low property taxes.
What do you make of the data on property taxes and house prices?