English on housing affordability

An insightful speech on the housing market by Bill English. Some extracts:

A strong focus of our policy is to make sure our markets work.

And over the last 30 years New Zealand has done a reasonable job of this.

Over the last seven years our labour market has been tested.

It has accommodated a significant recession in 2008, and a pickup in demand particularly in Christchurch following the earthquakes.

The labour market was able to respond quickly to those shifts in supply and demand conditions.

Today New Zealand’s proportion of the working-age population in employment is among the highest in the OECD.

Another area that is now working well is the energy market.

For a long time, New Zealand energy markets were over-regulated and poorly-regulated.

Extensive government ownership further stunted price signals.

For instance, water management in the hydro-electricity system was, compared to today, very poor. …

We’re shutting down excess capacity, and excess capital is being withdrawn and returned to the owners of that capital.

After years of litigation and legal contest over the rules, the energy market is now starting to work.

Which brings me to the housing market.

This is probably the largest market in New Zealand where the rules need to be reshaped.

The most evident indication of a problem is Auckland house prices.

I’m yet to find a housing market anywhere in the world where prices go up at over 20 per cent a year without stopping and then starting to come down again.

So why is the housing market important:

Over the last five years, the Auckland housing market has been the single biggest imbalance in our macro-economic system.

It takes around eight years for the housing market to respond to a shock to demand.

In part that is because changes to council plans can take years, in some cases over a decade.

Resource consents on a housing development regularly take 18 months, including pre-application times excluded from the official statistics.

When combined, those very real delays can exceed the length of the house price cycle.

The point is that when the supply of housing is relatively fixed, shocks to demand – like migration flows increasing sharply as they have recently – are absorbed through higher prices rather than the supply of more houses.

And the main cause:

This has been borne out by extensive studies in the United States following the Global Financial Crisis.

What they’ve found is that, across different markets subject to rules which vary by state, more-intense regulation of urban development is associated with higher house price volatility.

That is, the steepest price increases and the sharpest falls are in areas where regulation is strongest.

The effects of planning rules can extend to the macro-economy.

Cities are one of the extraordinary inventions of the human race.

Studies have shown that cities are an engine room of growth. Incomes in cities are higher than elsewhere. That is one explanation for high rates of urbanisation.

Research indicates that when planning rules prevent workers shifting to higher-productivity locations, then there is a cost in terms of foregone GDP.

It’s only relatively recently that economists and politicians have understood the scale of those effects.

So when we’re talking about something as apparently dry as the Auckland Unitary Plan, we’re talking about a set of rules that will have a major impact on the city, on current and future residents – but also on the wider economy.

So the unitary plan is important.

In my view, poor urban planning is one of the significant drivers of inequality.

Poor regulation of housing has the largest proportionate effect on the lowest quartile of housing costs and rents.

So when we’re having the debate about whether there is sufficient land available, we have to recognise that the people who lose the most from getting that decision wrong – and who stand the most to gain from fixing those decisions – are those on the lowest incomes.

Income inequality in New Zealand has been flat for 20 years, but the gap between incomes measured before housing costs and after housing costs is growing.

Housing costs are becoming a larger proportion of incomes – and that matters the most at the bottom end of incomes among people who have few choices.

So one of the best ways to tackle inequality is to free up land.

Planning is often seen a public good activity that must address the needs of those who are most-vulnerable and have the lowest income.

In fact there is a strong argument to say it does exactly the opposite.

Poor planning favours “insiders” – homeowners – on high incomes and who have relatively high wealth.

It is the old unexpected consequences.

Today we spend $2 billion each year on accommodation subsidies. 60 per cent of all rentals in New Zealand are subsidised by the Government.

The state owns around $21 billion worth of houses.

One house in every 16 in Auckland is a Housing New Zealand property.

Many of these are three bedroom houses on quarter-acre sections only a few kilometres from the CBD – a massive misuse of scarce land. And all at the taxpayer’s expense.

So these are the reasons why the Government pays attention to the housing market and issues stemming from poor planning.

Yet they protest when their highly subsidised quarter acre section is turned into more housing.

For those among you who are economists, I would go so far as to say that while the justification for planning is to deal with externalities, what has actually happened is that planning in New Zealand has become the externality.

It has become a welfare-reducing activity.

And as with other externalities, such as pollution, the Government has a role to intervene, working with councils to manage the externality.

This is a key sentence and indicates English is very serious about tackling the planning rules.

Recent studies have shown rules setting minimum floor space requirements and minimum balcony requirements add $50,000 to $100,000 to the cost of an apartment.

That’s in addition to costs associated with other rules, such as rules setting minimum ceiling heights.

Some progress has been made. A study examining minimum car parking requirements in Auckland showed the costs of that planning rule exceeded benefits by a factor of at least six.

That’s a rule that should never have been made. It has probably cost the economy millions of dollars.

Fortunately, now that we’re digging in to these issues, that rule has been mostly scrapped – and credit is due to Auckland Council for doing so.

So a start has been made, but much more to do.

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