Back in July, I went down to Wellington for this year’s New Zealand Association of Economists conference. I really enjoy NZAE – people attend because they’re genuinely excited about sharing their ideas and learning from other people. (Stu Donovan and John Polkinghorne were also there.)
I was presenting a paper on using hedonic analysis of property sales to assess and compare the costs and benefits of planning regulations. The empirical side of the paper was an analysis of the impact of dwelling size, lot size, location, and amenities such as the presence of old buildings on property sale prices.
I used these results to consider the rationale for heritage preservation policies. In doing so, I asked three key questions:
- Is there evidence of positive spillovers (“externalities”, in economese) associated with old buildings?
- How large are those spillovers relative to other things that people value, such as living close to the city centre or having more living space?
- Is a blanket heritage control that limits the demolition of building likely to be optimal? In other words, are the positive spillovers from old buildings large enough to justify making it more difficult to develop in some areas?
The first question is very important. As I discussed the other week, people argue that old buildings should be preserved because they are valuable to their inhabitants. To my mind, that is not a good case for government to get involved. If heritage buildings are mainly valuable to their inhabitants, then those people can probably sort things out without the need for any rules.
But if there are positive spillovers from heritage, there may be a case to regulate. That’s because decisions made by a property owner about whether to demolish a heritage property may not take into account the impacts that their decisions may have on other people.
Many – although certainly not all! – old buildings have aesthetically pleasing exteriors. Simply put, they’re nice to look at. (This may simply reflect a selection process – i.e. people built ugly buildings 100 years ago, but they’ve been demolished.) The presence of these buildings can make an area more attractive for passers-by and other residents.
There are a number of ways that we can measure the public value of aesthetically pleasing old buildings. For example, people may visit areas with more old buildings more often and spend more time walking the streets. (Although I caution that there’s a risk of omitted variable bias here, as areas with older buildings also tend to have older, more walkable street networks.) They may spend more money in shops in these area. Or, importantly, they may be willing to pay higher prices to live around old buildings and enjoy their aesthetic characteristics more frequently.
In my paper, I used residential property sale data to identify the existence of positive spillovers from old buildings. I’ll spare you the details of the number-crunching, but basically, I used four years of recent property sales data to determine whether people are willing to pay higher prices to live near old (pre-1940) buildings.
The results suggest that there are modest positive spillovers from old buildings. On average, every additional pre-1940 building in a neighbourhood was associated with a 0.3% increase in the price paid for neighbouring dwellings. Some individual buildings are likely to have stronger spillovers, of course – not all old buildings are created equal! And there are likely to be some spillovers that aren’t captured in residential property prices.
But as heritage policy is often a very local event – people tend to advocate for the preservation of buildings in their suburb or neighbourhood – it’s likely that this measure captures many of the spillovers that matter. Which leads us on to the third question: When is a blanket heritage control likely to be optimal?
The downside of a blanket control is that it will make it more difficult (or even impossible) for people to redevelop sites or make additions to existing homes. My analysis of recent property sales showed that the quantity of floorspace has a strong effect on property values. I estimated that a 10% increase in the size of a dwelling was associated with a 4.8% increase in its sale price, holding all other factors constant.
Based on this result, I asked: How much additional floorspace would be required to fully offset the loss of aesthetic spillovers from neighbouring pre-1940 buildings? In other words, what’s the point at which people might be indifferent between preserving heritage and getting opportunities to intensify their properties?
The results are mapped below. Darker greens and blues indicate areas with larger positive spillovers from old buildings. Yellow colours indicate areas where there are few if any spillovers. Of course, there are likely to be a number of subtleties that I wasn’t able to pick up in the data, such as the quality of heritage properties in different areas.
One interesting thing about this map is that it suggests that the value of heritage preservation may be relatively low compared to the value of opportunities for intensification almost everywhere in the city. Even in the most heritage-y parts of Devonport and Ponsonby, it would only take a 30-40% increase in floorspace to fully compensate for the loss of localised spillovers from all the pre-1940 buildings in the neighbourhood. That isn’t an unreasonable possibility given that these areas have standalone houses sitting on crazily expensive land. (And the fact that many of these buildings would be preserved by their owners anyway.)
So what should we make of this?
First, an important caveat: these results are not definitive. They’re based on a piece of quantitative analysis that captures overall trends but omits qualitative aspects of the aesthetics of old buildings. In some areas, it may under-estimate the contribution of individual buildings that are especially attractive. In others, it will over-estimate the magnitude of spillovers, because the old buildings in the area are simply not that flash.
But even taking that caveat into mind, there may be room to optimise heritage preservation by focusing blanket heritage controls in areas where evidence of positive spillovers is strongest. So it’s encouraging to see that Auckland Council is refining its position on heritage controls in the Unitary Plan. (And dispiriting to see the NZ Herald’s alarmist one-sided take on the issue. Pro tip to the editors: articles like this are why I do not buy your newspaper. I spend money on other print media, so you’re missing out.)
It’s also worth remembering that blanket controls aren’t the only way to preserve heritage. Heritage schedules can be used to target protections to individual buildings with notable aesthetic or historic value. And councils can directly fund the preservation of notable buildings by buying up and renovating them. In some cases, these may be a more efficient way of ensuring that we maintain the good bits of the city at a reasonable cost.
What do you think an optimal heritage preservation policy would look like?