What’s the problem?
Housing is expensive in New Zealand, especially in Auckland, where median house prices have increased fivefold since the early 1990s (in nominal terms). Roughly half of this increase has occurred in the last four years, which is causing quite a bit of concern:
Housing markets are complex – prices are influenced by both demand-side and supply-side variables. As a result, it can be difficult to tell a single, simple story about why prices have gone up or down in any given year. Take the recent rise in Auckland house prices. Some people argue that it’s a financial bubble (a demand-side explanation); others blame high migration (demand) or distortionary tax policies (demand); and others cite inflexible planning rules (a supply-side explanation) or low construction productivity (supply).
Although short-term dynamics can be mysterious, elasticity of housing supply is the main long-term driver of housing market outcomes in a growing city. The easier it is to build new dwellings in the right places in response to increased demand, the less upward pressure there will be on prices.
The empirical evidence suggests that housing supply in Auckland is slightly inelastic – somewhere in the range of 0.7 to 0.9. This isn’t horrible, but nor is it sufficient to get housing supply in balance with demand.
Severe geographic constraints – Auckland’s harbours and steep hillsides – appear to be an underlying driver of the city’s inelastic housing supply. In this context, settling for average urban planning policies means getting a limited supply of housing and high prices. Consequently, we have to make it much easier to use scarce land efficiently. That means reforming our approach to planning regulations. In the past, we adopted land-hungry policies like minimum parking requirements or severe building height limits without thinking through their ill effects. That has costs, and we need to do better.
Auckland is not the only city coping with high housing prices and a lack of supply – you see similar problems in places like London, New York, San Francisco, and Sydney. However, I would bet that New Zealand will do a better job sorting out its housing affordability issues than other places. In fact, I am betting on it! I’m renting in Auckland, which means that I bear all of the downside and none of the upside of spiraling housing prices.
There are three reasons for my optimism:
1. Our proven track record of policy reform
Let’s start with a pat on the back. Having lived in New Zealand, the United States, and Nigeria, I’d say that Kiwis are, by and large, pretty reasonable when it comes to public policy. We’re not very corrupt, which removes one major source of inefficiency. We generally recognise that as a small, distant trade-exposed country we can’t afford to do things inefficiently. And, due to New Zealand’s small size, there’s usually no need to over-complicate things.
Policymaking anywhere will always be subject to cognitive and professional biases – people screw things up, and sometimes it takes a while to sort it out – but New Zealanders don’t seem want totally irrational or insane policies. Unlike the US, say:
Possibly as a consequence, New Zealand has a record of reforming policies that aren’t working, either incrementally or in one go. The classic example of this is in trade policy. From the 1930s to the 1980s, the New Zealand government oversaw an extensive set of import controls. Te Ara describes this policy:
Faced with declining export returns and a foreign exchange crisis, a Labour-led government introduced foreign exchange controls and import licensing regulations in 1938. The regulations prohibited the import of any goods except under licence or where exempted.
Importers had to apply to government for both an import licence and the foreign exchange needed for purchases. The quota – the amount that could be imported with a licence – was set on the basis of imports the previous year.
Just as restrictions on the efficient use of land produce windfall gains for landowners while foisting large costs on renters and new home-buyers, import licensing created fortunes for some manufacturers while making most consumers worse off. As a consequence, after experimenting with some liberalisation of trade policy in the 1970s and 1980s, the remaining import controls were swept away in the late 1980s.
Recent changes in transport policy also demonstrate our ability to reform bad policies. Over the last decade, there have been some important, although undoubtedly incremental, moves to reform our inefficient monomodal urban transport system.
For example, last year I reviewed a 2010 research research report on deficiencies in NZ’s public transport planning and operations – and was surprised to find that almost all of its recommendations are being implemented in Auckland, Christchurch, and other places. Since 2010, Auckland has:
- Established a public agency (AT) that can plan and deliver a PT network and supporting infrastructure
- Developed and begun implementing a frequent, connected network that satisfies best practice network design principles
- Reformed bus contract models
- Implemented integrated ticketing (and soon, integrated fares)
- Started to build bus interchanges and bus lanes.
This is a big deal, but it’s hardly the only story in town. How about the fact that central and local governments are now coming to the party on urban cycleways? For the first time ever, significant investments are going towards one of New Zealand’s “missing modes”.
We now have an opportunity to take the same approach to urban planning – reform what isn’t working and get better outcomes.
2. The structure of our governments
The current structure of New Zealand’s governments makes it easier to implement reforms and make them stick. We have two key advantages in this area that offer a smoother path to policy reform.
First, New Zealand’s government has a unitary structure rather than a federal one. This means that most powers are concentrated in central government rather than distributed among multiple layers of government. Political centralisation certainly isn’t all good – in the past it’s often led to a perverse situation in which urban transport policy is being designed by rural politicians.
But in this case, it makes policy changes much easier. If central government were to, say, issue a National Policy Statement on urban development or rewrite sections of the Resource Management Act (which governs the development and implementation of urban planning rules), it would lead to changes in the way that local governments regulate. That option isn’t usually available in federal systems.
Because any proposal to liberalise planning rules inevitably creates controversy at local body election time, central government involvement can potentially assist in getting important changes over the line.
Second, the creation of the unified Auckland Council ensures that all growth tradeoffs – and the negative consequences of preventing growth – are internalised within a single council. Gone are the days when councils could simply refuse to zone for growth and assume that it would become someone else’s problem instead. Now a single council is responsible for sorting the region’s problems out.
You can see the results in the Unitary Plan – a document that’s not perfect (no plan is!) but which takes some important steps forward. For example, it removes MPRs from the centre zones, which are intended to accommodate a mix of business and residential uses, cuts back minimum lot sizes throughout much of the city, and creates some midrise residential zones.
Amalgamation does come at a potential cost to Tiebout competition, in which adjacent councils compete for growth. But I suspect that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. As the San Francisco Bay Area shows, local government fragmentation doesn’t necessarily result in more housing supply – the Bay Area has 93 local governments but building permits have still been falling since the 1970s.
New Zealand’s unitary government structure and the creation of a consolidated Auckland Council create the potential for “virtuous cycles” in which local and central government egg each other on to improve urban planning regulations and processes. To date, this has led to things like the Special Housing Areas, which aims to ease consenting in selected areas, and the Unitary Plan hearings process, which is intended to review the plan and allow it to be implemented faster.
The hearings process, in particular, has encouraged Auckland Council to think carefully about its proposed zoning rules. For example, following instructions from the hearings panel, the council is considering rezoning some areas to enable more housing. This is an important step towards recovering from the ill effects of past down-zoning.
3. The political agenda
Lastly, housing affordability has hit the political radar at a national level. There is an increasing consensus that reforms to urban planning rules are a key part of the solution. The latest Productivity Commission report on using land for housing outlined some key policy changes, and politicians from several major parties have subsequently endorsed a number of these recommendations. For example:
- Minister of Finance Bill English’s September 2015 speech on housing affordability, which criticised policies like minimum parking requirements and building height limits
- Greens transport and finance spokesperson Julie-Anne Genter’s October 2015 questions on minimum parking requirements to Housing Minister Nick Smith, which picked up on some of the same themes
- Labour housing spokesperson Phil Twyford’s November 2015 announcement of its new housing policy, which would relax density and height controls to enable more medium-density housing.
In other words, there is likely to be cross-party support for sensible reforms to urban planning that build on the good work that’s already been done by central and local government.
Globally speaking, it’s somewhat unique – and fortuitous – to have so much attention placed on urban planning issues at both a local and central government level. For example, in the US, a few economists in the Obama administration are starting to talk about the drawbacks of overly restrictive planning regulations. But President Obama has very little ability to influence zoning in San Francisco or New York.
New Zealand is different. We are generally willing to reform policies that aren’t working for us, we’ve got government structures that can facilitate that reform, and our elected representatives are paying attention to the problems and potential solutions. Those seem like good reasons for optimism!