Arthur Grimes, the former chair of the Reserve Bank board, caused a stir with his proposal to crash Auckland house prices by 40% by building lots more housing:
My call for policies to drive a house price collapse is driven by my personal value judgement that it’s great for young families and families on lower incomes, to be able to afford to buy a house if they wish to do so. My concern is not for older, richer families, couples or individuals who already own their own (highly appreciated) house…
Research at Motu (accessible from www.motu.org.nz, and published in international scholarly journals) shows that (given current interest rates and incomes) a 1% increase in the number of dwellings relative to the population leads to a reduction in house prices of around 2.2%. Thus a 40% fall in house prices means that the number of dwellings in Auckland would have to expand by around 18% relative to the current dwelling stock. On top of that, the stock has to increase to reflect population growth. So with, 2% population growth per annum, the stock of dwellings in Auckland would have to increase by roughly 30% if prices were to fall by 40% over the next 6 years.
There are currently around 500,000 dwellings in Auckland. A 30% increase in dwelling numbers over 6 years translates into an extra 150,000 houses over that time – i.e. 25,000 extra houses per year for each of the next 6 years. This estimate contrasts with much smaller (and nonsensical) estimates of housing shortages that are often quoted. The reason is that those smaller estimates (e.g. 10,000 extra houses) would just leave prices where they are!
Now, I’m not quite as confident that the spillovers from a large drop in housing prices could be contained without significant effects on financial stability or the real economy. And there are definitely many challenges to technical feasibility, including zoning, infrastructure capacity, and availability of builders. But I fully agree with Arthur’s framework for thinking through supply and price dynamics.
It’s a welcome break from much of the usual commentary about the supply and demand balance in Auckland’s housing market. For example, it’s common to hear statements like, “Auckland’s population grew 22% between the 2001 and 2013 Censuses, while the number of dwellings in the city increased by 19%. Therefore we’re only 3% short.”
I’d describe this as the “quantity surveying” approach to market analysis – i.e. count up the number of people, count up the number of homes, and compare the difference. It’s not good economics, as it completely fails to consider:
- Desired outcomes from the housing market: As Arthur observes, an appropriate goal is for young people and low-income families to be able to access the housing market. We’re trying to achieve lower prices, not a certain ratio of dwellings to people.
- Underlying relationships between supply, demand, and prices: As Arthur points out, in order for prices to fall, the housing stock must be rising faster than population. Exactly how much faster depends upon the degree to which there is pent-up demand for housing that hasn’t been met in the past.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Arthur’s figures. He argues that:
the stock of dwellings in Auckland would have to increase by roughly 30% if prices were to fall by 40% over the next 6 years… [which] translates into an extra 150,000 houses over that time – i.e. 25,000 extra houses per year for each of the next 6 years.
Why is an additional 30% increase in dwellings needed when Auckland’s population has only grown by around 30% over the last 15 years? Doesn’t that seem a bit too large?
From a quantity surveying perspective it does, but from an economic perspective, it’s totally sensible. To see why, we need to think about what rising housing prices mean. If the supply of a good – housing in this case – is constrained, prices must rise until some potential buyers give up and go elsewhere. In the Auckland housing market, that could mean:
- Moving elsewhere in New Zealand – surely a factor behind recent price rises in Hamilton, Tauranga, and beyond
- Moving overseas – a total loss of that person’s capabilities to the NZ economy
- Staying in Auckland and living in overcrowded or unsafe housing – which disadvantages them and costs the public health system and social agencies
- Living in a car or on the streets – it’s frankly appalling that I even have to mention this.
The fact that Auckland’s prices have been rising more rapidly than prices in the rest of the country (which are affected by the same bank lending conditions and macroeconomic trends as Auckland) is an indication that price-driven rationing is probably occurring. There is likely to be a significant amount of pent-up demand for Auckland housing – and if we figured out how to meet it, the city would get bigger. (Leading to, among other things, increased agglomeration economies.)
Finally, it’s worth discussing Arthur’s thoughts about where new housing should be constructed. He takes the SFBARF view: build absolutely everything everywhere:
So how can we get these extra houses and where can they go? Some people favour intensification and some favour expansion of the city’s footprint. The size of the task means that both are required.
Auckland is lucky that it has plenty of farmland around it and – contrary to popular myth – farmland is almost worthless in farming uses compared with residential use. Expansion is therefore required, but with a proviso. A change in the zoning of rural land to residential gives the existing landowner a massive uplift in value – i.e. a multi-million dollar gift from the community. To my mind, this value should accrue to the community that grants the zoning change. The Public Works Act could conceivably be used (or changed) to enable Council to buy rural land at a premium (say 50%) above the rural land value and then all extra value uplift would accrue to the Council to be used for infrastructure and services for the enlarged community.
Auckland also has plenty of opportunities for intensification in areas where developers would wish to intensify and where people wish to live. For instance, Tamaki Drive is ready made for high-rise apartments where tens of thousands of people would no doubt wish to purchase apartments. Of course climate change may make development on Tamaki Drive a risk, but a few blocks back from the sea – on the ridges overlooking the harbour – would work just as well. Lift the restrictions on the heights of new developments, and I expect that we would see an utter transformation in the intensity of housing from Orakei through to Glendowie.
Why can’t we do it with sprawl alone? There are two answers. The technical answer, which we’ve extensively covered on the blog in the past, is that new infrastructure to greenfield areas is expensive and time-consuming to develop. The time lag to intensify sites that are already served with infrastructure can be smaller, provided that consenting is straightforward.
However, the economic answer is, to my mind, even more important. Research into the determinants of property prices in Auckland consistently finds that proximity to the coast and proximity to the centre are two of the most important attributes for buyers. People value the amenities that come with coastal living – that’s a significant part of the attraction of being in Auckland – and they value the consumer amenities and employment accessibility that are concentrated in the centre.
A sprawl-only plan may work from a quantity surveying perspective – it would raise the ratio of dwellings to people – but it would mean growing away from the coast and away from the centre. The next swathes of farmland to be developed – east of Flat Bush, west of Orewa, and north of Kumeu – are all a long way inland.
This will work for some people, but for many it will miss the point of living in Auckland. If we are to meet growing demand, we will also have to think hard about how new residents will access to the city’s man-made and natural amenities.