Who benefits from enabling housing development? And who bears the costs of restricting it?
One common refrain is that reducing regulations to enable housing will deliver higher profits to developers, while disadvantaging existing homeowners, who must contend with more people living in the neighbourhood. Another view is that restricting housing supply primarily benefits existing homeowners, who earn (untaxed) capital gains, while disadvantaging people who don’t own homes.
Along with Fran O’Sullivan, Arthur Grimes, Bernard Hickey, and many other commentators, I tend to agree with the second viewpoint: The primary distributional impact of restrictions on housing supply is to benefit existing homeowners at the expense of future homeowners. In this post I will argue that 1) we face a choice between existing and future home owners and 2) profits from development pale in comparison to untaxed capital gains on property.
So if you’re concerned about rampant profiteering, then you should be in favour of enabling more housing development.
Profit, homeowners, and false dichotomies
Developers undoubtedly set out to make a profit. They are after all putting their own time and money into building something, which in the process exposes them to risks. In this context it seems reasonable that they get something in return, otherwise, why would they develop housing at all? Whether developers earn a reasonable profit then effectively comes down to competition, and the best way to encourage competition is to enable lots of people to be developers.
In general, the more we restrict and regulate the supply of housing, then we will get less supply and less competition.
Those who rally against developers making profits seem to ignore that most of Auckland’s existing housing stock resulted from profit-seeking developers. This includes many houses that are now protected for heritage reasons. So it’s not clear to me that simply because developers are look to make a profit today, that the resulting developments will not be valued.
It is certainly fair to say that developers will only able to make a profit from development if they build something that people are prepared to pay for today. This is another way of saying that developers must consider their customers , i.e. people who want somewhere to live. So it strikes me as a false dichotomy for people to argue that developers “put profit before people”: If developers didn’t meet the needs of at least ***some*** people, then they wouldn’t make a profit.
Instead, the main trade-off seems to be between existing and future homeowners. I think Arthur Grimes described the trade-off best when he said (source):
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.
In this quote Arthur observes that we primarily have a choice between existing homeowners and future homeowners. He doesn’t mention developers at all. So when councillors vote for regulations that restrict housing supply, they are effectively voting in favour of existing homeowners. This is fine, provided they are comfortable with adopting what I consider to be a typically conservative position. These councillors are, in effect, behaving like Tories; they are protecting those who already have wealth.
The effects of restricting supply: Dislocation and rampant profits
However, building new homes isn’t the only – or even the main – way to make a profit in Auckland’s current housing market. Due to restricted housing supply, we aren’t building enough homes to meet demand. As a result, prices have risen.
Rising prices has two primary effects. First, it squeezes low-income people out of the market. This is a well-documented phenomenon. As the California Legislative Analyst’s Office found in an analysis of the San Francisco Bay Area, suburbs that developed less housing experienced more displacement. Without new housing development, every new resident must displace an existing resident – a vicious dynamic that hits low-income households hardest:
A lack of housing supply is compounded by distortionary tax policies – principally our unwillingness to tax unearned capital gains on housing – with the result that house prices are going up at a fast clip. This provides an unearned, untaxed capital gains windfall for people who are lucky enough to own property.
Unearned capital gains, unlike developer profits, are a win-lose scenario. People who own houses win, as the value of their assets rise. But people who are renting or trying to buy a home lose to an equal extent, as they face higher and higher prices.
So how large are capital gains compared to developer profits, anyway?
In recent years, untaxed capital gains on residential property have been very large relative to developer profits. According to data from the Reserve Bank, untaxed capital gains on residential property exceeded $100 billion last year:
- In the first quarter of 2016, the total value of residential property in New Zealand was $905 billion
- One year earlier, the value of residential property was only $791 billion.
By comparison, according to Statistics NZ’s most recent (2014) Annual Enterprise Survey, which tracks industry performance, residential housing construction firms (ANZSIC E301) made gross, before-tax profits of a mere $570 million. Even if we add in “other construction services” (ANZSIC E321, E322, E323, E324, and E329), which includes land development firms as well as a whole bunch of other stuff, total residential development profits add up to no more than $2 billion a year, before tax. And developers pay taxes on those profits! For the visual learners out there, here’s the data in a chart:
In other words, the profits that developers earn are relatively insignificant compared to the unearned, untaxed capital gains that have accrued to property owners. I would argue that the latter are largely the result of regulations that restrict housing supply, and hence represent a transfer from future homeowners, and to a lesser degree developers, to existing homeowners.
So what’s the takeaway message from all this? Well, if Councillors like Mike Lee and Cathy Casey are concerned about profiteering in New Zealand society (and they say they are), then they should start pushing to enable more housing development in Auckland. Yes, developers may make slightly more money in the process, but this increase pales in comparison to the reduction in untaxed capital gains that would accrue to existing home-owners. If you’re concerned about people making unearned profits, then regulations that restrict housing supply and which drive up the prices of existing dwellings should be your primary target.