Once a country known as “lucky” for its affordable quality of life, Australia has achieved legendary status as a place where public policies have destroyed housing affordability for the middle class. Draconian land rationing policies (called "urban consolidation" in Australia and more generally "compact city" policy or "smart growth"), have made it virtually illegal to build houses outside tightly drawn urban growth boundaries that leave virtually no room for new construction beyond the urban fringe. As a result, house prices have increased to the point that Australia now suffers one of the most unaffordable markets in the world.
The consequences of this may finally be dawning on some governments. The state of Victoria, for example, is expanding its urban growth boundary around Melbourne.
Severely Unaffordable Australia: The Reserve Bank of Australia (the central bank) has described the considerable extent to which house prices have increased relative to incomes since the 1980s. The annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey makes similar findings, showing that the price of housing has doubled or tripled relative to household incomes over the past quarter century. All major markets in Australia are "severely unaffordable." This has occurred in a country that has long boasted one of the largest home ownership shares in the world, which epitomized the "Great Australian Dream." Until urban consolidation policies were widely adopted and strictly enforced, Australia's housing affordability (measured by the Median Multiple, which is the median house price divided by median household income) was virtually the same as that of the United States.
That has changed radically. Over the past two years, the median house price in Melbourne, has risen by 30%.
Expanding Melbourne's Urban Growth Boundary: In this environment, it comes as welcome news that the Brumby Labor government has enacted an expansion of the Melbourne urban growth boundary. The initiative attracted broad based support, including that of the Liberal-National opposition in the Victoria (state) parliament. The government expects that the expansion will "maintain" housing affordability.
There was, not surprisingly, the kind of hysteria that has become typical of Australian land use debates. Suburban Casey Mayor Lorraine Wreford expressed concern that the expansion would consume agricultural land and increase food costs. In fact, the higher costs that Melburnians are paying for housing as a result of the urban growth boundary is more than enough to pay grocery bills for the neighbors on both sides.
The "loss of agricultural land" argument is even more daft in Australia than in the United States. Australia's agricultural production continues to improve, which has permitted huge amounts of land to be abandoned and returned to its natural state. Since 1981, an area nearly the size of New South Wales has been taken out of agricultural production. Lest anyone think that urbanization is a factor, this is more than 50 times the land area of all the urbanization that has developed in Australia since western colonization began.
Will it be Enough? The risk, however, is that the urban growth boundary expansion may not be enough to materially improve housing affordability. The expansion is modest, at less than 170 square miles (440 square kilometers*). Worryingly, the government indicates that this will be the last urban growth boundary expansion in this generation.
How Much Land is Needed for Housing Affordability? However, US experience indicates that a surprisingly small amount of developable land beyond the urban fringe may be enough to keep land and house prices from escalating.
For example, Portland's urban growth boundary appears to have had little cost escalation impact on house prices until the 1990s, when urban fringe developable land within the urban ground boundary fell to less than 10% compared in relation to the already developed urban footprint (Note). This is the equivalent of a developable ring around Portland of less than one/half mile (0.8 kilometers in Portland).
As the developable land became more scarce, house prices escalated. Now, Portland house prices are more than one-third above the historic Median Multiple norm of 3.0 and they peaked at more than 60% above during the housing bubble.
Similarly, there are virtual urban growth boundaries in Las Vegas and Phoenix. These development constraints are defined by circumferential government owned land, which has been released to the market at rates intended to maximize revenues, which means they minimize housing affordability. Yet these constraints appear to have had little impact on prices until developable fringe land dropped to below 20% relative to the urban footprint.
Strengthening Melbourne's Competitive Position? The Victorian action may have been impelled by a recognition that the affordability-driven economic stagnation already existent in Sydney could well spread. This could help to restore Melbourne to its role as Australia's principal urban area, more than a century after having been dethroned by Sydney. Bernard Salt, one of the nation's leading demographers, has predicted that Melbourne's population will exceed that of Sydney by in less than 20 years.
Offering Australia's future generations the chance to live out the Great Australian Dream by improving housing affordability could not only expand Melbourne's competitive edge over Sydney, but could even neutralize fast-growing Brisbane's trajectory. Ross Elliot has suggested that the new Southeast Queensland Regional plan could seriously retard growth in that vibrant area.
Are Australian House Prices in a Bubble?
There is a raging debate over whether Australia's housing price boom is an asset bubble. International financial analysts Edward Chancellor, who correctly predicted the Great Recession, believes that Australian housing is a bubble that will burst before long. Others disagree. Either way, Australia loses.
- If Australia’s price boom is a bubble, history says it will burst (as virtually all do), likely inflicting serious damage to the economy. In this regard, Australia could be more at risk than the United States was in its housing bubble burst, since housing in virtually every market, large and small, has been driven up to unsustainable levels. In the United States, the bubble was contained within markets accounting for about one-half of housing, where Australian-type planning policies were in operation. Other markets, such as Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and much the Great Plains did not experience the bubble.
- If Australia's planners have simply succeeded in raising the long term price of housing and there is no bubble (as many Australian analysts suggest), then future generations of Australians will have much less money to spend and their standard of living will lower than it would otherwise have been.
Regrettably, the spirited debate over an Australian "bubble" is far different that the public deliberations that preceded the adoption of urban consolidation policies in Australia. For the most part, state governments and planning academics carefully avoided any discussion of the housing affordability consequences. Perhaps this was out of ignorance. But whatever the intentions, the smart growthers have imposed great costs on both present and future generations of Australians.
Note: This is a far smaller area than recent research suggesting a relationship between geographic constraints (mountains and other undevelopable land) and higher house prices. Research by Albert Saiz at Wharton uses a 50 kilometer (30 mile) radius from the urban core to identify the share of land that can be developed. The data in the research would indicate that more than 1,750 square miles are developable, yet Portland is among the more geographically constrained according to this analysis. This seems to be an unreasonably large area for measuring the impact of geographical constraints. It is nearly 4 times the urban footprint of Portland and is nearly 60 times the developable land area that exhibited virtually no impact on housing affordability in Portland in the early 1990s and is more land area than covered by all but 8 of the world's largest urban areas. It is to be expected that that politically imposed development constraints (strongly enforced as in Portland and Australia) render any more remote geographical constraints irrelevant.
Photo: Inside the expanded urban growth boundary: Western Freeway toward Melton (photography by author)
*The original version of this essay read 17 square miles and 44 square kilometers.