Land Regulation Making Us Poorer: Emerging Left-Right Consensus


There is an emerging consensus about the destructiveness of excessive land use regulation, both with respect to its impact on housing affordability but also its overall impacts on economies. This is most evident in a recent New Zealand commentary.

New Zealand

Both the center-Left and center-Right have come together in agreement on the depth of New Zealand's housing affordability and its principal cause, overly restrictive urban planning regulations. Labour Party housing spokesperson (shadow minister) Phil Twyford and Oliver Hartwich, executive director of the New Zealand Initiative, wrote in a co-authored New Zealand Herald commentary:“Our own research leaves no doubt that planning rules are a root cause of the housing crisis, particularly in Auckland…” (See: “Planning Rules the Cause of Housing Crisis.”).

The Labour Party is the largest opposition party in Parliament, and has traded governing with the currently ruling National Party more than eight decades. The New Zealand Initiative is "an association of business leaders that is also a research institute."

Planning and the New Zealand Housing Crisis

New Zealand’s housing crisis has been building for more than two decades. New house construction has fallen dramatically. According to Twyford and Hartwich, house construction has declined nearly 40 percent from 1973. At the same time the demand for housing has increased. The authors note that New Zealand’s population has increased 50 percent since that time. The housing shortage is further exacerbated by the falling average size of households, which means more new dwellings are required than  indicated by the increase in population

Across the Pacific nation, far more restrictive land use regulations have been adopted, including urban containment boundaries (urban growth boundaries), which have been associated with higher house prices relative to incomes. Before the imposition of strict land use regulation, houses typically cost three times or less that of household incomes. Since then, house prices have double or tripled relative to household incomes. Twyford and Hartich note that houses now cost a “severely unaffordable” 9 times household incomes in Auckland: They say that “A big part of the problem in Auckland is escalating land costs. Linked to this, too few houses are being built. The houses that are being built are too expensive.”

Twyford and Hartwich indicated an even broader general agreement, endorsing comments by the ruling National Party government’s as indicated by Deputy Prime Minister Bill English: “It costs too much and takes too long to build a house in New Zealand. Land has been made artificially scarce by regulation that locks up land for development. This regulation has made land supply on responsive to demand” (also see: "Planning has Become the Externality")

Broad Consequences

Twyford and Hartwich starkly described the consequences of New Zealand's urban planning regime.

“Rising house prices are making us poorer as a nation. They force people to spend an ever larger proportion of their incomes on housing, and it ties up vast amounts of the nation's wealth in housing instead of investing it in businesses that create jobs and exports.”

Twyford and Hartwich also agreed that there is more than enough blame to go around for the mess that has arisen in New Zealand (a criticism that would be appropriate across Australia, the United Kingdom, some markets in the Unites States and the largest markets in Canada):

"Because this is a national housing crisis that has grown over decades and under governments of different hues, playing political blame games is pointless. You cannot solve problems in retrospect. We need to face the facts and work together for real reform."

The authors identified three issues for reform: “First, urban growth boundaries driving up section costs. Second, anti-density restrictions stopping affordable housing. Third, the expensive and inefficient way we fund infrastructure.” They also indicated a familiarity with the economics of development fees (also called impact fees”), often missed by planners in Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere. “Even though developers nominally pay for all these costs,” “they note, these costs “are immediately passed on to the new home-buyer.”

Twyford and Hartwich propose what they refer to as "modest" reforms:

“• Instead of using urban growth boundaries, empower communities to protect places that are of special character and value to them.

• Free up density and height controls and rely more on high urban design standards including requirements for open and green space, to allow more affordable housing in the city. Let the market discover where and how people want to live.

• Take developers out of the business of financing new infrastructure. Instead, spread the cost over the assets' lifetime, either by issuing local government bonds or establishing Community Development Districts” (These could be similar to the Municipal Utility Districts of Texas).

Importantly, in their second proposal, Twyford and Hartwich exhibit the appropriateness of consumer choice in housing. As in other goods and services, consumers should be free to make their own housing choices, rather than being limited to those permitted by urban planning  decrees. Yet, urban planning, in recent years, has attempted to reduce house sizes and force higher densities, attempting to drive many households into smaller houses and into condominiums who prefer larger detached houses. 

The concluded that:

"It is an issue of national importance and concerns all of us - all councils and political parties, developers and the wider business community - and of course the people of this country who would benefit the most from restored housing affordability.

The time for reform is now."

The Twyford-Hartwich commentary follows other significant developments in New Zealand.

Indicating the depth of concern about the impact of planning policies on housing prices, the city of Auckland's Chief Economist has proposed setting a target to nearly halve house prices relative to incomes over the next 15 years (to a price-to-income ratio of 5.0, compared to its now reported near 10). This represents an important turnaround in thinking in the city.

Moreover, economic research produced recently for the  Productivity Commission of New Zealand indicated that the housing market distortion has become so bad that “After controlling for a range of other influences, the gradient in land prices (per hectare) from Auckland’s CBD to the rural land adjacent to the city undergoes a step change at the point of the MUL [metropolitan urban limit or urban containment boundary].” The differential was identified at approximately 10 times and the Commission noted that the land value gap has “increasingly binding as housing demand pressures have intensified” (Note 1).

The Emerging International Consensus

Consistent with the Productivity Commission recommendation, London School of Economics professors Paul Cheshire, Max Nathan and Henry Overman, in their recent book, Urban Economics and Urban Policy: Challenging Conventional Policy Wisdom, that (see: “People Rather than Places, Ends Rather than Means”):

“…observed price discontinuities – the difference in market prices across boundaries categories – should become a ‘material consideration’ leading to a presumption in favour of any proposed development unless (a very important ‘unless’) it could be shown that the observed monetary value of the discontinuity reflected wider environmental, amenity or social values of the land in its current use.”

Shortly after the Twyford-Hartwich article, George Mason University professor Ilya Somin wrote of an “emerging cross-ideological consensus” in his Washington Post column. Somin mentions economists perceived as representative of right of center and left of center positions, such as Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as well as Jason Furman, Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. He quotes Krugman: “this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.”

If there is any issue that the Left and Right should be able to unite around, it is policies that keep cities affordable (a prerequisite to livability) not only for both the threatened middle-class and for lower income citizens. More than 40 years ago, legendary urbanist Sir Peter Hall's raised these as principal points in his critique of urban containment policy. Twyford, Krugman, Cheshire and Harwich are right. This is not an ideological issue but one about the human future in our cities.

Wendell Cox is Chair, Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California) and principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.


Photograph: Phil Twyford, Labour Party housing spokesperson (shadow minister)