New Zealand Seeks to Avoid "Generation Rent"


The political leadership and others in New Zealand are talking about the consequences of its land use policies. Under the "urban containment" land use policy (also called by terms like "smart growth," "growth management," and "livability") in effect in every urban area, house prices have doubled relative to incomes over the last 25 years. The principal causes have been the restrictions inherent in urban containment policy, such as making most suburban land off limits for housing development, (which raises its price, like rationing oil raises the price of gasoline), and requirements for upfront payment of large development impact fees (which can also be higher than they need to be). The association between urban containment policy and unaffordable housing is consistent with both with both economic theory and also considerable economic research. The title of a report by Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics best indicates the reality: "Urban Containment, Housing Affordability, Price Stability - Irreconcilable Goals." 

New Zealand Housing Unaffordability and Consequences

According to the 10th Annual Demographia Housing Affordability Survey, Auckland, the nation's largest city is now the 7th least affordable out of 85 major metropolitan markets rated. Auckland's median multiple (median house price divided by median household income) is 8.0, approaching triple the level that prevailed before the adoption of urban containment policy. The other largest cities, Christchurch and Wellington have seen house prices relative to incomes double since they have adopted urban containment policy (which were 3.0 or less). Obviously, when houses cost more than necessary, households have less discretionary income. This leads directly to two consequences with respect to affluence and poverty.

The first consequence of these policies is that households have less discretionary income (income after paying taxes and for necessities) to spend on other goods and services. Obviously this means a lower standard of living. This generally leads to a weaker economy, other things being equal, because households with less money are not able to purchase as much in goods and services as they would be able to afford if house prices had not been distorted.

The second consequence is greater poverty. When the price of housing rises, discretionary incomes can fall enough to force lower income households into poverty.

Land Use Policies Blamed for Poverty and Greater Inequality

Recently, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Bill English said in an October 7 press conference that New Zealand's land use policies have led to higher levels of poverty and increased inequality: "Inequality in New Zealand would have been improving had it not been for growing housing costs. So our planning processes have probably done more to increase income inequality and poverty in New Zealand than most other policies." Finally, the Deputy Prime Minister noted that house price increases have impacted the lowest income households most.

Minister English had previously expressed concern about the extent to which land use policy had driven up house prices, in his preface to the 9th Annual Demographia Housing Affordability Survey: "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 unresponsive to demand (see: "Unblocking Constipated Planning" in New Zealand").

There was "pushback" on the Deputy Prime Ministers comments from the city of Auckland and the Green Party. Others saw it differently the well-read national blog, Whale Oil, however, opined that the Deputy Prime Minister "is onto something." Whale Oil continued "The squealing in unison means English is putting the pressure in the right places."  

Housing Minister Nick Smith has decried the situation in Auckland:  "We’ve got a rigid Metropolitan Urban Limit (urban growth boundary) prohibiting any new housing developments beyond the artificial line drawn 15 years ago." At the same time, he said that resulting land cost increases had been more responsible for higher house prices than any other factor. Auckland accounts for approximately one-third of the nation's population and has been growing rapidly, accounting for more than one-half of the nation's population growth between the 2006 and 2013 censuses.

On the government's website, the Housing Minister expressed the government's interest in reforming the Resource Management Act, which governs land-use planning. “It is the price of land and sections that has gone up so rapidly in unaffordable housing markets like Auckland, and it is the Resource Management Act and how it is implemented that is largely responsible for this cost escalation. The new law allowing Special Housing Areas is a short-term fix but we must address the fundamental problem with the Resource Management Act if we are serious about long-term housing affordability."

Business Concerns

Business interests are also raising concerns.

The Property Council (similar in its advocacy function to the Urban Land Institute in the United States) has indicated support for the reforms.

Other business support comes from ANZ Bank New Zealand Chief Executive Officer David Hisco. In expressing concern noting that" "The elevator of economic progress in New Zealand has always been home ownership for everyone - right across the socioeconomic spectrum. But at the current pace of house price rises we risk creating a generation of disenfranchised, second class citizens – ‘Generation Rent.’" He continues: "The housing affordability issue is a housing supply issue, pure and simple. In 1974 there were 34,400 new homes built. Last year there were 15,000 - less than half. It’s no wonder houses doubled in price in under a decade in Auckland. The solution is simple – urgently build more houses. To do that in places like Auckland we need to build more suburbs and allow intensification in existing areas."

In noting that the poor are the "biggest victims" of Auckland's land use policies, Eric Crampton (on Kiwiblog) says that Auckland should be allowed "to build both upwards and outwards: which would be a great step in reducing child poverty." Moreover, the Prime Minister, John Key, has expressed a particular interest in reducing child poverty.

Building upwards and outwards is not an option  under the urban containment dictum favoring intensification and prohibiting greenfield suburban development.

A similar connection between housing costs and high rates of poverty is indicated by California, which has the highest poverty rate, adjusted for housing costs, of all states as well as  the District of Columbia. California's major metropolitan markets have severely unaffordable housing costs, with a median multiple of 7.1. This is lower than Auckland (8.0), New Zealand's one major metropolitan market, but higher than Australia's (6.3). Dartmouth economist William Fischel and others have associated California's high housing costs with its land use policies. Fischel further noted that before these policies were implemented, house prices were about the same in California as in the rest of the nation, which have since more than doubled relative to incomes.

New Zealand: Land Use Policy Leader

There is virtual consensus among the world's governments that the standard of living should be improved and poverty eradicated. Yet, many governments have adopted land use policies that raise the price of housing, which has the inevitable effect of lowering standard of living and more poverty. New Zealand's government is seeking to restore an appropriate policy balance.

Wendell Cox is 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 was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photograph: Downtown Auckland (by author)