Sydney Lurches to Housing Affordability Disaster


Now and again Australia erupts in controversy about housing affordability. Each time it follows the same course. Some new statistic or media story confirms that prices are out of control. A senior politician is prompted to call for deregulation and more supply, and is backed-up by the property industry. Then come progressive policy wonks saying no, the issue is high investor demand stimulated by tax concessions. Next emerge the welfare lobby, calling for tax reform as well as more social housing and “inclusionary zoning”. After a round of claims and counter-claims, it all fizzles out.

From the surveyed general public to the Reserve Bank, almost everyone agrees Sydney has a critical problem. The wrangling isn’t over whether to reduce prices, but how. And that depends on where you fit in the city’s system of interests with a stake in property development and construction.

Conflict of interests

Generally, these fall into three groups, with their distinct agendas.

First, the producers and beneficiaries of Big Projects; large-scale housing and urban renewal schemes, particularly high-end apartment developers, top-tier architectural practices, urban planners, rail transport engineers and “sustainability” consultants. Joining them are governments levying value-based property charges, financial institutions with large home mortgage books, and media groups dependent on luxury apartment advertising. “Three of the biggest forces pushing up dwelling prices (the banks, state governments and councils) are like drug addicts”, writes Robert Gottliebsen, “they are hooked on keeping dwelling prices at the current levels or increasing them further”.

The high-land-value coalition's agenda encompasses residential densification, preferably on infill or brownfield sites, transit-oriented-development (TOD), and a tendency to CBD-centrism. On the whole, they are supply-solution advocates and support tax concessions.  

Second, progressive policy analysts and welfare advocates, closely aligned with the university system and highly educated knowledge-worker elite. They, too, promote inner-urban infill development, higher core and middle-ring densities, and public amenities associated with TOD. While the Big Project coalition is mostly driven by finances, cultural-lifestyle factors loom large for knowledge-welfare types. Hence their demands for more housing near “consumer city” localities crammed with trendy bars, pubs, nightclubs, restaurants, cafes, art galleries, theaters, museums and cinemas. This plays into “creative-class” perspectives on economic growth and an aversion to suburbanization as “unsustainable”. Some of them are supply-solution sceptics, leaning toward demand-management, and most are aggressive critics of tax concessions. They urge more social housing schemes and inclusionary zoning, which Big Project lobbies oppose (with good reason; the evidence suggests it reduces supply and raises prices).  

Third, fringe or greenfield detached house builders, the mass of low-to-middle income industrial or routine service workers, low-level government employees, marginal small traders, in industries like retail, wholesale, logistics, transport, distribution, manufacturing, construction and trades. This worker-trader class is particularly sensitive to input costs, including the impact of high land values on commercial rents. Many rely on real estate as security for financing and gravitate to homes, offices and plant in low-cost, peripheral, auto-oriented regions like Greater Western Sydney.

There is some overlap between the groups, with elements of the Big Projects coalition, architects, urban planners, sustainability consultants and engineers, crossing over to the knowledge-welfare elite. Apartment developers routinely deploy creative-class and green arguments for proposals which are integrated into broader densification—TOD zoning and infrastructure arrangements.

Past affordability eruptions were blown off course by the tax issue. Eventually, Labor embraced reform of negative gearing and CGT concessions as policy, urged on by think tanks like Grattan Institute and McKell Institute, prominent knowledge-welfare voices. Yet according to their own estimates, prices would fall by a measly 2 and 0.49 per cent respectively.

Considering that Sydney prices have escalated by a staggering 64 per cent since 2012, the focus on tax reform is a distraction. Economists like Judith Sloan and Stephen Koukoulas maintain that if there are any tax impacts at all, they are secondary to supply constraints rather than vice versa.

Most of the Big Projects coalition and worker-trader class subscribe to a supply-solution in principle. But there are differences on what this means in practice. An explicit apportionment of new housing between brownfield-infill sites and greenfield development was dropped from the NSW Government’s A Plan For Growing Sydney. An outcome is achieved by focusing on 14 Priority Growth Areas and Precincts, only 5 of which contain substantial greenfield potential.

Growth Areas inside established built-up localities are Rhodes East, St Leonards and Crows Nest, Greater Parramatta to Olympic Peninsula, Sydney Metro Northwest, Sydenham to Bankstown Corridor, Western Sydney Employment Area, Epping and Macquarie Park, Arncliffe and Banksia, and Ingleside Precinct. The outer, peripheral areas with most capacity for new land release or greenfield development are North West Growth Area, South West Growth Area, Greater Macarthur Growth Area, Western Sydney Growth Area and Wilton New Town, which lie within seven Local Government Areas (LGAs); Blacktown, The Hills, Camden, Campbelltown, Liverpool, Penrith and Wollondilly Shire.  

Under A Plan for Growing Sydney, the authorities are planning for an additional 1.6 million people and 664,000 dwellings across the Sydney metropolitan region by 2031. According to NSW Department of Planning “state and local government area household and implied dwelling projections” to 2031, Blacktown LGA will have 48,300 new dwellings, The Hills LGA 28,650, Camden LGA 38,250, Campbelltown LGA 19,450, Liverpool LGA 32,400, Penrith LGA 20,900 and Wilton New Town, in Wollondilly Shire, 16,000 dwellings. In other words, these fringe priority areas are to accommodate an additional 203,950 dwellings, or around 30 per cent of the extra 664,000 dwellings across metropolitan Sydney.

Of course, not all construction in the 7 peripheral LGAs will be on new land, so the share of total dwellings on greenfield sites will be even lower. The Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) estimates that Sydney greenfield lot production is running at 11,600 a year and will reach 12,355 a year in 2017/18. If achieved, that translates to 185,325 or 27 per cent of the 2031 metropolitan dwelling forecast (equating a fringe lot to a single dwelling). 

This month, the Department of Planning released accelerated forecasts totaling 184,300 new houses and apartments across the 33 metropolitan LGAs by 2021. Of these, 8,350 are assigned to The Hills LGA, 13,600 to Blacktown LGA, 11,800 to Camden LGA, 6,700 to Campbelltown LGA, 8,050 to Liverpool LGA, 6,600 to Penrith LGA and 1,450 to Wollondilly Shire. Together, these represent 30 per cent of the metropolitan total. Large increases are channeled into established areas, including 21,450 in Parramatta LGA, 18,250 in Sydney LGA (covering the CBD and surrounds), 12,200 in Canterbury-Bankstown LGA and 10,000 in Bayside LGA. NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes boasted “we are getting the balance better … getting over the greenfield issue was the biggest thing that needed to be done”. The targets were to be fleshed out in Draft District Plans administered by a new planning politburo, the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC).  

Within days, however, the GSC announced its own strategy and targets. The total housing target is distributed to 6 Districts across the city, Central, North, West Central, West, South West and South, rather than Priority Growth Areas. Based on a metropolitan total target of 725,000 dwellings for 2 million more people, each Draft District Plan nominates a 20 year target to 2036. The South West District contains 4 of the peripheral LGAs with most potential for greenfield construction, Camden, Campbelltown, Liverpool and Wollondilly. Its 20 year housing target is 143,000 dwellings, or 19 per cent of the metropolitan total. Of the other 3 LGAs with most greenfield potential, Penrith accounts for just part of West District’s target of 41,500 dwellings or 5 per cent of the metropolitan total, while Blacktown and The Hills are in West Central District, which is dominated by Parramatta LGA with minimal new land release capacity.

Higher the density, higher the prices

Suppression of greenfield development reflects a view that location and density don’t condition the benefits of supply. Yet this is contrary to a body of economic analysis on the land value impacts of urban containment. Citing LSE economist Paul Cheshire, commentator Phil Hayward gives a cogent account of this in “The Myth of Affordable Intensification”.

Hayward explains that the more density allowed, the higher the average housing unit price becomes. Cheshire put this down to a bidding-war at the margins of each income-level cohort of society for slightly more space. The less average space available per household, the more intense is the bidding-war effect. Site development potential in an urban land market with a regulatory limit on land supply, writes Hayward, seems to capitalise into site values. When the market allows people to consume as much space as they want, the bidding-war effect is absent.

Urban land economists like Cheshire and Alan Evans at Reading University consider housing a complex good … consisting of many attributes bundled into one composite good. The land base is a particularly important attribute. With rising population and incomes, restrictions on the quantity of land at the periphery ratchet up values across the whole urban region. The evidence that fixed urban growth boundaries put upward pressure on land and thus house prices is clear. While no formal boundary is proposed for Sydney, delimited Priority Growth Areas and GSC Districts have the same effect, operating as land value traps. Between 2009 and 2014, the Sydney median greenfield lot price ballooned from $269,000 to $339,750, reports the UDIA, even though lots released per annum rose from 2503 to 8597.

To subdue prices, Cheshire argues in a 2009 paper, it isn’t enough to rezone and release enough residential land to meet anticipated demand:

If we are to provide stable prices … what we need to predict is the effective demand for housing and garden space given that it is the quantity of land that the system allocates. Then we have to allocate not just the quantity of land predicted as being compatible with price stability but more. Not all the land allocated as available for development will actually be developed. One rule of thumb suggested is that this implies allocating 40 per cent more land than the estimated demand indicates is needed.

In Sydney’s case, the authorities aren’t just failing to supply a buffer of land above population and demand projections. Worse, their targets and greenfield-infill ratio are shaped by bureaucratic value judgements on where people should settle, rather than land markets.

On top of this, proximity to amenities is another housing attribute which capitalises into prices. Advocates of TOD demand more housing near public transport hubs, or, better coordination of land use and transport infrastructure, as they put it. But evidence from the US suggests that land values within 800 metres of mass transit can rise by up to 120 per cent. Adjacent property prices can rise by 32 to 45 per cent. 

Opponents of fringe development object that the housing will be too far from jobs, assuming monocentricity or concentration of jobs in the urban core. Yet the Long-Term Public Transport Plan For Sydney found that of the jobs supposedly in centres, 37.1 per cent were actually spread over 33 dispersed locations. Only the CBD with 12 per cent and South Sydney with 2.5 per cent had more than two per cent of the total. The other 62.9 per cent were scattered randomly.  

Investigating whether outer suburban workers have extra long commutes, in fact, Alan Davies concluded average commute times don’t vary a lot geographically within large Australian cities. Peter Gordon of the University of Southern California has researched commute times in American cities over decades, reporting remarkable stability of travel times across inner and outer metropolitan sectors despite population growth. Many individual households and firms ‘co-locate’ to reduce commute time, he explains, and this spatial adjustment [is easier] in dispersed metropolitan space.

One advocate of inner-ring densification denied that it relies on price-hiking growth boundaries, claiming that relaxing floor space regulations in an Alonso-type model will give the same [densification] effect, with infinite city size. However, the Alonso model incorporates an artificial assumption of monocentricity. Higher paying professional jobs may locate closer to the core, on average, than lower paying jobs. But it’s lower paid workers who are most in need of cheaper housing. Recently, Grattan Institute’s John Daley wrote “it’s important that new supply is focused on the inner and middle rings – 2-20km out of the CBD – of our large cities … new developments on the edge tend to be a long way from where additional jobs are being created”.

In other words, he propagates the myth of monocentricity and implies that worker-trader jobs don’t count.

NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian has announced that residential construction activity in NSW has hit an all-time high. But if that construction is funneled into increasingly expensive sites, Sydneysiders face a recurring home ownership nightmare.

This is an edited version of an article first published on The New City.

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

Photo: Photograph by Gnangarra [CC BY 2.5 au], via Wikimedia Commons