Thursday, August 27, 2009

UPDATE - A chronic housing shortage: Myth or reality?

I tried to contact Christopher Joye and Business Spectator to promote my previous post, which tried to unravel the mysterious reason for making dramatic claims of a chronic housing shortage.

I would like to think that today’s comment by Joye at Business Spectator is in some way connected with my own analysis, but doubt it. He does not address the concerns I raised of defining the term shortage, nor does he address why house prices declined during 2008, or why the rate of price growth is slowing. He does address a point that I have not made, about the large number of unoccupied dwellings in the census data, but I agree with his point about that data. Instead, I will have to take it as an expansion of his general argument.

To be clear, the argument is centred on the fact that building approvals are at all time lows, while population growth is at historical highs. Blind Freddy can see this.

In the long run population growth is the driver of underlying demand, but part of the cause of the recent burst in the population growth rate is the ‘baby bonus children’. They will not be a significant driver of demand for space for a couple of years yet. I also challenge the validity of simply extrapolation net migration trends, which would have missed the 1987 decline, and will miss any future declines. Maybe the shortage claim is that we currently do not have enough dwellings for future demand, and that there is some reason why we may not be able to supply these future dwellings. I’m sure we both agree that long run demand is a function of population, even after minor fluctuations in occupancy rates are considered. Population has grown in fits and starts before, and it will again - that surely is not the prime justification for claims of a shortage.

But we can first examine the obvious reason why building approvals, starts and completions are at a historical low. Joye’s own research shows that house prices declined through 2008, so there was little incentive for developers to bring stock to a falling market. Developers don’t count houses, they count profits. Could housing shortage proponents please explain to developers why they should have continued to build homes unprofitably when house prices were declining?

I understand Joye’s frustration in communicating his claim to the general populous, and I have no problems with being labelled neither an academic, economist or serious researcher; simply an independent pundit. My independence I feel is my strength. But neither does my independence imply a lack of academic rigour, seriousness of research or experience in property markets, for I like to think that is my forte.

But let me focus on the arguments at hand. The proponents of a housing shortage believe there is some kind of impediment to the future supply of housing, and in Joye’s own words they include: strict density restrictions; long building approval processes; a range of taxes and charges that stifle new development; insufficient infrastructure to liberate distant supply; and scarce new land in proximate urban areas.

Solution: elastify supply. Translation: build roads, rezone land for housing, decrease government fees to developers, and streamline the development and building approvals process – make it easier to build new homes.

But Joye’s own numbers show just how responsive the supply of residential property can be. Ignoring the GST induced slump in 2000, the graph below shows three previous periods where residential building activity slowed dramatically, only to bounce back within a couple of years. And these recoveries faced similar, if not worse, taxes, charges, and approvals processes.

The Queensland government has taken Joye’s ideas for elastifying supply on board with their SEQ Regional Plan. The plan complements the SEQ Infrastructure Plan, and together they achieve all of the solutions proposed by Joye. However, a Regional Plan delivering these same outcomes has been active in the State since 2005, and yet apparently, we still have a housing shortage.

There is a very good reason why this should be the case, and why Joye and Co.’s proposed solutions will not bring forward the construction of new dwellings. Let us examine each proposed solution in turn.

1. Density restrictions. If I understand this correctly, the claim is that if developers were allowed to build higher buildings, they would build more dwellings.

But through what mechanism is this claim achieved. Let us use an example to show how rezoning to increasing building height restrictions benefits only current land holders, and does not improve the supply of dwellings.

A great case study is near my own home, where former industrial land near the city is a target for gentrification by the local government. The land has been rezoned for residential, and the building height restriction has been increased periodically from 5 to 7 to 10 storeys in the past 5 years. Yet there remains just a trickle of new apartment buildings.

The reason is simple. As the height limit is raised, the land itself gains value. Any developer looking to enter into the area would have to now pay the current owner an even greater price for the land, leaving their rate of return on the development similar in every case (the 5, 7 and 10 storey cases). Rezoning, while in some instances is required to change uses, and to allow for natural growth to proceed, still remains a gift to the land owner.

2. Long building approvals process. The argument is that supply responses to price changes are delayed due to arduous approvals processes.

In general, I agree that the approvals process for residential dwellings is in some cases arduous and time consuming. However, the fact that planning and building approvals remain current for a period of time allows developers to speculate with early approvals, without committing to construction until prices appear stable enough.

Even if the cost and time taken for approvals is reduced though innovative management by local governments, the argument of benefits going to current owners of developable land, as in increase in value reflective of the reduction in development risk, applies.

3. Taxes and charges stifle new development.

This is the same argument for rezoning and the building approvals process. Reduced development costs are returned to land values.

4. Insufficient infrastructure to liberate distant supply; and scarce new land in proximate urban areas. These arguments assume that developable land is unavailable due to current planning restrictions.

This argument is one of the more popular ones in the property industry. If I just stated here that there is plenty of land currently zoned for residential development, both within existing suburban areas, and in new outer suburb developments, I would be hit with a request to show some evidence. So here it is for South East Queensland.

Springfield, to the west of Brisbane is only 13% developed. It has an area of 2,860Ha, and a target population of 86,000 people, with house and land packages available now. Coomera, north of the Gold Coast, has been rezoned for a new satellite city, and has very good highway access to both Brisbane and the Coast. Land is zoned for housing for an estimated 60,000 people. Sippy Downs, west of the Sunshine Coast has a new plan promoting development around the University of the Sunshine Coast. Not to mention infill projects such as Portside in Hamilton, and the ongoing transformation of Teneriffe, South Bank, and South Brisbane into dense residential areas.

Of course, I have repeatedly mentioned, the benefits from rezoning go to current land holders. For a development industry with large parcels of land bought for long term speculation, this is a simple gift.

At the end of all this reasoning we end up at the same point as before. We all agree that there has been a recent jump in population growth rates, which will lead to medium term stability in house prices, and a recovery in residential construction. However, some things remain uncertain, like why Australia’s leading expert on residential property markets can claim something as radical as a chronic housing shortage based on extrapolating trends in data without resorting to theoretical foundations; and why all levels of government are buying into ineffective solutions to a non-existent problem.


  1. cam, my name is christopher joye not "joyce"! not sure how you could make that mistake if you are indeed a regular reader. i only just got your message via BS. keep up the good work.
    i think there is an important distinction, which i am sure i have touched on before, between underlying demand and underlying supply, and what i call "market" or "effective" demand and "effective" supply. think of the underlying demand for dwellings as determined by population growth, demolitions and changes in household size. underlying supply is just starts, which is easy to measure. but actual market demand might be better proxied in the owner-occupied sector by new finance approvals (ex refis) while effective supply is the stock of homes actually advertised for sale in the market (in a single period setting). very busy right now, but keep on bashing away. kind regards, chris

  2. Thanks very much for taking the time to read these posts Christopher. I am very sorry about misspelling your name - I had to actually go back to BS and the Rismark website just to check why I had seriously thought your name was Joyce for the past 6 months. Must be when I see C. Joye that my mind performs some dyslexic substitution of letters adds the C into Joye as well. Anyway, I apologise for that.

    From your comment here I can see we agree on everything expect that housing starts is a reasonable or theoretically consistent measure for underlying supply.

    I understand your time is valuable, but I will have one last blog entry this week on the housing shortage debate before moving on.