• Why Housing Isn’t Affordable

    As a young solicitor in Auckland in the early 1960s, I handled the conveyancing for a number of young couples who were buying their first home. It was one of the more satisfying parts of my work.

    At that time, a deposit of just L50 ($100) would purchase, for a total price of L850 ($1700), what was called a deferred licence on a quarter-acre section. It was then possible to borrow the total cost of building a new house on the section through a low-interest 100% mortgage with the State Advances Corporation or the non profit-making building society with which the young couple had been saving and of which they were members and co-owners.

    These arrangements promoted what was then virtually the highest rate of home ownership in the developed world. Many young families were enabled to bring up their children in the secure environment provided by ownership of their own homes. But I suppose we must have been doing something wrong, because that system was changed for what was supposedly something better.

    We know that the changes have achieved their purpose because of the huge fortunes made out of the housing sector by property developers over recent decades and the even greater profits from lending on mortgage made by our Australian banks and repatriated to Australia. In that respect, the changed policies have been a roaring success.

    What a pity, though, that the impact on the availability of affordable housing was not so positive. By the time I returned to New Zealand in 1994, home ownership had passed beyond the reach of many young families; and housing is even less affordable today, with the result that home ownership rates have slumped and we are rapidly approaching a housing crisis.

    The government is of course concerned. It would like to do something to help, as witness their response this week to the recommendations of the Productivity Commission on the subject. True to form, however, they look everywhere for solutions rather than where the real responsibility lies.

    The government prefers to avert its gaze from what has really happened to create the housing crisis. The fortunes made from property development by some of our most successful business leaders have come from somewhere – and that “somewhere” is an important element in the hugely inflated prices now being asked and paid for houses. The very term “property development” gives the game away. The development value of property, which is almost entirely produced by the wider community’s success in building new communities and local economies, has been siphoned off into private pockets.

    An even more significant factor has been the increasing role of the banks in financing house purchase. With the replacement of mutually owned building societies by profit-making banks, the whole nature of lending for house purchase has changed. The banks make most of their money from lending on mortgage. Its appeal is that it is risk-free lending, with houses providing real and immoveable assets as security. It is in the banks’ interests to go on lending ever more, whatever the consequences for individual borrowers or for the housing market or for the economy as a whole.

    The banks have in effect applied a huge pair of bellows to the housing market and have accordingly inflated house prices to their current – and, for many, unaffordable – levels. They are about to start all over again, as the Auckland market already demonstrates. The increased prices being paid by house purchasers will in effect disappear westwards across the Tasman as bank profits. If we want an explanation of the huge rise in housing prices, that is where we should look first.

    It is hard to exaggerate the price we pay for these excesses. Not only have we generated a quite unnecessary housing crisis, but we have also created a powerful mechanism for creating ever-widening inequality, as the untaxed capital gains as a result of house price inflation mean that wealth is in effect transferred to those who own homes and away from those who cannot afford them.

    The huge increase in the money supply caused by inflated bank lending for non-productive housing purposes, moreover, seriously skews the whole economy. It diverts resources from productive investment and creates an inflation problem which we choose – unbelievably – to address by raising interest rates so that productive investment becomes even less attractive and bank profits grow even larger.

    The government’s response to all of this? More of the same. Their “remedy” is to remove remaining restrictions on property developers – even to the extent of displacing families from their homes to allow private “redevelopment” to occur – and to bypass elected authorities so that the community interest or environmental concern can no longer inhibit the drive for profit. And they set their face against any change in the monetary policy that conveniently overlooks the damaging role played by excessive bank lending.

    As on so many issues, the government’s loyalties seem to lie with its big business and corporate backers. As we assess the government’s plans, let us remember that families without decent homes, and children being brought up in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, need and deserve more than crocodile tears.

    Bryan Gould

    29 October 2012