• The New Consensus Misses the Target

    So, now we know.  The two major parties are agreed that the homelessness and unaffordability crisis has arisen because the market has not been allowed to function properly.  It seems that the Auckland Council, in a misguided attempt to prevent urban sprawl, has restricted the supply of land with the result that prices have risen.  With the Council cast as the villain of the piece, it looks as though the government can celebrate getting off the hook – but whether the consensus is in Labour’s interests, or those of the homeless, is less obvious.

    The Greens, on the other hand, have a different take.  For them, it seems, the pressing problem is the one that has been hogging the headlines – the plight of that growing number of Kiwis, in Auckland and elsewhere, who literally have no home, no washing or toilet facilities, no home comforts, nowhere to relax at the end of the day, nowhere to call their own.

    That crisis demands the fastest possible solution.  That will not be achieved by firing the starting gun for another round of property development.  The crisis has arisen because we have not been building homes for that significant sector who simply cannot afford either purchase prices or rents – those whom the market, in other words, totally overlooks and does not provide for.

    Our decade-long failure to concern ourselves with this group of our fellow-citizens has led inexorably to the current crisis.  It can be remedied only by making good – and fast – our past failures.  That means a publicly funded building programme of decent houses at reasonable rents in the areas where they are needed.

    How is that funding to be found?  It depends where our priorities lie, but a decent start could be made, as the Greens suggest, by desisting from treating Housing New Zealand as a cash cow, extracting over $100 million a year from the poorest people in our society to pay over to the government, and using that money instead to finance a building programme.

    But, it will be argued, homelessness is only one aspect of a malfunctioning housing market.  It surely stands to reason that an increase in the supply of housing will help to resolve the separate problem of unaffordability by bringing prices down?  Isn’t the National/Labour cross-party consensus right on the money?  And doesn’t the enthusiastic support from Business New Zealand, the Property Developers Association and the real estate industry show that the politicians have at last agreed on the right solution?

    It is certainly true that property developers, the banks, speculative investors, all love the idea – I can hear them salivating from here.  Any concept of sensible planning and land use, any concern for other interests such as our important horticulture industry, any reckoning of what further urban sprawl would mean in terms of infrastructure costs and longer travel distances is swept aside.

    Supporters of the consensus have little patience with these concerns.  The market, they say, must be allowed to operate.  The housing market is like any other market, and rigidities must be removed so that it produces optimal results.

    But the housing market is not like any other market.  There is no other market of any size where purchasers are armed with a purchasing power up to nine times higher than their annual incomes, where recent experience shows that they can expect huge untaxed capital gains, where speculative investment using borrowed money can virtually guarantee a huge return – all because house prices go on rising and banks go on lending.

    Economists may see, and warn about, all the signs of a rapidly inflating bubble, but those who are responsible for the inflating are not to be deterred.  As the consensus promises to provide yet wider opportunities for profitable investment, property developers stand ready to bid up the prices of the newly available land, the banks stand ready to lend virtually without limit to both the developers and the eventual purchasers of the new houses, and the inflow of new lending and credit into the housing market ensures that the bellows applied to housing prices will continue to blow fiercely.

    As another round of house price increases is generated, the gap between those who are already in the housing market or who are able to borrow, and those who are not and cannot grows, ever wider.  And, the diversion of yet more of the country’s finances into speculative rather than productive activities leaves us even more dangerously exposed to the risk of a housing bubble that one day is certain to burst.

    The proposed solution, in other words, may in due course bring housing values down all right, but not in the way that is foreseen – and that outcome would be at huge cost to the national economy.

    Bryan Gould

    20 May 2016.




  1. Susanne Vincent says: May 25, 2016 at 2:03 amReply

    Auckland council has absolutely nothing to do with this, and building more and more houses to sell to the private sector is like baiting for rats but never actually setting any traps.

    First, while maybe one can still buy an affordable house 50 miles from a shop somewhere there is eight feet of snow, chronic pollution or no jobs, there is a world housing crisis and property bubble happening that is self fuelling. Googling ‘housing crisis’ or ‘housing bubble’ for Australia, UK, Europe, Canada and even the USA (again): it’s the same story.

    Second, while birth rate and migration have an impact, surely this is actually to do with property as a highly juicy commodity for financial speculation worldwide? This isn’t about middle-upper income Kiwis with a bach or the odd rental for their retirement. Here, demand seems to be limitless so long as China looks wobbly, and profits don’t even appear to depend on rents (2016 figures for unoccupied homes in Auckland would be interesting.)

    Real estate investment trusts, property securities, capital property portfolios – just a few terms from the website of AMP (selected at random) for opportunities now delivering 18.31% over one year.

    Yes, our lack of social housing is an outright scandal, but unless this hands-off investor activity is tracked, analysed and constrained, reality will continue to elude us, more and more 11,000 hectare parcels will be built up and any chance of controlling any future trend by ourselves will be completely futile.

    However, surely there’s also a third point. Our GDP level (arguably the main factor in our debt-fuelled economy that influences our credibility as a borrower) must reflect on property-related transactions. Owing to the way stats are reported, I can’t see what NZ GDP would look like without these (I’m sure someone knows), but I’m guessing that the contribution is significant, and possibly even the only one that is growing.

    Why would the government have any interest in cooling the Auckland housing market? To do so would be to manage New Zealand from the standpoint of public wellbeing and long-term economic sustainability, and I think that idea went out of the window in 2008.

  2. John G says: June 1, 2016 at 2:52 amReply

    “How is that funding to be found?”

    We have a sovereign, fiat currency. The government ‘funds’ itself and it can, in financial terms, purchase anything available for sale in $NZ that it wishes to.

    The constraint would come in real resources, not $s. Given that we have a huge unemployment and underemployment problem, there is plenty of scope there.

    So the issues are land and political will (or neoliberal groupthink overriding reality).

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