Smart Growth: Destroying Housing Opportunity from California to Australia (and Beyond)

Two recent stories provide further  evidence on the extent to which urban containment policies (also called smart growth, growth management, compact city policy, livability and urban consolidation) raises house prices relative to incomes, thereby reducing housing affordability. Because housing represents the largest element of household budgets (not transportation as a US government website implies), urban containment policy reduces discretionary income — the money households have left over after taxes and paying for necessities. This leads to a lower standard of living and more poverty, and violates the fundamental purposes of urban planning, described by former World Bank principal planner Alain Bertaud as:

“Increasing mobility and affordability are the two main objectives of urban planning. These two objectives are directly related to the overall goal of maximizing the size of a city’s labor market, and therefore, its economic prosperity.”

Two recent stories describe the effects of urban containment policy on the standard of living:

The Economist and Urban Containment “Fat Cats”

“Free Exchange” in The Economist came  down strongly on the side of economics in a review of housing affordability.

According to The Economist, the unusually high cost of housing in San Francisco (and other places) is principally the result of tight land use regulation, which makes it expensive or impossible to build. If “local regulations did not do much to discourage creation of new housing supply, then the market for San Francisco would be pretty competitive.” Add to that Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, Portland and a host of additional metropolitan areas, where urban containment policy has driven house prices well above the 3.0 median multiple indicated by historic market fundamentals.

The Economist explains the issue in greater detail: “We therefore get highly restrictive building regulations. Tight supply limits mean that the gap between the marginal cost of a unit of San Francisco and the value to the marginal resident of San Francisco (and the market price of the unit) is enormous. That difference is pocketed by the rent-seeking NIMBYs of San Francisco. However altruistic they perceive their mission to be, the result is similar to what you’d get if fat cat industrialists lobbied the government to drive their competition out of business.” (Our emphasis).

Of course urban planning interests have long denied that that rationing land is associated with higher housing prices (read greater poverty and a lower standard of living). Nonetheless urban containment policies not only drive up the price of land, but do so even as they reduce the amount of land used for each new residence, driving prices per square foot of land up as well.

The Economist notes that unless the direction is changed, housing policy will continue to be “an instrument of oligarchy. Who knows. But however one imagines this playing out, we should be clear about what is happening, and what its effects have been.”

Land Prices Skyrocket as Residential Lot Sizes Fall in Australia

The extent to which smart growth policy (urban continament policy or urban consolidation policy) is associated with higher land (and house) prices is illustrated by a recent press release from RP Data in Australia. The analysis examined the vacant building lot prices for the period of 1993 to 2013.

During the period, the median price of a vacant lot rose 168 percent after adjustment for inflation.This is nearly 5 times the increase in the median household incomes of the seven largest capital cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney).

But it gets worse. The median lot size was reduced nearly 30 percent. This should put paid to the myth that urban containment reduces lot prices as it reduces their sizes. The same dynamic has been indicated in the United States.

Australia has been plagued by huge house cost increases relative to incomes in association with urban containment policy. Before the adoption of urban containment policy, it was typical for house prices to average three times or less than that of household income. Now, Sydney has the highest median multiple (median house price divided by median household income) of any major metropolitan area in the New World, with the exceptions of Vancouver and San Francisco. Melbourne, the second largest metropolitan area in Australia, has a median multiple of 8.4, making it fifth most costly in the New World, behind San Jose. All of Australia’s major metropolitan areas are “severely unaffordable,” including slow-growing Adelaide (6.3), as well as most smaller areas.

Getting Priorities Right

Research on these impacts led London School of Economics professor Paul Cheshire to conclude that urban containment policy is irreconcilable with housing affordability. This means that urban containment policy is irreconcilable with a better economic future for households, including those in poverty.

The purposes of urban containment policy are largely driven by a particular vision of the urban form and a manifestly wrongheaded belief that rationing land and limiting mobility can contribute materially to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The issue is neither urban design nor the expensive and ineffective strategies of urban containment. People are more important — their standard of living and reducing the number living in poverty. There is a compelling need to reorient urban policy in this direction (see Toward More Prosperous Cities).

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For a complete listing of median multiples by major metropolitan area, see the 10th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

Additional information on the RP Data research is available at Australian Property Through Foreign Eyes

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Note: This article is adapted from contributions by the author to the newgeography.com

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