Much has been made of the availability of credit promoting asset price bubbles. If the availability of credit is loose and an asset is seen as scarce, asset prices tend to rise. But what if there was an ability to quickly supply new product onto the market, such that an asset cannot be seen as scarce for long periods? This is the argument of Demographia and their annual house price survey. This survey is famous for marking Vancouver as one of the most unaffordable metropolitan markets in the English speaking world. The authors of the survey argue that while loose credit conditions lead to bubbles, the inability for a market to quickly react to changes in investor and owner demand can exacerbate bubbles:
Higher land prices have been the principal contributor to rapidly increasing housing prices in unaffordable markets. These land prices include the cost increasing influence of land supply restrictions (such as urban growth boundaries), excessive infrastructure fees and other overly strict land use regulations. In Australia, 95 percent of the increase in inflation adjusted new house (and land) costs were attributable to land, rather than construction from 1993 to 2006. In more restrictively regulated San Diego, house prices were 250 percent higher than in Dallas-Fort Worth in 2007, yet cost only 15 percent more to build.
It may be easy to quickly discount this report’s arguments as, of course, asset bubbles are not prone to form without the propagation of relaxed lending. Remove the loose lending, remove the bubbles. But I would argue it’s worth a deeper and critical look into what the authors are stating. Unconventional Economist A.K.A. Leith Van Olsen has written dozens of posts on a similar theme, that cities that experienced or are experiencing severe asset bubbles also have severe land use restrictions.
- The Truth about the US Housing Market
- Planning Gone Mad
- The Great Australian Land Racket
- A Developer’s Perspective
- Why not copy Houston?
- Why not copy Houston: A follow-up
The posts are long and the comments are equally as interesting as the posts themselves. An important point in the debate is that Van Olsen and others are arguing about supply responsiveness, not total supply. Indeed we know that supply must at least equal demand, or rents would be increasing significantly. Van Olsen clarifies:
Readers should note that unresponsive housing supply is a different issue to the ‘undersupply’ of homes or ‘housing shortages’ commonly mentioned by mainstream commentators. The former relates to the speed and cost at which new (generally fringe) housing supply is built, whereas the latter refers to the physical quantity of homes available for the population.
In my view, Australia does not have a housing shortage. But housing supply is certainly unresponsive and overly expensive on the urban fringe of Australia’s cities and towns. As a result, the critical ‘inflation vent’ provided by cheap fringe housing in places like Texas and Atlanta (despite very high population growth) is missing from the Australian housing market. As such, there is no supply mechanism available to quickly dampen house price inflation before it turns into a speculative bubble (and later bust).
So, he argues, there is opportunity to maintain price stability by decreasing response time of new and desirable supply becoming available on the market. Faster response times can be accomplished by: reducing permit and planning application times, removing centrally planned blanket zoning restrictions (such as agricultural reserves), and providing more local authority and accountability on land use. Interestingly this approach has been used in bubble-averse Switzerland and Germany, as investigated in Bigger, Better, Faster, More: Why some countries plan better than others by Alan W. Evans & Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich, who, when comparing the plights of the British Isles and Australian housing markets to their European continental brethren, state:
In Ireland and Australia,with planning systems derived from the UK’s, restrictions on the supply of land, densification policies and central planning fail to provide the kind of homes people want, and lead to high real house price inflation. Successful planning systems, as found in Germany and Switzerland, leave planning decisions to local planners and politicians while ensuring that they face the full costs and benefits of their decisions.
Applications to Vancouver
There is some argument that the Vancouver area faces multiple Byzantine tiers of land use policies and restrictions, from the Agricultural Land Reserve, shared utility and resource planning at district and provincial levels, and municipal-level zoning change and permit application processes. While all serve a purpose, from time to time it may be instructive to take a step back and look at the successes and failures in other jurisdictions in avoiding destructive asset price bubbles.
A rational debate around the role of land use planning has been notably absent from BC’s mainstream media. It is unlikely any of us would live to see a significant overhaul of land use policies in the city and province, but studying land use policies and other supply side impedances (such as flexibility of labour markets) in other jurisdictions — and their purported catalytic effects on asset bubbles — does serve to provide some context to Vancouver’s prospects in the coming generations.