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The Housing Affordability Debate

The Housing Affordability Debate

Housing affordability is shaping up as a defining political issue - probably an election issue in 2014. The problem is that housing costs in Auckland in particular are rising so rapidly that many low income families are being locked out of home ownership. While the reasons are complex, a major burden of the responsibility must lie with central government.

Over the years, governments have committed the country to smart growth, a planning ideology that is part of the United Nations sustainable development agenda. Smart growth restricts housing development to within urban boundaries, and while some local authorities have only paid lip service to the concept, Auckland has embraced it. Within the Auckland city boundary the average price of a section is 60 percent of the cost of a new home, compared with 40 percent around the rest of the country. Not only that, but outside the metropolitan urban limit, land costs only 12 percent of that inside.[1]

The Resource Management Act has contributed to the problem as well. Introduced as “enabling” legislation to replace prescriptive town and country planning laws, the RMA has been used successfully by opponents to delay progress on developments such as subdivisions.

Then there is the escalating cost of government regulation. Whenever a government tries to show that it is resolving a problem, it over-regulates. The restrictions that have been imposed on the building industry as a result of leaky buildings, the earthquakes, and energy efficiency concerns are a case in point – taken together, they have significantly forced up the cost of housing.

In addition, the regulation of builders - one of the law changes to emerge from the mix - has had the effect of driving tradesmen out of the industry and out of the country, rather than having to go through the hassle of registration. This is forcing up the cost of labour as well, creating a double whammy for low income families aspiring to build their own home.

One of the biggest housing cost increases arose as a result of changes made by Labour in 2002 to the Local Government Act, which allowed councils to impose a new tax on developers. Ostensibly to recover the cost of providing water, sewerage, footpaths, roading and other services to new subdivisions, councils were meant to offset these tax gains by reducing rates. The problem is that most forgot that side of the equation, viewing development contribution fees as an easy way to generate extra income.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, investment analyst and former councillor Frank Newman, has researched these issues and quantified the impact of some of these central government costs on the price of building a home:

“The Resource Management Act has imposed significant costs and lengthy delays on new developments. The Long Bay residential project in Auckland is an example of a development ‘where environmental factors were put ahead of people's housing needs’. Planning for the estate began in about 1998 but work did not start until 2011. From my experience as a councillor on the Whangarei District Council I can say that delays measured in years, rather than months, is not unusual.

“Here’s a quick example to show how delays inflate property prices. Let’s make three assumptions:

1. An investor needs to make say 10% p.a. on their investment to make it
2. The all up cost to develop a section is $100,000, and
3. The time between buying and selling the section is one year.

“Under that scenario the developer would price the section at $110,000.

“Change the third assumption from one to 10 years then they would have to sell the same section at $260,000 to achieve the same annual return! In other words, reducing the consenting time from 10 years to one year would reduce land prices by more than half!

“Council staff and politicians (local and central) simply do not understand the numbers. They need to if they are going to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Reducing excessive time delays alone could reduce the land costs by many tens of thousands of dollars. The simple fact is greenies and iwi have used the RMA to advance their own agendas and that has cost homeowners dearly.

“The Local Government Act 2002 gave councils the power to impose development fees. The fees are nothing more than a new tax on those building a new home. If Mr English were to repeal the fees the cost of housing would fall by about 10%.”

Frank mentions other government-controlled factors that are driving up the cost of housing such as GST, which now adds 15 percent to the price of a dwelling, and the registration of builders.

“In addition building material costs have risen faster than wages. This is not surprising given the new costs central government has imposed on the business sector. The extra week’s holiday added another 2% on company wage costs and holidays and other paid entitlements like KiwiSaver add at least 10% onto wage costs; and the nonsensical emissions trading scheme has increased fuel and power prices. These costs hit building manufacturers hard because they are energy, labour and transport intensive.” To read the full article, please click HERE.

While these factors have all contributed to the rising cost of housing, the ability to save also plays a major role in housing affordability. Saving a deposit can be tough for those on low incomes, especially as the prevailing culture is not as aligned to saving as it once was. However, KiwiSaver now provides a cost-effective pathway to first home ownership.

In addition to the generous benefits of KiwiSaver - which include an initial contribution by the government of $1040 and annual payments of up to $520, along with employer subsidies – registered first home buyers are entitled to receive a government grant of $1,000 a year for up to 5 years towards their deposit. For a working couple saving for their first home, that amounts to an extremely generous $10,000 ‘gift’ from the government towards their deposit - on top of all of the other KiwiSaver benefits.

Last year the government asked the Productivity Commission to conduct an inquiry into housing affordability, in order to suggest changes that would improve the situation and remove impediments to home ownership. The Commission found that tax advantages were not a key driver of house price increases, as claimed by some. It found that ‘smart growth’ and ‘metropolitan urban limit’ planning policies were having an adverse effect by restraining the availability of land for housing and that council delays were exacerbating the problem. The commission recommended that councils and developers should work together to ensure the availability of sections at prices that would allow the building of affordable homes.[2]

Last month Finance Minister Bill English responded to the Productivity Commission’s suggestions with a plan that will focus on four key areas: increasing land supply, reducing the delays and costs of the Resource Management Act processes associated with housing, improving the timely provision of infrastructure to support new housing, and improving the productivity in the construction sector.

Here are a few practical steps Mr English could take to make housing more affordable:

• Immediately repeal council development impact fees.

• Reject the baseless notion that investment in housing is taking money away from the productive sector. At $13 billion and growing, KiwiSaver will soon provide a more than adequate savings fund for investment into New Zealand’s productive sector.

• Reduce taxes so households have greater disposable income, which by definition, would improve house affordability.

• Undertake an urgent audit of the regulations and red tape associated with the housing sector to bring land and building costs down to affordable levels. In particular focus on forcing local authorities to become more efficient.

In response to the debate about housing affordability, Tony Alexander, the Chief Economist of the BNZ, has come up with 19 reasons why he believes housing costs in the Auckland area will keep on rising! These include:

• Auckland's population is growing at a faster rate than building consents;
• Those living in temporary accommodation are now looking to buy;
• Increasing construction costs;
• The shortage of builders;
• The reticence of banks to lend as freely for mortgages as they once did; and
• “Members of the Opposition believe monetary fairies can make the exchange rate settle permanently lower by forcing interest rate cuts and printing money while letting inflation therefore go up. Given the non-zero possibility that such economically ignorant policies get introduced it is worth getting inflation protection by investing more in property – not less.”
He also soundly condemns the idea that a capital gains tax – the flagship housing policy of both Labour and the Greens - would have any impact at all on improving housing affordability, saying that there is absolutely no evidence to support such claims.[3]

Those who agree with Labour and the Greens that a capital gains tax should be introduced seem to ignore the fact that there already is a capital gains tax in place for anyone who trades property or assets with the intention of making capital gains. Not only that, but supporters of a new capital gains tax regime are naive if they think that the family home would remain exempt in the long term - especially as critics already say that such a scheme would not raise significant revenue without the family home being included. The very existence of a new capital gains tax regime would place every New Zealand home-owner into an extremely vulnerable position, since there would be an enormous temptation for any cash-strapped government in the future to bring the family home into the scheme with just a stroke of the pen. In fact, when considering such issues it is advisable to remember the wise counsel of President Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I'm from the government and I'm here to help!

Meanwhile, David Shearer, at his last conference address as leader of the Labour Party, focussed on housing. In addition to reaffirming a capital gains tax, he announced a plan to force private landlords to comply with new insulation and heating standards in their rental properties.

However his major policy announcement was a plan to borrow up to $2 billion to build 100,000 homes over a 10 year period. With the biggest housing rebuild in New Zealand’s history already underway in Christchurch, one wonders whether the Labour team thought to ask where the builders are expected to come from!


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