Housing reform, the Corn Laws and possibilities for New Zealand

Brendon Harre, who writes interesting and thought-provoking pieces on housing (including contributing from time to time to the new Making New Zealand housing blog), had another stimulating article out this week, titled Housing affordability: Reform or Revolution .  Harre is strongly of the view that supply-side reform of the urban land market is critical to making home ownership affordable again, but is particularly interesting because he comes at the issues from a left wing perspective: the sheer injustice of the sorts of house price outcomes we (and so many other similar countries) have experienced in recent decades.  He fears that if reform doesn’t happen, extreme populist movements –  the modern “revolution”  – could.

In his latest article, Harre picks up on a point I’ve made several times previously.  I’ve argued that it is difficult to be optimistic about the supply-side reforms happening in New Zealand any time soon, partly because there are few or no known precedents of countries or regions/cities (and certainly not from among the Anglo countries) undoing restrictive land use regulations once they have been put in place.  He links to a post I did a few months ago suggesting that perhaps Tokyo might have been something of a counter-example, but essentially accepts the point that, thus far, there few modern examples of successful supply-side land use/housing reform.  In pondering why this might be, and how it might be changed, Harre suggests thinking about other cases from history in which policy reforms have finally overcome longstanding resistance, to free-up markets and bring prices down.

In a New Zealand context, he could have thought about the eventual removal of the sort of heavy import protection which for decades meant that New Zealand was a rare country where cars were not only very expensive, but often held their value over time.  Or of the removal of most agricultural industry support in the 1980s.

But on this occasion he looked at the movement that led, over decades, to the repeal of Corn Laws (which tended to hold up the price of wheat, benefiting landowners but at the cost of urban workers and industrialist) in the United Kingdom in 1846.    You can read the story for yourself, and I’m not an expert in the area (although the few books I pulled off my shelf suggested a different emphasis in a few areas), but the lessons Harre draws are

What are the lessons from the campaign for affordable food?

  • Achieving a strategic alignment of a broad cross-section of social groups is important
  • Acknowledging that moderate incremental reform can prevent future radical revolutions.
  • If traditional media does not report on your campaign create new media. The Economist newspaper was founded by the British businessman and banker James Wilson in 1843, to advance the repeal of the Corn Law.
  • Simple clear statements/images with a strong moral message are effective.

Harre ends on an optimistic note.

For New Zealand to become a fairer society, we should learn the lessons from earlier struggles for economic, social and political justice. If these lessons were applied to New Zealand’s housing crisis, in my opinion affordable housing could be easily solved.

I remain rather more skeptical.  As a technical matter, housing price scandals (here and abroad) are easily resolved.  But the challenges aren’t technical, they are political.

Harre draws hope from the recent Obama administration initiatives to encourage states, cities, counties etc to rethink their zoning rules

President Obama has chosen to address supply restrictions by releasing a Housing Development Toolkit, advising States and local jurisdictions on how to best manage urban planning to achieve affordable housing. Some US cities are very restrictive, so these reforms may cause a measurable downward price correction, but it is too early to tell. There are both supporters and detractors for the President’s approach, which if followed to its logical conclusion by going from advice to a command would remove some aspects of planning autonomy from local government control.

But…the US federal government has no responsibility for zoning and other local land use laws, the Obama administration is weeks from ending, and there seems little appetite in the places that matter in the US to make the sorts of land use liberalisations that many economists favour.  Of course, it is good to see the Administration (even an outgoing one) pick up the issue, but substantively it might matter not much more than, say in a New Zealand context, the ACT Party favouring such reform.  And housing affordability isn’t such an issue in the US, no doubt partly because if New York or San Francisco are “unaffordable” there are other big fast-growing cities people can move to without such regulatory burdens.

I’m not sure that reform is inevitable, even with a decades-long perspective.  After all, awful as the current system is, it could maintain an uneasy equilibrium in which more people involuntarily rent than used to, people buy homes much later in life than they used to with more debt, and then –  on average –  they reap a transfer back from their parents late in life.   I don’t favour such an outcome, but after several decades already of progressively more unaffordable home ownership for the relatively young, there is still no sign of this becoming some sort of moral crusade for justice, let alone efficiency.

Reverting to the Corn Law process briefly, my British economic history textbook records that

By 1846 the Anti-Corn Law League was the most powerful pressure group  England had known, and upon their techniques of mass meetings, travelling orators, hymns and catechisms a good deal of later Victorian  revivalist and temperance –  even trade union –  oratory was based.

Translated into the language and style of a different age, I don’t detect anything like that at present around land use regulation (outright homeless is a little different).

As Harre, and the economic historians note, the rising “ideology” of free trade played a part – though not necessarily a decisive part –  in getting the Corn Laws repealed.  There was an alignment between that belief system and the cause of “cheaper food for urban workers”.  But in New Zealand –  or Canada, or Australia, or the UK, or most of coastal USA –  is there any sign of that sort of ideological movement around housing, cities etc?  I don’t detect it.  There is no sign of the rhetoric of choice, freedom, flexibility etc assuming a dominant role –  among the public let alone among the elites.  The talk is still endlessly of smarter planning, and top down visions for what cities and other urban areas should be like –  our own Productivity Commission put its imprimatur recently on local authority desires to plan cities.  If there is ever talk of reform, it is of targeted specific interventions, not of getting planners out of the way, and allowing markets to work.  In my own suburb, there is currently a process underway –  hours and hours of meetings between “community representatives” and the Wellington City Council –  on a 10 year plan for the suburb –  and no one seems to find this strange, not 25 years on from the fall of European communism.

This isn’t intended to be a counsel of despair.  Things can change, but there doesn’t at present seem to be a pressing demand for change –  and particularly not for the sort of regulatory changes that would really make a major sustainable difference.  That means if change is really going to happen any time soon, someone –  some party –  is going to have to be willing to spend a lot of political or reputational capital on making initially unpopular change.  And that cost is only rising with each passing month in which more households – in Auckland and increasingly elsewhere –  take on debt at the new higher house prices.  Falling house prices don’t actually threaten most of those people –  servicing is the real issue –  but that doesn’t stop the prospect sounding pretty frightening.

One obstacles to getting comprehensive land use reform is fear in some circles –  particularly on the environmental left –  about what post-reform cities might look like.  Many talk disdainfully of “sprawl” –  as if there is something profoundly wrong about people in a small, lightly populated, country wanting a decent backyard for their kids to play in etc.  But even when the attitude isn’t disdainful, it is often fearful –  how far will Auckland stretch, and all those questions about roads and other infrastructure.  If Auckland really is going to grow by another million people those issues become a lot more pressing than otherwise.  People can, and do, come up with all sorts of smart solutions –  differential rates, MUDs etc-  and I’m quite sympathetic to all those arguments.  But they don’t really resonate with the wider public, and some visceral unease about “sprawl” (and even the loss of “prime agricultural land”) seems to.  It isn’t only the public: the Green Party is likely to be part of the next non-National government.

Which is partly why I think any successful sustainable package of land use reforms, particularly in New Zealand, should be accompanied by a commitment to much lower rates of non-citizen immigration for the foreseeable future.  As readers know, my main arguments about immigration policy aren’t about house prices –  which can be “fixed’ with proper supply side reforms –  but if one of the real barriers to land use liberalization is unease about population-driven “sprawl”, why not just take the policy-driven component of population growth out of the mix for a few decades?  It is not as if the proponents of immigration can show the real economic gains to New Zealanders from our immigration policy, and we know that GDP per capita in Auckland has been falling relative to that in the rest of the country, not rising.    There is no hard trade-off, only the scope for mutually reinforcing packages of reforms that might finally make a more liberal approach to urban land use possible in New Zealand, if some political leader (or coalition of parties) is really willing to take the risk.

Individual political leaders can make a real difference.  It would be great if one would stake a lot on urban land use reform, but anyone considering it needs to recognize the lack of precedents, the potential losers, and the worries and beliefs that underpin the durability of the current model here and abroad. And they probably need to find not only the right language to help frame repeal choices and options, but find a package of measures which helps allay – even if only in part, and for a time –  the sorts of concerns some have.  Plenty of the elites don’t really believe in choice and freedom  –  especially for other people –  but perhaps they might be a little more relaxed if they weren’t (reasonably or otherwise) worrying about the idea of an Auckland that stretched from Wellsford to Hamilton.