Did state houses make much difference to housing supply?

I’ve been among those suggesting that the KiwiBuild programme –  even if it involved the government itself directly commissioning the building of new houses that no existing developer already had in prospect –  was unlikely to increase overall housing supply very much, or affect overall average house prices very much.  It was never clear how such a programme could affect overall housing supply very much.  For it to do so, there would have to be large unexploited profits left sitting on the table by private developers (properties selling for far more than it would cost to bring new developments to market).  If that isn’t so –  and we don’t see any obvious signs of such unexploited opportunities – whatever the government itself builds or commissions is just likely to mostly displace and replace houses that the private sector would have built.   (There is another possibility, that the government not only displaces most private building, but goes on building at a loss even beyond that point, but there is nothing in the PR around the programme to suggest that is what they have in mind.)

I also know the line the government and its defenders run that somehow KiwiBuild will “work” –  whatever that means –  by building particular types of houses the market isn’t providing.  But even to the extent that is so, what of it?   If the morass of regulation makes it uneconomic to build many new moderate-sized homes (although do recall that the flagship houses are four bedrooms), demand reallocates.  Decades ago many young couples started out with a brand new (small) house in a remote suburb with few facilities and not even a lawn (I’m just old enough to remember our (new) street in Christchurch where what would become front lawns were planted with potatoes, apparently to get the impurities out of the soil).  These days they don’t.   But is there any sign that the prices of the existing modest-sized houses have increased disproportionately relative to house prices more generally?  I’m not aware of any, and that isn’t really surprising, when by far the biggest issue in high urban house prices is land prices.   And KiwiBuild does nothing at all about them.

In my post earlier in the week, I mentioned the state house building programme initiated by the first Labour government, and often touted as the inspiration for today’s KiwiBuild programme.   In passing, and thinking as I wrote, I wondered if the (substantial) construction programme associated with the state houses programme had made much difference to overall housing supply.  It wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought to previously, but once one begins to think about it, of course it makes sense to doubt that that massive state intervention really made much difference on that specific count.  (It is quite probable that it materially increased availability for some –  small –  class of potential tenants private landlords were reluctant to touch.  It is also clear that it chewed up vast amounts of land, probably rather inefficiently – a couple of weeks ago I was driving through a state house neighbourhood a few blocks from where I grew up in Auckland and marvelled  –  not in a positive way – to see such small state houses on such large sections.)

There isn’t any easy way to compellingly answer my question.  Perhaps some academic researcher could turn their attentions to it at some point.   But out of interest I dug out a few charts.

This one (from Te Ara) shows the stock of state houses.

stock of state houses

(Interesting to see that the stock actually dropped a little during the term of the Kirk-Rowling Labour government).

And this chart shows annual data for both the number of new state houses built and those existing ones sold (something initiated by the 1950s National government).


One way of looking at whether there is prima facie reason to think the state house programme might have made much medium-term differenc is to look at the population to dwellings ratio.

This chart is drawn from census data reproduced (up to the 1970s) in Bloomfield’s collection of New Zealand historical statistics.

person per dwelling.png

The spacing isn’t even –  censuses were skipped in 1931 and 1941 –  but all I really wanted to highlight was the strong downward trend over the 90 years from the mid 1880s to the mid 1970s.  The only interruption to the trend was in the single inter-censal period from 1916 to 1921.  It is more or less what one would expect, as people got wealthier, families got smaller (and, at least late in the period, divorce got more common).    Had the state not been building, there isn’t much reason to suppose that –  over time, and in the absence of building and land use restrictions –  the private sector would not have done so.  After all, they had done so in the decades prior to the state housebuilding programme (I was little surprised to see that even over the period encompassing the Great Depression –   1926 to 1936 –  the population to dwellings ratio fell).

Sadly, what might have been the cleanest test –  the 30000+ state houses built in the first decade or so of the programme –  also happened to mostly coincide with World War Two and the period of tight controls on all manner of things (including existing house sales) in the years following the war.  And government-imposed credit constraints remained an issue for the private sector for much of the post-war decades.

But I’d suggest that the burden of proof is really on the advocates of KiwiBuild to show that even very big government-inspired housebuilding projects really make much difference to the overall housing supply situation in the long-term.  After all, when the government owned many of our banks, most of our power companies, most of our radio and TV, and so on, mostly it didn’t supplement the stock of private businesses, it (rationally, from a private sector perspective) displaced them or crowded them out.  If the government were really serious about fixing the housing market, and making housing once again affordable for working class families, not just helping along well-paid professional couples, they’d free up the urban land market.  Sadly, there is no more sign of that under this government than under its predecessor.

On which note, there is a column today on interest.co.nz by Peter Dunne in which he begins thus

Kiwibuild is beginning to look more and more like no more than one of Edmund Blackadder’s cunning plans.

He has some good lines

It is worth recalling that in its election policy just one year ago Labour promised that it would “build 100,000 high quality affordable homes over 10 years”. The policy went on to talk about curbing homelessness through building affordable homes in the $350-450,000 price range.

The implication was unambiguous – Labour’s approach was going to be far more activist than National, and Kiwibuild would be Its primary policy to deal with homelessness and the housing crisis.


So far, just 18 Kiwibuild homes have been built, and another 447 are on track for completion by July 2019, leaving a shortfall of 535 on its first year 1,000 homes target.

Put another way, a first year achievement rate of just under 47%. And there has been a subtle but clear rewrite of the Kiwibuild objective.

According to the Kiwibuild website, the objective is now the much more passive one to “deliver 100,000 homes for first home buyers over the next decade”.

So, no longer will the government build “100,000 high quality affordable homes”. And no longer does “affordable” mean $350-450,000, but $650,000.

Moreover, now the plan is merely to “deliver” 100,000 homes, which, in the best Blackadder fashion, means accumulating all the new homes already being built over the next 10 years by the private sector anyway, and dressing them up as Kiwibuild homes.

But it is perhaps worth recalling here that Peter Dunne was a minister in the previous National-led government, and in particular held the one vote in Parliament that was sufficient to block the reforms (inadequate and insufficient as they would have been) that National was seeking to make.  I hope I don’t need to say again that I’m no defender of National’s record –  and lack of courage –  in this area in government, but it is a little rich for Dunne to snipe from the sidelines (legitimately in substance perhaps) when he personally blocked beginning to tackle some of the root causes of our obscene housing market failure.