Arbitrary Lines

Ever since I’ve been writing about house prices – more or less the life of this blog – one of the things that has struck (and sobered) me is that I do not know of (and no one has ever been able to point me to) an example of a country or even a region that having once messed up its housing and urban land regulation, generating absurdly high house price to income ratios has undone things and returned to sustainably low price to income ratios (perhaps fluctuating around three times). There are, of course, many places in the United States where price to income ratios never went crazy. But never having dug a deep hole is a different matter than getting out of one once dug. One reads occasionally – even briefly on this blog – of how easy it is to build in Tokyo (and a culture of frequent demolition and rebuild), but no one ever suggests that Tokyo price to income ratios are low (just much lower than they were a few decades ago at the peak of the 1980s boom).

A month or two back I saw reference somewhere to Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, a new book by an American “professional city planner” Nolan Gray. Last week it turned up in the mail, and being neither very long nor very technical I’ve now read it.

Gray offers a pretty useful introduction to how zoning came to be in the United States (complete, as usual, with various Supreme Court cases), and if much of that isn’t very directly relevant to New Zealand I found it interesting nonetheless. And, of course, some of the best-known restrictions in many areas of the United States – single family dwelling zoning, to the complete exclusion of any other uses for the land (whether two single-storey townhouses, or a corner dairy, or a hairdresser’s), isn’t (and hasn’t really been) a widespread thing in urban New Zealand.

And there is some useful material on some of the potential wider costs to restrictive land use, although on my reading of the relevant papers Grey often jumps too readily to assert causal relationships. But then his background is planning (and is currently studying for a PhD in urban planning) and in some respects the book is best seen as an evangelistic tract (they have their place). No doubt it would appeal quite strongly to that small but vocal group of New Zealand reformers who dream of demolishing whole suburbs, long for light rail systems, and really dislike the idea of backyards (and increasing physical footprints of cities). They often dislike cars too. And often don’t seem too keen on – quite derisive of – people not like them.

And thus as the book went on I was finding it more than a little annoying in places. Gray makes many good points about the inadequacies (and worse) of US zoning systems. But it was pretty clear that he had one particular urban form in mind, and whole agenda of other issues he (and his publisher – explicitly focused on “solving environmental problems”) cared about. And, perhaps reflecting that, there was very little in the book about house prices themselves or the likelihood that his solutions would materially lower them. But there was quite a lot on emissions and energy use (which could simply be priced, as they now largely are in New Zealand), and a dislike of turning farmland (or any other undeveloped land) into suburbs (where, again, any externalities can and should be priced). He seems to have been living in Washington DC when he wrote the book, and enjoying that: we enjoyed our time living in a DC apartment too.

It was also getting frustrating that despite writing about a country that has quite diverse systems, for a long time there was almost no mention of the vast swathes of the United States with (a) population growth, and (b) low and fairly stable house prices.

Until, three-quarters of the way through the book, I came to the chapter headed “The Great Unzoned City”, about Houston. I wouldn’t be bothering with this post if Gray had simply been making the point that real house prices are pretty low, and fluctuate around a fairly stable trend, in Houston. There are, after all, many cities in the annual Demographia tables that are cheaper still. There isn’t that much zoning in Houston, and people have written previously about Municipal Urban Districts (MUDs) which enable land – outside established urban local government boundaries – to be readily developed by private developers, including dealing directly with (internalising) the associated infrastructure costs of development. It was nice to see his, perhaps grudging, recognition that (a) everyone drives in Houston, and b) people are moving to places such as it with cheaper housing. It works. And there has been considerable intensification in Houston over the years.

But the real thing I learned about – and the point of the post – was about the Houston system of Deed Restrictions.

Again, as long as I’ve been writing about housing and possible reform options for New Zealand, I have been intrigued (starting here I think) by the idea of allowing small groups of landowners in existing urban areas (perhaps at the scale of a city block or a small neighbourhood) to set collectively their own land-use rules for their own group of properties. They are an established market mechanisms in new developments in New Zealand, in the form of private covenants, and one could mount an argument that zoning was really an attempt to do much the same thing (collectively manage shared interests, where there are real externalities).

In a report some years ago, the Productivity Commission took a very dim view of private covenants, even suggesting that the government should legislate to restrict their use. But they’ve always seemed to me to be a way through the endless battles (eg the Christchurch City Council stories this morning) around land use, at least among those willing to operate in good faith (and it is never clear how many are). Why not, for example, remove all government restrictions on land use for housing (height, setback, site coverage, “character”, parking or whatever) in existing urban areas AND on undeveloped land, while allowing neighbourhoods/blocks (groups of existing property owners) to adopt by super-majority (and be able to amend by the same super-majority) previous restrictions as applicable to their land, and their land only?

Over the years, I’ve seen a few other people make similar suggestions (eg there was a UK think tank piece a year or two back) but it had about it perhaps an obscure textbook-y feel. It wasn’t clear that anyone had tried it ever, and I myself am inclined to invoke revealed preference arguments at times (if something doesn’t exist anywhere, it is worth at least thinking about whether there is a good – well-grounded, not just political – reason for that).

But it seems that in Houston they have done something very like what I’ve suggested, and it has been in place long enough to see how it works. It is a big, growing, city with pretty-affordable house prices (I’ve been looking recently at small modern units in Christchurch recently – NZ’s least unaffordable city of any size – and it is simply depressing (although also a reminder of what we could do) to check in from time to time and see what one gets for the same money, in a higher wage country, in Houston).

There have been attempts over the years to put in place more extensive zoning systems in Houston. They have failed, at several referenda. But here is Grey:

It is easy to develop on the margins of Houston, it is fairly easy to develop in much of the existing city, but those individual groups of landowners who want to have collective rules for their own properties can do so, and the local authority will enforce those rules on those properties. Deed restrictions are not set in stone for ever, but appear to be often time-limited and requiring a further (super-majority) vote of the then owners (a different group than 25 years earlier typically) at expiry to renew them.

It seems like a model that has a lot to offer here, and which should be looked at more closely by (a) officials, and (b) political parties exploring the best durable way ahead for New Zealand.

Those not operating in good faith – or at least much more interested in other agendas than a) widely affordable housing, and b) property rights (individual and collective) – would no doubt hate it. And, for the moment, they have the momentum – National and Labour last year rushed through legislation that stripped away many existing restrictions, and as a technical matter the government can if it likes force individual city councils to do as it insists. But governments can lose elections too, and if we are serious about much lower sustainable real house prices – and it isn’t clear how many central or local government figures are – we need durable models. The Houston model has proved to work, both in managing the politics and in delivering a city with widely affordable housing, and a wide range of available housing types. And if greenfields development is once again made easy – as distinct from say Wellington where the regional council is currently trying to make it even harder – urban and suburban land prices would fall a lot, and stay down.

One of the arguments some mount for over-riding local community preferences is that “people have to live somewhere”, suggesting that it is unacceptable (even “selfish”) for existing landowners (acting collectively) to protect their own interests and preferences for their own land. But that argument rests only on then unspoken earlier clause “because we will make it increasingly difficult to increase the physical footprint on cities”. Allow easy development, of all types (internalising relevant costs), and there is just no reason to ride roughshod over the collective interests of existing groups of landowners, providing they can restrict things only for their own group of properties.

Some might push back and argue that there is nothing to stop groups of landowners forming private covenants now on existing properties, and I gather that is legally so. But coordination issues and transactions costs are likely to be very high, and people seek to use political channels instead. How much better if we provided a tailor-made readily enforceable collective action model, and then got politicians right out of the business of deciding what sort of houses can be built where.

And, to be clear, as someone living at the end of a hillside cul-de-sac I would have no interest in a Deed Restriction for our property. My interest is ending the evil that is Wellington price to income ratios of 8x or more, and enabling ready affordability for the next generation.