Monday 12 February 2024

Around the traps on housing

Wellington's Independent Hearings Panel put up its recommendations on the Wellington District Plan. 

They note that Council's plan provides far more than the minimum required zoned housing to keep up with projected demand and so scaled it back.

A few bits from me on all this.

Oli Lewis and Dileepa Fonseca at BusinessDesk

Wellington already suffers from infrastructure challenges, and restricting housing development in existing areas may worsen it. 

That’s the view of Geoff Cooper, general manager for strategy at the Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga, who commented to BusinessDesk expressing surprise at recommendations made by an independent hearings panel (IHP) convened to hear submissions on a proposed district plan put forward by the Wellington city council.


Cooper said that the NZ infrastructure strategy, produced by the commission, also highlighted a need for national direction to help guide planning decisions. 

“The aim of this national direction is often about balancing economic matters, like enabling housing supply for future New Zealanders, with other factors.” 

Economic considerations needed to be given appropriate weight, he said. 

“We note that as of today, the list of 999 accredited RMA independent commissioners includes just 12 that report having expertise in economics – amounting to 1.2%.” 

Crampton was far more scathing, saying the Wellington IHP clearly needed economic assistance. 

“Their engagement with the economic evidence presented was incredibly poor; they were unable to distinguish academically credible arguments from academically risible arguments, and they provided a series of recommendations that will worsen housing affordability,” he said. 

“All in all, the report discredits the IHP process and the methods used to select panellists. Wellington council would be right in dismissing the IHP report’s conclusions.”

Tom Hunt asked what I'd thought about it:

The New Zealand Initiative chief economist Eric Crampton said the council’s proposed district plan had a larger buffer between planned-for supply and projected housing demand in Wellington in coming decades. The new recommendations significantly reduced that buffer, which particularly mattered when Wellington was starting from a housing shortage.

But he believed the whole system may need to change to rely less on forecasts of whether housing demand would be met by zoned supply. If housing was unaffordable, people could be expected to leave town, reducing forecast demand, he said.

Instead, councils and the Government could watch land values. If those prices showed that zoned land was scarce, as work by the Infrastructure Commission had shown, then the Government could get councils to zone for more development.

There had been 2016 work by Covec and MRCagney for MfE looking at how prices could be used as signals of zoned scarcity. This was part of the prep for the older National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity. NPS-UDC was replaced by NPS-UD, and none of it took price signals as seriously as it should have. They're mentioned as one of many possible things to look at when they should be a trigger compelling release of more zoned land. 

I talked about this a bit more over at The Herald. The full column is gated but I've snipped a couple bits. 

In short, it’s a backward kind of way of setting urban plans. Forecasts of demand are not only highly uncertain, they also depend on housing affordability.

If you start with overcrowded, poor-quality housing, you will have a hard time fixing it. And if the resulting unaffordability discourages people from moving here while encouraging young families to flee, projected demand is the wrong measure entirely.

None of it faces a simple sanity check. Land prices can quickly show whether councils have zoned sufficient land for development. Last year, the Infrastructure Commission compared the 2021 price of land just outside of city limits to the price of land just inside the boundary. They accounted for the cost of turning rural land into urban land, like earthworks, surveying, planning, and development contributions. And they found urban zoning quadruples the price of land inside Auckland and Tauranga’s boundaries, while more than tripling land value in Wellington, Hamilton and Queenstown.

Those ratios had increased substantially since 2010.

Since the commission’s work accounted for land development costs, the price multiples at the boundary largely reflect scarcity caused by zoning.

If it were legal to turn rural land around Wellington, like in Ōhāriu, into housing, land zoned for housing in Wellington would not cost $490 per square metre more than land just outside the boundary. As the typical Wellington section is about 600sq m, the commission’s figures mean zoning at the boundary added almost $300,000 to a Wellington section’s price in 2021.

This simply would not happen if the council had really zoned enough land for development.

But the problem is not just at rural-urban boundaries. It will also be at every other zoning boundary where zoning creates scarcity.

On the plus side, the IHP work really didn't mess around. Some reports are just kinda bad. And then inertia sees them adopted. But this one's bad enough that it's unified everyone other than the more hopeless NIMBYs against it. So it's more likely to be tossed.

It also seems to have inspired the latest NZ Association of Economists member's survey. If you're an NZAE member, do check your inbox for that survey. It asks member whether zoning provides a binding constraint against housing supply and consequently affects prices. 

And on the fun side, Twitter urbanist Boxcar Joey mapped the conspiracy of Twitter urbanists against the IHP proposal.

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