Auckland housing - a little less conversation, a little more action

Depending on who you are listening to or what formula you are using, the Auckland housing market could be anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000 houses short. Is this a problem? Recently even the debate has shifted on that. Bubble some say. Market forces say others - nothing to worry about. My view: Auckland is our one global city. It needs to be desirable to locals and global talent alike. The housing issue threatens the economy and continues to bias massive investment into a completely non-productive asset class. Graham Wheeler is worried. So, we have a problem. 

And again, depending on who is speaking, the reasons why there is a problem and how it can be fixed are as varied. Land supply, RMA, the list goes on.

The constant is that we have a problem, there are just not enough houses, and someone needs to do something about it, be it the Government or the Auckland Council or the other industry stakeholders with a point of view. What we lack is consensus. What we lack is commitment. We lack concerted action.

Perhaps the surfeit of points of view is part of the problem. All stakeholders seem narrowly focused on their silver bullet to fix the problem. But this is a complex issue, and so the solution will not be a silver bullet but the resolution of a series of paradoxes. It’s a wicked problem.

Here’s my hypothesis. Some sort of action plan is better than none.  With an upcoming Budget, there’s no better time. The Government has many levers it can pull; it just needs to pull one, or two or even three.

The price of land in Auckland is ridiculous. Where once the land and the house were about equal in making up the value of a property, land can now be five times the value of the building - even more in some instances. Increasing the availability of land is one sure way of taking heat out of the supply and demand curve. Yet we also need to increase the density of the city. Two sides have been arguing about this for years and the only agreement so far has produced little. So if the supply side is intractable in the short term, what about the demand side?  In 2010, the Tax Working Group debated the merits of a land tax, concluding it to be a viable option to broaden the tax base and to deal to the structural hole in the tax system that biases capital into residential property. Arthur Grimes et als’ reasoning that a 1% land tax would cut land values by 17% was put forward in 2009. Bernard Hickey pointed this out to us last week (thanks Bernard) and noted the neat likely effects of “encouraging land bankers to build and more intense development”. There are of course some downsides, not the least of which is the disproportional effect on the elderly/fixed income citizens. Some kind of threshold before the tax applies plus a grandfathering rule might be useful here. And why can’t we just build more houses, more efficiently? Why are building costs in New Zealand so much more expensive than in Australia or the United States? Most of the equipment and products that we use every day in this country are imported. Why can’t we import entire houses and just assemble them here, the same way European kitchens are pumped out of German factories and fitted in homes throughout New Zealand? Even better, maybe the Government could enter into a PPP scheme with a big overseas firm that can show us how to do this ourselves at scale and help crank up the number of houses being built.

What about a warrant of fitness for all rental properties, not just State rentals? Minister Flavell was rightly outraged by what he saw in Christchurch in April. Recently I was looking to rent in Epsom/Remuera and was staggered by a) the amount of foreign ownership in these sought-after suburbs and b) the state of disrepair in many of the rental units. No heating, no insulation, holes in the carpet and maintenance last done in the 70’s, evidenced by the orange wall paper clinging to life in the poky kitchens. It looks a lot like the owners are there for the capital gains and the investment yields from rent is secondary at best.  If landlords are made to maintain properties to a respectable level then Auckland, in particular, may not look as attractive to investors as those courted on a Singaporean radio station in April.

While that puts more onus on absentee landlords, it will also create a wave of work for building companies, tradespeople, suppliers of insulation and heating which will be a nice boost for the economy.

Different interest rates for foreign investors won’t help as a lot are borrowing offshore at effectively zero. Perhaps we should consider limiting ownership, for example one property for the first three or five years of residency or a one property maximum for non-residents.

And I didn’t even have to mention a capital gains tax.

None of these ideas are new. Many are controversial. Whatever the Government decides probably won’t be popular. But it might be the right thing to do.

So, if it is a big problem and important to lots of leadership groups, how about convening the right people, locking them in a room and not letting them out until there is a concerted plan for doing something about it?

Further enquiries, please contact:

Michael Worth
Partner, Business Transformation
Grant Thornton New Zealand
T +64 (0)9 926 5744