PETER PHIBBS and NICOLE GURRAN. Why housing supply shouldn’t be the only policy tool politicians cling to.

If politicians were serious about the affordability crisis, they would be trying to support the important but underfunded affordable housing sector. Better targeting tax breaks towards new and affordable rental housing, rather than fuelling demand for existing homes, would also help. But until our politicians can see past supply slogans we can expect very little policy change.  

The most popular government policy at the moment for solving housing affordability continues to be increasing housing supply. After a visit to the UK to look at this very problem, Treasurer Scott Morrison said:

The issue here fundamentally is about supply.

And it’s little wonder the government dwells so much on this argument. Rising house prices are very popular amongst Australian households, the majority of which are owners. And stamp duties on housing transactions are key sources of income for state governments. Our research found the default position for politicians is to sound concerned about housing affordability, but do nothing.

The supply refrain has all the hallmarks of a good policy for a politician. Increasing housing supply – rather than reducing the tax breaks that stimulate excessive demand – is a popular policy with peak property groups. The Property Council has been saying the same thing for years, so the supply solution has come to sound like fact.

If the supply doesn’t flow or, as is occurring now, doesn’t cool prices, the federal government can blame the states for sluggish planning and land supply without having to put their money where their mouth is. States in turn can blame recalcitrant local governments for blocking housing development and “gold-plating” infrastructure requirements. Since the private sector almost wholly funds and delivers new housing, calling for more of it has been a pretty cheap strategy for government.

It’s true that increasing the supply of new homes in line with population and economic growth is a fundamental part of maintaining a healthy housing system. But to tout new housing production as the only policy lever without examining the question of demand is clearly an ineffective policy position.

The supply argument sounds believable – increasing supply will actually reduce prices in markets for most types of goods, like bananas, cars or televisions. Unfortunately, the housing market is different.

Why are housing markets different?

So why is it that despite record supply levels in Australia in recent years, prices have continued to rise in Sydney and Melbourne? We think there are a number of reasons.

New supply is a small fraction of the total stock of dwellings (about 2% in Australia). Prices are set by the total housing market – most of which already exists in the form of established homes.

Also housing is an unusual good in that as prices increase, demand in the short term actually increases (it’s an asset market). This makes it much more difficult for supply increases to reduce prices.

Increasing prices feeds demand

In most other markets increasing prices both encourage extra supply and reduce demand, so these two key forces are working together – prices in these markets come down sharply when supply increases. In housing markets these two forces are working against each other – the growth of investor demand is simply swamping new supply.

The very low interest rates on offer at the moment are exacerbating this trend.

Developers manage supply

Developers, and the banks that fund development, simply won’t allow supply to get ahead of demand in a way that would put significant downward pressure on prices. Dwelling approvals in Sydney and Melbourne are running way ahead of building starts, but housing projects are released in stages to avoid swamping the market. Since our major banks have the majority of their loan books in retail mortgages, it’s no wonder they avoid funding enough supply to increase their own risk levels.

How much new supply would improve affordability anyway?

Even if Australia’s developers and financiers were less cautious, it’s probably not feasible to produce enough supply to really knock prices around when demand is very strong.

For example, prior to the global financial crisis, Ireland – which is about the same size as Sydney, increased supply to 90,000 dwellings per year (Sydney does about 30,000 dwellings per year) and prices still kept rising. It wasn’t the over-supply of homes that caused Irish house prices to fall dramatically but rather the sudden contraction of demand when the global financial crisis hit.

Under more stable conditions, the problem of generating additional housing supply remains. Australia’s prime minister has encouraged the states to fix their planning laws to make it easier get housing approvals and building to flow.

But there has been a continuous wave of planning reform over the last 10 years in Australia, and Sydney and Melbourne dwelling approvals are at long-term highs. For example, in 2015-16, Sydney recorded over 56,000 new dwelling approvals and Melbourne over 57,000.

In fact, approvals are running at about double the actual dwelling construction levels, so “fixing” the planning system is unlikely to have much impact on dwelling supply levels.

High-density supply fuels land speculation

Much new supply is in apartments. In the rush to create new supply, some local councils and state governments have provided bonuses to developers by allowing, at no charge, more apartments on a site. Land owners have seen this behaviour and are likely to increase land prices on the assumption that this will always happen. So, in this case, more supply (through additional apartments) may have actually increased prices not reduced them.

The global ‘financialisation’ of housing

Demand has increased because the focus for many housing investors is now not the cash flow generated by rents but the value of a house as a financial product. For example, at the moment there is continued strong demand for housing by investors despite the fact that apartment rents have started to decrease in Sydney and are flat in Melbourne.

The internet, and the global real estate market it helps support, enables national and international investors to be an increasingly important part of the market. They increase demand pressures in the best-performing (in terms of price growth) cities of Sydney and Melbourne by “soaking” up the new supply.

If politicians were serious about the affordability crisis, they would be trying to support the important but underfunded affordable housing sector. Better targeting tax breaks towards new and affordable rental housing, rather than fuelling demand for existing homes, would also help. But until our politicians can see past supply slogans we can expect very little policy change.

Peter Phibbs is Chair of Urban Planning and Policy, University of Sydney. Nicole Gurran is Professor, Urban and Regional Planning, University of Sydney.  This article first appeared in The Conversation on February 14, 2017.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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3 Responses to PETER PHIBBS and NICOLE GURRAN. Why housing supply shouldn’t be the only policy tool politicians cling to.

  1. Avatar Garis Alexander says:

    I disagree. The problem is the high price of land for medium density apartments, by indicatively a factor or 2, perhaps 3, give or take. The solution is not to fiddle with symptoms or financial engineering by way of gearing, grants, or using a nonsense term like affordable housing.

    The solution is to have generous well planned areas for medium density so there is no shortage. Sites suitable for a wide range of individual sizes and quality, as well as sites suitable for large and small developers to provide deep competition between developers. With a large area of land for medium density available for redevelopment, years ahead of the market there will be no opportunity for sellers to force land prices up or developers to manipulate supply. A bit of universal unimproved value land tax would help lubricate the market, fairly. Other revenue sources associated with housing to be replaced by annual land tax, a big motivator for some to sell and others to share the land tax across multiple dwellings on a given site.

    A sustained move to more medium density with no perception of supply shortages will allow the market to be cost-based rather than scarcity driven, in turn to leading to a detaching of all housing prices from interest rates.

    The overall economy would improve [big claim but inevitable] leading to increase in average real wealth associated with lower housing prices. Environmental and health benefits would also flow et al.

    High rise are expensive to construct and wasteful. The demand for these would fade or even be eliminated with correctly priced medium density [3 to 6 stories, indicatively].

    The failure of housing policy in recent 3 decades or so has wasted $1 trillion or so in wrong housing type construction, and around $2 to 3 trillion in wealth transfers from buyers with large mortgages to house sellers and developers.
    Typically, the rich older people have received a massive unearned windfall, although many must recycle this windfall to children and grandchildren for housing deposits. Madness.
    The solution is not fragmented affordable housing, but correctly priced land across the entire market.
    A Centre of Medium Density Excellence encompassing a wide range of disciplines would be of assistance as few architects and planners get sufficient experience and freedom to pursue best solution. Perhaps a Son-of-Haussman could be in charge.
    Political dynamite of course, but there is no solution which is not disruptive. The current suggestion continue wealth transfer inappropriately as well as perpetuate capital and operating cost inefficiencies on a massive scale. It is easily the largest economic issue of our time and should not be left to localised decision making and not just the urban planners. It is a cross discipline challenge to ensure the planning community embrace the gravity of the economics of housing on the entire economy, and to halt the current Ponzi-like scheme.

  2. Avatar Dog's Breakfast says:

    Reducing the record immigration levels might help reduce demand relative to supply, and also restricting purchase of homes to nationals and residents wouldn’t hurt either. There is substantial, but anecdotal, evidence of apartments being bought by non-nationals and not being lived in or rented out.

    The ‘supply’ argument is largely ‘fake economics’.

    • Avatar Garis Alexander says:

      With sufficient supply leading to a reduction in rate of capital growth, with a bit or lot of land tax, the vacancy problem associated, with any owners, would fade away. The negative gearing issue would also be incidental.

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