Demographia 2019 International Housing Affordability Survey

By Leith van Onselen

The 15th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey has been released and, once again, it ranks Australia as having one of the most expensive housing markets out of the countries surveyed even though affordability has improved over the past year on the back of heavy house price falls.

This year’s report assesses 309 urban markets in eight countries: Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, United Kingdom, and the United States as at the third quarter of 2018.

The survey employs the “Median Multiple” (median house price divided by gross annual median household income) to rate housing affordability. This measure is widely used for evaluating urban markets, and has been recommended by, amongst others, the World Bank and the United Nations, and is used by the Harvard University Joint Center on Housing.

The Survey ranks urban housing markets into four categories based on their Median Multiple, from “Affordable” (3.0 or less) to “Severely Unaffordable” (5.1 & Over) [Table ES-1]. Average multiple data (average house price divided by average household income) is used in Japan, since data for estimating medians is not readily available.

According to the Survey, housing affordability remained poor across most major metropolitan markets in 2018 (i.e. with over 1 million people).

At the national level, Hong Kong has by far the most unaffordable housing, with a median multiple of 20.9. New Zealand is the second most unaffordable market with a median multiple of 6.5, followed closely by Australia (5.7), UK (4.8), Singapore (4.6), Canada (4.0), the Ireland (3.7) and the USA (3.5):

 

As shown in the above table, all but two of Australia’s 23 markets captured in the survey are ranked as either “Seriously Unaffordable” (5) or “Severely Unaffordable” (16).

The next chart shows that Sydney is the second most expensive major housing market:

A break-down of Australia’s rankings are provided in the below table:

In 2018, the bubble epicentres of Sydney (11.7) and Melbourne (9.9) retraced from their highest median multiples on record:

The overall decline of housing affordability in Australia over the past few decades is also clearly evident in the above Demographia chart. Whereas all major Australian markets, except Sydney, had Median Multiples of three in the early 1980s, today all are ranked at around five or above (well above in the case of Sydney and Melbourne).

Demographia notes that housing affordability has worsened over recent decades across all of the nations surveyed:

Available data shows that house costs have generally risen at a rate similar to that of household incomes until comparatively recently. This is consistent with cost trends among other basic necessities, such as personal transport, food and clothing.

Historically, the Median Multiple has been remarkably similar among six surveyed nations, with median house prices from 2.0 to 3.0 times median household incomes (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States). Housing affordability remained generally within this range until the late 1980s or late 1990s in each of these nations (Figure 2).18 In recent decades, house prices have escalated far above household incomes in many parts of the world. In some metropolitan markets house prices have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled relative to household incomes.

One of the key contentions of the Demographia Survey is that higher land prices are the principal contributor to the rapidly increasing home prices in unaffordable markets, as well as increased speculative activity. These land prices include the cost increasing influence of land supply restrictions (such as urban growth boundaries), excessive infrastructure fees and other overly strict land-use regulations:

Typically, the housing markets rated “severely unaffordable” typically have “urban containment”…

Former World Bank principal urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book (See: Introduction: Avoiding Dubious Urban Policies) expresses concern that urban planning generally ignores fundamental economics. Land prices per hectare (acre) are generally at their lowest at the urban periphery, where the city meets the rural or agricultural land of the countryside. Urban containment policy, favored in the planning community, tends to force up land prices on the urban periphery, and as a consequence, throughout the urban area (Figure 13). In the process, housing affordability has deteriorated.

By severely restricting or even prohibiting expansion to accommodate larger population, urban containment has virtually destroyed the competitive market for land in many urban areas, driving house prices up relative to incomes. According to Bertaud, the failure to sufficiently account for urban economics leads to a “costly utopia.”58 This is already evident in diminished standards of living and higher poverty rates in severely unaffordable housing markets. Moreover, a growing body of research associates strong land use regulation with diminished economic growth. 59 Because housing is the largest household expenditure item, high housing prices can translate on a nearly one-to-one basis into higher overall costs of living and a lower standard of living.. Nearly all of the difference in cost of living between high cost metropolitan areas and those with average costs is in the cost of housing, which has been influenced upward of by urban containment policy (Figure 14)…

There are proposals for significant densification of urban cores, as a strategy for improving housing affordability. Yet, these proposals often fail to take account of land markets. Densification is not likely to materially improve housing affordability, unless the competitive market for land is restored throughout the metropolitan area, including the periphery. If greenfield development is severely limited, there is likely to be little or no improvement in housing affordability. The importance of restoring a competitive land market is described in the recent New Zealand Treasury Report: “Competitive Urban Land Markets,” (paragraphs 31-39).

Demographia’s contention that Australia’s rising home prices have been caused primarily by escalating land costs is supported by evidence. The below chart shows aggregate Australian housing values relative to GDP broken down by the land component and the structure component. As you can see, almost all of the growth in Australian housing values (relative to GDP) has been in rising land values:

Similarly, CoreLogic-HIA recorded massive rises in the value of Australian vacant land:

A key reason for this land price escalation in Australia (as well as in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the expensive markets of the United States and Canada) is that the market’s ability to quickly provide low priced new housing supply is being hampered by restrictive land use regulations, many of which have come into effect since the mid-1990s (Sydney has had long-standing limits on housing development on the urban fringe). Demographia describes the key features and consequences of restrictive housing markets as follows:

More restrictive land use regulation seeks to outlaw the liberal regulation that produced middle-income housing affordability. Typically, urban containment includes urban containment boundaries and related variations (such as urban growth boundaries, green belts, urban service districts, “growth areas” and other strategies that substantially reduce the amount of land available for house building).22 Urban containment policy may also be characterized by terms such as “densification policy,” “compact development”, or “urban consolidation.” Another strategy, “virtual” urban containment boundaries can be established independently by multiple jurisdictions in suburban or exurban areas. Urban containment may be imposed by any level of government and may involve regulations by multiple governments.

By severely limiting or even prohibiting development on the urban fringe, urban containment eliminates the “supply vent” of urban fringe development, by not allowing the supply of housing to keep up with demand, except at prices elevated well above historic norms.

Urban containment policies are often accompanied by costly development impact fee regimes that disproportionately charge the cost of the necessary infrastructure for growth on new house buyers. There is particular concern about the cost increasing impacts of these fees and levies, especially in Australia, Canada (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation), New Zealand (New Zealand Productivity Commission) and California.

By contrast, affordable housing markets, like many cities in the US, utilise open market-based land use structures whereby plentiful new housing supply is able to be built quickly and cheaply on the urban fringe, thereby preventing rapid house price escalation. Demographia describes these markets as follows:

Liberal Land Use Policy (Less Restrictive Markets) applies in markets not classified as having more restrictive land use regulation (where competitive land markets are permitted to operate on the urban fringe). In these markets, residential development is allowed to occur based upon consumer preferences, subject to basic environmental regulation. Generally, liberal land use regulation is “demanddriven” Land is allowed to be developed, except in limited areas, such as parks and environmentally sensitive areas. By allowing development on the urban fringe, liberal land use regulation allows the “supply vent” to operate, which keeps house prices affordable. Less restrictive regulation can also be called traditional or liberal regulation. In addition to lower housing costs relative to incomes, the lower population densities typical of liberal markets are associated with less intense traffic congestion and shorter average work trip journey times. Liberal land use regulation has also been called “traditional” regulation.

So, under an open market-based model (provided there are not also substantial physical barriers to housing supply), increased demand, such as from reduced lending standards and easier availability of credit, quickly leads to the building of additional low priced housing on the urban fringe, which helps keep house prices in check and reduces the likelihood of speculative housing bubbles developing. Further, highly leveraged speculators are less likely to be encouraged into open land markets, since there is little prospect of achieving strong capital gains. Investing in open land markets is, instead, more about rental yield.

I will add that restrictive urban planning structures should not be viewed as a one-way bet for house prices, with unresponsive land supply also more likely to result in higher levels of house price volatility and boom/bust price cycles – a fact also acknowledged by Demographia and evident in Ireland’s boom and bust.

Why? Because strict land-use policies (planning) steepens the supply curve, which makes house prices more sensitive to changes in demand, increasing the likelihood of the housing market experiencing boom/bust price cycles as demand rises/falls.

The full 2019 Demographia Housing Affordability Survey can be downloaded here.

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