Sprawl v compact research stops short
Inclusionary housing another debate that’s international
Infrastructure funding options
Making NZ a home for planning thinkpieces
Tracking ideas is a Bob Dey Property Report section devoted to ideas on property questions such as urban strategies & design, many from overseas but with relevance to Auckland.
This page today flits between foreign, mostly American, information and Auckland. I’ve listed a large number of links to work through – it’s a library piece, not a quick read. And I’ve mentioned a couple of points which may be true in the US but don’t apply in Auckland because circumstances here have changed.
Sprawl v compact research stops short
In another round of the sprawl v compact argument, US analyst Issi Romem produced an article a fortnight ago that’s already been taken by some notable news outlets as something approaching gospel.
Some of what I’ve read among the many links below leaves me mystified about the writer’s point, some of the complicated analysis requires more digestion, here & there I’ve spotted contributions worth taking further.
The first mystery, for me, is how Dr Romem’s figures (down to 2 percentage points) on housing development over the last 3 decades can point to a sensible way forward in times which have started to change very quickly.
An inappropriate template
The US – and New Zealand followed, though to a less extravagant extent – launched into suburban development in the 1950s, pushed along by the availability of cars for general consumption. That doesn’t mean the development of those suburbs was a perfect mechanism for housing fast-growing populations, or that in an isthmus-centred place like Auckland the carpetlaying grid template would be appropriate.
One side of the argument now is that central intensification should be used to provide a larger proportion of housing, that this will be cheaper than sprawl on the fringes of the region. On the other side, proponents of extending the urban footprint say this will provide cheaper land and thereby cheaper housing.
How you count the numbers, and which numbers, makes a big difference. Do you include a travel component, or not? Does it measure cbd to wherever, or some to more local workplaces? How many cars does a household have?
Housing comparisons undefined
All the research, and all the comments, refers to housing, houses, apartments…. You, the reader, can only guess at what kind of economic units are being referred to. At the start of the 1980s, the standard New Zealand house (used in Master Builders statistics) was 93m² (1000ft²). Standard houses now are more likely to be over 200m², perhaps over 300m² including garage, with indoor-outdoor flow to make it hard to assess actual, practical size.
Old sausage-block flats were small, commonly under 80m², and a high proportion of apartments built in the last 20 years will also measure less than that. But, in recent times, terraces, townhouses, cross-leases, standalones on small sections and a smattering of apartments will exceed 200m².
Section sizes have been shrinking for 20 years. From 809m² (one-5th of an acre, far more common than the ‘quarter-acre paradise’, 1012m²), sections now can be down at 200m².
In Auckland, now, the Government is a key participant in redeveloping at Hobsonville Point, in the Glen Innes-Tamaki area and at Northcote. The Government-owned Housing NZ is still contesting unitary plan decisions limiting what it can do on many other sites where it’s aggregated land, wants to reposition old housing or wants to do a mix of upgrade & new.
In most of the American research, apartments or other intensified housing in the city centre are compared to development on the distant suburban fringe, with no indication of how close they are to being alternative options, and no calculation of commute costs.
Commuting from Faraway
In Auckland, we have a 20km stretch through Dairy Flat, between the ridge above the Albany basin & Silverdale, and very large areas between Karaka, Pukekohe and west to the coast likely to be developed for housing. You can bet it won’t be turned over to housing at the US standard of 4 houses/acre gross (10/ha) – more likely a mix of standalones on sub-400m² sections, terraces and, a novelty, suburban apartment blocks.
Where will these residents work? Shop? How will they get there? Do we create new communities – or faraway dormitory suburbs? Will the commute be made easy first, or wait for an economic number of travellers to buy at Faraway?
What kind of local jobs will be there? Rodney District Council, in its last years before the super-city was created in 2010, envisaged an innovation zone of business & education as well as housing north-west of Silverdale, a strategy that would increase jobs & education and reduce the commute. That kind of thinking needs to be revived.
Completion of the Auckland unitary plan enables the course of infrastructure provision to be more clearly defined (the appeals still to be determined shouldn’t drastically alter this), but there will still be questionmarks over how much more intensive development might be put in train in the inner suburbs.
Back to Dr Romem
Today’s Ideas page traverses ideas on infrastructure funding, inclusionary zoning as a way of introducing some more affordable housing, and city shape (focusing on Auckland being linear, having satellites, or concentrated around nodes).
This journey over the weekend has taken me to a wide range of views on transport, land use, access – starting with American, returning to New Zealand via international links (Wendell Cox, co-author of the Demographia studies with Hugh Pavletich of Christchurch; and housing & urban development thinker Phil Hayward of Lower Hutt, whose comments appear in a couple of the international & local threads).
At my first stop, Dr Issi Romem’s Can US cities compensate for curbing sprawl by growing denser? offered 4 central points:
- The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing
- Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas
- Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion
- Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.
While Dr Romem’s research shows his first point appears true historically in the US, in Auckland at least that may be much less so in the last 5 years. On his second point, land price & ease of development are the crucial factors. Auckland has a short history of apartment building (though a long history of much less intensive sausage-block flats), and it’s come in bursts. Building consents are now approaching the 2004 level, but the price range is limited – almost entirely above what’s deemed “affordable”.
Romem says less outward means less overall
Dr Romem is the chief economist at BuildZoom, a San Francisco website aimed at matching clients to construction contractors. He was previously an economist at OnPoint Analytics, earned his PhD in economics at Berkeley, and consulted for the Bay Area Council Economic Institute on matters involving transport, real estate & the regional economy.
In this report, he found that, when cities change their pace of outward expansion, their rate of housing production tends to change accordingly.
“Both expensive & expansive cities are economically vibrant and face pressure to grow, but whereas expansive cities like Atlanta, Houston & Phoenix continually provide ample new housing at affordable prices, expensive cities like San Francisco, New York & San Diego do not. Since the 1970s, expensive cities have failed to produce enough new homes to keep real housing costs steady, and as a result they have curbed their population growth and sent real housing prices on a long-run upward spiral.”
He saw 2 key reasons for housing production to correspond so closely with outward expansion:
- Undeveloped & low density areas produce a disproportionately large share of cities’ new housing. Restricting the flow of undeveloped land “into” a city chokes off subsequent rounds of densification, because low density areas add new housing more readily than denser ones, and
- Cities which curb their outward expansion are also likely to curb densification within the existing footprint, eg, through more restrictive land use policy.
“Housing production’s skew towards low density areas is important, because it is consistent with the notion that a greater inflow of undeveloped land helps cities produce more housing, through both initial development & subsequent rounds of densification. For reasons explained earlier, eg, with respect to vacant lots, such densification is easier in low density areas. Crucially, expansive cities’ namesake outward expansion keeps low density areas more plentiful there than in expensive cities. In contrast, expensive cities have limited their inflow of undeveloped land by curbing their outward expansion, thereby choking off the initial development of new areas as well as subsequent rounds of densification.”
Densification has slowed down across the board, but much more so in expensive cities
Dr Romem said an important development of recent decades was the increasing paucity of densification: “During the first post-war decades, it was fairly common for areas to grow more dense through construction on vacant lots, and in particular through the replacement of older structures with new ones containing more dwellings. The data show that densification has grown far less common over time, especially in the expensive cities.”
He said the results were similar for areas first developed before World War II.
“Aside from the slowdown in densification, the numbers also tell us that in the US today, substantial densification is the exception. Just 3.8% of areas adding over 1 home/acre (4/ha) and just 0.95% adding over 2 homes/acre over the span of a decade is not very much, and the fraction of areas that cross the 4- & 10-home/acre (16- & 40/ha) thresholds each decade is also exceedingly small. In fact, the vast majority of the developed area of US cities maintains a fixed level of density that doesn’t usually change much over time….
“By curbing their outward expansion, expensive cities have stemmed their subsequent supply of low density areas that are flush with opportunities for further development. A sizable share of densification occurs through infill – not the kind of infill for which planners reserve the term, but simply construction on vacant land scattered within developed areas. The best land is used first, and as densification progresses the remaining lots are fewer and increasingly more challenging to build on, until redevelopment ultimately becomes the only alternative.
“Expansive cities maintain a robust supply of fresh land that is in the early phases of the progression. In contrast, expensive cities’ reduced rate of outward expansion means that most of their land is farther along in the progression, and as a result it is getting harder for them to densify. It is no coincidence that builders today report an unprecedented shortage of vacant lots that is most pronounced in the West & the North-east, where expensive cities cluster.”
Dr Romem’s assessments may also have been true in New Zealand, Auckland in particular, but the intensification trend is strong at the moment. Building consent figures over the last 2 years show intensive housing (apartments, retirement village units, townhouses & suburban units) showed 29.4% of consents nationally were for such intensive development in the July 2015 year, falling to 28.5% of a bigger total (up from 7600 of 25,700 to 8300 of 29,000) in the July 2016 year. I don’t have the breakdown for each market segment for Auckland alone.
Auckland apartment pricing has risen since the market bottomed in 2011. The market in standalone homes has skyrocketed in that period, but the 2 markets differ in their foreign input. Overseas investors have strongly influenced recent house prices, but have had a much longer association with the apartment market, which has relied on marketing overseas in this boom & the last one to get projects started.
The path forward
Dr Romem saw 3 paths forward in the US:
- Cities that expand with gusto will maintain housing at more affordable levels, but this will further entrench the ills associated with sprawl; today’s expansive cities are already on this path
- Avoiding expansion, and maintaining the status quo with respect to densification, will divert population growth towards more accommodating cities and render housing increasingly unaffordable for a growing share of the population; it will unequivocally change the social character of these cities, while keeping their physical facade intact, and
- Enacting fundamental changes to land use policy that prompt far more substantial densification than any US city has undergone to date; expensive cities would have to embrace redevelopment; if new transport infrastructure connects undeveloped areas to the city, or functionally tethers existing nearby cities to it, then such infrastructure amounts to a catalyst for expansion.
Cox says research supports stance against ‘forced density’
Wendell Cox, principal of Demographia, wrote the book War on the dream: How anti-sprawl policy threatens the quality of life 10 years ago. In an article on the New Geography website on Wednesday, The incompatibility of forced density & housing affordability, he said Dr Romem’s research “supports the conclusion that anti-sprawl policy (urban containment policy) is incompatible with housing affordability. He quoted Dr Romem’s finding: “Cities that have curbed their expansion have – with limited exception – failed to compensate with densification. As a result they have produced far less housing than they would otherwise, with severe national implications for housing affordability, geographic mobility & access to opportunity, all of which are keenly felt today as we approach the top of housing cycle.”
Journal accepts the sprawl argument
In the Wall Street Journal, Laura Kusisto wrote: “Building sprawling suburbs is better at making cities affordable than building tall towers, according to research released Wednesday. Environmentalists, urban planners & economists are pushing cities such as New York & San Francisco to build more housing to help combat rapidly rising rents and home prices that are crowding out the middle class.”
At CityLab, Richard Florida noted the expansive versus expensive comparison and said if most development was low density it would amount to sprawl even if the overall urban footprint didn’t increase, and asked: “Do we continue to try to sprawl our way to the American dream, or do we add the density that powers innovation & economic growth?”
A Planetizen report said Dr Romem’s research “shows that housing affordability increases with a region’s ability to build outwards, as opposed to upwards. Densification largely has not accompanied efforts to curb sprawl.”
The Planetizen take was that the research found “sprawl may be bad for the environment & liveability, increasing dependence on the automobile and making transit less practical, but in terms of housing affordability, it’s a winner”.
In comments on the Romem report, Phil Hayward of Lower Hutt wrote (in a much longer comment): “I believe that everywhere that intensification & redevelopment have been adopted as significant proportions of planned housing supply, the results have been the opposite of the anticipated ‘affordability’. Site values increase to incorporate ‘development potential’ as soon as any rezoning occurs, which increases the costs that developers need to sustain while at the same time reducing their margins. All the gain falls to the incumbent owners of sites. In many cases, the expected ‘supply’ does not materialise.”
Hard boundaries go as immigration spike continues
Auckland, as a region with urban boundaries for 20 years – and “hard” boundaries for most of that time, in that they weren’t easily changed without going through protracted litigation – has been the main host for 2 immigration spikes, in 2003-04 and the present one that began with the turnaround from net outflow to net inflow in January 2013.
The latest annual net inflow was 69,000, of whom 32,200 were destined for Auckland. Neither inflow has been matched by an adequate rise in housebuilding. Consents for new homes issued in the last 12 months, 29,000 nationally, 9600 in Auckland, would barely house the national inflow while the Auckland consents would be inadequate to house all the new migrants, let alone internal migration & natural increase.
That can be turned into an excuse, aided by slow consent processes. Auckland was also behind during the 2003-04 immigration spike, but builders worked to catch up
For the first of those migration spikes, Auckland’s policy statement on land use was in the hands of the now-gone regional council. For the second, it’s in the hands of the successor unitary council, and the spike has coincided with the 3 years it’s taken to get the council’s unitary plan from start to almost finished. The housing accord with the Government through that period has enabled a lift in consents, though still well short of demand, and a finalised unitary plan will make intensification easier in many areas.
The “forced density” Mr Cox writes of is not what we have in Auckland, although the Government is leading rebuilds & newbuilds in 3 suburbs – Hobsonville Point, Glen Innes-Tamaki & Northcote. 2 of those projects involve rejuvenating Housing NZ properties, with additional intensive housing, while Hobsonville Point is all new (except for repositioning of a couple of handfuls of former Defence Force houses) and is being built by private contractors.
Current consents for apartments are no longer just in the central city, and include a number of high-price projects – upward of $10,000/m² for some consented 2 years ago, higher than that for more recent projects.
Occupants of those, and of new retirement villages, will free up existing housing, much of it in city fringe suburbs. The question, then, is: Where is the supply for lower market levels?
The answer is that it’s not going to appear until land prices ease, interest rates rise, speculation diminishes and developers & designers adjust their sights.
Issi Romem, BuildZoom, 14 September 2016: Can US cities compensate for curbing sprawl by growing denser?
Wendell Cox, New Geography 21 September 2016: The incompatibility of forced density & housing affordability
Planetizen, 16 September 2016: If housing affordability is top concern, let metro regions sprawl
Wall Street Journal, 14 September 2016: What if urban sprawl is the only realistic way to create affordable cities?
Richard Florida, CityLab, 14 September 2016: The difficulties of density
Phil Hayward comment, 18 September 2016
Inclusionary housing another debate that’s international
Debates over housing affordability, inclusionary zoning, sprawl & urban boundaries are international and can often relate to what happens in Auckland.
Jamues Brasuell wrote on the Planetizen website this week that Portland, Oregon, was considering a new inclusionary zoning policy – ending a statewide ban – but some believed it would have the opposite effect to that intended.
The inclusionary zoning policy is up for debate following a decision by the state to repeal a statewide ban on inclusionary housing requirements. City Observatory columnist Joe Cortright, a panellist at an Urban Land Institute forum on it, suggested ending parking requirements instead, saying inclusionary zoning & weakened urban growth boundaries weren’t effective tools for reducing the price of housing.
Mr Cortright focused on the consequences of “bursting” Portland’s urban growth boundary, saying that possibility, combined with new inclusionary zoning, could make Portland’s affordability worse.
He argued 7 points:
- Affordability is about growing up, not out
- The market demand/affordability problem is in the urban core
- Adding more supply in the core is the key to addressing affordability
- Inclusionary zoning increases market prices
- Inclusionary zoning creates only token numbers of affordable units
- Inclusionary zoning requirements would encourage further sprawl. (Because inclusionary zoning is likely to apply only to housing built in Portland, but not in suburban jurisdictions, it will effectively be a way of penalising & disincentivising dense development in the city relative to housing on the periphery)
- If we want to make housing more affordable, let’s get rid of parking requirements. (Oregon actually does allow inclusionary zoning – for cars, in the form of parking requirements. Requiring parking reduces the amount of land that can be used to house people, and directly drives up the price of new homes & apartments. These costs get passed on to homebuyers & renters. Studies show that in urban centres, parking requirements drive up rents by something in the order of about $US200/month. If we want to increase affordability we ought to be getting rid of this kind of hidden housing tax).
Planetizen, 19 September 2016: Inclusionary zoning & unintended consequences
Planetizen, 4 February 2016: Cortright: Oregon legislation would make housing affordability worse
City Observatory, 3 February 2016: Bursting Portland’s urban growth boundary won’t make housing more affordable (and a number of counter points in the comments)
Infrastructure funding options
Only when it doesn’t work does anybody think about infrastructure, says Just Economics LLC director Rick Rybeck.
In an article for Revitalization News, Funding infrastructure to rebuild equitable, green prosperity, said divorcing payment from infrastructure from payment for it made it harder to understand how the money was spent.
People also didn’t understand that, when infrastructure was designed & implemented well, it often inflated the price of well-served land. Where does that lead? “The infrastructure we create to facilitate development pushes development away and is partly responsible for sprawl,” he said. User charges, including road user charges, could help focus the mind on cost.
Just Economics says on its website it helps communities harmonise economic incentives with public policy objectives to:
- reduce blight by putting vacant & boarded-up properties back into use
- enhance business & employment opportunities
- fund transit & other public infrastructure
- reduce parking & traffic congestion
- enhance housing affordability
- enhance the environment, and
- reduce sprawl.
The company says it accomplishes these goals by helping communities re-engineer taxes, fees & regulations so:
- incentives embedded in taxes, fees & regulations encourage the private sector to create jobs, affordable housing, transport efficiency & sustainable economic development
- needed public revenues are obtained, and
- government sustainability, efficiency & competitiveness are enhanced.
These articles led me to several related articles on various websites. Check them out:
Charles Marohn, Strong Towns, 19 September 2016: Infrastructure spending for dummies
Revitalization News, 15 July 2015: Funding infrastructure to rebuild equitable, green prosperity
Rick Rybeck, report for Washington DC Tax Revision Commission, 2013: Funding long-term infrastructure needs for growth, sustainability & equity
Just Economics LLC (Rick Rybeck)
Making NZ a home for planning thinkpieces
A group of professionals who want to raise the level of public debate & understanding about housing, infrastructure, cities & planning launched the Making NZ blogsite in July.
I’ve quoted some of them below about the launch & their reasoning, but Making NZ cracks a mention today because of links to a number of its contributors who’ve commented recently on topics above – notably intensification & affordability.
Blog editor Matthew Webster said the group of contributors saw affordable housing, economics, infrastructure & design as important components.
Phil Hayward, an independent researcher, writer & lobbyist on urban policy issues, said: “A lot of urban policy is based on plausible assumptions that actually are not supported by real-life experience anywhere. For example, changing zoning to allow more intense development is always forecasted to unleash far more supply of housing units than what actually ends up being built. This is mostly because these zoning changes cause land values to increase even faster than otherwise and, as Arthur Grimes pointed out in a 2010 paper, all the profit potential is captured in land values rather than in newly constructed buildings.
“We should learn from the decades of over-estimated housing supply by urban planners in the UK, and avoid a replay of their costly & now-irreversible blundering.”
Development planning consultant Phil McDermott said: “Transport policy in our largest & most troubled market aims to focus investment in already intensively developed urban areas, raising environmental & financial risks. It’s a double whammy for unaffordability. Existing urban areas with limited capacity for growth receive expensive improvements. While that will increase the desirability of living there for some of those that can afford the higher costs & inflated property values, it leaves many more stranded without access either to traditional suburban housing or to multi-unit dwellings of any quality.
“One key, in the case of Auckland, is to free up for development sufficient greenfields land so the land value/rent curve is at least stabilised from the fringe back into the inner city, allowing more affordable & better quality housing to be developed citywide.”
Andrew Atkin blog, Building Utopia, 12 June 2013: Auckland versus Los Angeles
Making NZ, for urban planning that works
Phil Hayward, Making NZ, 1 September 2016: The myth of affordable intensification
NZ Herald, 29 February 2016: Dushko Bogunovich & Matthew Bradbury: Curing Auckland’s growing pains
Peter Nunns, Transport Blog, 7 March 2016 (and a long line of comments): The linear city and other science fictions
Attribution: BuildZoom, New Geography, Planetizen, Wall St Journal, CityLab, City Observatory, Strong Towns, Revitalization News, Just Economics, Making NZ, Andrew Atkin, Phil Hayward, NZ Herald, Transport Blog
Regular leads: Planetizen.