Friday, 3 November 2017

Everything You Should Know About The Housing Crisis

The housing situation in the UK would be laughable if it were not so saddening. Put simply, the housing crisis is almost entirely caused by the politicians that govern us - but what makes it even worse is that these politicians are trying to fix the problems they've caused with policies that add harm to the crisis that is already the result of their interference.

That doesn't sound ideal.

No, it's rather like if a bad driver knocks a cyclist off her bike and then tries to administer very inexpert first aid, but in doing so gets in the way of the ambulance crew trying to get to the scene of the accident.

I see, tell me more. What exactly is the housing crisis in the UK?

The housing crisis is largely made up of one twofold problem: there is a shortage of affordable housing. That is to say, there are not enough houses to match demand, and because of this the available housing is too expensive for many young people to afford.

And why is this the fault of politicians?

The shortage occurs because the government specifies rigid building standards, restricts the use of land that can be built on, and subsidises mortgage borrowing (all these policies push up the cost of housing and create a scarcity of suppliers). Due to inflation and planning restrictions, politicians continue to cause the huge rise in property prices, as they ensure that supply cannot meet demand.

So, then, what can be done to rectify the situation?

If demand is high and supply scarce enough to cause a drastic shortage, the obvious solution is to deregulate some of the brown/green land prohibitions and allow the natural forces of the market to bring supplies closer to demand. One of the ineluctable laws of economics is that if demand increases and supply decreases or remains unchanged there will be a higher equilibrium price to account for the scarcity of supply. So for example, younger prospective house buyers find it harder to obtain an affordable purchase, and people renting property or even just a room find that a larger proportion of their income is going on rent. Also, when claimants of housing benefits constitute a greater part of the market, rents are hiked up. As a corollary, higher rents engender a surge in buy-to-let investments, which forces up house prices, which comes full circle in justifying high rent.

So it's a kind of negative spiral?

Yes, but with an obvious solution. If renting out property is hugely profitable, and housing restrictions are relaxed or in some cases lifted, then investors will look to build more property in order to generate more profits. If lots of investors do this then housing supplies will increase, demand will lessen, and prices will be brought down.

Yes, it makes sense - I can see why it is important not to artificially restrict supply.

Indeed, but restricting supply is only one part of the problem our politicians have caused - the other is much more subtle, but arguably even more damaging to the housing market.

Oh, what's that? I'm intrigued.

I thought you would be. I am talking about the government's injection of extra money into the economy and how that negatively impacts people's purchasing power through money devaluation. A look at the housing market and the difference between old and young people will show this. For young people the cost of getting on the housing ladder has risen to reflect all the additional money that has been put in circulation.

You mean that older people got to buy their houses prior to this, so they benefit from higher house prices that are now disproportionately higher than they originally paid?

Yes, spot on. All the ways the economy is devalued, through printing money, through excessive borrowing, and through deficit spending, society is being turned into part Ponzi scheme part credit-pumping pyramid scheme where those nearest the new currency gain the most and those furthest away from it lose out, because by the time all this extra money reaches them it comes in the form of higher prices, which are reflected in higher house prices, where in places like London, where demand far outweighs supply, housing is unaffordable for most people in the UK.

Thanks for the explanation.

You're welcome. A fact from Dominic Frisby's article in The Guardian might interest you:

"Between 1997 and 2007 the housing stock grew by 10%, but the population only grew by 5%, and house prices rose by more than 300%."

Golly gosh!

Quite!! This shows quite clearly that supply and demand are out of whack here, and much of it is to do with the whopping increase in the supply of money that’s in circulation, coupled with frivolous lending. House price inflation has gone out of control as more and more mortgages are issued and more capital is created in the form of 1s and 0s on a bank computer. Cheaply created money ensures that there are bubbles, and societies built on easy debt are going to burst, as was the case in 2008. Once you add in all the loose lending from abroad and include those vast sums of money that flood into our housing market, you see that even though there is lots of new housing being built in our major cities, house prices are still unaffordable for the majority of young people. Couple all that cheap money with the very restrictive planning laws we mentioned and it’s a recipe for inflated prices, making a heavily regulated building sector the preserve of a small group of wealthy suppliers.  

You also mentioned that politicians are trying to fix the problems they've caused with policies that add harm to the crisis. What did you mean?

Oh yes, so I did. Having seen how the state has caused the housing crisis by the toxic combination of starving supply and devaluing currency, making houses both in short supply and more expensive, let me mention two government policies that have been tried as a method of easing the housing crisis, but for what ought to be fairly obvious reasons, have worsened it.

Let me guess - something to do with affecting supply and demand?

You're learning fast. Yes, the first is their help to buy scheme, which comes in the shape of government equity loan and mortgage guarantee schemes. The problem is, while regulations are not relaxed, perpetuating the supply-side problem, the help to buy scheme simply increases house prices and while raising affordability for the signatories, makes house buying even harder for everyone else.

What else?

Another terrible idea is rent controls, which although thankfully have not happened in the UK in recent years are an issue in other countries, and are a favoured policy of some of the opposition parties, not least the aspiring Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn.

What's wrong with rent controls? They are looked upon by some as an answer to the affordability problem for tenants.

Alas, as with help to buy schemes, they have the opposite effect though. Rent controls artificially lower the price of renting an apartment to below the market rate. That’s a terribly bad idea. The consequence of this economic short-sightedness is a housing shortage. When the government makes rent artificially cheaper it means landlords want to rent out fewer units than they otherwise would.

So the long term vision of having more affordable housing for people will also be compromised with artificial rent controls?

Yes, think about it this way. Suppose you’re a property developer looking to spend millions of pounds building a huge apartment complex in a major city – and let’s say you’re thinking of either London or Auckland. Suppose London has a rent control policy and Auckland doesn’t, and all other factors are equal – you’d head straight off to Auckland to avoid developing apartments in a place that makes you charge below the market rate to rent them out.

Yes, I can see that.

This also knocks-on to affect economic growth too, as entrepreneurs will be reluctant to locate to a country that artificially induces goods and services to be priced below the market level.

Got it.

And here’s another way rent controls create shortages – they disincentivise already available rooms from being rented out. Suppose you live in Lambeth or Pimlico and you have a room to rent. If the state-induced rent control places the room at 70% of the value you place on it, you may well decide to leave the room unoccupied and use it for storage or an office instead. Every time a decision like that is made the government effectively eliminates hundreds of units from the rental market.

I guess rent controls would also lower living standards too?

That's right. If landlords have to artificially lower their profits they will be tempted to lower their own standards in order to cut costs and make up for their losses. They will be disincentivised to maintain properties in the way that they would if they were being paid what their rooms are worth. The consequent effect is that re-wiring isn’t done as frequently; general repairs are scarcer; utilities don’t get replaced when they begin to show faults, and the neighbourhoods (from gardens to graffiti) are cared for less. You may think that cutting corners to engender shoddier living standards won’t be tolerated by clients, but that won’t be a problem for landlords. With artificially low prices they will be able to fill their shoddy rooms twenty times over.

So help to buy and rent controls are bad ideas, what then can be done to help?

Relaxing regulations and loosening the brown and green belt zoning are key things that would be a big help. To understand why this is so important, let me give you an idea of how the land lies (pun intended) at the moment. The UK is 60 million acres in size, and the population is 65 million people, which equates to just under 1 acre per person. However, the land is not divided up to equate to 1 acre per person. Less than 1% of people own 70% of all the UK land (mostly comprising Aristocrats, Baronets and the Landed Gentry). Yet the average Brit lives on 340 square yards which totals about 8% of the entire land, which would translate as 12.5 people per acre instead of 1 person per acre.

Yep, it's obvious to anyone who has ever flown over the UK in a plane that there is plenty of land available to be built on.


And most of it non-green belt land too.

Yes again. To those who assert that Britain has reached its capacity on how many more people it can fit in - it's just not true! Last I heard the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) worked out that the proportion of England's landscape that is built on is a mere 6% (in fact, once you include parks, allotments, and domestic gardens into that equation, the actual figure is more like 2.27%). Or to put it in an even more compelling way, excluding parks and gardens, if we were to quadruple the size of every city, town and village in the UK, it would still be the case that just over 90% of UK land is not urbanised.

Now obviously I'm not saying that every bit of non-urban land can be built on - there are important areas of natural beauty, there are mountains, rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs; and there is important land for farming, horticulture and silage, but the mere suggestion that the UK is overcrowded, and that we are full, is frankly ludicrous, and ought to be put to bed right away!.

Some cities are cleary overcrowded though, aren't they?

Don't make such an assumption - you have to understand why cities have so many people in them. Rural areas are quieter because fewer people like to live in them - and house prices are very expensive in bust cities because more people want to live there. It's simple logic - the reason London has 8.6 million people and rural towns have only a few thousand is because more people prefer to live in London than they do rural towns. The reason being, not only is there is a greater abundance of the aforementioned benefits in more populous areas, there are also better career prospects, higher salaries, better nightlife, greater choices of restaurants, a richer choice of entertainment, more tourist attractions, better public transport, greater diversity of people – the list goes on. 

But yet in terms of probability, the highest number of complainers of over-crowdedness will most likely come from a highly populated area, which probably explains why to them the UK feels overcrowded.

Most people who pontificate on overcrowding are likely to be pontificating from a vantage point of high population density. The people with the highest probability of feeling an intense population density are those who live in the densely populated areas. For example, if city x has 7 million people and a village y has 1000 people, and only x and y exist, there is only a 1 in 7000 probability that you don't live in city x.

What, so this means the UK is not overcrowded? I don't get it.  

The mistake people are making is that they are trying to average population density of people instead of averaging over square miles. You can't get a proper picture of the UK's people to area ratio by counting how densely populated a populated area is - the only way is to assess how densely populated the average square mile would be when considering each square mile as a weighted average of total population and total area. A tube station in the rush hour can be overcrowded; so can a concert venue without proper door control - but as you suggested, take a trip around the UK by plane and look down, and for the most part you won't see crowds of people, you'll see fields and woodlands.

Ah right, so the measuring method is dodgy?

It's far from ideal because it's quite misleading. The rate of urban areas in relation to square miles is vanishingly small - there is potential for literally millions more people living in the UK. Of course, just like all sensible immigration policies, a nation must ensure it has the schools, hospitals, roads, etc to support more people, but given the myriad qualities and benefits one distils from living in places like London, that ought to be something that's greatly encouraged.

Yeah, it certainly is the case that in some areas of the UK the infrastructure hasn't quite kept up with population demand.

True, but once you accept the general maxim that more people means more cultural and social benefits, it's easy to see that inadequate facilities does not mean the nation is overcrowded, it simply means that the UK infrastructure has not progressed conterminously to facilitate the social and cultural benefits that come with an increased diversity of people."

While we are here, I'd like to talk about something else please - London house prices. 

Oh yes.

Hardly a day goes by without hearing someone complaining about London house prices.

I think London is a fantastic city - far and away the best in the UK. A lot of other people agree, and because of that they want to live there. Such demand means London house prices are high, but that's not bad for society.

It sounds like a bad thing if you want to live in London.

Yes, but we are talking about society as a whole, not just people who want to live in one city. The negatives of high house prices for buyers are offset by the positives of high house prices for sellers. There is no net loss for society.

But lower prices benefit society, right?

They benefit buyers but those benefits are offset by costs to sellers. Low prices are a benefit to consumers in one principal way - when they cause consumers to buy more of what they want. Consider a large Domino's pizza costing £12. If you buy a Domino's pizza for £12 you are signalling that you value it more than the £12, otherwise you'd buy something else.

Yes, no disagreement so far.

Right, now suppose you value a £12 large Domino's pizza at £15, the £3 difference is what is known in economics as your consumer surplus. If Domino's makes £7 on the pizza (their producer surplus) then society has a net value gain of £10. That applies to anything – cinema tickets, washing machines, clothes, DVDs, and so on.

Now suppose the price of a Domino's pizza falls to £11 and Domino's producer surplus drops to £6. Nothing has changed in net terms because Domino's loss is the customer's gain. But something else does change. What then happens is that more people are willing to buy Domino's pizzas. All the people who were willing to pay £11.50 for a pizza didn't buy one when they were £12, but will now. All these extra purchases create more consumer surplus, which creates more societal value. Remember Domino's gains too because they sell more pizzas (the very reason businesses cut prices).

Why doesn’t the same thing happen with housing?

The key difference between Domino's and housing is that Domino's don't have a fixed supply of pizzas - they can make as many as the demand necessitates. Housing supply increases are severely restricted by regulations, bureaucracy and influential lobbying groups (as we've already discussed), which means even a theoretical drop in property prices couldn't benefit consumers in the same way lower pizza prices could.

The upshot is that by and large the properties go to people who most value owning property in London. People with alternatives to living in highly priced London will take those options, leaving in most cases the people in London who most value living there. Moreover, as demand to live in London drives up prices, much more prudent use is made of the limited space available. Not only do prices that rise with demand ensure the best allocation of residents to the fixed number of properties, it also ensures that the best use is made of the land.

It's our old friends supply and demand again.

It sure is. The primary cause of London's housing problem is overly-stringent regulations that starve supply in an inelastic market (the inelasticity being the limited supply of land). London is the main place where the demand to live there is hugely greater than the supply-side availability, not least because the supply is limited to a 1500 km2 area, whereas the buyer-side demand comes from anywhere in the world, and not always from people who want to buy those properties to live in.

Perhaps the government should try to alleviate the problem by restricting London house buying to UK folk?

Definitely not, because stated another way, it is tantamount to banning foreigners from buying property in our country, which would be a wholly oppressive and foolish thing to do.

But there are too many properties sitting empty in London because foreigners are simply buying them as assets, not as places to live.

Do you know how many empty properties there are that are owned by foreign investors?

No, not off hand.

Then how can you say there are too many if you don't know how many there are? Look, I know all those buyers who purchase properties in London as an investment but have no intention of living in them make many of you mad. But the reality is, there are not thousands of London homes sitting empty while at the same time there are thousands of people looking for housing in London - it's simply not true.

But there are quite a few - shouldn't the government do something?

No. Even if we ignore the fact that such an intervention would be xenophobic, wanting the state to intervene to prohibit transactions just because they think the wrong kind of people are buying these properties is problematical. You may argue that people who want to live in London but couldn't afford the properties, and people without homes at all, would value those more than foreign investors, but the knowledge that those properties are far out of their price range shows evidentially that those properties are not being bought at the expense of either of those groups of people. It's a tragedy that there are so many people who are homeless in the UK, but people buying expensive properties in London are not the cause of their plight, and nor are any actions that prohibit those purchases going to be the solution.

Secondly, and following on from the first point, even just a basic understanding of economics would inform people that Britain is actually better off when those properties are sold, irrespective of whether the buyer is an English person or a foreigner.

Really, how can that be so?

To see why foreign buyers make Britain better off, and why banning them would be counterproductive (not to mention xenophobic), consider who benefits when an Englishmen (Jack) buys a house from a second Englishman (Tom). Suppose Jack buys a house from Tom for £300,000. Jack must value the house at more than £300,000 otherwise he would be unwilling to buy it, and Tom must value the money more otherwise he would be unwilling to sell it. Suppose the maximum Jack would pay is £310,000 - his consumer surplus (the difference between the most he'd pay and what he actually pays) is £10,000. Suppose that Tom would have sold his house for no less than £295,000, then his surplus is £5,000, which means the transaction generates a net societal surplus of £15,000

Now suppose that up steps Johnny foreigner, out-bidding Jack by £7,000, offering him £307,000. Jack gets no benefit from the sale of Tom's house to Johnny foreigner, but Tom's surplus has risen to £12,000, meaning that if Johnny's consumer surplus is the same as Jack's then society now has a net gain of £22,000, which is £7,000 more than when the transaction was between Jack and Tom (there are complex reasons why, in terms of a weighted average, we’d expect the consumer surplus to be roughly the same – but we won’t deviate into that now). Of course if you ban Johnny foreigner then Jack gains, but his gain is less than the loss incurred by Tom - plus on top of that you also have to count Johnny's lost consumer surplus. 

The desire to ban foreigners from buying homes in the UK (by which we really mean London) is perfectly coterminous with the definition of xenophobia you’d find in any dictionary – it is a desire to impose an unfair discriminatory procedure on a bunch of people solely on the grounds they do not share the same nationality as you.

The test for you, dear reader, not just on this, but in life in general, is to keep a check on how often in the free market you find yourselves favouring people who just happen to share your nationality – in terms of jobs, goods and services – over people who happen to be of a different nationality. For I hope I don’t need to remind you too often that the more globalised we become the more we should erode away these old misconceived notions of jobs, goods and services being available only to people who share your place of birth.

Finally, a more general point about all this is that I think it's more the case that in the modern age lots of people have become quite furtive about telling the truth. The truth used to be valued so much more highly, but since socially we became more emotionally linked (which, don't get me wrong, has been excellent in so many ways) there is a widespread fear of telling the truth about things like wealth, value, wages, inequality, discrimination and so forth for fear of sounding blunt or uncaring.

When Jack tells us about the problem of homelessness in London, his default position is to frame it relatively in relation to rich property owners (inequality) instead of as an intrinsic issue of how homeless people are struggling on their own terms and need some help in life. The properties that rich tycoons have the luxury of being able to buy are usually homes in the region of £1-5 million pounds - they are unaffordable to the vast majority of people in the UK, and have almost nothing to do with the reason the homeless people are on the streets.

But there is another politicised aspect to the housing crisis that no politician wants you to think about. Politicians don’t want house prices to be lower, because lower house prices are seen as a sign of a failing economy, and a big turn off for home owners (home owners are fairly influential as they tend to vote in greater numbers than renters). The housing debacle in the UK has created a vicious circle - more people’s wealth has become dependent on the value of their home, so there is more and more for politicians to lose if they loosen the restrictions on housing. As most politicians are home owners (often multiple home owners) and many also have rental income from second and third properties, you can be quite sure that things aren’t going to get better anytime soon.