Tuesday 17 December 2019

Housing: ‘no shortage’ – is it nonsense?

by Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography, LSE.

To any reasonable observer, the evidence that Britain is suffering from a housing shortage of crisis proportions seems clear-cut. It is obvious looking at the data that there has been a critical problem of underbuilding for a generation or more. New housing supply is best measured as how many houses are built – ‘completions’. In the 30 years 1959-1988, 7,449,160 houses were built in England: in the 30 years 1989-2018, only 3,328,850. That suggests a shortfall of 3,120,310 homes over the last 30 years relative to the previous trend. Other measures, against, for example, estimates of annual building rates needed to maintain affordability, suggest underbuilding has been even worse.

Nor are houses like barrels of Brent Crude – all the same. Location and size are critical and we have been systematically building the wrong sort of houses (too small) in the wrong sort of places. Demand is for roomier houses in areas close to productive jobs. Instead we have been building relatively more houses where the local economy is depressed (but there is lots of brownfield land) and population growth minimal. Compare Barnsley and Doncaster with Oxford and Cambridge: population growth and house building, show exactly the reverse pattern to that which logic would demand. In the nearly 40 years from 1980 to 2018, 56,340 houses were built in Barnsley and Doncaster combined but only 29,430 in the combined Cambridge and Oxford. The pattern of relative population growth was almost the reverse: a 95,079 increase in Oxbridge against a 29,430 increase in the Barnsley and Doncaster pair. The wider symptoms and causes of our housing crisis were addressed in a recent CEP Election Analysis.

Despite this, the assertion that England does not really have a shortage of houses has gained some traction. The “no shortage” message is a comforting narrative and appeals to vested interests. To politicians because it implies that nothing as uncomfortable as building more houses needs to done to address our housing crisis. To big developers because it implies we do not need to radically reform our housing delivery system from which the biggest developers benefit so much. The ‘no shortage’ claim originated from Ian Mulheirn, an economic consultant for the Redfern Review into the decline of homeownership. Its most recent articulation appeared in another report by Ian Mulheirn in August 2019.

The claim rests on two basic pieces of ‘evidence’. The first is that the number of dwellings has risen (since some particular date – in the August 2019 paper – 1996) at a faster rate than the number of households. The second is that rents have not risen in real terms since 2005 and, since rents are the price of ‘housing services’, we should conclude there cannot be a shortage of housing.

The first claim embodies at least three errors. The first is the use of Net Additional Dwellings rather than Completions as the measure of additional housing supply. The chart reproduced on page 9 of the report by Ian Mulheirn showing how the volume of building (Completions) and Net Additional Dwellings has varied since 1971, in fact, reveals the problem. Net Additional Dwellings is calculated by adding Completions, conversions/ subdivisions and changes of use into residential and then subtracting the number of houses demolished.

When building new homes was flourishing, as in the 1970s, Completions exceeded Net Additional Dwellings by about 25% as obsolete homes were replaced. From about 1980 until the late 1990s – ignoring the four year boom of the late 1980s – the two measures gave a very similar picture of new supply. More obsolete houses were kept in use or older houses subdivided. From the late 1990s, however, as real shortages bit these trends went further: annual Completions started to fall behind, so that by 2018-19 they were 12% less than the sum of Net Additional Dwellings. Demolitions had all but ceased but conversions and the transformation of obsolete office buildings into sub-standard houses, had soared, boosting Net Additions compared to new homes built. In other words, the worse the shortage, the more Completions fall behind Net Additional Dwellings as a measure of new supply.

The second error is related and arises from the simple definition of a household. ‘Households’ are groups of people living in a dwelling. If there are not enough houses, then households do not form. The Census defines a household as one person living alone or two or more people living at the same address and sharing at least one room. Thus there is an almost definitional identity between the number of households and the number of addresses: or dwellings.  As Liam Halligan points out in his recent book, Home Truths,  there has been a rapid rise in the number of ‘concealed households’: for example younger adults living with their parents. Between 2006 and 2016 he reports that there was a 47 percent increase in the number of 20 to 34 year-olds doing this.

The third error is that whether or not there is shortage of houses is an economic issue and results from the interaction of supply with demand. That there were more houses per household in 2015  than there had been in 1971 is not relevant to the issue of an economic shortage of houses. The same is true of doctors. According to the World Bank, the number of doctors per thousand people increased from 1 in 1971 to 2.8 2015. By comparison houses to households hardly increased at all: from 1 to 1.02 (England).

Despite the near tripling of the number of doctors per person no one is asserting there is a surplus of doctors. As people get richer they demand more health care; that also happens as they get older. The ability of doctors to treat illness has greatly improved. It takes more doctors to treat cancer patients now than in 1971, partly because treatment can do so much more. The rising ratio of doctors to people reflects rising prosperity, the aging population and technical progress complementary to the demand for doctors: not a surplus of doctors.

Much the same is true of houses. One of the inconvenient facts about the demand for houses is not just that as people get richer they demand more housing space, but they also demand more as they get older. Even after adjusting for income, education and other relevant factors, older people demand more housing space. As car ownership has grown, people demand more space around their houses. As society has aged and become more prosperous over the past 50 years one would expect that the consumption of houses and housing space would have increased substantially. But it did not because we did not build enough houses and the stock could not adjust to the changing pattern of demand.

What we observe is an aging stock of increasingly cramped housing. In 1967, 62.1 percent of English houses were less than 50 years old: in 2015 that had shrunk to 38.8 percent: not much more than the proportion that were less than 25 years old in 1945 – despite WWII. English houses are akin to Cuban cars: they are still in use but they are clapped out and polluting.

Thus the evidence of the physical stock of housing and the rate at which we have been adding to it speaks overwhelmingly of an increasing shortage: of very serious underbuilding over a long period and a systematic process of building not where demand is strongest but where there is least NIMBY resistance.

The other ‘evidence’ cited to support the ‘no shortage’ narrative is that rents have not risen significantly since 2005. But people buy houses not just as places to live (providing a flow of housing services), but as an investment, for their pensions. Demand for houses reflects both types of motive but the relative importance of the motives for buying a house -  as an investment asset or just somewhere to live - varies according to the rate of return from housing relative to that from other assets.

The total return from an asset is the combination of its rate of capital appreciation and the annual payments the owner gets (interest, dividends, rents or ‘user value’ from the flow of housing services). The two generational freeze on land supply and the now more than 30 years of underbuilding this has caused, coupled with rising demand driven mainly by growth in real incomes, has put long term upward pressure on the price of houses. The real price of houses has more or less doubled in England in every decade since the 1950s. The rate of house price increase in the UK since 1975 has been faster than in any other OECD country and faster in England than in the UK as a whole.

The end result is that returns from housing – as an investment – have outperformed almost all other assets. As a percentage of total household net worth, houses plus land have increased from 40.7% in 1995 to 53.0% in 2018 . The British preoccupation with house prices and popularity of buy-to-let reflects this increasingly important role of housing as an investment asset: and that is even more important for ordinary people who may not have easy access to government bonds or shares. As I pointed out in 2014,  with their policy-imposed long term restrictions on housing supply, the British have performed a feat of alchemy, converting houses into gold. It is a small investors’ speciality: most landlords still own just one rental property.

Rents are the price of the flow of housing services a given house generates. Rents relative to the price of a house represent its yield as an investment. The price paid for a house includes both the present discounted value of those services or rents and their expected future price appreciation. There may also but perhaps be some judgement about future capital values relative to rents. In investment jargon the future yield on housing relative to other assets. The long run shortage and consequent price increases may itself cause an expectation of future relative appreciation so lead to higher house prices in the present.

Which brings one to the question of yields on housing and their level relative to those on other investment assets – now or in the future. This is at the heart of the claimed puzzle of rents not rising since 2005. What is known beyond doubt is that the response to the financial crisis was an unprecedented expansion of credit. Bond yields fell to historic lows where they have remained. The yield on 10-year Treasury bonds used to bump along between 4 to 8 percent but since 2010 has fallen steadily to below 1 percent. This has been followed by similar falls in yields on other investments assets, such as equities or commercial property. Yields on offices, typically 5 to 6.5 percent in the 1990s, were down to 4 percent or less by 2019.  That yields on housing have fallen roughly in line, especially given the attraction of buy-to-let houses in Britain as pensions, should come as no surprise. Rents have not been boosted by an increase in the demand for housing services since 2005 because real incomes have not risen. They are still lower than their 2006 peak. But rents do not buy a house and house prices have risen, adjusting to the new reality of yields.

Liam Halligan claims that the no shortage narrative is just nonsense. It is nonsense: but perhaps not just nonsense. It seems more like fake news. Nonsense is innocently wrong or even, as in Nonsense Verse, funny. The claim that there is no shortage seems less innocent, more self-serving.