“Soaring” land and house prices “certainly represent the biggest single failure” of smart growth, which has contributed to an increase in prices that is unprecedented in history. This finding could well have been from our new The Housing Crash and Smart Growth, but this observation was made by one of the world’s leading urbanologists, Sir Peter Hall, in a classic work 40 years ago. Hall led an evaluation of the effects of the British Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 (The Containment of Urban England) between 1966 and 1971. The principal purpose of the Act had been urban containment, using the land rationing strategies of today’s smart growth, such as urban growth boundaries and comprehensive plans that forbid development on large swaths of land that would otherwise be developable.
The Economics of Urban Containment (Smart Growth): The findings of Hall and his colleagues were echoed later by a Labour Government report in the mid-2000s which showed housing affordability had suffered under this planning regime. Author Kate Barker was a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, which like America’s Federal Reserve Board, is in charge of monetary policy. Among other things, the Barker Reports on housing and land use found that urban containment had driven the price of land with “planning permission” to many multiples (per acre) above that of comparable land where planning was prohibited. Under normal circumstances comparable land would have similar value.
Whether coming from the left or right, economists have demonstrated that prices tend to rise when supply is restricted, all things being equal. Certainly there can be no other reason for the price differentials virtually across the street that occur in smart growth areas. Dr. Arthur Grimes, Chairman of the Board of New Zealand’s central bank (the Reserve Bank of New Zealand), found the differential on either side of Auckland’s urban growth boundary at 10 times, while we found an 11 times difference in Portland across the urban growth boundary.
House Prices in America: The Historical Norm: Since World War II, median house prices in US metropolitan areas have generally been between 2.0 and 3.0 times median household incomes (a measure called the Median Multiple). This included California until 1970 (Figure 1). After that, housing became unaffordable in California, averaging nearly 1.5 times that of the rest of the nation during the 1980s and 1990s (adjusted for incomes). Even after the huge price declines from the peak of the bubble, house prices remain artificially high in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose, with median multiples of six or higher.
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