Editorial: Soaring house prices forcing hard decisions

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Rapid house price inflation is not new in New Zealand. Photo / Richard Robinson
Rapid house price inflation is not new in New Zealand. Photo / Richard Robinson

Rapid house price inflation is not new in New Zealand. Auckland, in particular, has had regular booms since the 1980s, to the point the city is now home to some 61 suburbs with a median house price of $1 million or more.

But what makes the most recent surge so extreme is it comes during a period of low inflation for almost everything else in the economy - including wages. Data last week showed consumer price inflation was just 0.1 per cent in 2015.

The Consumers Price Index does not include house prices, although building costs and rents are included and were among the only price categories to rise.

Low inflation is expected to put renewed pressure on businesses and flow through to lower wage increases. Perversely, it adds also to the likelihood the Reserve Bank will cut interest rates again later this year and make it even cheaper for those with equity to borrow and invest.

In this kind of low-growth economy, house price inflation is great news if you own one - but terrible if you don't. It threatens to accelerate the already growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Anecdotally, there are signs of an exodus of working age homeowners from Auckland. For those with employment prospects in the regions, the lure of being mortgage-free with a big backyard is proving too good to ignore. This is reflected in rising house prices in Tauranga, Hamilton and Dunedin.

Long term, the trend could be good news for the country as we seek to develop the regions. But it threatens to create new problems in Auckland. How much are residents in the city prepared to pay for an electrician or a plumber? Where will the city's teachers, nurses and police officers live? Who do we expect to make our flat whites and pour our craft beers?

Young people may have more tolerance for crowded flats, but there is only so far you can push the gap between housing costs and the minimum wage. In places like London and New York, gentrification has forced central and local governments to subsidise housing and supplement incomes for essential workers. This is something Auckland is going to face unless attempts to fix the supply side of the problem prove to be considerably more successful than they have thus far.

There is no shortage of concern.

Local and central government have allegedly been on the same page for several years now. But progress is slow and the target of 13,000 new dwellings a year just to keep up looks a long way off.

Perhaps the plateauing of house sales in recent months might be a sign Auckland prices have peaked.

Investment out of China may have abated on new rules out of Beijing and local investors may have been deterred by last year's tax changes. But today's Demographia housing affordability data indicates the problem is getting worse.

Aucklanders need to think hard about the kind of city in which they want to live. Should we build out or build up? We'll probably need to do both. Central suburbs full of lovingly restored villas add character and charm. But if we want an inclusive city that can accommodate the next generation of New Zealanders, tough calls will need to be made.

- NZ Herald

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