Target the planning laws not the one per cent


At Robin Harding (@RobinBHarding) has a very smart essay on the true cause of high real estate prices. This is a wide-spread disease, with familar standout cases such as London and San Francisco. Excerpt (emphasis mine):

About 40 per cent of the stated wealth of the UK – more than £3tn – does not exist. It is a terrible illusion. For the US the figure is about 12.5 per cent of total wealth, or $10tn, and growing fast.

The “assets” in question are what planning or zoning restrictions have added to house prices. They are the ransom that renters and recent buyers must pay to existing homeowners – whose homes the rules protect – for use of an artificially limited stock of housing. So severe have those restrictions become that the value of the ransom runs into the trillions.

Wealth of this kind is far more destructive than the alleged sins of the top 1 per cent. It is wealth created not by improving our living standards but by making them worse; by building too few houses in London and San Francisco, not too many. It is not earned by skill or effort. It is taken directly from the pockets of some – the young, especially those who were born poor – and transferred to others via political regulations on building. This is not wealth, this is plunder.


You might think the rise in house prices reflects a natural scarcity of land. Britain is a small island; San Francisco sits on a narrow peninsula. However, the best available studies suggest that the vast majority of this rise in urban house and land prices reflects not natural scarcity but planning restrictions.

A clever 2005 study by American economists Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko compares the price of an extra square foot of land attached to a house (a slightly bigger back yard, perhaps) with the average price of a square foot of land under a house in the same city. If the problem is a natural shortage of land, the two prices should both be high because it is profitable to build on the back yards until the two prices converge.

That is not what happens, however. In the cities of coastal California, the average price of urban land is 10 times the price of land in a back yard because zoning laws make it impossible to turn one into the other. In Los Angeles, the price of the extra square foot on the garden was $2.60 while the average price of urban land was $30.44. In San Francisco, the back yard land was worth $7.84 per square foot, versus $63.72 on average for the same lot.

The ratio of these two figures – as much as 10 to 1 – suggests only 10 per cent of the value of land in expensive cities is due to its natural scarcity. The rest is planning restrictions.

Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber at the London School of Economics applied the same trick to British and European offices in 2006, with terrifying results. For the well-heeled West End of London, the cost of planning restrictions was eight times the cost of actually building an office. In Birmingham, it was 2.5 times the cost of building the office. This was not because land in the West Midlands is desperately scarce – just land you are allowed to build on is scarce.

We have many examples of localities that have avoided the housing-tax (Austin, Houston, Dallas). However, I don’t know of any cases where the populace has chosen to tear down the restrictions on building. There are powerful incentives for the present property owners to prefer that prices keep climbing.

Politician are not keen to educate the populace about the full cost of their preference for building restrictions. E.g., the total economic loss caused by preventing workers from moving from relatively low to relatively high productivity areas. We know that a Haitian taxi driver’s productivity improves by roughly 10x if she can move to New York. Same job, but her productivity is automatically so much higher because the value of her service is proportionately higher. The same applies to a software developer moving from Oklahoma to San Francisco.

My Haitian taxi driver case illustrates that building restrictions have costs similar to immigration barriers. Progressives are more likely to recognize the need for immigration reform, whilst vigorously “protecting” their Manhattan or Palo Alto neighborhoods. The terrible costs of these “protections” weigh most heavily on the poorer demographics. Robin closes with this:

These rules have added billions and billions of dollars to the price of housing, money that must be paid to those who already own houses by those who do not. If we want to make society fairer and more equal, just let people build.