Landmark Links August 12th – Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

kids making a mess

Lead Story… In a profoundly disappointing but not remotely surprising story, labor, environmental and tenant advocacy groups have effectively nuked CA Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to streamline approvals for housing developments, imperiling it’s chances of passing through the legislature this year.  Brown’s plan essentially would have allowed development “as of right” so long as it conformed with underlying zoning and allowed for a certain number of affordable units.  This would have effectively subverted the veritable maze of discretionary approvals currently required in some municipalities.  First, construction union leaders threw a hissy fit because the plan didn’t include enough goodies and hand outs for union labor to buy – I mean win – their support.  Next, environmental groups (Side Note: in California, the term “environmental group” is nothing more than a euphemism for  NIMBY) opposed the plan because they don’t want anything built under any circumstances ever if it’s anywhere near the expensive – and often developer-hostile neighborhoods where they reside and Brown’s plan would effectively take away a major lever of control – discretionary approval – that they have held in the development approval process.  Third, some renter advocacy groups joined in with the construction unions and environmentalists because they apparently aren’t all that sharp and don’t realize that they are being bamboozled into opposing something that would ultimately lead to lower rents which would benefit them the most.  i guess that no good deed goes unpunished.  From the LA Times:

Labor and environmental groups say they are done negotiating over Gov. Jerry Brown’s housing plan – LA Times

“After several meetings without an agreement on a variety of requested changes, we believe it is time to focus on real affordable housing solutions that don’t directly undermine local voices and place communities and our environment at risk,” said a statement from the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Sierra Club and Tenants Together, who are among a coalition of more than 60 groups who joined to oppose the governor’s housing proposal.

Cesar Diaz, the legislative director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council, confirmed that the coalition would not participate in further discussions over the plan.

“This needs much more time and a policy-vetting process,” Diaz said.

Yes, this is depressing but it isn’t at all surprising to anyone who has spent any time in a field related to development in CA.  Any time that someone makes a proposal that attempts to fix out badly broken housing system, existing stake holders dig in their heels and do anything in their power to stop it.  This, as today’s headline suggests is why we can’t have nice things in California – namely an affordable and moderately functional housing market.

Today I’d like to present a counter example to illustrate what a functional housing market looks like.  There is a major global city that is fully built out with a population of over 13 million (far larger than any city in CA).  This city is a major global finance and trade hub.  It is land constrained and effectively fully built out, yet housing prices haven’t budged in nearly 20 years.  The city that I’m referring to is Tokyo and Robin Harding of the Finacial Times published a very important story about how regulation impacts housing cost called Why Tokyo is the land of rising home construction but not prices last week.  First off, I want make something clear.  The Japanese respect property rights to a level that’s almost inconceivable in California.  According to Takahiko Noguchi, a regional planning head in Tokyo:

“There is no legal restraint on demolishing a building.  People have the right to use their land so basically neighbouring people have no right to stop development.”

In other words, Tokyo has become the anti-coastal California where housing supply is created to meet demand without mountains of red tape and shrieking NIMBY obstructionists.  The outcome has been so dramatic that it’s a bit shocking to those that don’t live there.  From the FT (highlights are mine):

Here is a startling fact: in 2014 there were 142,417 housing starts in the city of Tokyo (population 13.3m, no empty land), more than the 83,657 housing permits issued in the state of California (population 38.7m), or the 137,010 houses started in the entire country of England (population 54.3m).

Tokyo’s steady construction is linked to a still more startling fact. In contrast to the enormous house price booms that have distorted western cities — setting young against old, redistributing wealth to the already wealthy, and denying others the chance to move to where the good jobs are — the cost of property in Japan’s capital has hardly budged.

This is not the result of a falling population. Japan has experienced the same “return to the city” wave as other nations. In Minato ward — a desirable 20 sq km slice of central Tokyo — the population is up 66 per cent over the past 20 years, from 145,000 to 241,000, an increase of about 100,000 residents.

In the 121 sq km of San Francisco, the population grew by about the same number over 20 years, from 746,000 to 865,000 — a rise of 16 per cent. Yet whereas the price of a home in San Francisco and London has increased 231 per cent and 441 per cent respectively, Minato ward has absorbed its population boom with price rises of just 45 per cent, much of which came after the Bank of Japan launched its big monetary stimulus in 2013.

In Tokyo there are no boring conversations about house prices because they have not changed much. Whether to buy or rent is not a life-changing decision. Rather, Japan delivers to its people a steadily improving standard, location and volume of house.

Japan
So how, exactly did this come about?  Some of us remember tales of the runaway Tokyo real estate market and subsequent crash in the 80s during the great Japanese boom and subsequent bust.  It may seem odd that a place that produced such an epic real estate boom and subsequent bust would be home to a stable, efficient real estate market.  Again, from the FT:
“During the 1980s Japan had a spectacular speculative house price bubble that was even worse than in London and New York during the same period, and various Japanese economists were decrying the planning and zoning systems as having been a major contributor by reducing supply,” says André Sorensen, a geography professor at the University of Toronto, who has written extensively on planning in Japan.
But, indirectly, it was the bubble that laid foundations for future housing across the centre of Tokyo, says Hiro Ichikawa, who advises developer Mori Building. When it burst, developers were left with expensively assembled office sites for which there was no longer any demand.
As bad loans to developers brought Japan’s financial system to the brink of collapse in the 1990s, the government relaxed development rules, culminating in the Urban Renaissance Law of 2002, which made it easier to rezone land. Office sites were repurposed for new housing. “To help the economy recover from the bubble, the country eased regulation on urban development,” says Ichikawa. “If it hadn’t been for the bubble, Tokyo would be in the same situation as London or San Francisco.”
Hallways and public areas were excluded from the calculated size of apartment buildings, letting them grow much higher within existing zoning, while a proposal now under debate would allow owners to rebuild bigger if they knock down blocks built to old earthquake standards.
All of this law flows from the national government, and freedom to demolish and rebuild means landowners can quickly take advantage. “The city planning law and the building law are set nationally — even small details are written in national law,” says Okata. “Local government has almost no power over development.”
Note that this is not all that dissimilar from the proposal that Gov Brown made where the State of CA would set policy from the top down since cities have shown absolutely no inclination to get their shit together when it comes to housing policy.  When the Japanese crisis hit, policy makers did something that those in the US have been unable and unwilling to do: liberalize development regulation to spur economic growth – which also led to a subsequent dramatic slowing in housing costs due to a pickup in efficiency.  Remember the Tokyo example next time someone makes an economically illiterate statement that building more market rate won’t make housing more affordable.  Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Japanese policy makers understand this, Californians apparently don’t.  The simple fact is that coastal CA cities will not get housing costs under control until they start doing things differently, much like Japan did in the midst of their economic crisis.

Economy

Debt Decision: Plunging interest rates have lowered the cost of borrowing over long time periods, making it appealing for the government to roll short term debt into longer term maturities.  See Also: It’s never been cheaper for cities and states to borrow money so why are they so reluctant?

Opposite Result: There is early evidence that negative interest rates are actually encouraging savings, rather than discouraging it as central bankers had hoped.

Pendulum Swing: In the never-ending tug of war between labor and capital, labor is gaining an upper hand as the job market tightens.

Residential

Landmark in the News: Landmark’s own Tom Farrell had a prominent quote in a feature Wall Street Journal article entitled  Lopsided Housing Rebound Leaves Millions of People Out in the Cold.  : The whole piece is well worth a read:

Tom Farrell, director of business development for Landmark Capital Advisors, which counsels investors on real-estate projects, said risk appetite is low, particularly outside core markets.

“We’re often saying ’You all want to be in the same spot, and you’re tripping over each other,” he said. “It’s just difficult to get people out to those secondary markets.”

Profiles

Early Exit: Startups are opting to sell rather than IPO as investors look to cash out early.

The Rise and Fall: How Yahoo went from tech powerhouse to also-ran and why Verizon bought it.

Chart of the Day

WTF

Headline of the Week: It’s hard to beat Subway rider smokes crack and strips naked before shocked witnesses on No. 3 train when it comes to news headlines.  Especially when said headline includes pictures (before the guy took his clothes off, thankfully).

Swipe Right: Judging by usage numbers and the 450,000 condoms provided to athletes, Tinder and the Olympic Village are a perfect match.

FAIL: Man tries to light house on fire in broad daylight but lights self on fire instead.  To make matters worse, the whole thing was caught on a security camera including the hysterical part where he tries to put it out.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links August 12th – Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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