Diane Coyle, in reviewing Rowan Moore’s book Slow Burn City: London in the 21st Century, focuses on the idea that forever rising house prices could gradually kill off what is now a vibrant city. As housing gets steadily more expensive, getting people to work there will get more and more difficult. In the meantime, young people who can afford to buy get more and more into debt. I wonder whether soon mortgage providers will become more interested in the wealth of borrowers parents than in the borrower’s own earning capacity. (This is not just a London problem: see here about New York for example.)
The reason for this that everyone focuses on, understandably, is stagnant housing supply. However, housing can also be seen as an asset. Just as low real interest rates boost the stock market because a given stream of expected future dividends looks more attractive, much the same is true of housing (where dividends become rents). Stock prices can rise because expected future profitability increases, but they can also rise because expected real interest rates fall. With housing increasingly used as an asset for the wealthy, or even as a way of saving for retirement, house prices will behave in a similar way. A shortage of housing supply relative to demand raises rents, but even if rents stayed the same falling expected real interest rates raise house prices because those rents become more valuable compared to the falling returns from alternative forms of wealth.
That is why a good part of the house price problem comes from the macroeconomy: not just current low real interest rates, but also low expected rates (secular stagnation). The idea that house prices are tied down by the ability of first time buyers to borrow (and therefore to real wages or productivity, modified by changes in the risks lenders were willing to take) seems appropriate to a world where the importance of the very wealthy was declining, and most people could imagine owning their own home. We now seem to be moving to a more traditional world (remember Piketty) where wealth is more dominant, and with low interest rates that may also be a world where renting rather than home ownership becomes the norm for those who are not wealthy and whose parents are not wealthy.
There may be factors behind secular stagnation (low long term real interest rates) that we can do little about, but there are things we can do right now that will raise interest rates, and thereby tend to lower house prices. The most important of those is to stop taking demand out of the economy through continuing fiscal consolidation (aka austerity). This boost to demand that comes from ending fiscal consolidation will allow central banks to raise interest rates more quickly. While central banks may only be able to influence real interest rates in the short term, because so much uncertainty exists about what this long term involves the short term may have a powerful influence on more distant expectations.
We can also have some positive influence on the longer term by increasing public investment, including forms of public spending (that may not be classified as investment) that encourage private investment. It should also include building houses where (or of a kind) the private sector will not build. That will have beneficial effects in terms of raising real interest rates in both the short and longer term.
Ever rising house prices lead to unprecedented high levels of private debt, and also destroy the dream of many young people to own their own home. One answer is to build more houses, but another is to run better macroeconomic policies. That house prices continue to rise during a period of fiscal austerity is not an anachronism. It is not a bug but a feature of an age of austerity.