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How Japan increased its housing supply

River Davis’ recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Tokyo’s generally flat home prices had me, again, wondering about demographics. I mean, aren’t their demographics working in reverse? They have an aging population, low immigration, and a low birthrate. But Tokyo, which represents about 11% of Japan’s total population, is still growing. And their home price index looks like this compared to San Francisco and New York:

Davis’ argument, which of course has been made by others before, is that deregulation has allowed housing supply to actually keep up with demand. Land use policies were relaxed to allow taller and denser buildings to be built and some degree of decision making (I’m not sure how much) was moved to the central government in order to counteract the NIMBY problem that invariably attaches itself to local politics.

The result is housing numbers that look and compare like this:

In Tokyo last year, housing starts came in around 145,000, according to Japan’s land ministry. This figure is on par with the total number of new housing units authorized last year in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston combined, based on the U.S. Census Bureau data. The same feat was achieved in 2017.

If we are to normalize against New York, it looks like this:

And the belief seems to be that it is working:

“A reason why housing prices in Japan are not rising as fast as in New York, for example, is the large number of housing starts,” says Masahiro Kobayashi, a director general at the Japan Housing Finance Agency, a state-run entity which supports the housing market by purchasing home loans.

One sentence that really stood out for me in the article is this one here: “Private consultants were given permission to issue building permits to speed up construction.” If any of you have tried to pull a building permit for a large project in Toronto, you’ll know that it can take a very long time (understatement). Maybe it is the same in your city. Should we looking at this?

Charts: WSJ

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