The Tale of One Auction – and its impact on the ‘Welfare State’

The Tale of One Auction – and its impact on the ‘Welfare State’

A few weeks ago, I attended an auction in a popular suburb of Melbourne’s inner east

The home was an attractive four-bedroom townhouse on roughly 260 square metres of land, and initially quoted at $700,000 ‘plus’ – very typical of the type of accommodation featured in the area.

As is commonly the case in Melbourne, the quote was ‘stepped up’ in the final week of the campaign to ‘$750,000 ‘plus’ – albeit, the listing agent informed me more than once he had $800,000 “covered” and a mere blink at recent comparable sales, indicated a price well in excess of $850,000, or even $900,000, considering the level of demand and lack of comparable listings being marketed.

This was confirmed during the auction, when a neighbour I’d casually interacted with, leaned over, and in little more than a whisper, told me “I know the vendor – she wants $1 Million” and considering the property didn’t reach its reserve until $900,000, I suspect she was correct.

With competition from nine bidders, the property sold in front of a crowd of 100 or so for $1,011,000, and the agent, delighted with the result, wasted no time swooping in on the ones who missed out, to share information of ‘similar’ listings currently for sale.

Needless to say, it’s a story that drives many Australian’s irate, with the focus inevitably aimed at the misleading way in which it was quoted – which is an issue I’ll explore further in another column. However, this isn’t what should drive our sense of injustice to kick into gear.

The Undeserving Poor..

Debate is currently rife in Australia surrounding the ‘relentless’ costs of our welfare system, with social services minister Kevin Andrews heralding it ‘unsustainable,’ whilst looking for ways the government can cut entitlements to the ‘undeserving’ poor.

The review has concentrated primarily on disability payments, and Newstart ‘job seekers’ allowance, which keeps the ‘income-less’ in relative poverty.

“Work is the best form of welfare!” was the statement Mr Andrews used, and considering the uptick in unemployment, with industries such as Ford, Alcoa, Qantas, SPC, Sensis, Telstra, Shell and Toyota, moving jobs and business off shore. A fall in the participation rate – due in part, to an asset rich, income poor retiring population – and a rise in part time and casual positions over that of full time, concerns are warranted.

In the 2013-14 Budget, the Government correctly stated that, “Australians value a fair society” and underlined its commitment to a tax system that provides a strong and stable funding stream for important public services such as “health, education and, Disability Care” whilst “rewarding innovation and productivity,” for economic growth.  And on an international scale, our tax-transfer system is perceived as ‘comparatively’ generous.

According to the OECD, Australia’s ‘Robin Hood’ economy redistributes more to the poorest 5% of the population than any other member country, whilst the much-criticised policies of ‘middle class welfare’ are seemingly the lowest.

We’re deemed to have the most “unique” and “target efficient” social security benefits in the OECD, apparently yielding “significant gains” to both the economy and society, and when compared to the USA which has the highest income inequality amongst the ‘rich’ nations by some significant degree, we look comparatively ‘healthy.’

Yet, despite its many reforms, and varying degrees of success, shaped in part by demographic changes (more women entering the labour force for example,) and a small reduction in high end salaries during the GFC – widening disparities between incomes have continued unabated since the mid 1990s, and as the labour market struggles, there’s nothing to suggest the trend will stop.

Mind the Gap..

There are all sorts of reasons to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and prevent an ever-widening chasm – significantly, the way that income is invested into the economy and the roll over effect to society.

Income inequality and economic growth can only work hand in hand, when individuals are enabled to strive for greater heights from a foundation of equal opportunity – the basis of which is education.

As economist and inequality expert Andrew Leigh commented late last year;

“Education is the greatest force that we’ve developed, not only for boosting productivity, but also for making Australia more equal” ensuring “the circumstances in which you’re born don’t determine the circumstances in which you die.”

Yet our schooling system is becoming increasingly segregated. The correlation between poor performance and social disadvantage are stronger here than any other comparable western nation.  If our tax and transfer system were meant to offset this, you’d have to assess its been an abject failure.

Why?

Australia has enjoyed a period of economic prosperity, which over the last 23 years has been nothing short of remarkable.  According to Credit Suisse ‘Annual Global Wealth Report,’ we’re the “richest people in the world,” with a median wealth ‘each’ of US $219,500.

Over the past year alone, Australia added an estimated 21,000 millionaires to the population. Yet, contrary to what the textbook version of economic theory would have you believe – household savings, reaped from an economy surfing the wave of a commodity boom, have not flowed into business investment, or nurtured productivity and education standards in the young.

As noted in the Credit Suisse assessment, our ‘riches’ are “heavily skewed towards real assets” a manifestation of “high urban real estate prices” acquired and generated through the destructive cyclical impacts of a property market, which, as I emphasised last week, sees the gains from income growth and investment, flow directly back to the land.

Both homeowner and speculator..

Home ownership is seen as one of the great pillars of our collective culture.  It’s assessed to improve health and school performance in children, activate social engagement as well as reduce local crime.

However, the way we go about promoting ownership, is to nurture a system that teaches rising land values – outside of any productive activity such as renovation or effective utilisation of the resource – is due reward for having saved hard and got onto the ‘ladder’ in the first place.

Our tax system is skewed toward ownership, with policies, that according to last year’s Grattan report, provides potential benefits to homeowners worth $36 billion a year, or $6,100 on average per ‘household’ through items such as capital gains and pensioner eligibility test exemptions. Investors (or those choosing to rent and invest) reap $7 billion a year, or $4,500 on average ‘each,’ by way of negative gearing rules and the capital gains discount introduced in 1999. Whilst renters, one in four households, see no gain – unless their income is low enough to require welfare assistance.

In effect, we’re an economy that relies on ever-rising values of irreplaceable fixed assets, to fund the individual wealth of its nation – and this is only achievable if policies are in place to ensure values remain high and climbing, and debt levels ‘affordable.’

Capital growth..

Speculation and investment are two sides of the same coin. When we assess a good business model for example, we speculate that the productive activity that flows from that investment, will build on a growing base of demand, and through competition and diversity, go onto produce a profit.

Yet the ‘Capital Growth’ in land values does not occur by way of some abject force of nature. Everything that makes our cities ‘liveable’ comes from the collective ‘investment’ of our taxpayer dollars – which we ‘grudgingly’ pay in the first place, to provide the social amenities needed to form the base from which we can all progress.

This would include, community services such as, transport, parks, roads, trains, trams, medical facilities, and most importantly, schools.

Yet, it is also these facilities that produce the needed demand for real estate that pushes values upwards.  Not through the efforts of the individual homeowner, but the productive efforts of the taxpayer – renter, homeowner and investor alike.

Housing on its own is worth nothing without the infrastructure that surrounds it and rising land values are ‘reward’ for nothing other than unwontedly buying into a system that – under the current structure – promotes inequality and forces social polarisation.

Unlike our business model above, we can’t ‘make’ more land in a particular location to fulfil the demand produced from the facilities our tax system both funds and maintains.  Therefore effective utilisation of the resource is vital.

However, the speculative process alone, along with the added impact of a tax system that impedes turnover by way of stamp duty at one end, and capital gains at the other, simply feeds a process of hording.

This is because most advantage best from investment into housing through the process of “buy and hold” – leveraging the ‘equity’ to produce needed funds, rather than selling. A system that drives underutilisation and ‘land banking.’

But land is fixed in location; therefore we must always ‘hop’ over it to find the next predicted ‘hot spot’ to raise our families, until this too becomes out of reach through the process described above – like a cruel game of musical chairs.

Back to the beginning. 

Let’s go back to the case study I cited at the start of this article.  The reason the four-bedroom townhouse attracted such strong demand in the first place, is because it’s located in a top government school zone.

Only high-income earners can afford to live in this zone, and no doubt they feel – through their income tax contributions alone – they pay their fair share toward facilitating the opportunity for their children to obtain that higher education. As the OECD said, our tax and transfer system is high progressive – the “rich” pay more.  Or do they?

Allowing for stamp duty, the new owner who purchased the townhouse would have paid $1,066,605 yet despite two years of effectively ‘stagnant’ growth in 2011/2012, the median price in the suburb has escalated close to 60% from $850,000 in December 2009, to $1,355,000, therefore they probably assess it a ‘worthy’ investment.

As for those who arrived early in the process, to paraphrase what one homeowner relayed to me some time back – she has earned more from the ‘capital growth’ of her home over the past 10 years or so, than she has in earnings.

Outside of a ‘crash’ or the demise of the education facilities provided, there is nothing to suggest prices in this school zone will drop. From the tight zoning regulations alone, and rising population of immigrants and local buyers looking to advance their children’s education, the very ingredients to attract a consist source of buyer demand are set in place – and rents will rise accordingly.

The taxpayer continues to subsidise the school, whilst the gains are capitalised in rising land values, which flow directly to the individual homeowner not the school or community, keeping values high and placing further pressure on the public purse to fund additional services, whilst underfunded schools, in the over populated ‘fringe’ suburbs, start to produce an English style education ‘class divide.

Under such a system, we are not subsidising the ‘poor,’ we are ‘paying’ the wealthy.  Yet, it’s clear, if we’re to navigate the structural changes ahead and keep unemployment low, whilst at the same time, reduce the projected burden on the ‘welfare state,’ our economy is reliant on maintaining a highly skilled work force, and for this to occur, an elevated level of tertiary education and business investment is vital.

A better model of ‘Welfare..’

Notwithstanding, the correct way to fund local schools would be via broad based and effectively administered land value taxation, which in its purest form – as advocated by the Classical Economist, Henry George – would result in a single tax on the unimproved value of land to replace all other taxes, which hamper productivity – significantly income tax.

George’s ideas won favour amongst many, including the great economist and author of “Capitalism and Freedom” Milton Friedman as well as other influential figures including Winston Churchill, Adam Smith, and more recently, Chief economics commentator at the ‘Financial Times’ Martin Wolf, and author and economist Fred Harrison – aalthough, notwithstanding, a single tax would be unlikely to hold water in current political circles.

The Henry tax Review commissioned by the Government under Kevin Rudd in 2008 concluded that “economic growth would be higher if governments raised more revenue from land and less revenue from other tax bases” proposing that stamp duty (which is an inconsistent and unequitable source of revenue) be replaced by a broad based land tax, levied on a per-square-metre and per land holding basis, rather than retaining present land tax arrangements.

Whilst arguments over school funding will likely continue, centred in the political battle over funding of the suggested Gonski reforms. Unless we narrow the gap in education, we’ll never narrow the broadening gap in income, and consequently, the growing burden on our welfare state.

Therefore – when times comes that the ‘chatter’ around affordability, finally evolves into ‘real’ action – a broad based LVT should form an important part of both the debate, and solution.

Catherine Cashmore

Regular journalist, blogger, advocate, policy thinker, and well know media commentator for all things property. www.catherinecashmore.com.au, @ccashmore_buyer.

 

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The debate over whether housing is, or isn’t ‘affordable’ continues…

I’m know I’m not alone in feeling an immense amount of frustration at the circular debate amongst commentators in the mainstream media, that surrounds our first homebuyer demographic, and the question of ‘affordability.’

Last week, the November 2013 housing finance data was released showing continued strong demand in the mortgage market, with owner-occupier commitments 15.3% higher than they were a year ago – their highest level since December 2009.

Unsurprisingly, demand from investors continues to increase, rising 1.5% in November, and up by 35% over the course of the year – the highest level on record – whilst on the other hand, first homebuyers remain at record lows, with a recorded market share of just 12.3%.

Whichever side of the coin you sit, “first homebuyers” like “housing bubbles” make a good headline, and therefore, instead of productive advocacy into improving the housing market so it’s equitable for all – we’re left once again battling a ‘Looney Tunes’ debate over whether housing is, or isn’t ‘affordable.’

Denalists

For those in denial all sorts of excuses are found – the most common of which is the accusation that first home buyers are just ‘spoilt and picky’ – or as was sent to me in email last week by a fellow contributor on “property Observer” – “you just have to save hard and start with a flat – isn’t that how it’s always been?

Well to some extent ‘yes’ – when there’s a budget, compromises need to be made. But how it’s always been? “No.” It’s not how it’s always been.

  • Whilst in the late 1990’s a typical first homebuyer’s budget would have secured a modest family home, in a reasonably facilitated suburb, for 3 times median income. Today you’d be hard pushed to find accommodation on the fringes of our capital cities for a similar expense.
  • Thirty years ago the land component of a house and land package represented 20% of the total cost – today it is more like 60%.
  • Forty years ago, housing policy ensured land was ‘readily available at fair prices,’ with commonwealth funding provided for essential infrastructure. Today land prices have soared; unduly inflated by constrictive urban zoning policy, with infrastructure prices, loaded onto the upfront cost.

Furthermore, a CIE study commissioned by the HIA, demonstrated how imposed taxes on developments, when added together, come to 39% of the marketed house and land price.

By the time you add “necessary” ‘energy and safety standards,’ coupled with the cost of labour on top of already inflated land values, developers find it increasingly difficult to provide ‘affordable’ accommodation whilst still making a profit.

Glenn Stephens, Governor of the RBA, summed it up best in 2011, when, he addressed a Parliamentary Committee and exclaimed how he could “not understand why a country as big as Australia seemingly had a shortage of land” and could therefore not provide ‘cheap’ housing.

Notwithstanding, ‘we don’t’ have a shortage of land – we have poor housing policy driven by vested interests to keep inner city land prices high.  I cannot find any other reasonable explanation.

Asking first home buyers to purchase into a market where, capital city house prices have been artificially inflated, from three times median income to nine times, should not leave us scratching our heads wondering why they don’t feel ‘OK” about it. It’s perfectly understandable.

Who is a first homebuyer?

According to the ABS, the average age of a first homebuyer is between “31-33 years,” and due to high entry costs, “partnering often precedes home purchase” (the majority of which already have children.)

Therefore unsurprisingly, only a relatively small proportion (19%) make up single households, and outside of those who pit themselves against stronger financial arm of the investment sector, to purchase an apartment, the options we’re currently providing our first homebuyers, fall dismally short of where that main demand centres – demand which often calls for more than tiny apartment which will last no longer than a year or so before an upgrade is necessary.

The data must be wrong…numbers can’t be this low?

Others challenge the data, with various claims that first home buyer numbers are only ‘significantly’ reduced, because a percentage are ‘slipping through the net,’ perhaps entering ownership as ‘investors’ or – due to dated brokering software – not being entered as first timers, unless applying for a state based grant or incentive.

On the latter point, I did speak to the ABS department of financial statistics directly about the notion that ‘significant’ numbers are missing, and further investigation is underway which I’ll follow up at a later date.

Albeit, currently they deny the implication, claiming it doesn’t accord with APRA’s instructions to lenders when collecting statistics – which stresses that a first home buyer, must be one in which ‘none of the borrowing parties has previously borrowed housing finance for owner occupation’ – making no distinction between an investor, or one who does, or does not, apply for the grant.

Therefore, outside of colloquial evidence, the above ABS statistics are the most accurate ‘current’ indicator we have of a downward trend in first homebuyer numbers – and for most ‘reasonable’ minds it should come as no surprise, considering we’re in an environment where the entry cost to obtain ownership is further impeded by rising prices, transaction taxes, and an uptick in unemployment raising concerns over job security.

Housing is ‘affordable’ because mortgage rates say so…

As Michael Janda pointed out in his excellent report last week – housing affordability should not be confused with mortgage serviceability.  

Mortgage rates are set up with different structures, dependant on circumstance, and subject to interest rate changes influenced by the macro environment.

  • They do not take into account the up front cost of a home and expenses incurred from associated utility costs.
  • They do not question rising rental prices, falling vacancy rates, wage growth, unemployment figures, or changes in household demographics and structure.
  • They make no distinction between the cost of building a home and the underlying value of land, or analyse constraints in supply, or make mention of the limited options available for low or single income households and families.

To assume on interest rates alone that housing is ‘affordable’ is lazy reporting and generally only applicable to existing owners

Those who fail to make the above distinction commonly come from the standpoint of vested interest – or entered ownership at the beginning of the lending boom (in the early 2000s or before,) and have benefitted considerably from a rapid period of inflation – which unsurprisingly enough, includes most of our politicians.

Housing is affordable because data from other countries says so…

Neither is it complementary to compare ourselves to international terrains which – having been through somewhat harder lessons than our own – are also battling to induce first home buyers out from underneath their ‘rental’ blankets.

Yet this is what Stephen Koukoulas attempted to do last week in Business Spectator when he ‘favourably’ compared Australia to Norway, Canada, Sweden and New Zealand.

All of these markets have suffered from large increases in levels of private debt whilst at the same time limits were placed on supply.

In Norway, Sweden and New Zealand, central banks have recently employed capital constraints in an effort to moderate demand, and Canada, with a household debt to income ratio of 163.7%, is being watched closely, as investors and economists start to voice alarm.

Letting house prices escalate, funded by a colossal amount of private mortgage debt, can be a dangerous game.

As I pointed out last week – in the USA prior to the sub-prime crisis, the median income in California was not enough to afford the average Californian home, or even a starter home.  Once the financial crisis hit, rapidly falling prices quickly eroded any equity homebuyers had achieved.

Whilst on the other hand, states such as Texas, where house prices did not deviate from three times median income, values fell by only -2.5% (from the peak of 2007 to the trough of 2011,) and the state suffered far fewer foreclosures.

….The renters that Terry Ryder rudely labelled ‘generation whine’

Renters, on the other hand, have not benefited directly from low interest rates. Roughly 33% of Australia’s housing market is made up of tenants and since, 2006, rises in the median cost of rental accommodation has outpaced both wage growth and inflation.

In Sydney, where supply is particularly constrained, APM recorded a 5.4% yearly increase to the median rental price, and according to a new report compiled by the Northern Territory Council of Social Service (NTCOSS,) the average cost of rental housing in Darwin has risen by 7.9%.

Before we get into a further debate over whether or not rents are ‘affordable,’ it’s worth turning to a previous report from the now disbanded ‘National Housing Supply Council’ to highlight the real impact demand side policies like negative gearing have, when coupled with a gradual erosion of supply.

Reports highlight that the increase of rental accommodation in the private sector has not outweighed the decline in social housing – and from the stock added, most have rents outside of the affordable threshold for lower income households.

To assess this, the NHSC broke income groups into deciles, and demonstrated of the ‘affordable’ private accommodation available,’ supply is quickly soaked up, leaving 60% of low income groups, paying more than 30% of their income on rent, and 25% paying more than 50% of their income on rent

In Conclusion

Gains from high land prices, do not trickle down they flow up. This is what the ‘National Housing Supply Council’ was trying to emphasise in their reports, and what I went to great pains to point out last week in trying to answer the questions over what exactly a ‘housing shortage’ means.

Our market is not just about buyers, it’s about renters too – and our Governments are elected to ensure that the price of land is not unduly inflated by either the monopoly of this resource, or undue restrictions placed on its development.

Worrying still – the arguments over affordability encourage us to lose sight of the real issue – which is not localised to the first homebuyer sector, but the general crowding out of low income residents across all demographics – some of which drift in and out of ownership

Reform is never easy, but there is a way to break the cycle and ensure land is fully utilized for the purpose intended, without prices blowing out to levels that can only be sustained through keeping interest rates low, or household debt high.

One way is through freeing the barriers hampering the type and supply of accommodation offered, and the other is through imposing a broad based tax on the underlying value land – of which I went into more detail here.

The focus of attack should be not those individuals who have advantaged from the system, but on the law that allows the system to operate – and in response, the commentary should not focus on defending what is plainly obvious, but advocating the policies we need to fix it, and ensure our house and land market is equitable for all.

Catherine Cashmore

Debating the ‘housing shortage’…..

Debating the ‘housing shortage’…..

Do we have housing shortage?

It’s a well spruiked ‘fact’ that Australia has a ‘housing shortage.’  I frame the word in italics because of the general misunderstanding that surrounds the concept.

People imagine a shortage of housing at an aggregate level, to mean not enough homes to meet the demands of an active buying market, and whilst this may be evident in various tightly held localities – in popular schools zones for example – the evidence used to substantiate a national housing ‘shortage’ means nothing of the sort.

Last week the ABS released its dwelling approvals data for the month of November 2013, showing modest fall of 1.5%, which follows a similar decline of 1.6% in October.

On a ‘trend’ basis, the overall direction of dwelling investments is positive – some 22% higher over the year – the highest level since September 1994.  However, as Callam Pickering corrects asserts in Business Spectator, on a population-adjusted basis, approvals are at best, weak.

For example, between 1947 and 1961, housing stock increased by 50% -compared to a 41% increase in Australia’s population, and between 1961 and 1976 there was a further increase of 46%, compared to a 33% increase in Australia’s population

This was a continuing pattern until the early 1990s, after which the growth in dwellings started to slow, and since 2007; the former has outpaced the later.

Did a shortage cause the rise in house/land prices?

1996 was the point at which land prices started to rise, and from 2001 onwards they skyrocketed.  Whilst it’s hard to draw an exact correlation between the fall in stock and a rise in prices, supply, when produced must be suited to need – being both affordable and well serviced with infrastructure. Get the ingredients wrong and a surplus can quickly amass. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume a shortage of effective supply means a shortage of ‘roof space’ – it doesn’t.

However, when evidence shows a gradual reduction of demand for new dwellings, during a period in which population growth and a resilient economy should have dictated otherwise, coupled with land values that have grown from 3 times median income in the early 1990s, to their current 6-9 times median income in 2013 – (dependant on location of course,) alarm bells should be ringing in the offices of our housing ministers.

So what does the term ‘housing shortage’ mean and can it prevent a housing bubble?

Obviously there cannot be more households than homes, and whilst in the private sector, homes can only be constructed if there is demand from the consumer market, it is important to understand what a housing ‘shortage’ means.

Firstly, it covers total housing system, both private and public, therefore, it should not be used – as it so often is – as evidence Australia can’t suffer a significant downfall in prices, or produce a ‘bubble.’ It certainly can.

In fact, it should be fairly obvious that the effects of a housing crash are far more severe in areas where high levels of private debt have been used to service inflated home values, due to a shortage of affordable home buyer supply, coupled with heightened speculative activity – as is the case in the most populated areas of Australia

To be clear – it’s not a shortage of homes that prevents a housing crash, but a shortage of buyers – buyers unwilling, or unable to service high household debt due to broader economic conditions.

There are plenty of international examples of this  – most recently in the USA, in states such as California and Los Angeles.

Both areas had a ‘critical housing shortage’ in the early 2000s, with speculative demand and lack of affordable supply disproportionately inflating values in the lead up to the sub-prime crisis.

When the (unforeseen) bubble burst, rapidly falling prices quickly eroded any equity homebuyers had achieved, and for those with non-recourse loans, where the mortgage balance greatly exceed value, there was little incentive to avoid foreclosure.

On the other hand, states such as Texas where – despite rapid population growth, – had structured housing and supply policy to maintain prices at no more than 3 times median income. Values fell by only -2.5% (from the peak of 2007 to the trough of 2011,) and the state suffered far fewer foreclosures.

What was the role of the National Housing Supply Council and was it needed?

When Rudd established the National Housing Supply Council in May of 2008, just prior to the last Senate enquiry into housing affordability in June of the same year, it should have been a step in the right direction, however the council’s role was broadly mis-understood by many main stream commentators who often failed to read the reports in full.

(For those interested, thanks to the Brown Couch blog, here’s a link to the archived website)

The council was given the role to assess the difference between supply and ‘underlying demand’ – in other words, the amount of extra housing needed per annum over the past decade, ‘if’ (using ABS data,) Australia had continued to produce enough homes for a rapidly growing population of home buyers and renters, based on existing household composition figures.

Whilst the findings showed a dramatic shortfall of 228,000 dwellings (as of 30 June 2011) the figure was hotly debated and in many cases, concerns were justified. However, in the council’s defence, it should be noted that planning for population growth is not an easy task, it’s predictive in nature and makes many assumptions along the way.

Whether you agree or disagree with the methodology or the resulting recommendations contained within the report, it’s essential we undertake some type of detailed analysis, if only to chart demographic changes and readdress growing community needs.

This is no different to studies conducted in other countries suffering similar concerns.  For example – the latest UK data shows 221,000 additional households are formed in England annually, yet only 108,000 homes were built in the year to September 2013.

If the goal is affordability – a vital part of which is supply side policy – we must address the reasons ‘why?’  Only in doing so, can we have a valid base for discussion on housing policy initiatives within the political arena.

However, supply wasn’t the NHSC’s only area of concern, it also instructed to produce a comprehensive evaluation of Australia’s affordability problems which included the status of those impacted most – homeless, renters, first homebuyers, low wage families, and tenants in the public and social housing system.

For example, reports showed utility costs such as electricity, gas, water, and sewerage, have been increasing at more than 10 per cent per annum. They gave a good statistical overview to show a dramatic shortfall of affordable rental accommodation for low-income families – (details of which I’ll examine in another column) and clear evidence that our housing crisis is embedded within the fact that we don’t produce enough affordable and feasible options for low-income households across the sector – both public and private.

Despite this, the Abbot government – with the rather weak excuse that its role is ‘no longer needed’ – recently disbanded the NHSC along with their website and archived findings, and in doing so, have made it quite clear that affordable housing is not part of their political agenda.

Why do we have a shortage of affordable supply?

Issues surrounding housing affordability are at a peak predominantly because town planners, along with state and federal governments, have failed to adaquatly cater to the demands and needs of a rapidly increasing population.

If you didn’t know better, you’d be forgiven thinking there’s been a “vested” conspiracy to keep inner-city inflation high, with everything possible done to prevent a fall in established house prices by way of generous tax incentives for investors favouring old over new – or intermittent policies to inflate the prices of new housing by way of Mickey Mouse incentives.

Infrastructure sparse fringe land prices are inflated due to ‘false scarcity’ imposed by constrictive urban zoning policy.

However, it hasn’t always been this way – in the post-war population boom, the Commonwealth ‘State Housing agreement’ was concentrated on building rental accommodation and affordable housing for low-income families.

Under the Whitlam Government, land commissions were set up in each state and territory, and in agreement with the commonwealth, were instructed to ensure land and housing was ‘readily available at fair prices,’ with commonwealth funding provided for essential infrastructure.

However, in the 1990’s (the point at which demand for new housing started to diminish and prices began to balloon,) the game plan changed, key infrastructure agencies once corporatised were required to show “a return on investment.”

Stricter zoning regulations were imposed in the name of, ‘urban consolidation,’ land values increased, and larger developers needing to maximise profit, carefully controlled the timing of newly released plots in response to consumer demand (land banking.)

I know sprawl is not a popular word with many Australian’s – however it should be understood, that to create affordable supply in inner city brownfield land, is extremely difficult when land values – already high – prompt the chase of profit over community need.

Hence why we have so many poorly constructed high-rise monstrosities, with 2 bedroom apartments, offering little more than 60sqm in floor area, with high vacancy rates (in excess of 10% in some cases) and banks unwilling to take a gamble and provide first home buyers with finance due to fears of oversupply.  This is why they are generally marketed to investors fooled (by rental guarantees) into thinking they can get a positive yield.

Further more, they do nothing to produce affordable accommodation for our largest demographic of buyers, families with children who require 3 bedrooms and some resemblance of a private outdoor area. If anything, this is an appalling and inappropriate waste of valuable inner city land.

In the NHSC’s final report in 2012/2013 it stressed  “Underpinning much of this work will be the understanding that tackling the housing shortage is not simply about increasing the number of homes being built; it is also important to build a diverse range of dwellings. Producing the right mix of homes contributes to developing sustainable communities that work for the population at large.”

As I’ve said previously – it’s not about creating endless sprawl, it’s about building communities and this can only be achieved with investment into infrastructure supported by long term funding measures, which include consideration of bond financing and a more equitable tax system that assists the cause.

The subject deserves deeper analysis, but the above touches on some of the issues that should be debated and acted upon.  And it can only be hoped, that any future senate enquiry into housing affordability, endeavours to do so.

Catherine Cashmore

My prediction for 2014 – winds of change…

My prediction for 2014 – winds of change…

Data concluding the last 12 months of real estate activity is slowly filtering through and not surprisingly, gains were recorded in all capital cities as well as some regional localities.

Louis Christopher was first out the ranks on New Year’s Day with a fairly comprehensive ‘twitter’ update from his vendor sentiment index – the most accurate timely indicator we have on market movements.

SQM’s index shows over the course of 2013, national asking prices increased +7.2% for houses and +2.3% for units, and whilst Canberra recorded the weakest result from all capital cities, with the asking price down -1.5% for houses and -3% for units, Sydney was unashamedly the stand out performer, with a remarkable uplift in the advertised price range across all regions.

Additionally, ‘RP Data’s’ December Capital City home value index hit the press, showing a gain of +9.8% nationally over the 2013 calendar year, and charting a dramatic increase of +15.2% in Sydney’s house values, compared to a more subdued +2.9% in Hobart.

The accompanying statement from ‘RP Data’ reads; “this is the fastest annual rate of value growth since August 2010, and the largest calendar year increase in values since 2009 when home values were up by 13.7%.”

According to ‘RP Data, despite a new record median house price in both Sydney and Perth, at $655,250 and $520,000 respectively, compared to other ‘growth cycles’ this is a ‘somewhat muted’ recovery;

“..home values increased by 9.8 per cent in 2013 (however) the growth follows a -3.8 per cent annual fall in values in 2011 and a further -0.4 per cent annual fall in 2012. Cumulatively, from peak to trough, capital city dwelling values were down 7.7% prior to this current growth cycle…” therefore “…although value growth has been strong compared to recent years, the current growth cycle has been somewhat muted.”  Mr Kusher said.

However, this ‘muted recovery’, which according to ‘RP Data’ is somewhat justified by the decline in values in both 2011 and 2012, is little consolation when you consider the gains that lead to the previous peak were initiated by the first homeowner boost, which formed part of the Rudd stimulus packages post GFC.

Whilst the packages introduced over the period helped to buffer a rise in unemployment, the ‘FHOB’ did little more than enrich vendors and developers at the expense of inexperienced purchasers, thereby stemming any fear that house prices might suffer a significant fall, and played to the needs of an aging population who have been encouraged to used capital gains in their principle place of residence, to fund retirement.

It also flooded the lower end of the property market with swathes of easy credit, arresting the downward decline and deceleration in household debt growth, as the effects rippled across the rest of the segments, and upgraders, downsizers, and investors all shifted seats predominantly in the second hand sector.

You don’t need to be an economic master, to understand throwing easy credit at a limited division of the market, does nothing to stabilise prices over the longer term, instead working pro-cyclically to exacerbate the swings, bidding up prices and encouraging young buyers to take on an inflated percentage of mortgage debt, before the inevitable withdrawal of the grant produces the expected ‘slump.’

Albeit, it doesn’t prevent the REIA lobbying Government for a return of the policy along with other ideas, such as allowing first homebuyers to access their Superfund to purchase which, in the absence of substantial supply side reforms, would result in a similar effect.

Meanwhile, market analysts tend to adopt the premise that as long as prices are below, or not at previous peaks, or – as mentioned in the ‘RP Data’ media release – moving as strongly as those witnessed in past cycles, during which no major downturn occurred, (however manipulated a prevention may have been,) any upward trend is merely a ‘recovery’ and an understandable symptom of record low rates in a post GFC environment

In other words, in an era where investment activity in the housing market is at record levels, with speculation on market movements broadly encouraged by incentives such as negative gearing and SMSF acquisitions stewing the pot, ‘up’ is good, and when it follows a downward trend, it can be safely termed a ‘recovery.’

Another factor that plays into the analysis is that the heat is generally focused on contained geographical areas – such as the inner and middle ring suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne – again, allowing analysts to conclude the offsetting data from regional and outer localities balances the distortions.

As ‘RP Data’s’ Melbourne analyst Robert Larocca commented in The Age “..I don’t think you could mistake what’s happened in Melbourne over the past year as a boom. It’s not been, it’s been a recovery (here we go again) and we’ve still got some way to go (reassuring!) …..there’s   a ”vast swath of suburbs” in middle and outer Melbourne where a dwelling – house or unit – could be bought for below the median of $563,000.”

However, whilst investors may be able to pick and choose the suburb, state, or territory they wish to leverage in order to fall in line with their budget and long term requirements, home buyers and renters are restricted to fairly limited areas where they can access their place of work, ferry the kids to the local school, and facilitate their family’s requirements – therefore if we’re to provide plentiful accommodation for our largest home buying demographic (families with children,) we must cater in a timely fashion, to both housing and infrastructure needs.

Such remarks show we have lost all sense of what ‘recovery’ really means – to paraphrase a comment made by economist Steve Keen – being a thousand metres below the peak of Everest does not mean that prices at their current levels, are in anyway acceptable, or in need of ‘recovery.’

Purchasing a home has never been easy, however years of poor public policy by local, state, and federal government, has paved the way for a downward trend in the number of homes constructed each year – produced rapid increases in residential land values – a worrying degree of investor speculation in the established market – a consistent shortage of rental accommodation in most capital cities – an increase in over crowding of accommodation – a decrease in home ownership -a drop number of first home buyers entering ownership outside of grants and incentives – double the number of Australians aged 50 to 65 since the turn of the century still paying off their mortgage as they approach retirement – and this is before we have even touched upon the quality and supply of Public housing

The fact that median house prices in most capitals are now more than six times the median income, simply highlights the long-term symptoms of a failure to adequately cater for a rising population, and ensure the options in our housing market cater for all, and not just ‘a few.’

Those who entered ownership toward the start of the lending boom when it was possible to purchase and service a mortgage on a single wage for roughly 3 times the median income, have basked in the halo of the above consequences of housing policy failure, and enjoyed a substantial increase in asset wealth.

To a limited extent, this has ‘gifted’ their children’s foothold onto the ‘property ladder.’ However, it’s also promoted the dangerous cultural conception, that rising house values are a ‘public good,’ with perhaps the only niggling worry from most mainstream economists, being the pace at which they are sustainable to protect existing gains.

In the face of swelling levels of unemployment and politicians who are focused on paying down Government debt at the expense of increasing levels of private debt, along with record numbers of inexperienced investors speculating on gains in the established sector, this is understandable. However, politicians – ever worried about their rating in the polls, will always play to the majority, as Howard openly admitted in 2007 when he delivered the comment;

“A true housing crisis in this country is when there is a sustained fall in the value of our homes and in house prices

What Howard failed to acknowledge, is a sustained rise in land values, funded by a dramatic increase in our house­hold debt to income ratio, which at 148%, has more than off­set any fall in inter­est rates over the resulting period, has caused a gradual erosion of affordability which has broad reaching consequences for Australia’s community as a whole. Yet, despite in-depth studies – such as the five year old senate enquiry I mentioned prior to Christmas, which was comprehensive enough to educate our political movers and shakers to some of the complexities surrounding the provision of affordable accommodation, little if anything is done.

Over the coming month, predictions on yearly market movements in each state and territory will occur from all spectrums of the property sector. Sydney is expected to continue it’s acceleration in house prices, and some analysts have picked Brisbane as this year’s ‘hotspot.’  However, I have only one prediction to offer – the ground swell from a younger generation of non-home owning residents which has gained pace throughout 2013, will continue to shift the debate on prices from one in which gains are considered ‘good’ – to one where inequality and anger will increasingly bite.

The main stream media has played into this to some extent, with one hit headlines suggesting that simply scrapping negative gearing (for example) or restricting foreign buyers alone, will be enough to solve the problem – it won’t – rather a real recovery in Australia requires significant political reform and a broad spectrum of changes (many of which myself – along with numerous others from various advocacy groups – covered in detail last year.)

Whilst none of the above is achievable overnight – it is important we continue foster effective advocacy of the issues at hand, and push for better representation from politicians who may have personally benefitted from restricting supply, to those who recognise the social and economic inequities produced, and work consistently to push through the difficult reforms needed to fix them.

Catherine Cashmore

Another senate enquiry into housing affordability – but what’s happened since the last?

Another senate enquiry into housing affordability – but what’s happened since the last?

In the final hours of Federal Parliament for 2013, Labor Senator Jan McLucas succeeded in establishing an enquiry by the Economics References Committee, in addressing Australia’s growing housing affordability crisis, stating;

“…pressures on affordability of housing in Australia have continued to intensify, especially in capital cities and mining communities..”

This appears to be ‘good news’ and something a growing ground swell of homebuyers and renters, limited by budget and feasible supply have been hoping for.

The inquiry is set to investigate the role of all levels of government in facilitating affordable home-ownership and affordable private rental, social, and public accommodation.

Importantly, it will, also look into policies designed to increase the supply of housing – perhaps the most critical and well proven factor in the potential long-term effectiveness of any sustainable solution.

However, as welcome as any enquiry into housing affordability is, I question why we are using taxpayer dollars to produce a repeat version of the investigation undertaken under the Rudd administration, in June 2008?

The 2008 report entitled “A good house is hard to find: Housing affordability in Australia” was detailed in its content, drawing on evidence from organisations such as the Housing section in the Department of Families, the Master Builders’ Association, the Planning Institute, the Urban Development Institute, the Housing Industry Association, NATSEM, and the Treasury.

It addressed Australia’s tax policies, such as capital gains tax and negative gearing, which under the current structure, are widely recognised as having a negative impact on affordability and market activity – and an assessment of the construction industry’s, future skilled labour workforce – a job to be undertaken by the National Housing Supply Council, which has subsequently been abolished by the Abbot government, thus giving a very clear indication where their priorities lie (not with housing.)  It also covered rental accommodation, and social housing policy.

The report correctly stated “the need for greater responsiveness of land release and housing supply to market demand.” Stressing, “efforts to this end should occur in a variety of contexts.”

Some of the highlights included;

  • Recognition that state and local governments’ planning processes are too complex and often involve long delays and high costs.
  • Housing supply not adequately facilitated with community infrastructure.
  • Developer infrastructure charges being too excessive and further restricting supply and inflating purchasing costs.
  • The negative impacts of the ‘urban growth boundaries’ implemented by the Victorian and South Australian governments, resulting in land banking and increased prices.
  • The type and quality of housing being constructed – i.e. not appealing to elderly downsizers or single parent buyers.
  • And notably – a critical assessment of New South Wales, with the suggestion it had ‘probably’ done more than any other state in Australia to restrict the opportunities for urban growth on fringe land.

The 238 page document contains many submissions, including this one, by the New South Wales Division of UDIA (Urban Development Institute of Australia)

in which Mr Blancato recommends the Commonwealth government expedite the release, rezoning and servicing of Commonwealth land with critical lead infrastructure to support the supply of new dwellings to the market;

“We are proposing that there should be an amount of land—a forward train

of land of maybe 20 years—that is released and serviced.

The word ‘released’ is something that is very difficult to get a handle on. You will

have successive governments release the same patch of land five times but

not a dollar will be spent on infrastructure. ..

The government used to invest in it—20 years ago you would go out to a release like Blacktown and the main sewer carriers were in and the sewage treatment plant was built. You would go out there and you could develop this five-acre parcel or that five-acre parcel. You might do a little bit of a lead-in, connecting infrastructure, but it was affordable.”

Whilst I wouldn’t advocate all the recommendations concluded in the paper, it’s five years later and we seem to be no further forward.

Prices continue to rise from a bull run on established property in our most populated states – and first homebuyers are barely treading water against a speculative investment sector.

Urban boundaries and a propensity towards land banking, hefty tax overlays and poor infrastructure development, ensure land on the outskirts, continues to be priced at a level that doesn’t incentivise buyers to correctly evaluate the trade-off between price and time, and therefore demand remains marginal, with a downward slide in the number of new dwellings completed per annum.

There is no forward thinking on infrastructure financing, or a full understanding that people don’t purchase houses as much as they buy into communities.

Additionally, there is little diversity on the type of housing built in greenfield developments to enable newly created suburbs to market to a broad socioeconomic mix of residents, who do not just want McMansions built to the edges of a 400-500sqm blocks of land.

Rents continue to rise, with vacancy rates in areas such as Sydney, close to 1%.

Crowded houses – with three or more families sharing accommodation, has increased nationally by 64% to 48,499 (ABS.)

The ACT is abolishing stamp duty over a slow transitional 20 year period and reverting to a land tax system, and some states have reduced stamp duty payments for first home buyers, however there has been no action federally on recommendations in the Henry Tax review on negative gearing, capital gains tax, or the rapid rise of residential investment and gearing in SMSFs.

So what happened?

In one respect it’s the deluded thinking perpetuated by policy makers, who theorise urban sprawl to be essentially bad, imagining it’s possible to develop affordable housing on expensive land in inner urban localities, whilst painting a picture of a bright ‘future’ where residents live a handbreadth apart, compacted in small apartments around existing infrastructure hubs within computable distance to the CBD, as if nothing exists outside of our capital city gates – questioning ‘isn’t this where everybody wants to be anyway?’

As if to prove their point – when fringe land is released, and an additional abundance of ‘roof space’ is built, it fails to lure a diverse range of homebuyers because – as the 2008 report correctly highlighted – the housing lacks diversity, the cost of raw land remains too high, and the developments are burdened with hefty taxes transferred onto the buyer.

More importantly, the surrounds are not adequately facilitated with infrastructure such as schools, transport, medical and recreational facilities, to cater for an individual and family’s personal needs.

Therefore, our outer suburbs tend to be black listed as low socio economic hubs, populated by those who are deemed to sit at the ‘bottom’ of the housing ladder.

I listened to an auctioneer’s pre-amble a few days ago, which summed it up perfectly.  After he elucidated the various attributes of the modest 2 bedroom home, he threw his hand’s up and with a flourish, exclaimed, “and let me tell you what you get for free!” – and proceeded to point out the local school, shopping strip, and park.

Accordingly, if a buyer is able to travel to work, the supermarket, and any other amenity on the priority list within a 30-40 minute period, the distance from the CBD is not an imposing factor – the decider is in the time it takes to drop the kids off to school in one direction, and travel to work in the other.

Furthermore, an acknowledgement that the value of land, and the capital gains achieved by its owner lays in the facilitated connections around it, forms the argument for broad based land value tax, as I explained here.

The Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey has aptly demonstrated, in cities where supply is not artificially constrained by poor policy and planning, which fails to cater for community needs, house prices remain affordable and relatively stable.

Realistically, a well developed city, which has policies flexible enough to meet the demands of its home buying demographic, should see price rises track only the rate of inflation, with growth in household incomes somewhat influential in those areas in which there is greater demand.

Not the well spruiked figures of 7 per cent + median growth per annum we experienced in some suburbs prior to the GFC, – or figures outpacing both wage growth and inflation

Across Australia, every state faces its own intrinsic economic and geographical challenges, for which housing policies need to be flexible enough to adhere, local resident voices need to be heard, and councils need to have the freedom to respond.

However, if the only options we offer first home buyers are candy style incentives in a low interest rate environment, which must stay at rock bottom levels in order to support the inflated levels of debt it encourages – then over the longer term our real estate obsession from which so many feed, will become a noose around the neck, provoking broader concerns.

It’s very important we correctly understand where our policy makers have let us down in the delivery of affordable housing stock, because a worrying trend is starting to emerge which was highlighted in a recent news report, showing footage of Julia Gillard’s Altona house auction.

In the post auction interview, the sales agent said that the Chinese purchaser wanted her to express to everyone that ‘she is an Australian citizen…

The comment speaks volumes – emphasising how important it is to stop blaming current high prices solely on ‘foreign buyers’ whilst at the same time, singling out a unique demographic – a large proportion of which are Australian citizens, work and pay their taxes, and have a right to purchase residential real estate.

One of the most powerful tools for the regulation of any market is transparency. Without it, speculation ensues and leads to undesirable assumptions – such as the belief that every Asian face seen at an auction is ‘foreign’ – and clearly this Chinese lady has noted the negativity.

The reason real estate prices are high in Australia, is due to years of poor government policy and planning – and this is where the blame should be placed and this is where the pressure should be directed.

Catherine Cashmore

 

Housing – apparently the only item than can be both affordable and unaffordable at the same time….

Housing – apparently the only item than can be both affordable and unaffordable at the same time….

The latest affordability index by the Adelaide Bank and Real Estate Institute of Australia has once again flooded the real estate headlines with the jolly news that housing is growing ever more affordable.

This pre Christmas gift of optimism from the newly updated ‘affordability’ studies commissioned by the financial and real estate sectors, comes with a host of commentary – usually from those with a vested interest – who happily advise aspiring homeowners that ‘they’ve never had it so good’ – in other words, to paraphrase Terry Ryder’s thoughts, first home buyers should ‘put up, or shut up.’

Of course, it wouldn’t be half as palatable if it didn’t come accompanied with the seeming contradiction that not only is it more affordable than it’s been in the last decade (according to the HIA-Commonwealth Bank affordability index,) it’s also substantially more expensive than its ever been – yes, housing is only item than can be both affordable and unaffordable at the same time.  Work that one out Einstein.

In fact, according to Residex, median prices in both Sydney and Melbourne have already exceeded their historical highs, ‘nudging’ $750,000 in Sydney and $600,000 in Melbourne – additionally, Perth has also reached its previous peak of 2008, with a median price of $521,000.

RPData’s dwelling price index shows a year to date increase of 14.3% in Sydney, 6.4% in Melbourne and 9.7% in Perth.  For homebuyers, the benefit derived from lower lending rates has been all but offset by the inflationary pressure placed on prices.

Rarely is it mentioned that housing affordability and the cost of servicing a mortgage are two separate entities.

Mortgage rates are set up with different structures dependant on circumstance, and subject to interest rate changes influenced by the macro environment.

To take out a 25 year mortgage requires the expectation of secure employment in a terrain where frequent job changes or part time work are becoming a norm.

They may influence house prices through a cycle, but they do not take away the fact that home prices now – even with lower lending rates – require longer terms to pay down, with the interest over the duration of that period adding considerably to the capital cost.

In fact I couldn’t put it any better than current governor of the Bank of England – Mark Carney, when he warns;

“Think about the mortgage you are taking on, the debts you are taking on…You are taking at least a 25-year mortgage, maybe a 30-year mortgage.  Are you going to be able to service that mortgage five years from now, 10 years from now, if interest rates are higher? Or are you counting, even subconsciously, on the price of your house keeping going up and if something happens an ability to sell it quickly and not facing the consequences of not being able to pay?”

Carney’s cautionary words pre-empt the Bank of England’s decision to scale back its inflationary ‘Funding for Lending’ scheme amidst fears of a rapid escalation of house prices in the south-eastern regions of the country.

From next year Funding for Lending will only be available for business loans -not mortgages – and if the banking sector’s concerned about signs of frothiness in an industry in which it’s heavily invested, so should we also be.

The BoE governor is not alone. Central banks in Sweden, Hong Kong, Norway, New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland (to name but a few) have all adopted macro prudential measures to buffer against the associated risks of a boom/bust investor lead recovery in a post GFC environment – highlighting the importance of keeping lending standards robust – all, that is,  except Australia.

Having weathered the impact of the GFC a little more effectively than others – the RBA seem to think we live in some ‘magic faraway tree,’ effectively doing little more than wagging a cautionary finger to a sector which, for the duration of the year, have outstripped owner-occupier lending with well over a third of all new loans on ‘interest only’ terms and roughly the same proportion with LVRs of over 80 per cent.

In other words, there are still over a third of all loans in which the principal is not being reduced – with 37.3% lent on these terms for the September quarter alone.

In NSW, investment lending is at record highs, making up over 50% of the market, and although many use the well worn argument that the unwanted boom is predominant ‘only in Sydney’ – let’s not forget, Sydney is not some nether land off the coast of Tasmania, what happens in our biggest capital with the largest and most diverse economy in Australia, inevitably impacts us all.

Historically, this sector is more sensitive to interest rate changes with a tendency to wax and wain pro cyclically with market movements, exaggerating both gains and falls.  A housing recovery built on the back of small mum and dad investors pouring their money predominantly into negatively geared established dwellings – especially considering our current levels of private debt to income ratios – is not ideal for the long term stability of our housing market, or house prices.

The common Aussie term ‘spruiking’ – which APRA warns against in the self managed super sector, is not only a contributing aspect of what inspires our culture to see property as the undiversified road map for building wealth for retirement – it is also part and parcel of what has kept our property prices high by both local, and international standards.  Yet the risks associated with spruiking in SMSFs is simply the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Having worked in many aspects of the housing industry, I have seen first hand the type of material that’s presented at seminars not just from those who receive under the table commissions from developers, but also from advocates working as independent advisors for either the seller or buyer.

It really isn’t unusual to see slides presented at seminars with straight lines charting the difference between investing in properties that supposedly “grow” at steady 5% per annum, compared to those that grow at 10%, using historical median data as ‘evidence’ that future returns can replicate those achieved in the past, without any distinction of how such data is correlated or the difference between individual “house prices” and “median values.”

This information borders on financial advice and comes with no mention of risk or the type of rigorous analysis, which you would reasonably expect when choosing to invest in a single asset.

Another widely used industry favourite is the statement;

“FACT: fewer than 5% of properties are investment grade”

A myth if ever there was one.  Perhaps the well-known companies that use this as an advertising tool, would like to point to the person who researched every property in Australia to correlate such a statistic? Maybe we could also ask for a comprehensive definition of what ‘investment grade’ really is – because I guarantee there would be no shortage of differing opinions from industry ‘experts.’

This endless promotion of residential property, with rows of investment magazines lining newsagency shelves, promoting subjective ‘hotspots,’ or as I pointed out a few weeks ago, agencies cold calling households, and sending ‘advisors’ round to ‘educate’ and encourage inexperienced investors to negatively gear against their principal place of residence, is toxic.

Meanwhile, the RBA continue to sit on their hands, not wanting to pull a regulatory lever, instead warning investors to employ caution, hoping they will fall into line like a bunch of good school kids. However, whilst macro prudential tools may assist in ensuring banking lending standards remain robust – can they have any long-term sustainable or lasting impact on property prices?

In a recent research paper by BIS (Bank for International Settlements) entitled “can non-interest rate policies stabilise housing markets?” – evidence was gathered from 57 countries spanning more than three decades, investigating the effectiveness of nine non-interest rate policy and macro prudential tools on restraining credit growth and house prices.

The analysis used a new dataset going as far back as 1980, making it the most comprehensive study to date in terms of both scope and time span.

The paper concluded that whilst reductions in the maximum LTV (loan to value) ratio can restrain demand, its effects can be partially or wholly offset by a rising market enabling the investor to borrow more, therefore, changes in the maximum DSTI (debt service to income) ratio were assessed to be more substantial.

But importantly;

Only tax changes affecting the cost of buying a house, which bear directly on the user cost, have any measurable effect on prices” and,

None of the policies designed to affect either the supply of or the demand for credit has a discernible impact on house prices.”

The study puts this down to the ‘can buys’ still outnumbering the growing pool of credit constrained ‘can’t buys’ – stressing that the importance of housing supply was not explicitly considered. Therefore if we want to lower house prices or put in place policies to aid affordability, we need to look outside the limited powers of the RBA alone

As has been proven time and time again, intermittently stoking at the bottom end of the market with FHB grants and incentives does little more than provide a short term ‘happy pill’ for vendors, as the price multiplier effect ripples across the rest of the housing terrain, stimulating both an inflationary and volatile environment

Instead, we need to focus on the real problem in Australia – and it’s not property prices, it’s land prices – as economist Leith Van Onselen effectively points out when he analyses the difference between commercial and rural land compared to residential land values, and building costs.

“Whilst commercial and rural prices have remained relatively stable over the last 24 years relative to GDP, residential prices have skyrocketed…”

In other words, the cost of residential fringe land, which without constraint, should be close to its ‘raw’ value, is not cheap at all – and it’s all down to ineffective urban planning policy.

As I (and others) have pointed out previously, even within a wide expansive boundary as mooted in Melbourne’s new urban growth strategy, the government limits land use until they have gone through a lengthy process of mapping out areas for infrastructure known as a ‘Precinct Structure Plan’ – it is a slow laborious process and as soon as you restrict the supply of anything, scarcity inevitably inflates values.

Larger developers are not slow to purchase swathes of acreage prior to rezoning, and then once ‘Psp’s’ have been finalised, drip feed it onto the market. Not only do Government bodies have little understanding of how released plots respond to consumer demand, they have no policy in place to deter the practice. It’s therefore a failure.

Furthermore, facilitation of infrastructure is currently financed via hefty development overlays, which are passed onto the buyer rather than initiatives such as bond financing, where residents pay back proportionally over a lengthy period of time, as was the case historically.

We must remove these barriers with effective policy and let land prices revert back to normal levels to reflect a ‘real price’ closer to commercial values.

Without doing so, we can’t gain a true indicator of the trade-off buyers are prepared to make between price and distance. Currently, the average price of a newly built house and land package is around $400,000, this is not serviceable on the single median wage, and therefore can hardly be deemed affordable.

Get the land supply – price – and infrastructure equation right, and I suspect there would be no lack of demand from genuine aspiring homebuyers.  Only when this is done, can we have a truly transparent debate on first homebuyers wiliness to ‘spread over the land.’

Catherine Cashmore

Empty words as FHBs sold out on housing policy…

Since I started writing about housing policy and citing the growing concerns many are having with the rising price of accommodation, it’s been somewhat heartening to see a greater array of individuals acknowledge an undeniable widening gap between existing owners, and a growing pool of ‘wannabe” renters.

Most recently, ALP member for McMahon in New South Wales, Chris Bowen, was reported saying “”I can see the difficulties for young and first home buyers of getting into the market,” citing an ‘affordability crisis’ to be a“serious national issue”.

Whilst many parents would recognise the struggle first homebuyers face and wish for an easier path to enable their children, to gain a foothold into what’s too commonly termed the ‘property ladder’ – as if it’s something to be conquered – emphatic remarks such as those offered above are easy to make when decision-making is out of party hands.

Yet, it was only a few months ago, when challenged over affordability on Q&A, and lacking any real policy initiative going into the federal election, that Chris Bowen remarked:

“There (are) two big things that we can do to help with housing affordability. That’s keep unemployment as low as possible. Because you have got a job, that’s the best thing you can do to get into the housing market. And also to keep interest rates low and interest rates are as low as they’ve ever been in Australia”

No one would doubt keeping unemployment numbers low is an important component to a steady housing terrain – however, as for low interest rates, they have done little more than inflate established property prices and speculation on financial markets, which is scant benefit to those facing rising yields, or paying an inflated cost to secure a property at the offset.

On the same program, Joe Hockey’s comments took a similar stance – except he did touch on the issue of supply:

“..the fact is you’ve got to increase the supply. I mean it’s a market. There is plenty of demand and increasing demand but what are we going to do for supply? I have some plans on that which we’ll be talking about before the end of the election.”

When making these comments, it’s unclear whether Joe Hockey had prior awareness of the Coalition’s plan to abolish the National Housing Supply Council, which was established specifically to identify gaps between housing supply and demand.

Apparently, the council’s activities are ‘no longer needed’ and will be ‘absorbed’ into other departments which aren’t entirely transparent, as Scott Ludlum found when questioning as such. Whatever the reason, it’s clear the current government does not hold supply policy high on the priority list.

As it is, saving hard on an average wage is no longer a guaranteed ticket into the breastfed dream of home ownership – especially if you live anywhere close to Sydney.

Martin North Principal of Digital Finance Analytics demonstrated this on a recent blog entitled “The Truth about House Price and Income Growth” charting house prices compared to average disposable income across the NSW market back to 2002.

ScreenHunter_509 Dec. 03 07.20

Whilst the higher quartile’s income has kept pace with house price inflation, the other quartiles have only seen their wage grow marginally, his study clearly demonstrates that prices are now outpacing earnings for the larger proportion of residents and therefore effective solutions need to be found.

Of course, each state faces its own challenges, and some are fairing better than others. But presently first homebuyers are clashing budgets with an equal to larger proportion of investors and downsizers and therefore targeting similar stock against those who have an existing equity stream to tap into.

Unfortunately, aside from some tinkering around the edges of housing policy with schemes such as the NRAS, which quickly became over subscribed and jumped upon by SMSF spruikers, it remains a reality that neither political party has yet seen past burdening new buyers with cheap credit by way of grants, low interest rates and incentives, in a vain effort to mask the rising cost of accommodation under the false premise that they’re doing ‘something.’

And Australia faces challenges ahead – with a falling participation rate due to an aging population, fewer full-time positions coupled with a rise in part-time work inflating the ‘underemployment’ figures – job creation is not keeping pace with increases in our working age population.

This was outlined in the freshly released Productivity Commission paper entitled “An Ageing Australia: Preparing for the Future” which projected:

“Australia would have four million more people aged 75 years or older by 2060, with 25 centenarians for every 100 newborns, compared with one centenarian for every newborn in 2012.”

Not only will aging Australian’s have to work to the age of 70, to bridge a shortfall in savings, but the report suggested retirement should be funded in part through a house value ‘equity release scheme,’ claiming:

“House prices have risen over time in real terms, a trend that is likely to continue. Against this backdrop, even under conservative assumption allowing households aged over 65 years to easily access their home equity to help fund health and aged care costs could have a significant impact on reducing fiscal gaps”.

However, under such schemes, not only do Governments have a vested interest in keeping house prices high and rising, they are pinned to the necessity of such to fund future budgets.

Balancing an economy for an aging demographic is not unique to Australia. However, if house prices weren’t as burdensome, requiring an increasing proportion of savings just to enter ownership, not to mention the longer mortgage terms needed to pay down the loan, it would be possible to invest a greater proportion of the household budget into areas of productivity and small business development, as well as channeling savings elsewhere for retirement without the need to use the principle place of residence as a sole equity fund.

In this respect, Australia differs little from its closest Neighbour, New Zealand, where the costs of rising accommodation also bites a good way into a household’s budget for new buyers.

In an article in the New Zealand Herald concentrating on an increasing difficulty accessing ownership following a sensible requirement on lenders by the RBNZ to maintain an 80% loan to value ratio, a young couple were highlighted as a somewhat typical case study.

Putting aside the additional ‘useful’ tips for saving the $90,000 deposit needed for their $450,000 purchase, such as ‘take a packed lunch to work’, it seems the only way this couple were able to purchase adequate accommodation in the Auckland locality was to tap into the ‘bank’ of their respective parents, who borrowed against the accumulated equity in their own home to shore up their children’s deposit.

The couple’s take home pay is $6000 per month, therefore a weighty 50% will go toward mortgage repayments – yet the price of their accommodation is not out of step with what we expect our own duel income first timers to pay for a modest sized home which will provide adequate facility for more than 2 or 3 years.

New Zealand resident and Co-author of the Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey –Hugh Pavletich – makes some sensible comments in relation to this:

“Within normal housing markets with properly functioning Local Governments that have not lost control of their costs, young Jamie Clark and Jenna Close on their household income of $70,000, should be able to buy a new home for about $210,000 with a sensible mortgage load of $175,000 requiring a deposit of about just $35,000.”

Pavletich’s comments are endorsed by Australian Senator – elect Bob Day who in reply to the comment above stated:

“For more than 100 years the average New Zealand family was able to buy its first home on one wage. As you have frequently reported, the median house price was around three times the median income allowing young homebuyers easy entry into the housing market.

As discussed in your report, the median house price is now, in real terms i.e. relative to income, up to nine times what it was between 1900 and 2000…a family will fork out approximately $500,000 more on mortgage payments than they would have had house prices remained at three times the median income.”

The demographica survey rates 337 different housing markets using a “Median Multiple” (the median house price divided by gross annual median household income) to assess affordability. The methodology is a measure recommended by the United Nations and World Bank Urban Indicators Programs and employed by Harvard University’s Joint Centre for Housing – to name but a few.

An affordable market is therefore deemed to be one with a median multiple of 3.0 or less, and whilst it’s never easy to draw an exact correlation between the complexities of international policies compared to our own, the report does provide a basis for research into precisely how other markets with rising populations and relatively healthy economies, manage to maintain their affordable nature.

Supply

The reports primary focus is on supply – removing barriers such as urban boundaries and tax overlays, and portrays the model employed in Texas, where aside from environmental compliance there are no zoning restrictions outside the city outskirts, and planners see themselves as regulators rather than interested parties in town design.

Texas is also a market, which has successfully financed infrastructure by electing local residents onto boards and providing them with access to tax free bonds, which are subsequently allocated for the provision of essential amenities.

Property rights in Texas are clearly strong in nature with limited regulation, covering little more than the land itself – therefore, housing affordability isn’t a burning concern for Texans, and judging by the number ofAmerican’s moving there, the market is an attractive one.

Tax

Secondly, as I highlighted last week, markets such as Pittsburgh in the USA, which has a median multiple below 3.0, is an example where land value tax has been successfully employed.

When land value tax is implemented – with the burden taken of buildings and their improvements ensuring good quality assessments and sensible zoning laws – it not only assists affordability keeping land values stable, but also benefits local business through infrastructure funding, discourages urban sprawl, incites smart effective development of sites, reduces land banking, and as examples in the USA have demonstrated – assists in weathering the unwanted impacts of real estate booms and busts.

Speculation and strong tenancy laws

Another commonality shared amongst ‘affordable’ markets is the lack of speculation that inspires the ‘get in quick’ feeling for aspiring owners. Germany is one such example where until fairly recent times; real house prices had remained stable since at least the 1970s.

Home ownership in Germany is not embedded in their culture. And as I pointed out a few weeks ago, strong tenancy laws along with liberal supply policies ensures when time does come to purchase, there is plentiful option to do so without breaking the budget.

Australia?

Whether we will ever achieve the significant reform needed to turn Australia’s housing market into an affordable one is debatable. However, with the rise of the internet and the ability of those searching for answers to delve a little deeper than they perhaps would have done before the world became a mirror of reflections, as every action and movement is recorded, posted and photographed in real time, and offered up for an immediate judgement on social media – it can only be hoped, that a majority, not minority, are taking opportunity to look past the frivolity of what I think most would agree, (whether by design or purpose) have to date been fairly meaningless and unsatisfactory open government debates on housing policy.

In the end, it will be up to the growing generation of struggling first timers and priced-out renters to vote for the brave advocates who enter politics with what are currently deemed unpalatable plans for true and meaningful reform.