Capitalism, Democracy and Land

Capitalism, Democracy and Land

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By Catherine Cashmore

Protests that continue to erupt across the country against the Federal budget consist of two sectors.

Those who are disadvantaged through cuts to government expenditure – young people, job seekers, groups on low-incomes, the home-less – against political parties who want to exploit the situation to swing the popular vote in their favour.

It comes at a time when many young Australian’s are growing increasingly disillusioned with what politics, in a neo liberal capitalist culture is able to achieve.

The various groups opposing the current budget may not be aware of the full backdrop that sits behind the issues they dispute.

Separating the politics of envy, from the basic principles of equity is not an easy task, not only in the items we consider ‘wealth,’ but also in judging whether income is a true representation of skill and effort, or granted disproportionately at the expense of others.

Most however recognise a process that favours the rich – one where politicians subject themselves to the interests of lobbyists and promise what they need to gain a seat in power.

We’ve seen this most recently with the ICAC investigations. Tens of thousands of dollars pouring into the major party coffers from property developers all claiming to be ‘legitimate’ – yet, as we know, you don’t hand over cash without expecting special favours in return.

It would be nice to think that democracy alone could remedy this, but democracy unless underpinned by good policy, has a fatal flaw – that of short termism.

While voters will champion the environmental crisis of climate change and affordable accommodation, they will recoil at the thought of living near a wind-farm or high-rise block.

Public housing and commission homes are fine in theory, but not in the local neighbourhood, or indeed, anywhere in view.

We’ll welcome the stranger and rally in defence of the asylum seeker, but only on the condition they don’t take away our jobs or price the locals out of housing. In other words, you can come in, but just don’t join in.

No one cheers at the thought of saddling our younger population with student debt – however, when it comes to the cost of shelter, a different attitude arises. Generation Whine are instead told to shut up and save up.

While we desire a country built on the pillars of community, equity, and economic justice, it’s simply not possible in country that is pinned to the foundation of rising land values, as a necessity to fund retirement and most other lifestyle and business needs.

The social consequence that arises from this costs us millions in welfare payments throughout the year. Yet it is still advertised and promoted as the road to riches, creating a “FIRE” economy (finance, insurance and real estate) – disproportionally inflating land costs without due acknowledgement of the consequence.

Unfortunately, the web of confusion that surrounds the subject has put capitalist democracy, which has managed to free so many from the dominance of politically oppressive and controlling regimes, under attack.

Yet, capitalism, which in its truest form is simply a free market system of competing goods and services, is not what we have presently.

Today, faulty economic thinking has allowed items that are not made, or earned and by nature cannot compete; to be traded and profited from as if they were created capital. This has corrupted what should be a very good and fair system.

It’s important therefore to understand what wealth and capital is exactly.

Wealth is not the paper and numbers in our bank account. Money is simply a measurement of the resources we need, to produce the goods and services we consume (capital) for both business and pleasure.

In simplest terms – a person’s wealth is made through his/her own enterprise; whilst a country’s wealth consists of its land and natural resources.

When we earn money in exchange for our skills and labour it can’t be considered unjust or unfair.

However, when it comes though a government legislated process, of allowing some to profit at the expense of others, by trading items that are not capital or derived from any physical effort, this yields a special kind of unearned income, which in classical economics is termed “rent.”

Rent seeking can take on many forms – such as patents and government licences for example, which cripple competition from smaller industries and produce an unfair advantage.

The ‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’ revolution is one such example.

It threatens to undermine the cartel of the Taxi industry’s ‘licensing’ monopoly, which gleans an economic rent from purposely-limiting the number granted.

‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’ offer a cheap and reportedly safe ‘match-making’ alternative for consumers; however their progress has been repeatedly stifled by government intervention, determined to protect a monopoly and a culture of regulation evidently fearing a cut to revenue.

The most damaging of rent seeking behaviour however, and the one that yields the most gains, is trading the economic rent of land.

An increase in the market price of land is an expected result when economies are improving along with capital investment in infrastructure. Therefore, of all rent seeking behaviour, owning a plot of land in path of this progress yields not only the greatest windfall of passive gains, but is also used as a significant source of territorial and political power.

This is not surprising when you consider all the goods we consume come from it. Our oil, natural gas, timber, coal, and water reserves are the product of it.

We travel on it, work on it, party on it, sleep on it, and bury our dead in it.

Wi-fi, airplanes, all forms of technology need it. We evolved from it and progress on it.

Try and think of an activity, or item, that does not include land, and you will come up short.

However, the flow of income that comes from owning land over and above the value of building on it, when capitalised into the price, leads to a monopolist culture that feeds speculation, attracting a cabal of banking and finance interests and concentrating the vast proportion of a country’s wealth in the hands of a few, above the very real needs of many.

Rupert Murdoch ironically coined it best when, in his 1994 John Bonython lecture The Century of Networking he said;

Because capitalists are always trying to stab each other in the back, free markets do not lead to monopolies.  Monopolies can only exist when governments protect them.”

This is in essence what the Arab Spring was all about.

Many mistook it as a grasp for democracy – however it wasn’t. It was a grasp for true capitalism – the freedom to prosper unimpeded by onerous regulation or rent seeking behaviour. At its essence was a desire for economic justice, equal access to opportunity – matters we look to Government to provide.

Since politician and driving force behind the early settlement of South Australia,  Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862), devised his grand plan of “systematic colonisation” – making land just so ‘sufficiently’ unaffordable as to create a willing workforce of labourers. Economists and politicians have done everything possible to distract public attention from what is nothing more than a modern day game of feudalism.

They do this by allowing people to play a dangerous game of leverage, gambling on land price inflation by borrowing as much debt as possible to maximise their ‘capital gains,’ without acknowledging what is given with one hand, is taken with the other – or more accurately, from another.

This is clearly highlighted in the response to the budget.

Whilst rich land-‘lords’ and mining magnets grow wealthy, collecting their unearned windfall in economic rent – they ironically tell the young tenant saddled with student debt “so you think the world owes you a living?” while government stretches out its hand to the low waged worker commanding they “pull their weight.”

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 Ken Henry tax review “The current charging arrangements distort investment and production decisions….. they fail to collect a sufficient return for the community because they are unresponsive to changes in profits”

It is no coincidence that whilst far from a perfect system of equitable land reform, the greatest equaliser in Australia and the one that had the most profound social and economic effect on reducing inequality, was the Mabo Judgement over land rights for the Aboriginal people.

The monopolists in the mining industry stringently and shamefully lobbied against it, as they did most recently with at mention of a resource tax, turning it into a national crisis.

This is essentially why Clive Palmer entered politics.

Each year Ernst & Young produce a business report for the mining and metals industry, highlighting the top ten risks that can affect fat cat profits, along with tips on how to avoid them.

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Featured prominently is “Resource nationalism” (sharing the gains) with the comment;

“ Miners have had to become more politically savvy” “the most successful are building strong relationships with Government” to…”educate on tax reform”

It is against this backdrop, that he ‘loveable’ founder of “PUP,” which claims to “Unite All Australian’s” has bought himself a seat in power by promising ‘peace, prosperity and goodwill’ to all men, alongside a raft of economic ‘goodies.’

When Clive comes to town, Christmas does too, “lower income tax, free education, higher pensions,’ you name it, Clive will promise it.

His policies are overwhelming ‘wishy-washy’ with no detailed assessment as to how they’ll be funded – but that doesn’t matter. Economic analysis is not the ‘PUP’ agenda.

Instead, it will act in the best interests of its leader ensuring the abolishment of any mining and carbon tax, whilst driving the cost of land higher with incentives for homebuyers.

However, the corruption of politics to favour the vested interests of leaders is nothing new.

It is no coincidence that just about every housing policy designed to increase affordability, results in quite the reverse.

This can be witnessed in any country that allows the economic rent of land to capitalise into the price, thereby becoming a tradable asset to gamble on.

All tax incentives such as negative gearing for example, simply inflate costs rather than reduce them.

Zoning policies create false scarcity by protecting affluent neighbourhoods from ‘over development’, restricting the use of fringe land with urban boundaries and onerous regulation, and advantaging existing owners by pushing up the price of marginal land – which buttresses the price of all land.

The evidence shows, the richer vendors become, the more energetic they are to restrict development near their own land holdings – unless it acts to inflate values.

Many Melbournian’s will be familiar with the historical figure of Thomas Bent for example, who became the 22nd premier of Victoria.

His corrupt dealings are well documented, not least, using his political clout to extend the railway line from Caulfield to Cheltenham, thus enormously increasing the value of his own property developments, which just so happened to fall alongside the proposed route.

A more recent example is being alleged in New Zealand.

The country is undergoing a crisis of housing affordability and has been termed the world’s ‘most over priced.’

Policy makers are tying themselves in economic knots to uncover solutions, with the central bank employing strict lending regulations to prevent exuberant speculation, while ‘up-zoning’ to increase supply is underway.

However, these ‘up zonings’ miss Auckland mayor Len Brown’s spacious lifestyle block, which conveniently falls outside the Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL).

Mayor Len Brown who has recently purchased an American V8, whilst sporting the public face of being very ‘pro public transport,’ has uncharacteristically ‘infuriated’ his council’s transport leader, by rallying in defence of significant road projects which are reputed to have a beneficial and value enhancing effect on his own estate.

There are numerous academic studies world wide, which outline housing affordability problems, yet fail to identify the root cause and therefore effective solutions.

Economist Michael Hudson points out in USA studies, how the magnitude of land-price gains are brushed under the carpet to hide the massive unearned profits reaped by those who hoard it.

The same phenomenon is happening in Australia, not only with the ‘soft closure’ of the Australian Valuation Office and ‘rubbing out’ of First Home Buyer statistics from the RBA chart pack, but through budgetary cuts to ABS funding, which threaten to end the official “House Price Index” (considered the most reliable market indicator) in favour of private unaudited data providers, whose transparency and reliability are consistently questioned.

When you appreciate how lucrative rent-seeking is to those in power, it is very easy to see how democracy fails us – working tirelessly to silence voices by politically reinforcing faulty economic theories, while strenuously working against efforts to liberalise them.

 

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The Budget – The Consequence – The Housing Market & The Next Generation

The Budget – The Consequence

March in March

Last week, Joe Hockey stood up in front of Parliament and on behalf of the Abbott administration, announced;

”The age of entitlement is over. It has to be replaced, not with the age of austerity, but with an age of opportunity!”

The former multi millionaire banking and finance lawyer, husband to an investment banker, and owner of several premium land holdings, (including a 200-hectare cattle farm in Malanda and mansions in Sydney.) Whose own ‘entitlements’ and that of his colleagues, remain largely untouched, went on to address

  • The single mother set to lose more than $3000 per year,
  • The newly unemployed university graduate and retrenched worker, who must live with no income for 6 months (poverty) before claiming Newstart (forgone benefits of more than $7000) – yet still have to service their rent or mortgage.
  • The low wage family with kids, who will lose $6000 a year once all changes are factored in,
  • The Hospitals and Schools – vital pillars of our society – who lose their projected funding (on the rationale that they are state responsibilities, forcing an increase to GST – a regressive tax.)
  • The bottom one-fifth of earners who will lose around 5% of their disposable income, compared to the top one-fifth, who will lose only 0.3% (modelling undertaken by NATSEM who point out the burden of this budget, overwhelmingly falls upon people in the most precarious position;)

..by telling Australian public, that they are not “to be alarmed,” because – it’s all;

“In the national interest.”

“The National Interest” what an outrageous statement.

The “national interest” is an interesting term to use for a budget, that has set about ‘plucking the feathers’ of the poor – the low and middle-income earners, the numerous small businesses, the main productive sectors of our economy – whist avoiding any direct action to the assessed $484bn total increase over 12 months in unearned capital gains (more correctly termed “economic rent”) stored in land holdings (ABS.

Or laying a finger on the licensed resource monopolies, the mineral wealth of which increased by $56bn in 2012-13 alone.

Does this sound fair to you?

The country we want..

 “It’s about the sort of country that we want to be, in the years and decades ahead. It’s about the value we impart.”

Continued Hockey – who has requested that all complaints be directed to ‘the former government’– adopting the age-old habit of passing the buck. Yet, warnings were given well in advance of this “budget emergency,” and the sensible and equitable reforms needed, laid our in the Henry tax review – which they ignored – all of them.

The ‘sort of country we want to live in the years and decades ahead’ – is an apt question to ask – albeit, it should be directed at our children.

After all, it’s our children who are set to inherit this land and it’s their future the Government is shaping. More importantly, it’s not one the Liberal administration should be dictating on our behalf, following the usual stream of failed ‘promises’ we are familiar with on all sides of politics.

a fair go

No doubt, job security and housing affordability would come top of the list – both are interdependent and serve our most basic needs.

Without land, or the ability to use it, rent it, or buy it, we’re unable to do, or produce anything.  We are by definition “poor.” 

The accumulation of all our ‘stuff’ is due to the natural resources land bestows.

It is therefore no coincidence that in both religious and ancient mythology, the first job of man was to ‘tend’ the land.

Our relationship with land is truly unique.

The quality of its location and care of its produce is foundational to our most basic human and consumer needs.

Destroy the land, or prevent ready and affordable access to it, and you destroy a population.

The consequence is as black and white as that – “Pay the rent or leave.”

And it is no surprise, that this budget ignored the role of land in its economic modelling – they have been ignoring it for years.

It’s not included in the Consumer Price Index for example – the tool the RBA use to measure inflation and reflect the cost of living, despite land prices and the size of the loans needed to service them, having an uncanny consistency of exceeding wage growth through the course of each cycle – at least for that of the average household and income earner.

And it’s easy to lay the blame of inequality or the reduction of it, on income distribution alone, either that, or confuse it with other items of ‘wealth’ – as is the case in Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century

(a subject I explored in part last week.)

These are items that are easy to ‘hide’ in tax havens. You can’t do that with land.

But importantly, whilst the politicians who delivered the budget and the other “twenty percenters,” will only feel a modest loss to their disposable income with the newly imposed ‘wage levy.’ They will claw far more back in the increased value of their land holdings – particularly as we progress through the next phase of our cycle.

The Cause of Wealth inequality – the extreme of which is “poverty”

This is the cause of wealth inequality – a lopsided economy, built on a $5.1 trillion housing market (over $4.1 trillion of which is land.)

land house gdp ratio

(Source)

It’s a subject overwhelmingly ignored, and yet shapes every other area of housing policy – due in part to the vested interests of wealthy property tycoons who lobby our politicians to maintain the status quo. As well as politicians who don’t want to see their “investments” affected in anyway.

The “corruption of economics,” however, is not unique to Australia. It began soon after Henry George, in 1879, took the world by storm, when he successfully communicated the root and leading indicator of the massive boom/bust cycles (although he was not the first to do so,) – that being land.

His farsighted solution, whilst understanding the importance of private ownership, clearly demonstrated that recessions/depressions on a large scale, could be avoided (not by banking reform alone) but if the natural revenue from the economic rent was recycled, to provide and fund community facilities – along with the other government services we require.

This is because, it removes excessive and unwanted speculation from the market, assists home buyers, utilises land effectively, improves productivity with lower land prices, and can assist in increasing wages – which would help the workers – not the land hoarders.

He influenced the likes of;

  • David Lloyd George in England,
  • Leo Tolstoy,
  • Billy Hughes in Australia,
  • Rolland O’Regan in New Zealand,
  • Chaim Weizmann in Israel,
  • Francisco Madero in Mexico, and many others including,
  • Winston Churchill,
  • Milton Friedman and
  • Albert Einstein (to name but a very few.)

He quite simply took the political world by storm.

The people it didn’t impress however, were the large landowners and financiers, the political lobbyists, who set about a on a well-constructed and amply funded mission, to change the course of economic education – to one that moved away from the classical models which recognised the role of land and were advocating Henry George’s policies.

“The Corruption of Economics”

Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison chart the full story in their book; “The Corruption of Economics.”

They show how the three elements of production—land (and the resources it bestows,) labour, and capital (that of the ‘industrial’ kind) were gradually reduced to two. Labour and Capital – land being “lumped in” with the latter

Capital was now no longer ‘man made’ the result of hard work and genuine innovation.

Instead, it included the stuff of nature – the very elements we need to live – allowing the increasing gains from any natural appreciation of land value (the expected result of every collective improvement we make to society) to be ‘pocketed,’ rather than shared through a proportional system of ‘land rent’ on the unimproved value alone.

It simply implied that the home-owner pay directly for the facilities they use – the amenities that give their land its value – which in the main, removes the need for other taxes which are easy to avoid – like income tax for example.

That sounds fair doesn’t it?

‘All taxation is at the expense of Rent’

As the classical economists David Ricardo and Adam Smith proved, ‘all taxation is at the expense of Rent.’

house tax

(Source)

In other words, any tax withholdings or exemptions given to land holders, result in an increase of “economic rent” available to be capitalised (at the current interest rate) into the price.

This raises the cost of land – yet does little to address the needs of our children, who must take on an every greater proportion of private debt to ‘join in.’

Consequences

The consequence results in what the current budget suggests. Collecting taxes to offset the items we require from other areas – wages, and productivity – the burden of which falls overwhelmingly on the poor – yet advantages those at the top, who see their landholdings increase, way in excess of any taxation.

Is this fair?

Well this is what the current (and previous) administrations have been enforcing and advocating for years.

Promoted widely by our nice ‘balanced’ property commentators – who teach how to get rich on ‘capital gains’ (as if it’s hard) – without stressing the consequence and burden to society and the economy as a whole.

Think about that when you’re browsing the ‘property investment’ isle in your local bookshop.

Think about it.

Who benefits??

The progress of genuine innovation

Thankfully with the birth of genuine innovation – the internet – we finally have the beginnings of a global revolt against mainstream economic teachings which cannot identify boom/bust cycles and crashes, because they refuses to see ‘land.

Not to mention their completely false understanding of money creation and debt and its role in banking – highlighted consistently by Steve Keen who is about to head the first “progressive” department of economic teaching at Kingston University in London. Our loss.

Importantly, economic students are starting to recognise their degrees are hardly worth the paper they’re written on – as the various protests show.

(Something else to ponder when you read the many “market updates” from our mainstream economists.)

Change

Changing the system is not easy when we have built a society dependent on housing wealth to fund retirement.

It requires a slow transition (such as that set out in the Henry Tax review) to gradually phase out tax subsidies such as negative gearing – offset by the supply reforms Leith Van Onselen, Hugh Pavletich, Senator Bob Day and many others have been advocating for years.

But if you want a “fair go” country, one that avoids volatile boom/bust cycles, and instead of promoting wealth inequality, provides economic prosperity along with the best we can leave to our children. Then change we must.

And it starts with ‘us.’

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.

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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.

Property Tax and Housing Affordability

 

Property Taxation and Housing affordability.

There’s been a lot of debate around property taxation in Australia – significantly negative gearing, which allows an investor to use the short fall between interest repayments and other relevant expenditure, to lower their income tax

The policy promotes speculative gain meaning the strategy is only profitable if the acquisition rises in value rather than holding or falling – therefore, in Australia, investor preference is slanted toward the established sector  – the sector that attracts robust demand from all demographics and as such, in premium locations, has historically gained the greatest windfall from capital gains.

Aside from the impact this creates in terms of affordability – pushing up the price of second-hand stock, burdening new buyers with the need to raise a higher and higher deposit just to enter ownership.  It also negatively affects the the new home market, which traditionally struggles to attract consistent activity outside of targeted first homebuyer incentives– albeit, the headwinds resulting from planning constraints and supply side policy should also not be dismissed.

Additionally, Capital Gains Tax and stamp duty have also received much debate. Both are transaction taxes, and therefore have a tendency to stagnate activity, acting as a deterrent to either buying and selling.

Stamp duty as modelled by economist Andrew Leigh, is shown to produce a meaningful impact on housing turnover, leading to a potential mismatch between property size and household type – a deterrent to downsizing and therefore selling

Additionally, it burdens first time buyers by increasing the amount they need to save in order to enter the market, and frequent changes of employment concurrent with a modern day lifestyle, are hampered as owners, unwilling to move any meaningful distance outside their local neighbourhood, search for work in local areas alone.

But, outside of academia and intermittent articles, there is scant debate in Australian mainstream media regarding land value tax and it’s practical impact.

The theory is taken to its extreme, and best advocated by American political economist and author Henry George who wrote his publication ‘Progress and Poverty’ 1879.- an enlightened and impassioned read – and subsequently inspired the economic philosophy that came to be known as ‘Georgism.’

The ideals of Henry George reside in the concept that land is in fixed supply, therefore we can’t all benefit from economic advantage gained from ‘ownership’ of the ‘best’ sites available without effective taxation of the resource.

George advocated a single tax on the unimproved value of land to replace all other taxes – something that would be unlikely to hold water in current political circles, however his ideals won favour amongst many, including the great economist and author of “Capitalism and Freedom” Milton Friedman and other influential capitalists such as Winston Churchill, who gave a powerful speech on land monopoly stressing;

“Unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit, but they are the principal form of unearned increment, and they are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public.”

In essence, raising the percentage of tax that falls on the unimproved value of land has few distortionary or adverse affects.  It creates a steady source of revenue whilst the landowner can make their own assessment regarding the timing and type of property they wish to construct in order to make profit without being penalised for doing so.

However when the larger percentage of tax payable is assessed against the value of buildings and their improvements – through renovation, extension or higher density development for example – not only can those costs be transferred to a tenant, there is less motivation to make effective use of the site – having a flow on effect which can not only exacerbate urban ‘sprawl’, but also increase the propensity to ‘land bank.’

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.

The Australian Housing and Urban Research Group attempted to mimic the proposed changes using their AHURI-3M micro-simulation model in a report entitled The spatial and distributional impacts of the Henry Review recommendations on stamp duty and land tax

And whilst it’s difficult to qualify how purchasers may factor an abolition of stamp duty into their price analysis, perhaps adding the additional saving into their borrowing capacity, and therefore not lowering prices enough to initially assist first homebuyers.  It does demonstrate how over the longer-term falls in house prices have the potential to exceed the value of land tax payments, assisting both owner-occupier and rental tenant as the effects flow through

Additionally, increasing the tax base would provide developers with an incentive to speed up the process and utilise their holding for more effective purposes.

And importantly for Australia, it can provide a reliable provision of revenue to channel into the development of much-needed infrastructure.

The rational for this is coined in the old real estate term ‘location location location.’  Everyone understands that in areas where amenities are plentiful – containing good schools, roads, public transport, bustling shopping strips, parks, theatres, bars, street cafes and so forth – increases demand and therefore land values, invoking a vibrant sense of community which attracts business and benefits the economy.

The idea behind spruiking a ‘hotspot’ – such a common industry obsession – is based on purchasing in an area of limited supply, on the cusp of an infrastructure boom, such as the provision of a new road or train line for example, enabling existing landowners to reap a windfall from capital gains and rental demand for little more effort than the advantage of getting in early and holding tight whilst tax payer dollars across the spectrum fund the work

Should a higher LVT be implemented, the cost and maintenance of community facilities could in part, be captured from the wealth effect advantaging current owners, compensating over time for the initial outlay.  Imagine the advantage this would offer residents in fringe locations who sit and wait for the failed ‘promises’ offered, when they migrated to the outer suburbs initially

Take New York for example – between the years 1921 and 1931 under Governor Al Smith, New York financed what is arguably the world’s best mass transit system, colleges, parks, libraries, schools and social services shifting taxes off buildings and onto land values and channelling those dollars effectively

The policy influenced by Henry George ended soon after Al Smith’s administration, and eventually lead to todays landscape – a city built on a series of islands, with limited room to build ‘out’ facing a chronic affordable housing shortage with the population projected to reach 9.1 million by 2030

More than a third of New Yorkers spend half their paycheque on rent alone yet like London, there is little motivation for developers to build housing to accommodate low-wage workers concentrating instead on the luxury end of market, broadening the gap between rich and poor as land values rise and those priced out, find little option but to re-locate.

New York’s Central Park is the highest generator of real estate wealth.  The most expensive homes in the world surround the park with apartments selling in excess of $20 Million, and newer developments marketed in excess of $100+ million.

Like London it’s a pure speculators paradise – in the ten-year period to 2007, values increased by 73% – owners sit on a pot of growing Gold and there’s little to indicate America’s richest are about to bail out of their New York ‘addiction’ with an expansive list of ‘A’ class celebrities, high net worth individuals, and foreign magnates, owning apartments in the locality.

New Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio who won his seat, based on a promise to narrow the widening inequality gap – preserve 200,000 low and middle income units, and ensure 50,000 affordable homes are constructed over the next decade, will struggle to subsidize plans whist facing a deficit reputed to be as much as $2 billion in the next fiscal year.

Yet economist Michael Hudson has recently assessed land values in New York City alone to exceed that of all of the plant and equipment in the entire country, combined

Currently more than 30 countries around the world have implemented land value taxation – including Australia – with varying degrees of success not only based on the percentage split between land and property, but how those funds are channelled back into the community, and the quality of land assessments in regularly updating and estimating value.

Pennsylvania is one such state in the USA to use a system which taxes land at a greater rate than improvements on property – I think I’m correct in saying nineteen cities in Pennsylvania use land value tax with Altoona being the first municipality in the country to rely on land value tax alone.

Reportedly, 85% of homeowners pay less with the policy than they do with the traditional flat-rate approach. When Mayor of Washington county Anthony Spossey who also served as Treasurer from 2002 to 2006, and under his watch enacted an LVT was interviewed on the changes in 2007, he commented;

“LVT ..helps reduce taxes for our most vulnerable citizens. We have an aging

demographic, like the county, region and the state. Taxpayers everywhere are less able to keep up with taxes, and that hurts revenue. LVT helps us mitigate the impact both to them and the city. It’s a win/win..”

Until fairly recent times, another good example to cite is Pittsburgh. Early in the 1900s the state changed its tax system to fall greater on the unimproved value of land than its construction and improvements.

Pittsburgh’s economic history is a study in itself, and has not been without challenges.  For those wanting to research further, I strongly advocate some of the writings of Dan Sullivan – (former chair of the Libertarian Party of Allegheny County, (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania) – who is an expert on the economic benefits of LVT and has written extensively on the subject.

Sullivan demonstrates that Pittsburgh not only enjoyed a construction boom whilst avoiding a real estate boom under a broad based LVT system, but also effectively weathered the great depression whilst maintaining affordable and steady land values along the way.

In comparing it to other states struggling to recover from the recent ‘sub-prime crisis’ he points out;

“In 2008, just after the housing bubble broke, Cleveland led the nation in mortgage foreclosures per capita while Pittsburgh’s foreclosure rate remained exceptionally low. Since then, the foreclosure rates in Las Vegas and many Californian cities, none of which collect significant real estate taxes, have passed Cleveland’s foreclosure rate. However, on September 15, 2010, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that while at the end of the second quarter of 2010, 21.5% of America’s single-family homes had underwater mortgages (the American term for negative equity), only 5.6% did in Pittsburgh. As a result Pittsburgh was top of a list of the ten markets with the lowest underwater mortgage figures.”

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.

Despite the numerous examples across the world where a broad based land value tax has been deployed successfully, changing policy and bringing about reform is never easy and rarely without complication.

Additionally, the implications of a yearly tax on fixed ‘low-income’ retirees must be handled with care and understanding, as there are ways to buffer unwanted effects whilst changes are implemented.

Therefore, the process adopted in the ACT which is abolishing stamp duties over a slow transitional 20 year period to phase in higher taxation of land is not altogether unwise.

With any change to the tax system, the headwinds come convincing the public that it’s a good idea. In this respect balanced debate and conversation is necessary, as questions and concerns are brought to the fore.

The increased tax burden also falls on those who have significant influence across the political spectrum; therefore strong leadership to avoid lobbying from wealthy owners with vested interests is essential.

Albeit, as I said last week, we have a new and growing generation of enlightened voters who are well and truly fed up with battling high real estate prices, inflated rents, and care not whether it’s labelled as a ‘bubble’ – but certainly care about their future and that of their children.

Therefore – I do see a time when all the ‘chatter’ around affordability, will finally evolve into ‘real’ action – and a broad based LVT should form an important part of that debate.

Catherine Cashmore

Can lessons from German culture assist in changing the environment for Australia’s rental population….?

Can lessons from German culture assist in changing the environment for Australia’s rental population….?

Land.  Since history began, it has remained an integral part of the most valuable asset man desired, fought over, possessed and in many cases died for.

Indeed, property rights are a foundational component to a capitalist economy, and under our current system of ownership government’s profit nicely from the advantage.

In Australia, revenue from rates and land accounted for $20 Billion in 2012 – hence why ‘stamp duty addiction’ and the consequential need to incentivise buyers to keep transaction figures high, is all-but a national obsession.

Housing and construction are a driving force behind our economy, and the banks are as ‘pinned’ in their reliance to the ever-expanding growth of our population’s desire to ‘borrow and buy,’ as everyone else is who has their hand in the pie.  And let’s face it, there are plenty of sticky fingers profiting from our national past time, spanning not just the ‘FIRE’ (finance, insurance and real estate) sector, but also its numerous retail, TV and ‘chat forum’ offshoots – often encountered in the land of social media

Following a pre-GFC global (‘borrowing’) shopping spree of cheap credit, Australia’s ‘too big to fail four’ have subsequently become the worlds most heavily exposed to residential real estate.

Therefore, economists such as Christopher Joye, have not been slow to point out the ‘potential’ dangers an acceleration in property prices may herald, if the recent boom in some of our most populated states, is not reigned in.

Leading fund manager James Gruber, (who writes an excellent weekly newsletter entitled “Asia Confidential”) most recently commented;

“…banks have an average leverage of 20x (equity/assets), it would take less than a 10% fall in residential property prices for equity in these banks to be wiped out….”  And the warnings continue.

Whilst you can argue whether to call a bubble or not, house prices in Australia, where most need to live if they wish to maintain good access to hospitals, schools, social amenities, and a healthy job market, are high by anyone’s standards, and certainly so on an international scale.

Comparative countries include the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands, all of which experienced an unprecedented house price boom in the lead up to the GFC.

Like Australia, all suffer restrictive planning and zoning laws, which have subsequently placed stress on supply.

I pointed out last week, how the complexities of urban zoning by state governments who publicly advocate affordable housing initiatives, are doing quite the reverse.

Poor policy has ensured we have sparse facilities to meet the demands of those who choose to live in fringe suburbs. Therefore the price of commuting on over-crowded roads, frequently forgoes any benefit gained from paying a ‘marginally’ lower price for the privilege of more space in regional areas.

Additionally a CIE (Centre for International Economics) study, commissioned by the HIA two years ago, demonstrated the total tax expenditure on the land and price of a new home once rolled together, equates to 39% of the sale price. Therefore, aside from constipated supply side policy, expecting developers to deliver affordability as well as profit from their efforts is unduly burdened

The speculative culture that results from restrictive planning laws, coupled with tax incentives that benefit the home owner and investor above that of the ‘lowly’ renter (as is the case in the countries I cited above,) was clearly highlighted in the recent Grattan report entitled ‘Renovating Housing Policy.

Consequentially Australian investment in real estate is pinned to the cyclical nature of the oft termed ‘property clock,’ where valuations seem to forever trend ‘upwards,’ and ownership rates amongst younger generations struggle to maintain their historic ‘norm,’ in a post GFC macro environment where higher unemployment and slower wage growth is all but certain

The nicely manipulated tax incentivised environment promotes speculation into a limited pool of established stock, leading investors to compete against each other in a game not unlike ‘musical chairs,’ as they attempt to shore up funds for retirement.

Yet other countries have accepted a culture far more adapted to renting than owning, where lower demand for the purchase of property and better levels of affordability, coupled with stricter lending requirements, have protected them from the economic woes brought on by the domino effect of the USA sub-prime crisis.

Germany is one such relatively well-known example, and France isn’t much further behind

Whilst home values in Australia over the last 10-15 years have doubled (and in some cases and localities trebled,) property prices in Germany have struggled to track the rate of inflation.

Subsequently, the feeling of ‘buy now, or pay more later’ is not evident in their cultural mindset, with a little less than 50% of the population happy to accept a rental lifestyle.

It’s not always been as such.  In the 1990s generous tax benefits heavily favoured the investor, so much so, a complete renovation could be written off against a property owner’s tax bill.

This inevitably lead to speculation into rising values, resulting in a boom of high-density inner city development with little due diligence taken into the analysis of genuine demand from a home buyer market.

A glut of supply consequently occurred and the boom came to a painful end in the late 1990s.  Tax incentives were stripped away and the  ‘euphoria’ ceased – but the hard lessons were learnt, and Germans remain wary of booming real estate values, which to some extent has kept them insulated from manipulating a repeat scenario.

The subsequent Dot Com bust in the early 2000s added insult to injury as unemployment peaked and the country suffered through periods of recession.

However, a lengthy duration of stagnated home values in the lead up to the GFC, coupled with strong laws protecting tenants, and restrictions on high loan to value borrowing ratios, arguably created a normal ‘supply/demand’ environment, where home buyers looking to ‘settle’ were able to save and acquire accommodation outside an inflationary atmosphere, and renters did not suffer undue discrimination.

Minimum tenancies in Germany are long – often starting at 2 years, with most ‘unlimited’ – meaning a landlord cannot easily evict without good reason to do so (and then only through a court process.)

Rent increases are strictly regulated – at a minimum occurring only once every 12 months, with limits on the incremental rise over any given period. For example, as a general guideline, a maximum could be 20% over 3 years (although this varies across different municipalities.)

Reasons for eviction can include a landlord needing to use the premises to reside in, however the ‘need’ must be justified – and not simply because they would ‘like’ to do so (as in Australia.)

Properties must be presented in good condition – painted prior to each new tenant moving in, with renters often responsible for the provision of various fixtures and fittings, such as lights and window furnishings.

If the landlord wants to sell, they must provide proof that selling without a tenant would profit their cause more so than selling with.  Therefore due to the length and roll over of tenancies, rental stock is generally sold onto investors rather than owner-occupiers, with the renter protected from eviction.

Bonds equivalent to 3 months rent, are placed in interest bearing accounts, so renters don’t lose out on the rate they could expect to achieve if the cash was deposited in a normal savings account.

Long-term tenants are permitted to decorate accommodation and change the decor to suit their own tastes, promoting at least the feeling of ‘ownership’ over that of a temporary dwelling.

Property investors can expect a 7% yield, which at current borrowing rates is, particularly attractive to larger off shore equity firms and this sector is growing.

‘Publicly subsidised housing,’ or ‘housing promotion’– the terms generally used for social housing – is controlled by local government and refers to shelter provided below market rent for low-income families.  This type of accommodation represents around 5% of the national housing stock – although recent sales of a large percentages to off shore yield seeking investors by local government has lead advocates to warn of a shortage.

As for home-buyers, when Germans purchase accommodation it’s for an extended period of time – usually life – and in the absence of highly restrictive planning and zoning laws such as those experienced in Australia and the UK, many choose to self build – therefore adding, not diminishing from the housing supply.

According to the ‘National Association of House Builders’ in the UK, who have compared self-build rates across the EU, 60% of German housing stock is classified as such, and competition between small homebuilders high

When large tracts of farmland are identified for housing developments in Germany, the local municipality acquires the land, paying only a small sum of compensation to the landowner.

The blocks are then sub-divided and sold at an affordable level with priority given to local homebuyers, who then approach a builder of their choosing to construct their preferred accommodation.  Hence why the atmosphere is more competitive than our own, leaving larger developers no opportunity to ‘land bank.’

Building in both the city and regional areas faces fewer restrictions than Australia.  Developers are not burdened with lengthy periods during which holding costs accumulate whilst waiting for planning approval, and outside of a general ‘master plan;’ developers are free to commence construction upon demand

For those wanting to investigate this further, I recommend reading the writings of Mark Brinkley, author of the ‘House builder’s Bible’ who has a good grip on the comparative details.

Unlike in Australia, banks don’t court the buyer market – there are no property grants and few tax incentives.  Deposits are a minimum of 20%, and there’s a general, inbuilt, reluctance to borrow or even spend on credit.  Additionally, interest rates are fixed – thereby avoiding the inflationary tendances changes to a variable rate can evoke.

Whilst, the absence of restrictions on foreign investment and relatively stable economic atmosphere compared to the rest of the EU, has lead to recent and robust off-shore acquisition of residential real estate, producing a somewhat concerning rise in prices and rents in cities such as Munich, Hamburg, and Cologne – for the time being, the Germany market remains attractive to both home buyer, investor and renter.

Drawing comparisons between two countries and their ‘in-built’ cultures is complex and I’m not suggesting we copy the German system in its current form.

However there are attractive elements in the tenancy laws, which in light of a cultural switch toward renting over ownership in a younger generation who change jobs often, and require a longer period to save if they want to enter the market – tighter rental controls, longer tenancies, and restrictions on incremented rises in yields, are worthy of consideration.

The subject deserves deeper analysis, which should be immediately undertaken and funded by local authorities, especially in light of recent headlines showing a sharp rise in evictions due to financial circumstance.

Meanwhile, whilst we continue to exist in a speculative atmosphere with a tax environment that consistently marginalises ‘generation rent,’ instead rewarding a ‘gamble’ on rising valuations in established accommodation – improving affordability, especially in the absence of effective low priced supply, is highly improbable.

 

Catherine Cashmore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The complexities of urban zoning by State governments, who openly advocate affordable housing initiatives, yet in truth are doing quite the reverse.

The complexities of urban zoning by State governments, who openly advocate affordable housing initiatives, yet in truth are doing quite the reverse.

The debate about house prices rises or falling, and what is, or isn’t a good for the economy, continues to dominate headlines – and not just in Australia.

Indeed, the cost of accommodation in most developing nations, is often coupled with wide spread reports of a growing divide between those who entered ownership early enough to reap the financial rewards stemming from a substantive period of healthy capital gains, against a generation who are finding the challenge of funding vastly higher capital prices, is coupled with less than desirable choices resulting from poor supply side policies.

Yet the governance of housing supply is hamstrung firstly by the idea that everyone should stay centrally located, squeezed into an area parallel to existing transport networks, which although already over capacity, results in intensive development of high density, low grade, accommodation.

In part this is based on the faulty logic that a larger percentage of residents not only want to live in the city, but if located adjacent to tram and train routes, would ditch the car in preference of either for their daily commute to work.

Whilst my experience as buyer advocate bears evidence that the concept of being close to public transport, is desired by the vast majority of purchasers, various studies have dispelled the myth that increasing percentages are using the crowded networks for their daily commute.  Not to mention the difference between living ‘walking distance’ from public transport, or feeling the house rattle as the train or tram trundles past

In Melbourne – unless you work directly in the CBD – travelling by rail usually entails a second trip by either bus or taxi at the other end. And as around 81% of jobs are located outside this area, with most being scattered broadly across the wider metropolitan regions, road networks are still the quickest and therefore preferred option for the larger percentage of residents – (as evidenced in the study ‘Making Public Transport work in Melbourne,’ by Bob Birrell, Rose Yip and David McCloskey.)

This goes some way in resolving the misadvised notion that dense living can reduce pollution, rendering it ‘environmentally sustainable’ – with studies by organisations such “Sustainable Population Australia” showing;

“…that high-rise housing increases per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30% due to a total reliance on power switches and being unable to enjoy the natural cooling of shady trees and living sustainability. Department of Planning and Energy Australia study (NSW) and the ACF Consumption Atlas show high-rise buildings emit more greenhouse gases per dwelling and per person than smaller blocks of flats, townhouses or detached homes”

As for those living in outer suburban districts, any concept of fast public transport to attend a football match, a day at the races, or experience inner-city ‘night’ life, is a long gone fantasy.

Some of Melbourne’s non-existent train lines were initially ‘mooted’ as far back as the 1890’s – and following numerous feasibility reports which amount to millions of ‘arguably” wasted dollars, they’ve become no more than dotted lines in the Melways.

Obviously units offer a cheaper entry point into tightly constricted markets.  The price difference in median values between an apartment and house ranges from around 12 to 30% (dependant on area and size – RPData.)

However, In Melbourne, the challenge of keeping apartment prices low is complicated by new zoning regulations, rendering some neighbourhoods immune from dense development, whilst others have the green light.  This further limits the concentration of land where construction can occur, and escalates already inflated land values.

Additionally, to get planning and building approval for an apartment block is a costly venture, requiring 100% debt cover and often resulting in a period of years from concept to ‘lock up.’

The complexities include levies for funding of communal facilities (such as underground parking, street lighting and so forth), which contributes significantly to the cost of the product.

Getting council approval can involve a lengthy period to resolve protests from existing residents and local councils, who fear the social and economic impact on their neighbourhood culture and local environment, and all of the above adds to developer holding costs until the project is finalised.

To obtain the necessary funding, the larger percentage are marketed to overseas buyers using vastly inflated commissions, who face no restriction when purchasing ‘off the plan.’

They are constructed with a ‘squeeze as many as possible’ mindset, compromising natural light and storage space along the way, and providing the finished product at an affordable price point (below existing unit medians) is no easy task.

High owner corporation fees to fund the required security features, lighting in corridors, lifts, lifestyle amenities (such as a gym or roof top garden for example) equates to at least a few thousand a year. Rental guarantees are often marketed to promise a return not possible once the guarantee has expired. – And if the developer encounters financial difficulties during this period, there is no government legalisation backing up any promise of payment.

Hence the supply of high-density accommodation is mostly purchased by the investment sector who find it easier to obtain funding, than the first home buying demographic, yet it seems a significant proportion sit vacant for periods of time.

For example, Melbourne’s Southbank has a vacancy rate close to 8% (SQM) which also falls in line with data obtained from Prosper Australia’s speculative vacancy report, which analyses water usage to assess residential vacancies across the metropolitan region over a 12 month period – the methodology of which is explained in detail here.

The research shows 7.9% of accommodation in the suburb uses no water at all, and over 22% less than 50 litres per day (a statistic which may be influenced by some being serviced apartments.)

All of the above, works on the ‘assumption’ that most people like to live close to the city and whilst this may apply to residents in their early years, who delight in the hub and bub of an inner city lifestyle, including student renters who need to locate close to nearby university campuses, there isn’t much evidence that the rest of us are prepared to give up space, to live in the type of accommodation provided.

Indeed, the idea that demographically we’re becoming a nation of downsizers is somewhat mythological, but it doesn’t stop the flow of regular articles suggesting we’re all becoming a nation of ‘happy strata dwellers,’ with “families are increasingly flocking to high-rise apartments.”

Whilst there’s no doubt we’ll see an increasing shift to apartment living due to lack of feasible alternatives, there is no evidence to suggest this is desired by the vast majority of ‘home buyers.’

It’s been shown the elderly overwhelmingly downsize to medium density accommodation thereby avoiding high-rise developments altogether – younger generations in their 20s and 30s have a better propensity towards high density living ,and the proportion is increasing; however figures still only peak around 14% at the age of 27, and the trend across all age groups is marginal, with only 1 in 20 choosing this form of accommodation nationwide (as of the 2011 census.)

Obviously, most local home buyers prefer houses to apartments – and for the high-rise price tag of a two-bedroom flat, there’s far more bang for buck in established accommodation that doesn’t come with the additional risk of a view being built out, queues to exit the car park, and 150 immediate neighbours traversing through various stages of their housing ‘career.’

Extra supply for the buy to let market should not be diminished, and it’s not my intention to do so.  However, there’s a broader need to establish quality accommodation for a larger proportion of home buyers who will accept townhouse living if locating inner city, but reject high density developments. And contrary to popular belief, it is possible to accommodate an equal number of residents in medium density dwellings without building to the skies.

Movements such as Create Streets in the UK are at the forefront of pushing low rise initiatives, and Robert Dalziel – the London-based architect for Rational House, who visited nine cities around the world, including Mexico City, Shanghai and Berlin, has comprehensively examined how high-density can be made agreeable for a broad demographic of home buyers.  More information can be found in his book –commissioned and published the Royal Institute of British Architects: entitled A House in the City — Home Truths in Urban Architecture.

However, families require houses (not apartments) gardens, green areas and local schools. They need community facilities, a local doctor on hand, good public transport and nearby shopping centres – and they need it all at an affordable price point.

It’s probably for this reason, that the major part of Victoria’s growth has been evidenced in fringe localities such as Wyndham, Melton and Whittlesea. And one thing we’re not short on in Melbourne is land. Yet regulatory constraints in outer suburban localities cause their own complexities that increase land prices making the entry point for such developments effectively double what they should be.

As Alan Moran recently pointed out in the Herald Sun “Without government restrictions on (the) city edge, land … would cost under $100,000. Regulatory-driven scarcity adds $100,000 to $150,000 to costs which the new homeowner must bear.”

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’ – 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.

Consequently, government bodies have little understanding how released plots respond to consumer demand or control over unnecessary land banking.

There’s little sense creating new suburbs without the necessary infrastructure. However, such facilitation 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, thereby bypassing an upfront fee which is piled onto the capital cost of their initial purchase (the detail of which I’ll go into in a future column.)

Additionally, a broad based land value tax, as advocated in the Henry review, would recoup a percentage of the windfall developers advantage, as prices increase though urban zoning, providing further encouragement to bring the plots into effective use and provide further funding for essential amenities.

The subject deserves deeper analysis, but the above touches on some of the measures we’re unwontedly subject to, by State governments who ‘spruik’ how they’re bringing affordable housing onto the market, yet in truth are doing quite the reverse.

Catherine Cashmore

 

 

Why first home buyers are not buying, and ways to solve it.

Why first home buyers are not buying, and ways to solve it.

The latest ABS data has indicated the percentage of first homebuyers active in the market has once again fallen, from 14.7% in July, to 13.7% in August.

Subsequently we’ve been bombarded with commentary asking why this should be so in a low interest rate atmosphere, where, there are ‘plenty’ of acquisitions available for sub $300,000?

Not withstanding, whilst 10 years ago $200,000-$300,000 would have secured a modest home in reasonably facilitated suburb, today – due to woeful supply side policy – you’d struggle to find family size accommodation on the fringes of our major cities for the same expense.

First home buyers will always wax and wane to some extent, based on their perception of value and ability to save over and above items of affordability alone.

And whilst a lower percentage entering the market can in part be attributed to lifestyle factors such as labour mobility, getting married later in life, numbers falling under the radar on loan applications, and the shadow effects of various grants and incentives being introduced and subsequently scaled back, thereby producing a demographic shift in the timing and age at which buyers enter the market, there are other factors at play which clearly point towards pressures of affordability.

For example just from the last census alone, we can see the percentage of 1 person households has decreased for the first time in over 100 years from 24.4%-24.3% – whilst at the same time group households have jumped from 3.9%-4.1% and crowded houses with 3 or more families have risen nationally by 64% to 48,499.

A closer look at exactly what it costs to rent a modest apartment within commutable proximity to our capital cities gives some indication why this should be so.

For example, in Melbourne – (which currently has one of the highest vacancy rates of any capital – 2.7% (SQM) for the month of September) – if you’re halfway fussy, requiring good proximity to transport, a modest balcony, or internal floor space over 40sqm, you’ll be hard pushed to get a 1 bedroom apartment in original condition under $320-$350 per week.

In Sydney, the equivalent will cost between $450 and $500 per week – therefore it makes sense to share expenses, and this is certainly the case with renters I’m in contact with.

An argument consistently put forward when discussing the first home buyer demographic, is the idea that many want to rent, rather than buy – and it’s certainly one I have sympathy with, whether that be for lifestyle, affordability, or work purposes.

However when two people meet, and plan a family, there is a natural desire to ‘settle.’ And in the absence of long-term lease and rent controls, most would preference purchasing over renting.

Therefore, a drop in ownership for this demographic, falling 79.5%-77.2%, coupled with increasing numbers becoming long-term renters, is concerning.

The Grattan report, released early last week, clearly demonstrated how tax policy is disproportionally weighted toward the owner/investor at the expense of the renter.

Indeed, so imbedded is it in the Australian culture that home ownership is the key to financial freedom, there is an un-witting air of sympathy when we refer to ‘generation rent.’

As for the first home buyer – assuming their initial property is not going to be their last, it would be more apt to term the demographic ‘first time investor’ with the need to purchase a ‘growth’ generating asset in an area with enough projected consistent buyer demand, to ensure equity to ‘tap’ into, when time comes to upgrade.

Notwithstanding, the investment potential of their purchase is always an initial question from homebuyers I assist.  And to get on what’s the commonly termed the ‘property ladder’ today, is markedly different from the post war environment baby boomers were born into.

Much of the newer accommodation being constructed is generally not attractive to consumers – being high-density, low-grade apartment blocks for which first homebuyers can have difficulty obtaining finance.

And whilst it’s not impossible for those who have saved a deposit to enter the established market – the stronger financial arm of the investment sector competing for a similar pool of dwellings around the suburban median price bracket, can present a significant challenge.

Urban boundaries and the propensity to towards land banking, hefty tax overlays and poor infrastructure development, has ensured land on the outskirts is already artificially inflated, rather than representing a cost that would assist purchasers to compensate for the expense of commuting greater distances to work related services.

The residents who purchased in Melbourne’s Point Cook for example, which was expanded in line with the 2030 plan and initially marketed as “A thriving neighbourhood … just 22km from Melbourne’s CBD” with “convenient access to established schools, shopping, recreational facilities and public transport” have seen their home values fall, battled with overcrowded roads, and a minimum 2 hour commute to the CBD in peak hour traffic.

So whilst it’s easy to accuse first home buyers of being picky, one could just as easily ask why they should they forgo a hard earned deposit to accept what’s currently on offer, or exceed the budget to outbid competition for a limited number of established dwellings?

First homebuyers are not a ‘buy anything as long as it’s cheap’ consumer – although some mistakenly assume they should be if they want to get into the housing market.  

And whilst commentators use low interest rates to support the argument that housing affordability has improved, it is important to understand 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.

So what can be done?

As recorded by APM, Sydney’s median house price has increased by +4.2% over the September quarter to $722,718 – ‘the first capital to reach this milestone,’ whilst, the unit median has pushed past the half million landmark to $510,000.

The current rental yield for a unit would be around 4%, therefore most new investors would be negatively geared and speculating on capital growth accrued during the period of ownership plus another like minded investor paying more at the end of that duration, to make the strategy productive.

Yet, despite this robust activity from the investment sector making up around 50% of the buying market, Sydney’s vacancy rate recorded the largest monthly decline in September of any capital – now at 1.8% (SQM).

This is because, the concentration of investment is focused overwhelmingly on the established sector through policies such as negative gearing coupled with 1999 decision to tax capital gains at half the rate applicable to other income. Since implementation, supply has not increased; rather investor activity around a limited pool of second-hand dwellings has multiplied. (see next graph)

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Needless to say, common sense dictates that maximisation of policy initiatives to increase supply cannot occur if we don’t address this mindset.

As I touched on last week, prior to negative gearing being quarantined in 1986 – rents were already rapidly rising in Sydney and Perth, with vacancy rates below 1%.

Therefore, it is not clear whether subsequent rises were wholly due to the tax changes.  It is also not clear that a continual sharp increase in rents would have been worst had the policy backflip not occurred.

However, without effective supply side initiatives to offset the inflationary elements investment in established property has produced, the market is simply a game of musical chairs – replacing a property for sale with a property for let.

Solution

I’ve said on many occasions that the challenge of creating a balanced, affordable, attractive market for homebuyer, investor and renter alike cannot be tackled on one front.

There are many distortions that need to be slowly unpicked, whilst robust activity to lower land values and increase supply implemented.

As it stands, considering the number of investors who rely on negative gearing as a tax/investment strategy, we’ve arguably painted ourselves into a corner.

I am a full agreement that negative gearing is a failed policy however; I would hesitate in abolishing it in one foul swoop for the following reasons.

Whilst here is little evidence to suggest there’d be an investor exodus, there’s also scant evidence that first homebuyers would be in a position to immediately soak up any additional stock at current prices – bearing in mind negatively geared investments are most suited to this demographic (being smallish 1/2 bedroom apartments.)

The average first homebuyer borrows around $280,000-$300,000 – therefore we’d need to see more than a light correction in values to provide a competitive entry point – not to mention the difficulties most have saving a deposit

Furthermore, even if established supply were to increase with projected lower demand from investors, to see substantial drops in values assumes vendor’s being forced to sell at a loss.

As evidenced in some of our previous downward cycles (most recently during 2011 to 2012) markets can stagnate rather than truly ‘correct’ with many buyers taking a back seat expecting further falls.

However, a gradual deployment of speculation away from established dwellings, with incentives to investors to purchase new over old, coupled with assistance to potential home buyers to either save, or enter into shared equity schemes, would be a start to meeting any increased supply with new home buyer demand.

The policy could be gradually phased out by limiting it to a fixed number of investments  – 2 for example – or taking the suggestion made by the Henry Tax review of tightening current arrangements with a lesser 40% of interest allowed as a deduction, and capital gains taxed at the slightly higher rate of 60%

This at least would be a starting point toward a fairer market

Additionally, dramatically increasing supply of new ‘quality’ accommodation with some reserved for low-income workers must take priority, as well as a structured plan to increase infrastructure through the consideration of bond financing for example

Over the 17 years to 2012 negative gearing cost Australian tax payers around $33.5 billion (inflation adjusted for the period estimated.)  Considering we have an ageing population requiring increased spending on healthcare and other related services, coupled with a widely spruiked shortage of housing and, as Tim Toohey pointed out in a recent Goldman Sachs publication, forecast income growth of 3.5% in 2013-14 compared to an average of 15.5% over the last 15 years, it’s hard not to see better ways to manage the budget.

Indeed – any politician with more than a short-term mindset – would be blinkered to imagine we can continue with the current status quo for ever.

Additionally, an overhaul of policy surrounding tenancies is also necessary. However, that’s for another column.

Catherine Cashmore