Skyscraper Hubris – Pride Before A Fall

By – Catherine Cashmore

“Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” reportedly asked financier John J. Raskob, as he pulled out a thick pencil from his drawer, and held it up to William F. Lamb, the architect he had employed to design and construct The Empire State Building.

It was the ‘race to the sky’ and it marked the peak of the roaring Twenties. Capturing what is perhaps one of the most exciting periods in New York’s history.

“Never before have such fortunes been made overnight by so many people,” said American journalist and Statesman Edwin LeFevre (1871–1943)

While areas of the economy such as agriculture and farming, were still struggling to gain ground from the post WWI depression, and a large proportion of the population continued to live in relative poverty. Advances in technology, rapid urbanisation and mass advertising accelerating consumer demand, produced an era of such sustained economic prosperity, it led Irving Fischer one of America’s ‘greatest mathematical economists’ to famously conclude that:

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

“Only the hardiest spoilsports rose to protest that the wild and unchecked speculative fever might be bad for the country.” Wrote historian Paul Sann, in his publication, ‘The Lawless decade.’

“The money lay in stacks in Wall Street, waiting to be picked up. You had to be an awful deadhead not to go get some.”

Land values of course captured the gains, and between 1921 and 1929 lending on real estate increased by 179%, and urban prices more than doubled.

According to research collated by Professor Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina at the Harvard Business School in Boston, by 1930 values in Manhattan, including the total value of building plans, contained “only slightly less than 10% of the total for 310 United States cities (Manhattan included) during the same period.”

A staggering figure considering Manhattan at the time, contained only 1.5% of the US population.

Few raised concerns however.

It was believed the Federal Reserve Act, created in 1913 “to furnish an elastic currency” would tame the business cycle and – as the First Chairman of the Federal Reserve Charles S Hamlin put it:

“..relegate to its proper place, the museum of antiquities – the panic generated by distrust in our banking system..”

The National bank runs of the past had been exacerbated because there was ‘no stretch’ in times of crisis, or moderation in the rates of interest.

However, the bulk of lending against real estate over this period was not limited to New York, or to institutions that were members of the Federal Reserve.

Thousands of new banks were setting themselves up in outlying areas and as noted by Elmus Wicker, author of ‘The Banking Panics of the Great Depression

“..(they) were either operated by real estate promoters or exhibited excess enthusiasm to finance a local real estate boom”

It brought with it a period of high inflation, and coupled with speculation in real estate securities, produced an explosion in the value of construction that would not be equalled until the boom and bust era of the late 1980s.

NY construction(Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina – Real Estate Prices During the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression)

By 1925 real estate bond issues accounted for almost one quarter of all the corporate debt supplied – and between 1925 and 1929 alone, a quarter of New York’s financial district was rebuilt and 17,000,000 square feet of new office-space added.

This, prompted the owners of the grand Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue to sell.

Arising from a family feud between two competing cousins, the iconic guesthouse had been built at the top of a preceding boom and bust land cycle in the early 1890’s, and as ‘the most luxurious hotel in the world’ stood 17 stories high towering above the surrounding residences.

W&A hotel

By the late 1920s however, the décor had become dated and the social elite had centred themselves much further north.

The owner’s decision to upgrade into the Park Avenue district, and build what was then, ‘the tallest hotel in the world’ allowed John J. Raskob to acquire the site for The Empire State Building for the not so small sum of $16 million.

Raskob needed a further $50 million for construction, which he achieved by way of a $27.5 million dollar mortgage, as well as engaging with a limited number of substantial backers.

“If the amounts seem considerable the backers knew that this was a money maker. The building would be the greatest showcase in the city filled with them.  And tenants would line up to print “Empire State Building” on their letterhead….” wrote Robert A. Slayton author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith

The location was later criticised for being too far from public transport, but no such concerns were raised at the time.

New York office leases began on May 1st – the sooner the building was completed, the sooner it would bring in an income and notwithstanding, Raskob’s two main competitors also in the race for height supremacy – auto industry giant Walter Chrysler and investment banker George Ohrstrom – had already commenced.

Chrysler had seized his opportunity when gratuitous plans for an opulent office block designed by architect William Van Alen had fallen through due to financing.

He took over the project with clear intentions.

Adjusting the tower’s ascetics to reflect the company’s triumphs, with gargoyles, eagles and corner ornaments made to look like the brand’s 1929 radiator caps. Chrysler instructed the builders to make sure his toilet was ‘the highest in Manhattan’ so he could look down and as one observer put it, “shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world.”

garg

Around the same time, George Ohrstrom, also determined to set the record, purchased the site that was to become the headquarters of The Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall St (now the Trump Tower.)

Ohrstrom’s architect was H. Craig Severance, former partner and competitor to Walter Chrysler’s designer, Van Alen – and the bitter rivalry between the two added considerably to the dynamic.

Construction for 40 Wall St start started in May 1929 and no less than one month later, in April of the same year, fearing the competition Chrysler reportedly called his architect in frustration exclaiming:

“Van, you’ve just got to get up and do something. It looks as if we’re not going to be the highest after all. Think up something! Your valves need grinding. There’s a knock in you somewhere. Speed up your carburettor. Go to it!”  Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City Neal Bascomb

Van Alen subsequently increased the height of the Chrysler tower to 925-feet and added more stories – 72 in total.

Not to be outdone however, Severance added 4 extra floors to his own design, extending the building’s height to 927-feet – only marginally taller than Van Alen’s efforts, but by this stage the steel frame for the Chrysler building had already been completed and in Ohrstrom’s mind, he had already won.

The Bank of Manhattan was finished at record speed, taking just 93 days in total – meeting the May 1st deadline and setting the record for skyscraper construction.

40 wall st

It opened with great celebration – with Ohrstrom boastfully laying claim to the title of “the world’s tallest,” while in blissful ignorance of the final trick Chrysler had yet to pull from his sleeve.

Replacing the original plans of a dome shaped roof, Van Alen enhanced the design with the addition of a 186 foot iconic spire, which was hoisted to the top of the structure in secret and assembled in a mere 90 minutes.

chrysler

This raised the building’s height to 1,046 feet, a total of 77 floors – allowing Chrysler, less than one month later to trump Ohrstrom’s record.

The battle continued long after both blocks were completed, with the consulting architects of 40 Wall Street, Shreve & Lamb, writing a newspaper article claiming that their building contained the highest useable floor and was therefore more deserving of the title.

The Empire State Building however, was to settle the matter.

Hamilton Weber the original rental manager, takes up the story.

“We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet taller than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would pull a trick – like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute” The Empire State Building Book by Jonathan Goldman

The solution to Raskob’s worries was to add what he quaintly termed “a hat!” – marketed as a mooring mast for dirigibles – although never utilised due to the strong winds and updrafts that circulated at the top.

This raised the building’s height to 1,250 feet, easily outstripping both Chrysler’s and Ohrstrom’s efforts, allowing Raskob to scoop the title.

Taking just 13 months to complete, 58 tons of steel, 60 miles of water pipe, 17 million feet of telephone cable and appliances to burn enough electricity to power the New York city of Albany. The Empire State building with 2.1 million square feet of rentable space opened on May 1st 1931 empty – just as the country was entering one of the worst economic depressions in recorded history.

ESB

Dubbed ‘The Empty State Building’ – it did not turn over a profit until 1950 putting Raskob who, in 1929 had penned the famous article ‘Everybody Ought to be Rich‘ by investing in “America’s booming corporate economy,” deep in the red.

The history of this era is a fascinating study.  However as entertaining as the story is, it does not stand in isolation.

From long before the Empire State Building was completed, to the most recent example – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – mankind’s quest to reach the heavens and demonstrate power through the imposing dominance of boasting ‘the world’s tallest’ structure has – with no notable exception – commenced at the peak of each real estate cycle and opened its doors during the bust.

The pattern is easy to follow:

Improvements in the economy are first reflected in rents, which adjust quicker to market conditions than associated expenses – insurance and utility rates for example – which are subject to contract and therefore typically rise out of step.

This in turn attracts speculative investment, pushing prices upwards beyond the cost of replacement, fuelling a cyclical rise in construction – usually for the purpose of speculation, rather than genuine homebuyer demand.

The steeper land values become, the higher the building must be in order to achieve a profitable return, this in turn increases demand to concentrate both labour and capital around what is usually a centralised core.

There is however a lag in the time it takes for high-density construction to reach the market – usually a number of years – before the extra supply can drive down both rents and values, resulting in the building boom outlasting the boom in prices, and an overhang of vacancies when the fervour dissipates.

Notwithstanding, there are limits to how high you can extend before the whole project becomes unprofitable.

William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, makes the following point in his 2005 publication ‘Placing Words Symbols, Space, and the City.’

… floor and wind loads, people, water and supplies must be transferred to and from the ground, so the higher you go, the more of the floor area must be occupied by structural supports, elevators and service ducts.  At some point it becomes uneconomical to add additional floors, the diminishing increment of useable floor area, does not justify the additional cost.”

In a subsequent publication he goes one-step further.

“I suspect you would find that going for the title of ‘tallest’ is a pretty good indicator of CEO and corporate hubris. I would look not only at ‘tallest in the world,’ but also more locally—tallest in the nation, the state, or the city. And I’d also watch out for conspicuously tall buildings in locations where the densities and land values do not justify it”  ‘Practical Speculation’ By Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel, Kenner

Mitchell’s warning to look for the “tallest” is not to be taken lightly.

The New York Tribune Building for example, one of the world’s first skyscrapers boasting to be “the highest building on Manhattan Island” – opened in 1874 and coincided with the 1873 financial crisis in both Europe and North America.

The Manhattan Building in Chicago Illinois and the Pulitzer Building in New York, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest” – opened between 1890 and 1891 and coincided with one of the worst economic depressions of that time (particularly in Australia.)

The Singer Building and The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in New York, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest”  – opened in 1908 and 1909 respectively and coincided with stock market panic of 1907 (the Knickerbocker Crisis.)

The World Trade Centre in New York, boasting the title of “the tallest twin towers in the world” – opened in 1973 and coincided with the 1973-75 economic recession.

The Sears (or Willis) Tower, boasting the title of ’the world’s tallest” opened in May 1973, coinciding once again, with the 1973-75 recession.

The Petronas Towers in Malay – surpassing The World Trade Centre as “the tallest twin towers in the world” – opened its doors to tenants in 1997, coinciding with the Asian financial crisis.

The Taipai 101 in China, the first to exceed half a kilometre, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest” – opened in the early 2000s, coinciding with the ‘Dot.com’ bubble and burst.

And most recently, the Borj Khlifa in Dubai, the current ‘tallest in the world’ -, opened in 2009, coinciding the sub-prime crisis, estimated to be the worst economic disasters to date.

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.41.05 PM

There are numerous examples, and rarely do these structures go up alone.

As we are seeing currently both here and abroad, the rate of high-rise construction globally, stands at unprecedented levels – funded by low interest rates and a wash of easy credit.

Matthew Guy, Minister for Planning in Victoria, has been a staunch supporter of higher density dwellings, but the risks surrounding a boom on the scale we are witnessing presently, cannot be diminished.

The small one and two bedroom apartments, funded in main by offshore speculation, are poorly designed, lack natural light, do not offer value for money, and lay out the reach of most first home buyers who face tighter lending restrictions for dwellings of this type

Notwithstanding, Prosper Australia’s Speculative Vacancies report for Melbourne in 2013, revealed many of these properties sit empty – up to 22% in the Southbank and docklands area – a figure that could well be higher today, considering the rate of what can only be termed, ‘bubble’ construction.

And to make matters worst, there is growing evidence the approved sites for skyscraper construction are being ‘flipped’ prior to commencement, with new owners reapplying to have height limits extended still further.

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 1.14.27 PM

(Developers ‘flipping’ projects for huge profits – The AGE September 1, 2014)

The next ‘world’s tallest’ will be the proposed Azerbaijan Tower in Baku, due for completion in 2019 – and projected to be 1km high.

AT

It coincides nicely with the completion of ‘the tallest’ residential tower in the Southern Hemisphere – Australia 108 in Melbourne – which at 319 metres, will exceed the height of the current record holder – the Eureka Tower – and unless we see changes to current policy – will mark another period of financial instability.

Aus108

Only by removing the accelerants that produce this behaviour – contained in our tax, supply, regulatory and monetary policies – can we start to address the boom and bust cycles that lay us open to economic instability, fuelling the boastful passions of financiers at the expense of the rest of the population.

It is these policies that keep us locked around a centralised core, increasing the cost of land at the margin and resulting in decades of dead weight taxes on every worker in the country being clawed back by way of preferential tax treatment for those that speculate on the rising value of land.

Every citizen in Australia would be richer by a significant margin if we collected instead, the economic rent from land, resources, banking profits, government granted licences and so forth, and used these to fund society’s needs rather than progressively taxing productivity to feed an elevated level of rent seeking behaviour.

But until such a time there is only one moral to this story.

Pride comes before a fall.

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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.

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)

Image

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

A few thoughts on Negative Gearing – the contradictory policy which benefits investors whilst negatively impacting renters.

A few thoughts on Negative Gearing – the contradictory policy which benefits investors whilst negatively impacting renters.

It’s hard to believe we need to consistently go over the impact a concentration of investment into established housing has on affordability to the detriment of low-income workers and renters.

I’ve written extensively on it in the past, and many papers have been produced to outline the consequences in detail. However, over the past week, I received a string of emails from interested readers and journalists asking for my comments on negative gearing, therefore, I hope you will forgive me for reiterating a few basic points.

To be against negative gearing as a policy incentive is not a stance against investment into the housing market.

Indeed we need a steady provision of rental accommodation because there will always be a proportion of the population unable or unwilling to purchase, or in need of a transitional period of tenancy due to job changes.

Albeit, a drop in ownership rates from families with children falling from 79.5%-77.2% over the last census interim – our biggest demographic of homebuyer, – coupled yields outpacing both wage growth and inflation over the corresponding period and beyond, highlights a growing and somewhat concerning trend.

Leading up to the peak of 2010, Australia had an unparalleled property boom which not only heralded us top of the “Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” for subsequent years, but placed household debt to income ratios at around 150% which can hardly be called healthy.

I’m sure many have grown tired of being ‘lectured’ on the many ‘viable’ reasons why we’ve seen prices and subsequently household debt increase (ease of lending, lower borrowing rates, and wage growth to name but a few) however, whilst you can argue over the details contained in housing affordability reports as many have done in the past – or fall back on previous statements made by the RBA which conclude’

“Australia is now broadly in line with other comparable countries, having risen relative to other countries since 1980 when it was at the lower end..”

..it’s rather embarrassing that these ‘comparable countries’ include the UK, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Canada – all International terrains which having been through somewhat harder lessons than our own, also battle to induce first home buyers out from underneath their ‘rental’ blankets as high prices and shortages of stock herald arguments similar to those voiced here.

Yes – Australia has a shortage of accommodation in areas most want to live, work, play and importantly purchase. As I argued last week, this pattern of behaviour has predominantly been driven by years of poor planning for population growth, leading many to conclude, they have little option but to situate close to centralised job districts rather than incur the inflated cost and time of commuting on already over-crowded arterials.

However, all of he above has also been exacerbated by our tax policy of negative gearing.

As the Henry Tax review pointed out, Australia has a system that taxes income from work and savings at a higher rate than other forms of investment (including borrowing and speculating,) which are taxed at a lower rate.

In other countries such as the USA, investors of geared properties can only claim tax deductions for interest on borrowings against the income generated by the property until sold.  However, the Australian system allows heavily geared investors to deduct against wages thereby reducing their overall tax bill, which, when combined with various other incentives such as depreciation, makes it a very attractive policy for high income earners to the disadvantage of lower wage individuals, unable to bridge the gap between the income the property generates and the outgoing expenses.

The success of negative gearing relies solely on the growth of the asset.  Without good capital appreciation, negative gearing doesn’t work.  Therefore, investors taking advantage of the incentives are for want of a better word ‘speculators’ who have concentrated their attention on the established market principally in the inner and middle ring suburbs – areas that attract the highest levels of concentrated buyer activity.

Consequently, 92 per cent of residential investors borrow to purchase second hand dwellings, leaving the ‘new housing market’ without enough investment to induce an adequate provision of supply or infrastructure. This inflates the cost of established stock, leaving a widening gap between price and yield – leading investors even more reliant on the band-aid of negative gearing to fund their activities.

With 1.2 Million negatively geared investors (speculators) relying on appreciation, predicting movements in the market place is a national past time.  You’ll hear it trotted out frequently that we’re at “such and such” stage of the “property clock” or “property cycle.”  Second-guessing rises or falls in the RBA rate has become a popular sport on Twitter and various other media outlets.

The RBA noted as early as 2003, when advocating a moderation of demand in the property market amongst investors, by way of tightening of the current negative gearing rules – the rises in Australia’s established market have been inflated principally from a growth in investor demand aimed overwhelmingly at the second hand dwellings.

The RBA described the demand as ‘unprecedented’ with the concentration overwhelmingly on properties around the median price point (currently circa $500,000) where overall demand from homebuyers is also at its highest.

On the surface it may seem somewhat contradictory that a policy benefitting investors could negatively impact renters.  Albeit, rather than having the ‘spruiked’ desired effect of aiding rental affordability and rental supply, the results speak for themselves.

Over the previous five years, Australia’s rental yields have risen 49.2 per cent, outpacing growth in housing loan repayments for the same period. Furthermore, long-term vacancy rates sitting firmly below 5 per cent and in established areas they hover closer to 2 per cent. Does this alone not ring bells that negative gearing as it stands, is doing little to solve rental shortages and consequently a growing affordability crisis?

Some put forward the debate that property investment should be viewed no differently from any other small business such as dog washing and so forth.  However, property is not only a wealth generating asset, but as essential requirement for all – on a par with good medical care and food. Governments have a responsibility to provide policies that balance the market for investor, renter and most importantly the homebuyer alike. Not an easy task – but certainly not impossible.

Then there are those who take you back to the Hawke/Keeting era during which negative gearing was to some extent “quarantined”.  The result was marginal at best, there was a dampening of investor enthusiasm and a small increase in rental yields in two states (Sydney and Perth) both of which were already experiencing vacancy rates below 1 per cent and therefore had other factors weighing into the statistic – however in other states there was no such rise, and in some – such as Melbourne, rental growth actually slowed.

Additionally, the change in policy didn’t stay around long enough to take us through this transitional period and enable effective assessment of the results. Stringent lobbying by the real estate fraternity and property investors ensured at first opportunity the policy was re-introduced.

This is because real estate industry professionals love investors.  The transaction process is generally smoother with less emotional content involved and the selling agency benefits from the rental management once the purchaser has settled.  This helps cement a lasting relationship with their client’ as well as an ongoing potential income stream.  Hence why the majority would rarely voice opposition.

I have no doubt if the policy were removed, or even scaled down, there would be less demand for established stock and a subsequent dampening in prices.  And whilst I agree that a sudden and complete retraction of negative gearing in its current form would be foolish – favouring a slow wind-down whilst other policies are implemented such as strategies to aid development and increase supply – the notion that touching the ‘golden egg’ of negatively geared property assets in a way which may dissuade buyers from ‘banking’ on the established market to fund their retirement would be disastrous – seems to be one that’s culturally ingrained in the real estate fraternity.

You only have to turn on the TV to be bombarded with programs from The Living Room to The Block, which make everyone feel like a rookie renovator able to ‘tap into’ the wealth of their property investments with a quick makeover, or fuel the perception that you can pick up a good property as some magically suggest –‘below its intrinsic value’ and ‘add value’ to create profit – to know obsession with property investment goes above and beyond negative gearing alone.

Indeed, if someone could prove to me that any of our current modes of investment have lead to

1)      An improvement in housing affordability and supply;

2)      An increase in vacancy rates;

3)      A substantial boost to new housing and consequently infrastructure in ‘growth’ suburbs; and

4)      Lower rents for the most venerable in our society

I would be the first campaigning on the streets in in favour of the plan.  However all of the above, negative gearing has failed to do.

I can’t help thinking back to a talk I attended at a previous REIV conference where a Victorian state minister was lecturing on the state of our economy (I won’t mention names).  During the course of his speech, he revealed he had ownership of nine investment properties – the majority of which are negatively geared. Therefore, you have to wonder who our leaders are protecting when opposing changes to the current status quo – it’s certainly not the low-income earner or renter.

In other words, negative gearing, as been more to do with promoting property inflation ‘growth at any cost’ rather than aiding society – however, for those who want more detail on the consequential impact, I suggest reading the latest research paper from the Grattan Institute which can be downloaded here.

Catherine Cashmore