‘Speculative Vacancies’ – The Empty Properties Ignored By Statistics

SpecVac_poster-2

By Catherine Cashmore

There have been four housing affordability inquiries since the early 2000s.

The “First Home Ownership” inquiry by the Productivity Commission (2004). The Senate Select Committee inquiry into housing affordability (2008). The inquiry into affordable housing by the Senate Economics References Committee (2014), and the current Inquiry into home ownership by the Standing Committee on Economics (2015).

The central recommendation of each inquiry has been to increase the supply of affordable housing.

However, missing from the analysis is any mention of the number of long-term vacant dwellings held for speculative gain across Australia’s major capital cities – not for sale, and not for rent.

Because they are not publicly advertised, these properties are overlooked by current short-term vacancy statistics based on reporting by real estate firms.

Prosper Australia’s annual Speculative Vacancies report uncovers these latent holdings. Using water data as a proxy, we provide a unique insight into the number and ratio of long-term vacancies withheld from the market for a full 12-month period in Melbourne.

Stratified by postcode, the report provides a detailed study to enlighten government on sound policy recommendations to drive prosperity and assist housing affordability.

We cannot have a serious conversation about Australia’s housing supply ‘crisis’ without addressing the fundamental drivers that permit – no-less encourage – owners to lay a significant proportion of prime urban land to waste.

There are many diverse motivating factors prompting owners to leave buildings idle. Some may be undergoing renovation or awaiting demolition. Others may be derelict and in need of substantial and costly repairs.

However, the notable trend underlying the data is the large divergence between residential real estate prices and rental incomes – including both actual and imputed rents on owner-occupation.

During the 2014/2015 financial year alone, Melbourne’s median capital city land price accelerated over 14 per cent.

At just over $700,000, Melbourne’s median house price is 8.8 times median income. Yet, at just 3 per cent, gross rental yields in Melbourne are at their lowest on record.

Real net rental incomes across Australia have been declining since 2001. Between 1994 and 2013, the number of negatively geared investors dependent on rising prices to profit escalated 152 per cent. In contrast, positively geared investors have increased by a much lesser 47 per cent.

The overwhelming majority of negatively geared investors (95 per cent) chase the capital gains associated with existing stock, rather than investing into new residential construction. Australia’s housing stock has been turned into little more than a vehicle for financial speculation, placing increasing pressure on prices.

To evidence further, since 1997, the share of loans for housing has increased from 47 per cent to 66 per cent. Only approximately 10 per cent of the flow of housing finance has been for the construction of new dwellings. Meanwhile, the ratio of business credit to total credit has been declining since the late 1980s.

Credit extended for enterprise is proven to be positively associated with economic growth and faster reductions in income inequality. Household credit (principally mortgage debt) provides no such benefit. Rather, it leads to a misallocation of credit, to feed an elevated level of speculative rent-seeking demand.

It is important to note that increasing land values are not borne from any productive activity undertaken by the owner who (as the classical economist John Stewart Mill termed it) “grows rich in their sleep without working, risking or economising.”

Rather, the value of land reflects its surrounds, growing primarily through increased demand generated by government-funded infrastructure.

Rising land-values yield a special type of unearned income known as “economic rent.”

As a broad measure, land prices can be calculated by multiplying current rents by 20 years. This is known as the capitalisation rate.

It is speculation induced by the capitalisation of the rental value of land into a tradable commodity that drives the boom-bust volatility of the real estate cycle.

Withholding prime locations from the market in an unused state generates artificial scarcity, raising prices and accelerating mortgage debt.

It underpins our cultural obsession of betting on bourgeoning land-price gains and using leverage to climb the mythological property ladder.

The consequential subversion to policy reform is inevitable, as the benefits of government-funded infrastructure flow disproportionately to landowners in the form of unearned windfall gains.

Large divergences between rental income and land price inflation are an unhealthy challenge to both housing affordability and economic stability.

They lead to ‘speculative vacancies.’

These are properties that are denied to thousands of tenants and potential owner-occupiers by landowners that have no motivation to generate any rental income. The result is a lowering of publicised vacancy rates, and increased land prices.

The regulatory environment provides a prime motivator for property speculation.

Landowners betting on a continuation of past high rates of appreciation are advantaged by preferential tax exemptions worth an estimated $36 billion a year.

Negative gearing coupled with the 50 per cent capital gains tax (CGT) discount for property held in excess of 12 months, have ensured high-income individuals are the main beneficiaries of rising land values. The top 40 per cent of income earners hold nearly 80 per cent of all investor mortgage debt.

First home buyer grants and other state incentives such as stamp duty waivers, owner-occupier exemptions from CGT and state land tax (SLT), changes to the superannuation laws enabling leverage into real estate (2007) – typify the commodification of property as a tool for profit seeking gain, advantaging existing owners vis-à-vis the young and the poor.

These incentives strip away any hope of a market aspiring to house people, rather than encouraging speculative greed. Policies that foster land price inflation and reward rent-seeking behaviour cannot deliver positive economic outcomes.

The IMF finds more than two-thirds of the world’s recent 50 systemic banking crises were caused by patterns of accelerating real estate prices relative to GDP.

A comprehensive analysis of historical data demonstrates a clear pattern of repeating real estate and construction cycles topping-out some 24-48 months prior to the world’s major economic downturns.

This cyclical top has been a precursor to all of Australia’s economic recessions.

Yet, it is not the recession that damages the economy. The damage arises from mounting levels of leveraged debt extended for the purpose of land speculation.

In a little over two decades, the share of investment property loans as a proportion of total debt has tripled from one-tenth to three-tenths.

Investors now account for 40 per cent of total housing loans outstanding.19 Australia is the third most indebted household sector relative to GDP in the OECD.

At just over $2 trillion,21 the unconsolidated household debt to GDP ratio sits at an eye-watering 121.5 per cent.

The burden of diverting an ever-increasing proportion of incomes to debt-servicing by both business and buyers has progressively undermined the health and competitiveness of the Australian economy.

The long-term risks to our financial system are precarious. The economic impacts for low- to middle-income Australian’s are disastrous.

Ownership for 15-34 year olds has been in a downward trend since the mid 1970s. For 35-44 year olds, since the mid 1980s.

Even those able to step onto the fabled property ladder, long-term security of tenure is not guaranteed. Significant numbers are ‘churning’ on the edges of owner occupation.

Between 2001 and 2010, one in five homeowners (22 per cent) dropped out of home ownership – for 9 per cent, this move was enduring.

For those that do purchase, there is a spike in the chances of a termination back into rental housing after just one year.

Importantly, the trend is accompanied with episodes of poor health, unemployment and financial stress.

After exiting homeownership, 34 per cent of Australian ex-home owners require access to housing assistance. Additionally, one in 10 Australians has been homeless at least once in their lives.

The incidence of housing stress for owner-occupiers declines with age, however, for long-term tenants and those under 35 years, it remains stubbornly high.

Current policy cements this demographic at the bottom of the pile.

Ineffective use of residential and commercial sites further stimulates the volatility and inequity of the real estate cycle. Land’s locational supply cannot be increased to accommodate rising demand. Buildings banked and withheld from use exacerbate this disparity.

As such, the SV rate can be likened to the unemployment rate for land.

It results in the productive capacity of the economy being ruthlessly compromised as citizens and businesses are forced to pay higher prices and commute greater distances for employment and lifestyle needs.

Prosper Australia’s Speculative Vacancies report gives a unique insight into the impact of current housing policy.

The report identifies 82,724 residential dwellings and 30,085 commercial properties in Greater Melbourne likely vacant for a period of 12-months or more.

As government and real estate industry vacancy statistics are neither impartial nor comprehensive, this report adds a valuable dimension to understanding the divergence between real estate industry short term vacancy rates (the percentage of properties available for rent as a proportion of the total rental stock) and the number of potentially vacant properties exacerbating Australia’s housing crisis.

We advocate these figures should correlated along side our Speculative Vacancy findings to produce the widest and clearest measure of vacant housing supply to guide policy makers.

Read the report

… extract from Executive Summary:

....If just those residential properties consuming 0LpD were placed onto the market for rent, this would increase Melbourne’s actual vacancy rate to 8.3 per cent. If 82,724 properties using under 50LpD were advertised for rent, the vacancy rate could rise to an alarming 18.9%. (1)

Further examination of 130,610 non-residential properties across 254 postcodes over the same period identifies 7,941 or 6.1 per cent of Melbourne’s commercial stock was also vacant over 2014, i.e. having consumed 0LpD.

Government failure to address Australia’s housing affordability crisis is indefensible. Access to affordable shelter is a basic human right and underlies national prosperity.

Vacant properties impose a needless economic burden. Residents and businesses are forced to leapfrog vacancies to lesser sites at great cost, increasing commuting times and placing upward pressure on prices.

Latent supply is usually not visible without a significant downturn in economic activity. If withheld stock were put to use, it would reduce cost-of-living pressures for tens of thousands of low and middle-income families and businesses marginalised by the cost of land.

This report recommends fundamental reforms to reduce the propensity for volatile boom-bust land cycles fuelled by speculation and unsustainable levels of household debt.

Current property taxes discourage investment into new housing, inflate the cost of land, stagnate housing turnover and hinder putting property to its highest and best use.

The report advocates that profound inefficiencies could be significantly alleviated if current transaction taxes were phased out and replaced with a holding tax levied on the unimproved value of land, alongside enhanced infrastructure financing methods for new developments.

Policy makers have thus far ignored Melbourne’s speculative vacancies and their effect on property prices.

With some 4.8 per cent of Melbourne’s houses showing severe under-utilisation, there is no housing supply crisis. Rather, rising prices indicate significant distortions created by policies supporting rent-seeking behaviour.

Government and statistical bodies need to recognise this disparity and employ a more comprehensive data analysis of vacant housing stock.

Read the report

Footnotes:

[1] Residential per capita consumption in Melbourne is currently 183 LpD.

http://www.afr.com/real-estate/leaky-data-water-use-shines-a-light-on-occupancy-20151207-glhewz

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-08/nobody-s-home-australian-boom-leaves-swathe-of-empty-properties

http://www.news.com.au/finance/real-estate/shocking-number-of-melbourne-properties-left-vacant-despite-huge-housing-demand/news-story/4dc12b7033d1e43e91458b673fdabf79

http://www.domain.com.au/news/nearly-20-per-cent-of-melbournes-investorowned-homes-empty-20151209-glixgs/

http://www.businessspectator.com.au/news/2015/12/9/property/vacant-properties-soar-victoria

http://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2015/12/the-melbourne-ghost-city-revealed-2/

Also covered by “Friendly Jordies

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clC_vIlbtME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undeserving Poor..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind the Gap..

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

Both homeowner and speculator..

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

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

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

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

Capital growth..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the beginning. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better model of ‘Welfare..’

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Cashmore

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

 

Inequality and economic growth…

Inequality and economic growth…

To a limited extent inequality and the ‘rich/poor’ gap is tolerated within society because economists have historically seen it as a necessary platform to stimulate ‘economic progress’ or even activate a sense of competitiveness within individuals in order to elevate themselves up the social ladder

Certainly in the housing market this is evident.  Who hasn’t aspired to their ‘dream’ home – or visualized some improvement similar to that of their neighbours?

It’s what the success of programs such as ‘Grand Designs’ thrive upon – the emotional aspect of ‘wanting’ bigger and better – and a proportion of home owners will stretch their budget in order to achieve their desired property of choice, taking on a larger mortgage to do so.

However, whilst a degree of inequality may be tolerated as an inevitable consequence of the benefits offered in a capitalist society, a widening gap can become disabling to ‘progress,’ or even dangerous, if items of basic need are perceived to be increasingly out of reach.

In their 2012 ‘Global Risks’ annual report, the Word Economic Forum put it like this;

“…when ambitious and industrious young people start to feel that, no matter how hard they work, their prospects are constrained, then feelings of powerlessness, disconnectedness and disengagement can take root. The social unrest that occurred in 2011, from the United States to the Middle East, demonstrated how governments everywhere need to address the causes of discontent before it becomes a violent, destabilizing force.”

The comments build on other research undertaken by Andrew Berg and Jonathon Ostry, two senior staff in the IMF’s Research Department, who found that once a country had entered a period of economic growth, the more equal the distribution of wealth over the ensuing period, the longer it lasted. They conclude  “…sustainable economic reform is possible only when its benefits are widely shared.”

Inequality in Housing

The consequences of inequality in the housing market are painful and slow. The trend is increasingly evidenced over a lengthy period of years – not in the volatility of month-to-month first homebuyer statistics – always marginalizing those at the bottom of the income stream, whilst advantaging those at the top.

Effects include;

  • Social polarization,
  • A decrease in the number of low income buyers obtaining ownership,
  • A drop in the number of affordable rental dwellings with demand outstripping supply,
  • Greater requirements for public housing,
  • A rise in homeless percentages, and those who drift in and out of secure rental accommodation.
  • A rising percentage of long term tenants, and falling percentage of property owners, – across all demographics, – but particularly families with children.
  • Fewer Australians – across all demographics – owning their homes outright.
  • Evidence of severely crowded accommodation…. And so forth.

The list, which names only a few of the prevailing concerns, creates a growing body of evidence that we have more than an affordability issue in Australia, which focuses overwhelmingly on first home buyer figures.

We have a growing structural problem, which, if allowed to continue, with have a societal impact, chipping away at the future growth and stability of the property market, affecting the majority – not just a ‘few.’

Why?

The reason this has occurred is down to our property cycle – or perhaps better-termed a ‘land cycle’ – which has been further accentuated by poor housing policy – restrictive planning conditions and generous tax incentives, which are ultimately destructive.

Rising prices, and the expectation of such are initially seen as a ‘good’ thing, because they drive the economy, increasing consumption (the ‘wealth’ effect,) stimulating economic growth, infrastructure investment, construction activity and demand for ‘durables.’

This in turn flows through to wages – which advantage the workers at the top of the income stream, rather than the labourers at the bottom. (See Andrew Leigh’s, The Story of Inequality in Australia (2013,) which points out, since the mid-1970s, earnings after inflation for the bottom tenth of the population has grown 15%, in comparison to 59% for the top tenth.)

The gains are subsequently capitalised into rising land values, as investors, buoyed on by inflationary expectations, easier lending conditions, and ‘fear of missing out,’ lead a bull market of speculative activity (such as we’re seeing in Sydney) - until reality eventually steps in, and the trend inevitably turns.

In other areas of the economy that suffer from inflation, some form of substitution can typically occur, however land – and the infrastructure that gives it its value – is fixed in supply, an absolute necessity to all business and personal needs, therefore as land values rise, there is an inevitable strain on productivity, affecting job growth, private debt, small business, and unemployment (such as we’re seeing in Australia presently.)

Whilst monetary policy and the interest rate ‘lever’ are employed to moderate the damaging effects of a property cycle – at every step of the process, real estate has been used as collateral for further economic investment, a revenue generating machine for government, and ‘wealth’ fund for retirement, therefore whilst the aim is to prevent a ‘hard’ landing, the motivation is always bent on protecting existing values, rather than letting them fall.

Hence why demand side subsidies are favoured as a ‘band-aid’ to affordability, rather than cure.

The result

Without direct political intervention to rectify the damage, the greater and more destabilising the divide becomes, not only placing pressure on the welfare system, but evidenced ‘vocally,’ as rising numbers enter the housing market later, pay far more over the lifetime of their loan, and risk reaching retirement still servicing household debt – as is the case in Australia.

This was noted back in 2012 in a CPA study entitled ‘Household Savings and Retirement – where has all my super gone?’ And most recently by executive chairman of ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ Mark Bouris, who ‘concerned’ about lump sum superannuation payments being used to pay off mortgages, made a submission to Joe Hockey’s parliamentary financial inquiry, suggesting we can ‘solve’ the above impacts, with additional tax breaks to allow people to pay down their housing debt faster

Needless to say, it doesn’t take much of an economist to understand that subsidies – no matter attractive they may seem – are ultimately capitalised into prices, thereby raising the entry costs for first home ownership further, and increasing the pain for the next generation of aspiring buyers.

But then considering the line of business Mr Bouris represents, I suspect this is isn’t about ‘solving’ the crisis, so much as supporting it.

The self perpetuating cycle..

To some extent, it’s a self perpetuating cycle – after 30 years of mortgage repayments dedicated to paying off their principle place of residence, vendor’s obviously don’t want to see the price of their biggest asset drop.

Investors are similarly motivated, an AHURI study released in December 2013, identified the typical investor, as one who expects their property to ‘double every ten years’ as a strategy to finance retirement.

Incidentally, the same study also noted that three-quarters of the investors surveyed, do not see negative gearing as a reason to purchase – but merely as ‘an added bonus’ – thereby weighing against the myth of an ‘investor lead exodus’ should the policy be scrapped.

However a system that tries to both feed speculation, whist creating unaffordability through supply constraints, is ultimately set to fail, as low-income households are continually forced to the outskirts, whilst the higher income individuals get to purchase the front row seats.

Social polarisation…

This results in social polarisation, which is clearly visible on the Melbourne map below, taken from the REIV, which illustrates the median house price by suburb, relative to the metro median.

REIV social polarisation

The colours coded with the darkest blue indicate house prices more than double the metro median, and orange, house prices that are more than 25% below the metro median.  (The white spaces are areas for which there is insufficient data.)

This aligns very closely to a map constructed using data from the ABS, which ranks geographic areas in terms of their relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage, highlighting diversities such as incomes, education levels, occupations, rent and mortgage payments, family structure and unemployment.

ABS socio-economic

Once again, the beetroot red and bright orange ‘fringe’ suburbs, sit well away from the affluent dark blue vicinities, which contain the top schools, medical facilities, shopping strips, high paying jobs, train and tram networks, childcare centres, social amenities, and so forth – all of which our tax payer dollars collectively fund – yet under the current structure, only the local home owners get to advantage.

This would include not just the various social benefits offered, but the additional on-flow of capital gains each property attracts from a squeeze of consistent market demand.

To emphasise, top performing government schools in Australia, do not reserve places for those showing merit, rather the families both willing and able to support the 20-50% premium, charged for accommodation in a desirable school’s catchment zone. ‘Fair go Australia.’

In case you need further convincing, you can chart how the trend has evolved using the image below, which is taken from a previous AUHRI investigation, showing how the percentage of affordable dwellings available for low to moderate-income purchasers, has changed in Melbourne, between the years of 1981 and 2006.

AUHRI

The darker areas are the ‘most’ affordable, whilst the white patches are the least.

What of the ‘price’ ripple effect?

Even heading 45km or so away from the CBD, low-income purchasers can only acquire affordable accommodation – in the range of $200,000 – $400,000 – if the lot size is much smaller than 600 square metres, which is still deemed ‘standard’ in many middle suburban regions of Melbourne.

Further more, any hope of ‘backyard cricket’ is unlikely, as the new developments are littered with homes that have a footprint, which extends to the boarders of each block.

The graph below highlights why this is so – it was put together by a colleague, Steven Armstrong – using valuer general statistics, and it charts the extraordinary rise in land values per square metre in Hume City – an outer metropolitan growth zone in north-western Melbourne – between the years 1983 to 2012.

Graph land prices

The remarkable escalation in prices had nothing to do with homeowners wanting the castle, when a modest suburban home would do. Rather the issues I outlined last week in regard to planning restrictions (false scarcity,) tax and infrastructure overlays, land speculation (the underlying cause of ‘all’ bubbles,) that are exasperated further by ineffective supply side policy.

It’s important to make this point, because whilst most people assume the ‘price/ripple’ effect works outwards – under the current system, the causation works both ways.

It’s the marginal price of land at the fringes of our capital cities, that sets the ‘base’ value for the better-located plots further in.

In other words – it’s not supply that ‘solves’ affordability for low-income purchasers, but the cost at which that supply can be delivered to the ‘homebuyer’ (not speculator) market.

Property Overvalued? A bubble? A concern??

In light of the information above, when I was recently asked to make comment on whether Australian real estate was overvalued or not, I sensed the intention was to take the traditional view, and instead of charting ‘why we’re here’ – assess whether job growth, population expansion, demand for credit, housing turnover, wage growth, interest rates, mid term supply and so forth, were supportive of a future sustained increase.

However, whilst the above data will give a mid term indication over whether current process are ‘serviceable’ at existing rates, or if market turnover can maintain pace, it gives little indication as to the long-term effects I’ve highlighted above, which in my mind, present a far greater destabilising force, as we bear witness to a slow generational shift, eating at the edges of home ownership in the months and years ahead.

I’ll leave the reader to come to their own predictions on market movements as we traverse through 2014. Albeit, in light of the Government’s response to previous housing ‘affordability’ enquiries, I think the above concerns will merely worsen rather than improve – and at some point, we’ll all feel the impact.

Catherine Cashmore

 

 

The Question the Government must agree to, before the Senate Enquiry into Housing Affordability can commence.

The Question the Government must agree to, before the Senate Enquiry into Housing Affordability can commence.

As the deadline for the senate enquiry into housing affordability approaches, some notable submissions have thus far been made

  • Saul Eslake, One of Australia’s most respected chief economists, and previous member of the now disbanded ‘National Housing Supply Council,’ has submitted the address he gave last year at the 122nd Annual Henry George Commemorative Dinner, in which he eloquently outlines Australia’s “50 Years of Housing Failure.”  Eslake advocates the need to remove policies that stimulate demand, such as negative gearing, in favour of those that increase supply. ‘Rethinking’ infrastructure financing and removing stamp duty, in favour of a broad based tax system on the unimproved value of land, as was recommended in the 2009 Ken Henry tax review.

Any detail Eslake misses on the supply side, is dutifully covered by Senator Bob Day.

  • Senator for South Australia, a registered builder and founder of major construction companies, such as ‘Homestead Homes and Home Australia,’ Bob Day’s submission, is his May 2013 policy paper – ‘Home Truths Revisited,’ – in which he shares an intricate understanding of the history and complexities of supply side policy, which have seen land prices increase more than ‘tenfold,’ in comparison to the cost of building, which has seen ‘virtually no increase at all.’   Importantly, for my industry colleagues who ‘blog’ that price rises were simply down the increase in demand stimulants, (such as dual income households.) Senator Day notes, “while influential bodies like the Productivity Commission and the Reserve Bank focused their attention on demand drivers, like capital gains tax treatment, negative gearing, interest rates, readily accessible finance, first home buyers’ grants and high immigration rates” … the real culprit, the real source of the problem, was the refusal of state governments and their land management agencies to provide an adequate and affordable supply of land for new housing stock to meet the demand.”
  • Other notable submissions come from ‘Grace Mutual Limited,’  - a not-for-profit entity who “designs investment mechanisms to attract wholesale funding into the social sector” – in particular -“the National Rental Affordability Scheme.”  GML outline the ‘unduly complex’ regulations that have disadvantaged investors, noting; “Large numbers of NRAS incentives (at least 4,000) were awarded for the construction of student housing,” yet “There appears little evidence that this has any positive impact on the middle to low-income families that were the target of the original policy.”
  • And the last two submissions to date (2/2/2014) come from “Home Loan Experts,” who want an abolishment of negative gearing, but predictably think that the first homebuyer grant should stay.  And an anonymous letter, with an overview of the points made by both Saul Eslake and Bob Day, noting as I did back in December 2013 that nothing has been done since the last Senate enquiry.

Rinse and Repeat

To emphasise – The 2008 Senate report, entitled “A good house is hard to find: Housing affordability in Australia”

  • Made the same points regarding Australia’s tax policies, such as capital gains tax and negative gearing, which impact affordability and market activity.
  • It made the same points regarding each states planning laws, overviewing the construction industry’s future skilled labour workforce, the impact of urban boundaries on land prices, and the funding of community infrastructure.
  • It made the same points regarding the need for a diverse range of accommodation suited to both young and old alike, advocating greater competition within the building industry.
  • It made the same points in relation to both the both the public and private sector, addressing tenancy laws, and renters rights.

It was both comprehensive and detailed in content, and yet – 5 years later – at every level – both state and federal government have failed.

Failed to provide a ready surplus of ‘cheap land.’

Failed to overhaul infrastructure funding.

Failed to boost a sluggish construction sector in relation to population growth.

Failed to reign in speculation.

Failed to overhaul a system that results in too few rental properties for low-income households. And;

Failed to reduce the need for social housing or raise standards in the public sector.

Instead – we’re left with a new record median house price, which sits close to $600,000 ($597,556 APM.) – Following the highest quarterly rise for 4 years – built on the back of a diminishing first home buyer sector, which is instead supported by a record number investors, benefitting from a pace of growth in Sydney, which all agree, is ‘unsustainable.’

As far as affordability is concerned, we’re simply sitting on a merry-go-round of repeated mistakes.

Housing affordability a Mystery – too complex?

This is not due to any lack of understanding on the Government’s part. There is no secret or mystery to housing affordability. The solutions are well understood.

  • They were discussed at length in the previous senate enquiry.
  • AHURI has repeatedly tacked both supply and tax  policy.
  • And this senate enquiry will do the same.

The recommendations fall in line with other countries and states that have successfully achieved a consistent correlation between gross median house price and income – and so to some degree of detail or other, share the following two points in common;

1) They have taxation system that discourages speculation, but encourages productivity. The most successful of which is well-administrated broad based land value taxation system, such as that adopted in various cities in the USA – like Pennsylvania for example – where the tax on the unimproved value of land is heavier than that of property –a process of which I explain in full here - or as in Texas, where property is taxed, yet income isn’t, reducing the level of speculative demand.

And;

2) They have created an environment in which liberal supply side policies ensure ‘fringe’ land is sold close to its agricultural value, ensuring zoning laws do not impede development, and there remains strong competition within in the construction sector.

Why we have failed.

Yet, the reason countries like Australia, the UK, certain states in the USA, for example, fail to successfully move away from the boom/bust cycle, which leaves us counting the minutes on the ‘property clock,’ until a major correction is experienced, – which ultimately offers little help to struggling home buyers, small business, or low income earners, due to consequential restrictions in lending.

Was summed up neatly in a 2007 parliamentary report entitled New directions in affordable housing: Addressing the decline in housing affordability for Australian families: executive summary - in which it confidently stated;

“Improving housing affordability does not mean reducing the value of existing homes, which are usually the primary asset of any individual or family.”

It’s a comment that sits right up there along with ‘saving doesn’t mean spending less’ or ‘dieting doesn’t mean reducing calories.’

If only it were so…!

To create a sustainable and affordable housing market, in line with the majority of recommendations put forward in the senate enquiry, would inevitably have a dampening effect on existing house and land values, in particular sites which are banked for ‘idle’ speculation.

Fear over falling prices justified?

The fear is understandable when you consider residential real estate is Australia’s largest domestic asset class, with an estimated aggregate value of over $4 trillion, pinned to a banking sector which has the highest exposure to residential mortgages in the world, in a country in which most Australian’s are home owners.

However, please don’t fall into the trap – once again as many of my industry colleagues do – of thinking just because a large number of homeowners in Australia own their own properties debt free, it prevents a potential ‘crash’ in prices – because the level of commentary on this matter is really very low.

A huge portion of private debt for the appropriation of business and commerce is secured against residential real estate.

A lack of active buyers in the market – (which produces an atmosphere in which price falls are inevitable) – stagnates turnover, prevents those who need to ‘fund’ their retirement through an equity release from doing so. Prevents those that need to move state to find employment else where, from doing so. It locks people into their homes – unable to downsize or upsize – and the effects are felt across all demographics.

Businesses which run into financial trouble are unable to reach into their house ‘ATM” and secure additional funding, and as a result, industries close, lay offs are invoked, investment ceases – the list goes on.

Importantly, it does not prevent a major economic crisis.

It did not prevent it in Ireland, America, or other countries in Europe, which also had a large proportion of owners, who owned outright.

We are not immune from a major downturn – no market, which exhibits land cycles is – and be assured, when it does happen, it won’t matter whether the banking system is ‘wiped out’ or not (as suggested as another reason we cant ‘crash’) – the Government will rush to their assistance – leaving ordinary people to suffer their debt consequences alone. As has been demonstrated repeatedly on an international scale.

Rising house prices or a stable market?

An economy that relies on high and rising house prices is one that’s ultimately set to fail.  It’s a symptom of poor housing policy and can only supported over the longer term, by making debt ‘ever more affordable.’

Therefore the best protection from such, is political reform, which ensures stability across gross price to income ratios – and if managed proficiently in line with the two points outlined above;

  • It would assist productivity,
  • Boost the construction sector,
  • Aid infrastructure financing,
  • Keep prices accessible for new homeowners and business – which need to buy or rent land to compete with established players.
  • Ensure tenants are not subject to ever increasing yields.
  • Weather the unwanted impact of real estate ‘booms and busts.’
  • Protect vendors from plummeting property values during an economic crisis – (whenever that point in Australia’s future is) – and;
  • Reduce inequality between the asset rich and income poor.

Land speculators would not advantage from it – but ordinary taxpayers would love it.

What the Senate & Government must agree to allow, prior to commencing its enquiry.

Thankfully, we don’t need to have an initial debate with the senate, over whether the market is or isn’t affordable – as has been the case with various commentators across the mainstream media.

Instead, we need collaborative assurance from the government, that any outcome from yet another Senate enquiry, will allow land prices to reduce – the process of which would have an gradual roll-on effect across the established real estate sector

Once - and only once, we have an affirmative answer to that question – can we begin the debate over how this can be achieved – and once we do, it must ensure the following.

1)   That fringe land is immediately available for residential development, overriding existing urban boundaries and zoning requirements that render it otherwise, and ensure it remains close to its agricultural value.

2)   Increase competition within the construction sector, simplifying the planning process, and eliminating ‘upfront’ infrastructure costs.  Additionally, a review of the many ‘hidden taxes’ such as development overlays, application fees, stamp duties and so forth, that are charged through the planning and development process, must be reduced to ensure they are ‘fair and transparent’ as advocated by the HIA.

3)   The removal/phasing out of policies such as the first homebuyer grant and tax incentives, that reward speculation into the established sector, and rely on housing inflation to stimulate demand.

4)   Reopen the discussion to abolish stamp duty; moving instead toward a broad based land value taxation system. Following practices across the world where it has been deployed with success, and noting that the ACT is adopting such measures, over a slow transitional 20 year period. And;

5)   Ensure we build for homebuyers, not just investors – paying particular attention to the needs of an ageing population, for which downsizing into apartments is not the preferred, or readily adopted option.

The above recommendations would assist the rental sector, but additionally, the Government should work closely with organisations such as Shelter and the Tenants Union, to satisfy that the quality, provision and standard, of both rental and public housing, is improved and maintained, along with an overhaul of tenancy laws for long-term tenants.

Conclusion.

The details on how to achieve this will be overviewed in another column, however, if both state and federal government refuse to let land prices drop, acting reactively to affordability issues, rather than proactively. I suggest you use whatever vote you have wisely – ignoring both major parties – and instead, place it behind smaller players, who act in the best interests of community, and not their ‘back pockets.’

Catherine Cashmore

Australia Day traditionally flags the end of the real estate ‘vacation’ period – but what of the road ahead…. ?

Australia Day traditionally flags the end of the real estate ‘vacation’ period – but what of the road ahead…. ?

Australia Day traditionally flags the end of the real estate ‘vacation’ period with the long weekend being the last chance most agents have to take a breather before the auctions begin, and weekly clearance rates once again come under intense scrutiny.

Predictions for the remainder of the year are generally undivided. Most conclude the upward trajectory to continue – with particular focus on some of our largest capital cities, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth (with the first and last already past their previous peaks in non-inflationary terms.)

Whilst the pace of growth will differ for each capital with a correction expected in 2015, it’s a conclusion I generally agree with – despite the talk of a sooner than expected rise in rates.

The momentum that has built up throughout 2013 has come primarily from investors, driven in large by local speculation.

In Sydney, where city supply has been hampered by stringent planning requirements, allowing larger developers with a greater financial capacity to hold the upper hand, – the shortage of stock to cater to the needs of a market share of over 50% investors, has resulted in a spike in prices which has diverged considerably from other states, and continues to drive the herd mentality.

Louis Christopher, managing director of ‘SQM Research,’ suggests Sydney will have its strongest start to the year in more than 15 years, and even assuming the prediction is too bullish, it’s unlikely to be far from the mark.

The extra boom of apartment supply will assist in cooling demand and boosting the number of rental dwellings, but it will take more than one interest rate hike before we see the evidence translate into lower median values, hence why the run will last the duration.

Whether you celebrate or commiserate news of a continued increase in house prices will obviously depend on circumstance, – with investors benefitting most. However, the higher entry cost will continue to impede first time buyers and low-income earners, and with no immediate solution by way of a structural reform to housing policy, the debate won’t move far from headlines.

I made clear in my column last week, why we have an affordability problem and how that translates across the different demographics, and see little advantage detailing the evidence once again, which to any reasonable mind should be overwhelmingly obvious.

In our most populous capital cities, house prices have gone from three times median income to nine times, and the impact on low-income families – in particular those renting, or teetering on the edge of ownership due to divorce or job loss – is particularly disturbing. In Melbourne alone, from 1991 to 2011, metropolitan housing CPI rose by 50%, compared to 188% for rents across the LGA.

The swell of concern coming from the ground up is the best chance we have to push significant reform forward, and therefore it’s encouraging to see results from a recent Ipos poll, conclude that most Australian’s disagree that rising prices are a ‘good thing.’

Notwithstanding, a huge portion of private debt for the appropriation of business and commerce is secured against residential real estate. It’s Australia’s largest domestic asset class with an estimated aggregated value of over $4 trillion, pinned to a banking sector, which has the highest exposure to residential mortgages in the world.

From homeowners counting on their principle place of residence to fund retirement, to Governments chasing the popular vote. The sensitivity to maintain high prices is evident not only in the NIMBY style practices that protest at all attempts to either increase density, or assist development, but also in the inability politician’s have to move ahead with structural reform to housing policy.

Consequently, Governments tend to treat affordability issues reactively rather than proactively. Words always mean more than the actions, demand side policies are favoured, and when supply is released, it’s done in such a way that it feeds a monopolist culture – designed to maximise profit over the delivery of land at ‘affordable’ prices.

To illustrate the point – economics ‘101’ suggests the most effective way to reduce prices is to simply increas supply, and in Melbourne, planning minister Matthew Guy was joyful last week, in announcing the city has “decades worth of land” more than “400,000 potential house lots in growth areas” of which 5 new precinct structure plans have been approved for development (amounting to 19,000 ‘potential’ bocks,) and a “potential” 180,000 apartment blocks (more than enough keep all our off-shore investors happy.) Clearly – we’ve got supply in spades!

Furthermore, broadly speaking, population growth in the outer suburbs of Greater Melbourne – predominantly in the newer greenfield developments to the west, north and south-east – continues to be faster, and larger, than anywhere else in the greater Melbourne districts – so demand in theory, should not be lacking.

But what Mr Guy fails to mention, is, in a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the median land price in outer growth area suburbs jumped from $136,000 to $212,750, a difference of $76,750, according to Oliver Hume Real Estate Group, and with the typical starting price for a house and land package on a compact 450sqm block of land, now transacting for a little over $400,000 – where is this cheap supply?

Of course, it all comes down to the development process. As soon as the urban boundary was implemented speculation began; existing landowners were able demand a premium for land now potentially available for residential purposes. Of those who decided to cash in, hectares were duly auctioned off to the highest bidder – resulting in a massive inflationary boom in values,

Precinct structure plans must be finalised before construction can commence – a process of which takes 2 to 3 years.

Funds for the provision of infrastructure – arterial roads, kindergartens, child health centres and so forth, are passed onto the buyer (initially the developer, who simply factors it into the final cost.)

However, there is no timetable for the construction of this infrastructure. Councils can wait years for the funds to arrive because they are usually only payable upon subdivision, and notably land within PSPs can be held by landowners, who have little incentive to bring it to market unless it’s financially beneficial to do so. The result is homeowners pay for infrastructure, which they may never receive.

Any areas of land a developer unwittingly acquires which is subject to ‘biodiversity conservation’ must be set aside. Ten precent of their land must be donated for ‘community open space.’ Add to this GST, along with sales and marketing, costs – and you begin to get the idea of why supply does not immediately equate to lower prices.

Developers with a desire to maximise profits, time their releases carefully. A process over which the government has no control – in other words, the state has auctioned away any chance of a plentiful supply of cheap fringe dwellings – and in light of the evidence, Mr Guy is unable to claim otherwise.

Meanwhile, whilst inner city development may assist renters, to what extent is debatable. Of the new supply constructed, most is high-density, and there is strong anecdotal evidence from agents that off shore Asian buyers are driving the apartment pre-sale market, with rumors of random Melbourne auctions conducted in Mandarin.

Investors seem undeterred by the higher vacancy rates in Melbourne, which have hovered around 3% for the past 12 months – and we can see from work undertaken by Philip Soos at ‘Prosper Australia’ last year, that a percentage of newer units are allowed to sit vacant for much of the year – unclear whether they are being used for speculation, or as temporary vacation homes.

Building approvals data for apartments do not indicate commencement – the process of approval, to release (off plan pre-sales,) and finally completion, takes a number of years.

Charter Keck Cramer track each project from start to finish – and using the data as a forecasting tool, estimated back in July 2013 that 39,155 apartments will be added to the stock in Melbourne during the three year period of 2013 to 2015 (not including those for which subsequent planning approval has been granted.)

To maximise yield and meet financial requirements, most apartments are small one and two bedroom dwellings (no more than 70sqm in size.) Unsurprisingly, they offer little attraction to the vast majority of local homebuyers – being far more apt to meet the needs of student renters.

All in all, it’s an appalling state of affairs.

Conclusion.

Australia is now entering its 23rd year of continuous GDP growth – the history of which is outlined briefly in HSBC’s recently released global research paper “still in second gear.” And in light of the above, it should come as no surprise that, land is always the eventual beneficiary from the wealth of a burgeoning economy.

As productivity increases, jobs are created, the population grows, infrastructure is built, areas gentrify, land values increase, and owners benefit. The uplift in values finances additional development and so the speculative process continues.

From the trough of 1996 to the peak in 2010 land values have roughly doubled as a percentage of GDP – and the policies we have in place simply fuel the cycle.

There is no secret to why this should occur – in countries that have promoted home ownership both a means of ‘saving’ for retirement and valuable asset to leverage against to accumulate additional assets, along with tax strategies, and inelastic supply side policies that have encouraged speculation in rising land values (with both the monopoly and restriction of the resource stagnating effective and affordable supply) – the eventual consequence is always the same.

Until any sharp ‘correction’ is experienced (and eventually it will be,) the advantage lay with those who hold the appreciating assets above those who don’t – particularly if acquisition was early on in the cycle, as suburbs initially gentrified.

However, whilst gains over the period wax and wane spurred on by low rates or intermittent grants, the party can only continue whilst there is consistent demand at the entry level – hence why so much attention is focused on mortgage ‘serviceability’ rates, rather than the overall level of ‘affordability’ by way of calculating the gross amount borrowed.

It is possible to create a stable housing market that doesn’t subsist on ever rising prices, however, it can only be achieved by significant tax reform moving toward a broad based land tax, as was advocated in the Henry Tax Review – coupled with structural changes to the way we manage supply.

Without such reform, the social cost to our country and welfare system as a whole, will only worsen.

Catherine Cashmore

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

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

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

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

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

Denalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is a first homebuyer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housing is ‘affordable’ because mortgage rates say so…

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

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

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

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

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

Housing is affordable because data from other countries says so…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Cashmore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debating the ‘housing shortage’…..

Debating the ‘housing shortage’…..

Do we have housing shortage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we have a shortage of affordable supply?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Cashmore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My prediction for 2014 – winds of change…

My prediction for 2014 – winds of change…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Cashmore

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the highlights included;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

not a dollar will be spent on infrastructure. ..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Cashmore

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another widely used industry favourite is the statement;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But importantly;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Cashmore