Housing in the new millenium


Palm St farmhouse (2)My old mate Kev the Carpenter was apt to say, “If a house was meant to be moved, it would have wheels.” That witticism from decades gone by came back with a rush when I found a note in the letter box from house movers informing us that the original farm house in our street would be moved off the land at midnight. I walked down to the end of our street and sure enough, half the house was perched on the back of a semi-trailer, ready to roll, with the other half on a trailer, still on the land where it had sat for many years, but also ready to go. The owner of the land, who has donated the house to a worthy cause, is developing a small, sustainable estate. We did not get up at midnight to see the house off, but our fond wishes to whoever lives there in the future (once they put the two halves together again).

At least this house will be re-used and continue to give people shelter and succour for years to come. In our larger capital cities, developers think nothing of blithely knocking down a perfectly sound two-bedroom cottage on a large block to replace it with two or more, two-level concrete boxes, each of which will sell for more than the developer paid for the original property. This is called “infill” in the trade, and it is happening anywhere local Councils will allow subdivision of standard residential housing allotments. Not that we live in the past, here at the desk of Friday on My Mind, but we fondly remember when the great Australasian home owner’s dream meant an older, timber house on a quarter acre lot (or section, as they say in Aotearoa). There would usually be an ancient orchard, a half-falling-down garage, a laundry with a copper, two concrete tubs with a mangle and a long drop toilet out the back, covered in passionfruit and morning glory.
In 2014, your typical master-planned estate on the outskirts of capital cities now crams four properties into a quarter acre (1011 square metres) block. In the 20 or so years this trend has been evolving, some property owners have made a motza subdividing large suburban blocks and then parlaying their profits into a bigger, better home or one or more investment properties.
As we enter the second year of record low interest rates and rising prices, property investors are piling back into the market. A Roy Morgan Research survey found that the number of Australians with an investment property loan increased 37% to 1.31 million between March 2010 and 2014. The number of Australians with an owner-occupied home loan increased just 4% to 4.83 million over the same period.
A lot is said in the mainstream media about housing affordability and whether it is worse now than it ever was. It isn’t, according to the Housing Industry Association. But it will always be an issue for people who borrow 100% of the value of their new home, only to see interest rates start to rise.
This is a hot topic. Michael Janda’s ABC article “Home buyer beware: the illusion of affordability” generated 42 pages of online comments. Janda says the “bipolar commentary” about affordability is particularly confusing for first home buyers. He astutely notes that while aspiring home owners earned 2.5% to 4% in interest while saving for a deposit, the average home price rose 10% in just 12 months.
The Housing Industry Association (its members build houses), said yesterday that affordability was at its best in 12 years – cold comfort for those living under the 30/40 rule. If your mortgage (or rent), is costing you more than a third of your income, you will start to suffer housing stress. The situation is more dire for those on low incomes. The Australian Housing and Research Institute (AHURI) calls it the 30/40 rule, in which housing affordability stress is most acute for those earning in the bottom 40% of the income range and paying over 30% (sometimes up to 50%) of their income on rent or home re-payments. University academics Ernest Healy and Bob Birrell writing for The Conversation  say the 2011 Census revealed that a third of younger households were paying more than 30% of their household income on mortgage repayments.
In case you had been living in a cave on Great Barrier Island for the last few decades, negative gearing (introduced in 1985), allows property investors to run their rental home/s at a loss (two thirds of them do just that), claiming tax deductions for all manner of inputs. So little wonder the number of rental properties is growing. AHURI estimates that some 4.5 million people live in private rental accommodation (23% of households). These numbers are expected to grow as more young people abandon the notion of owning property.
AHURI researcher Judy Yates says affordability problems began 30 to 40 years ago when inflation switched the focus on housing from providing shelter security to providing wealth security. This structural change was exacerbated by changes in to capital gains tax in1986 which favoured owner-occupiers and CGT tax changes in 1999 favouring investors.
Healy and Birrell say the ranks of property investors have surged since changes to Self Managed Superannuation Fund (SMSF) rules in 2007. Regulators changed the rules to allow investors to borrow through their SMSFs to finance a property investment using negative gearing.
Whatever else happens, don’t expect the Federal Government to do anything meaningful about housing affordability. Too many potential votes would be lost.
On the other side of the Abbot-proof fence that separates the haves from the have-nots, embattled tycoon Nathan Tinkler is reportedly selling his sprawling ranch at Pullenvale in Brisbane’s western suburbs.
News.com.au reported that agents have fielded offers of $3 million for the mansion; well below what is wanted (the spread was bought for $5.2 million in 2007). Photos of this property on realestate.com.au suggest that prospective buyers will probably need to hire a couple of gardeners to maintain the 4ha of land, or at the very least, buy a reliable mower.
Down in the Village, someone has tacked a “mower wanted” sign on a noticeboard (“Will pay Bunyas”). Thinks: perhaps I can upgrade to the $99 electric mower I saw in a hardware store?

Next week: More about mowers, bunyas and things that don’t last.

Zipline? What zipline?

Obi Obi Gorge, Kondalilla National Park

For whatever reason, we have become engaged in the free-spirited, public protest movement of our youth. In the past few months we’ve been to more protest meetings and marches than in the past 20 years. They include a small but quietly outraged rally in Brisbane’s King George Square where men of the cloth appealed to the Federal Government to have compassion on the people seeking asylum in this country. There was much analysis of the Tory rhetoric about asylum seekers (the correct description is ‘irregulars,’ not “illegals”). We marched around a few city blocks, spotting people young and old we had either seen yesterday or not for a decade or two − not since the march to tell John Howard we did not want to send our troops to Iraq.
More recently, we fronted up on a dismal day in Maleny to mark the day 10 years ago that the infamous Deen brothers came to town and started clearing the site for the much-opposed Woolworths supermarket (we still won’t shop there). The local papers reported us as a small but vocal crowd.
What we don’t quite understand is why there has been no call to arms over a potent threat to the cardinal principle governing management of national parks. Almost three million Queenslanders are said to visit national parks every year – yet less than 5% of the State enjoys national park status. People visit national parks mainly to bush walk, bird watch, camp, swim and teach their kids about nature. They leave their trail bikes, quad bikes and dogs at home; they walk in and walk out and (hopefully), take their rubbish away with them. These simple pleasures, which do the most to ensure the wildlife in national parks is not overly-disturbed, are clearly not enough for the Queensland Government, which in October last year amended the State Conservation Act to allow commercial ventures into National Parks. This was ostensibly to allow cattle to graze in times of extreme drought.
But behind doors closed to the process of public debate, the government has been encouraging an “eco-tourism” venture in Kondalilla National Park, at Montville on the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
Expressions of interest were called last year from private operators to set up a Zip Line canopy “eco-tourism” experience. What is proposed is a line of steel cables traversing the tree canopy two kilometres down the Obi Obi Gorge. A Zip Line works not unlike a flying fox, where people kitted out in safety gear slide along cables at speeds of up to 80kmh to “cloud stations” – platforms fixed to eucalyptus trees at varying heights above the ground. In this case, a sketch on the department website (the best you will find), shows a dotted line zigzagging back and forth across the gorge. The experience is expected to cost punters $150 each. An information meeting in Montville in April was told that the Zip Line was expected to attract 20,000 people a year. It would cost about $3.8 million to construct and the successful proponent would likely be given a 15-year lease. There are successful Zip Lines around the world, including a handful in Australia, but none are located in our National Parks.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman ‘opened up’ five national parks to allow cattle grazing at the end of 2013. Anyone who has been out west in Queensland over the last 12 months would find that hard to argue against as a temporary/emergency measure. But the “eco-tourism” proposal is something else again.
Expressions of interest campaigns are shrouded in “commercial-in-confidence” provisions, which effectively lock the public and the media out of the process. The information meeting panel had few insights beyond what anyone could glean from googling “Zip Line Obi Obi Gorge” and perusing the relevant government website. The process moved to Stage Two in January and this week Tourism Minister Jann Stuckey and National Park Minister Steve Dickson announced that the government had selected a preferred tenderer (Australian Canopy Zip Line Tours).
Minister Stuckey said she had asked the company to submit a more detailed proposal, ensuring “environmental checks and balances” are incorporated into the planning, design and operation of the zip line.
“Subject to the concept being fully assessed through this next stage, the Queensland Government, traditional owners, the Jinibara People, and Australian Zip Line Canopy Tours will work together to achieve the best possible outcome for all parties,’’ Ms Stuckey said in a statement.
The lack of detail and input locks out those most likely to object: residents of Montville and surrounds, environmental groups and those who believe national park status should permanently preserve the area’s natural condition as much as possible.
Concerns already raised about potential issues include irreversible changes to the canopy, noise impacts on wildlife and neighbours and a lack of public transport to the site. We could also ask why no other location was considered, although according to the government’s statement, the Kondalilla plan has been on the Sunshine Coast tourism agenda since 2009.
The first section of the 327ha Kondalilla National Park, now a focal point of the Great Walks network, was gazetted national park in 1945. The Department of Environment website notes that Kondalilla is home to eight species of wildlife which are rare, endangered or of cultural significance. Kondalilla’s lower altitude rainforest is of endangered conservation status, as less than 10% of this type of forest remains in south east Queensland.
Earlier this week, we asked Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt what interest Canberra would have in the Obi Obi Gorge proposal. A spokesman said (a) it has not been submitted to the Department and (b) projects likely to have a significant impact on a matter protected under national environment law, such as a threatened species, must be submitted (by the proponent) to the federal environment department to see whether federal assessment is needed.
All conservationists should be aware of the bigger picture. More people seem to be craving high risk experiences such as rock climbing, jet-boating, white-water rafting, skydiving, canyoning and abseiling. What’s next – paintball? Other States have already opened up some national parks to fossickers, prospectors and amateur hunters. Queensland’s foray into national parks goes much further, with private operators to build and manage a high-end adventure tourism experience not unlike bungee jumping.
For those of us who go to national parks to quietly observe wildlife, keep our hearts and lungs working, or just listen to nature doing its own thing, bringing a Zip Line into a national park is like doofers moving in next door to a yoga retreat.

Goose moves back home

Photo by Sabrina Caldwell, the Photographicalist

This has been a trying month for a pair of big city empty-nesters and their luckless 20-year-old son. We should call this fellow Goose.
After several years of stop-start employment and periods of being subsidised by Centrelink, Goose scored a night job as a car park attendant in the city. Alas, he fell asleep on the job. Hundreds of motorists retrieving their cars after the ballet, the big hit musical, the opera and that tedious Chekov play drove out without paying. They have CCTV footage of the driver of the first car getting out, reaching inside the booth and opening the boom gate. The management board had a meeting about what to do about the other vehicles that drove out without paying. If this was a true story, and you had any interest in the subject at all, you’d find the total sum written off in their annual accounts.
Goose’s parents, meanwhile, have been relishing life in the big rambling McMansion now that their daughter has married and moved to Saudi Arabia with her oil executive husband, their elder son has moved to Western Australia to work in the mines and the dear old Labrador, Doris, has gone to doggie heaven. Life has been sweet, especially since the youngest lad moved out to live with his mates because, as Goose found on many occasions, you can’t exactly play the music you like as loud as you like it and have a bong sitting on the coffee table when you live at home with the folks.
But uh-oh, Goose has turned up at the front door, letting himself in with the key he still has (mistake), interrupting Foyle’s War to announce that he is moving back in. Dad puts the recorded show on pause, Mum puts the kettle on and an uncomfortable atmosphere ensues, much like pressing ‘start’ on a flea bomb and then not leaving the house.
Goose and his folks are among the victims of the 2014 Federal Budget and a policy decision to shift unemployed youngsters off Newstart and on to the Youth Allowance until they turn 25. Unemployed people under 25 will get Youth Allowance instead of Newstart, while recipients of either will have to wait six months before receiving payments. And they will have to prove they were looking for work. From January 1, young people approved for this new scheme will have to log a minimum 25 hours on the Work for the Dole scheme.
The Budget measures follow the heartless Commission of Audit report, which among other things recommended forcing young job-seekers to re-locate or lose welfare benefits. While both allowances are income and asset tested, the bare bones of this decision means someone under 25 living at home will receive $272.80 per fortnight (as opposed to $510.51 under Newstart). That is just under $20 per day.
Fair to say that anyone seriously engaged in looking for work would spend a lot of this money on public transport and keeping their pre-paid mobile phones topped up lest they miss that elusive second-interview call. Organisations like The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) have been grumbling about the unsustainable nature of Newstart, asking the obvious question: who can live on $35 a day in any of Australia’s capital cities or large regional towns? Now they have an even more urgent issue to review.
Certainly there will be many who agree with Treasurer Joe Hockey’s position – Australians under 30 should be “earning or learning”. But surely his tough stance on youth unemployment need not have been so harsh? Why not give a Job Seeker Package to everyone in that age group who has been unemployed for more than six months? This would include a one-off payment to allow recipients to buy interview clothes, get a haircut and budget for mobile phones and public transport smart cards. Oh, and have a decent breakfast. The JSP would also offer free out-placement services similar to those offered to newly redundant executives. Why should they have all the fun?
Our fictional empty-nesters, meanwhile, thinking about noise-baffling insulation downstairs, where Goose has reclaimed his old room, have been reading the fine-print on Centrelink’s website, which, as you might surmise, may need to be updated to accommodate this particular change, which comes into effect on January 1. Those who know little or nothing about Youth Allowance and New Start may be surprised to know that this new legislation merely increases the age range of those required to apply for the Youth Allowance (it is currently 16-20).
Statistics on youth unemployment gleaned by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence put it at 12.4%, compared with 6% for the working population overall. Those January 2014 stats are alarming enough, but downright awful when you look at youth unemployment “hot spots” – West and North-West Tasmania (21%), Cairns (20.5%), Northern Adelaide (19.7%), South East Tasmania (19.6%), Outback Northern Territory (18.5%), Moreton Bay North – including Caboolture and Redcliffe – (18.1%) and Mandurah in WA (17.3%) head the list. Blacktown Mayor Len Robinson says youth unemployment in Mount Druitt is about 25%, and he should know.
They say that in Mount Druitt, if you look skywards at dusk, you can sometimes see flocks of geese, braying loudly as they head inland.


Hold the phones!

Bob's dinner
Facebook fad – taking photos of your food

Kiwis are the salt of the earth, that’s what people say. They might not know the derivation of the saying, but it feels good to pay the compliment when a Kiwi has done a good day’s work, done you a favour, or given you directions to Haast Pass.

The most recent example I have of their salty earthiness was in February, when I was about to leave Napier for Taupo, having failed to find my misplaced mobile phone. We looked everywhere. We rang my nephew and asked if perhaps I’d left it at his place the night before at his 50th birthday party. No appearance your worship.

So I was sitting in the hire car at a servo some 20 kms out of Napier reading the fine print of our travel insurance policy when my partner’s phone started buzzing. I answered it and here was this lovely laconic Kiwi lass informing me her partner had been out for a run that morning and found my phone lying on the grass (on the other side of the road outside my nephew’s house). She had looked up my log and called the last number I dialled. “Choice”, as they say over there. So we detoured back to this kind person’s place after first buying her a double movie pass gift voucher.

“Oh you didn’t have to do thet,” she protested. But I did, really. There are 1100 contacts in my phone and the fine print said I’d first have to file a police report (really!). The insurance claim was limited to $500 for any one item and then there was a $200 excess. So considering I’d just signed a two-year contract in December and the handset cost $895, I would have been well in the red.

We Asia-Pacific people have a full-on love affair with our mobile phones. The Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) annual report tabled in Parliament in December 2013 says there were 31.09 million mobile services in operation in Australia as of June 30, 2013 (we number just 23.74 million, so it appears some folk have more than one phone.) This was just 3% more than the year before, which suggests demand is peaking. ACMA says 11.9 million people have a smartphone, which means they can use the internet.

As a result, 7.5 million Australians used their mobile phones to get on the internet last year. (You’ll note we didn’t say “access” because this column is trying to avoid misusing the language.) That was a 33% increase over 12 months and a 510% increase since 2008.

Meanwhile She Who reads Newspapers has just bought a pre-paid touch phone to replace the useless one that lived with who knows what at the bottom of her handbag.

”I just want a phone that’s a (*******) phone,” she is wont to say. “I already have a camera.”

You will get the picture when you hear that this is a person who buys phone credit $10 at a time and borrows mine as often as possible (I have a plan and 1GB of data).

Australians are downloading massive amounts of data on their phones – 676 terabytes in just three months! (A terabyte is 1000GB). Your average JPEG photo is around 2MB so now I’m curious as to who is downloading what and why. ACMA says 7.86 million people used professional content services such as catch-up TV, video on demand and IPTV (internet TV) in the six months to May 2013.

We are also adapting quickly to VoIP (you know, cheap video telephone where you can chat to your son while he is trekking across Mongolia on a recumbent bicycle), with mobile VoIP users increasing by 73% to 1.06 million.

Kiwis are also avid users of mobile technology. They call them cell phones over there and despite intensive research, the mystery remains why Kiwis use the abbreviated form of cellular. Like Australia, there are also more mobile phones in that country than there are people, according to global market research firm TNS. A 2012 report found there were 5.02 million cell phones in New Zealand (the population is 4.43 million). Almost half of Kiwis in the 31 to 40 age group own a smart phone.

These statistics do help explain why the salty, earthy people who found my missing phone so quickly trolled through it to surmise (a) this is the phone of someone who uses it for work and (b) how to track me down. As my trusty sidekick Little Brother says: “Good thing you didn’t have a password on it, eh?”

We were in Sydney recently to catch up with our best man. We met at a restaurant in Pott’s Point and settled in for a chat. Three young blokes came in and sat at the table next to us. They all produced mobile phones which they laid face up on the table. We soon realised these chaps had four phones between them. Much speculation ensued about the purpose of the fourth phone. Perhaps it was a fourth person who couldn’t make it to dinner but they’d chat, man. Perhaps it was somebody’s work phone. Whatever. They said very little to each other through the meal, but their phones glowed and buzzed and occupied their individual attentions. Our friend observed that when the meals arrived, they all took photos of their plates. Apparently this is a fad with Facebook friends of a certain age.

So there you are, 900 words later I have explained why this column comes with a photo of last night’s chicken and almond dish. We ate at the table with the TV off and both phones on chargers, avidly engaging in eye contact and conversation. The way life ought to be.