Housing affordability and the empty homes scandal

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Housing affordability in world capitals. Photo of Melbourne’s Southbank by Ashley Rambukwella flickr CC https://flic.kr/p/KfdUMR

The inspiration to start writing (again) about housing affordability came from left field. I was sitting back enjoying an American roots band, The Brothers Comatose, at the Blue Mountains Music Festival in Katoomba. Lead singer and front man Ben Morrison introduced the band, saying they were from San Francisco but maybe not for long. “The price of houses is crazy there (man) and most of the musicians I know are moving out because they can’t afford to live in the area.”

“Maybe we could move here,” he suggested, and the audience groaned, knowing that housing affordability is just as big a problem in Sydney and surrounds as in San Francisco, Vancouver, New York or Paris.

“Can we sleep on your couch?’’ he jested, before doing what musicians do to avoid thinking about the cost of living. Great band, by the way (check out this bluegrass old-style tune around one microphone).

Morrison’s complaint rang true – I did a modicum of housing affordability research which quickly showed that the median price of a house in San Francisco’s Bay area clipped $US1.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2017. The California Association of Realtors Housing Affordability Index shows that it would cost $US7, 580 a month to service the mortgage. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $US3, 441.

Housing affordability is a myth in Vancouver, Canada’s biggest West coast city. The 14th annual Demographia affordability study ranked Vancouver the least affordable among 50 American and Canadian cities. Internationally, it is ranked the third least affordable city among 293 locations around the world (Sydney was 2nd). The British Columbia Provincial Government has made several attempts to rein in the city’s galloping real estate prices, including a 15% tax on foreign nationals purchasing metropolitan real estate. Another new measure attempts to tackle a problem that plagues Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s housing affordability problem cities.

The BC government conducted a survey which found that 8,481 houses in Vancouver were unoccupied during a six-month period. That’s 4.6% of the housing stock. Now the government is going to levy a tax on people who own houses and don’t occupy or rent them. The tax will be calculated at 1% of the assessed value. So the owner of a two-bedroom condo in Vancouver valued at $900,000 and deemed to be unoccupied will pay the BC government $9,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the housing boom in Vancouver is on the downturn, according to the Vancouver Courier, and they should know. Still, with a median house price around $3 million (Dec 2017) and condos going at $1 million apiece, it’s maybe time for that bubble to lose some air.

Meanwhile Down Under, house prices keep rising

Melbourne and Sydney made into Demographia’s top 10 list of the least affordable cities in the world. Sydney’s median house price of $1.11 million assured it of that invidious claim. Demographia ranks middle income affordability using a price-to-income ratio. Anything over 3 is rated unaffordable. On this basis, some of the world’s most affordable towns included Youngston, Ohio (1.9), Moncton, New Brunswick (2.1) and Limerick, Ireland (2.2). There are no affordable Australian cities on Demographia’s watch.

The least affordable city is Hong Kong (19.4) then a gap to Sydney (12.9) and Vancouver (12.6). Melbourne (9.9) is slightly more unaffordable than the aforementioned San Francisco (9.1).

Studies have shown that Melbourne is one of the big culprits in hiding empty houses among its residential property stock.

Australia’s 2016 Census showed that 11.2% of Australia’s housing stock was described as unoccupied on Census night. Empty property numbers were up 19% in Melbourne and 15% in Sydney compared with the 2011 Census. This growing anomaly is a global trend in the world’s biggest cities which have allowed rapid apartment developments.

Just why 1.089 million houses and units were unoccupied on Census night is hard to explain. But it probably suggests the owner/s were not in need of rental income and would rather keep the place in mothballs for use when the wealthy owners or friends and relatives visit (for the Australian Open, Melbourne Cup or the Grand Prix) or are relying on capital gain without the need to bother with tenants.

Hal Pawson of the University of NSW wrote in The Conversation that the spectre of unlit apartments in Melbourne’s night sky prompted the Victorian government to introduce an empty homes tax. Like Vancouver, this is levied at 1% of the property’s value. Similar taxes have been introduced in Paris and Ontario. Mr Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW, (try getting an acronym out of that. Ed.)  says the Melbourne tax only applies to inner city and middle suburbs and, there are ‘curious’ exemptions for foreign nationals with under-used second homes.

The flaw in the scheme is that it relies on self-reporting. Pawson says the lack of reliable data on empty homes is a major problem in Australia.

Census figures substantially overstate the true number of long-term vacant habitable properties because they include temporarily empty dwellings (including second homes).

Prosper Australia uses Victorian water records to estimate that about half of Melbourne’s census-recorded vacant properties are long-term “speculative vacancies”. That’s 82,000 homes. A similar “conversion factor” to Sydney’s census numbers would indicate around 68,000 speculative vacancies.

Labor Opposition shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has proposed a national tax on homes left empty for six months or more.

Pawson says these “cruel and immoral revelations” come at a time when 400 people sleep rough in Sydney every night and hundreds of thousands more face overcrowded homes or unaffordable rents.

He says Australia has a bigger problem in terms of under-utilised occupied housing. Australian Bureau of Statistics survey data shows that, across Australia, more than a million homes (mainly owner-occupied) have three or more spare (read unused) bedrooms. A comparison of the latest statistics (for 2013-14) with those for 2007-2008 suggests this body of “grossly under-utilised” properties grew by more than 250,000 in the last six years.

While authorities are grappling with the issue and how to perhaps tighten foreign ownership laws, the ANZ Bank did its own survey. Foreign buyers were playing an increasing role in spurring demand for new houses and apartments, it found. The ANZ analysed Reserve Bank data to conclude that in 2015-2016, foreign investors bought between 30,000 and 60,000 dwellings in Australia. This equates to 15% to 25% of all new dwellings, 80% of which were apartments, which can be bought ‘off-the-plan’.

There is good reason to suspect that the new apartment markets in Hong Kong, Vancouver, London, Paris and other desirable world capitals are underwritten to some extent by foreign nationals (including Australians).

The problem which could arise, say in the case of a global recession, is what happens in cities like Melbourne and Brisbane where foreign investors have bought up to 35% of new stock, if these owners are forced to sell.

Not to worry, most big box discount stores will give you a large cardboard box in which to live. The dumpster bins behind shopping centres have perfectly good food that’s just been chucked out because it has passed the use-by date.

Trust me.

FOMM back pages

Travel safe this weekend, people

John Hewson and integrity in a post-truth world

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Photo of John Hewson – Crawford School of Public Policy

Nobody can call out an errant politician better than former Liberal Opposition Leader John Hewson. In the 22 years since he resigned from politics, Hewson has become a respected academic, the darling of TV panel shows like Q&A, and a regular on the celebrity speakers’ circuit. Yesterday, Hewson was a keynote speaker at Griffith University’s two-day summit, Integrity20.

Who better to address the opening topic “Post-Truth, Trust and the Ethics of Deceit?” Hewson has been speaking out about fake news and the propensity of politicians to stray from the facts, long before Donald Trump made it a catch phrase. He is also an advocate for evidence-based public policy, often identifying where politicians have used models and commissioned reports to suit their version of the facts.

So to Hewson’s opening address yesterday, where he used the climate change debate to support his argument for ‘evidence-based public policy’.

“We had a very hard-line position as a response to the climate challenge back in the early 1990s. I was calling for a 20% cut in emissions by the year 2000 off a 1990 base. We are yet to know how we are getting the 5% reduction in emissions by 2020 off a 2000 base. And of course, we’re committed under the Paris Accord to cut emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030.

“What’s happened over that period is drift – the issues have been left to drift. Housing affordability’s been left to drift, the climate response has been left to drift and the final line of that drift is the mess we have in the energy sector. Electricity and gas prices are running away to the point where the average household is struggling to afford to pay its power bills.

“These are the outcomes of negligent government over a very long period of time.”

Hewson believes the situation can be turned around, but it will take some years to reverse the damage. He said what the country needed was an honest debate about leadership.

“And leadership is going to be about telling people honestly the way it is. To get good policy up we have to educate people to accept the magnitude of the problem.

“But we don’t have any debate now in this country – it’s all negative. One side puts its hand up and says let’s do X and the other side immediately says no.”

One in three voted for someone else

He said people had lost faith in the two-party system. In the last election, one in three people did not vote for one of the major parties. The protest vote was not just something that had happened only in Australia, he added, citing Brexit, the US, France and Germany as recent examples.

“It’s a longer term trend and it will get worse before it gets better.”

The path to restoring voter confidence, he said, was by focusing on the issues that affect people – the cost of living, health, housing, childcare and education.

But the main problem was that the ‘wrong people’ were in government.

“If you asked them why they went into politics, they’d say to make a difference and leave a better world for their grandchildren.

“And then they do the opposite.’

Hewson, who will be 71 next Sunday, had a distinguished career in politics. He was leader of the Australian Liberal Party and Leader of the Opposition between 1990 and 1994. Before and after politics he has worked as a senior economist for organisations, including the Australian Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In this context, it seems uncharitable to recall that in 1991 he advocated an unpopular goods and services tax. He lost the 1993 election to Paul Keating over the “Fightback Package”, of which GST was a central element. Ironically, Paul Keating (who first advocated a GST in 1985), shamelessly exploited public opinion to thwart Hewson.

All that aside, Hewson at least clearly outlined what he was going to do in 1991-93 and stuck to it. He is known still as a straight shooter, a man who once said he lived in hope of ‘spin-free politics’.

Day one of the Integrity20 Summit was not just about politics and truth. ABC presenter James O’Loghlin chaired a panel discussion about solving the world’s problems through innovation.

Inventor and futurist Mark Pesce showed a short video of a robot working on a farm in Indonesia. He described it as just two wheels, an axle and a smartphone on the end of what looks like a selfie stick, collecting data and producing crop reports. These robots cost about $2,500 and can be shared around a farming community. He also demonstrated how 3D printers, aligned with a simple robot used in smart phone technology, can reproduce all the plastic parts to build another 3D printer. Eventually, robots will also be able to assemble the printers – and that’s just the edges of the innovations universe.

CSIRO scientist Stefan Hajkowicz said the impact of Artificial Intelligence on the future of work had been greatly over-stated. He thought there were many areas where robots and humans would work side by side – in hospitals for example. The robot would do the blood test and the nurse would soothe the patient’s concerns.

But it turns out robots are crap at irregular tasks we humans take for granted, A robot cannot tie your shoelaces, for example. And, as Hajkowicz added, they can’t fold towels. They tried to get a robot to fold a towel. It took 20 minutes and did the job badly.

Today I attended the final full-day session of Integrity20, hastily scribbling notes and pressing stop/start on my hand-held recorder. You may wonder how I met my deadline – marvel at my prowess.

M.Y Prowess (sub-editor): “Isn’t it time I had a byline?”

BW: Ghost writers should be read and not heard – and try using commas instead of dashes – please – some of my readers find it tiresome.”

Next week: Bryan Dawe on satire, media censorship and the global rise of populism.

 

Homeless for a rainy night

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The Hope Centre for the homeless, Logan. Photo used by permission

For some, today is a reminder that anyone can become homeless, with various agencies (and reality TV) bringing this urgent issue to light. It also marks the end of the financial year, a kind of witching hour for those engaged in financial markets, investing in rental housing, or running Australia’s businesses, large and small.

For seventy-nine intrepid souls, our charity sleep-out on Maroochydore beach was thwarted by early morning drizzle turning into heavier rain.

Some abandoned their posts, leaving sheets of cardboard for others to make shelters with. Others took up the scarce positions under the eaves of the Maroochy Surf Club.

I took refuge in a nearby toilet block, mopping my wet hair with a sweatshirt. I decided I’d done enough, including raising $700+ and headed home in the wee hours. I briefly imagined a truly homeless mother in a similar situation. The two-year-old wants to be carried and the seven-year-old is saying “This is dumb, I wanna sleep.” So they walk 300m in the rain to the 1997 Ford wagon and do as best they can.

The St Vincent De Paul Society homelessness sleep-out raised more money this year ($125,577) with fewer people sleeping out. That’s an impressive result from a regional population of 300,000, (1,500 of whom are homeless).

The 2016 Census homeless tally (105,000 in 2011), won’t be known until 2018. But a 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found that 351,000 Australians had experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months.

There were a few speeches last night before we headed out to a balmy 17 degree Maroochydore evening. Mix FM’s Todd Widdicombe threw gentle barbs at local politicians and did a good job of generating competitive bidding for the charity auction (including a pillow sold to local politician Steve Dickson for $320).

St Vincent De Paul Society tells us most social housing on the Sunshine Coast was built more than 30 years ago. The Coast’s private rental vacancy rate is less than 2% and one-bedroom units are hard to find. A chart of social housing demand shows that 64% of people are looking for accommodation for one person. Developers on the coast tend to build three and four-bedroom homes and two or three-bedroom units. Many units are rented to holiday-makers.

Older people facing a tougher future

This is not a problem unique to the Coast. Pensioners and working parents have been priced out of the rental market in all metropolitan areas across Australia, according to National Shelter’s Rental Affordability Index (RAI), released on May 17.

Chief Executive of COTA Australia (Council on the Ageing) Ian Yate told a conference this week that older Australians were the forgotten faces of the housing crisis. He cited as examples the 70 year old divorcee facing homelessness, the 80 year old with a knee replacement who can’t find appropriate or affordable accommodation, the 68 year old couple retiring, still with a significant mortgage.

“Older Australians are increasingly falling through the cracks in the growing housing affordability and supply challenge,” he said. “A growing number of older Australians need to rent, rather than owning a home outright.

“We are already starting to see rates of home ownership by older Australians decline, and this is forecast to drop even further in the next 10-15 years.”

Anglicare’s annual report into housing affordability shows that welfare recipients and single-person households are the least likely to find appropriate accommodation. Queensland’s stock of social housing is just 3.6%, compared with a national average of 4.5%.

 

Rents are generally lower on the Sunshine Coast and the weather markedly warmer than the Southern States, even in winter. Little doubt this is why young people take their battered old wagons, surfboards and sleeping bags to the beach.

While many people in crisis use their cars as a refuge between one home and the next, others have developed an on-the-road lifestyle.

I once met a woman in her 50s whose camper van is her home and always on the road, unless she’s visiting family in one state or the other. Recently we met a couple who have a permanent caravan moored in a small town van park. They also have a bigger van for their grey nomad adventures. Safe to say most of their capital is tied up in these depreciating assets

For those who’d rather have a fixed abode, the Queensland Government recently made a ‘better-than-nowt’ commitment to provide 5,500 new social and affordable housing units over the next 10 years. Last year, the Government launched a Better Neighbourhoods initiative in fast-growing Logan City, with an affordable housing target of 3,000 by 2030.

Hoping for Hope Centre II

Family and Kids-Care Foundation established the Hope Centre in 2009, a complex of 19 self-contained units, designed for individuals and small family groups in crisis.

President Tass Augustakis told FOMM the charity is currently considering participating in the Better Neighbourhoods Logan initiative, seeking funding for a second Hope Centre which can accommodate larger family groups.

“The thing that got me going to start the Hope Centre was seeing women sleeping in cars with their kids. It just shouldn’t be happening, but it still is.”

Family and Kids-Care donated the land for the first Hope Centre and raised funding from the Federal Government to build it.

“After reading about the State Government’s affordable housing strategy, I’m organising a meeting to discuss Hope Centre II,” he said.

“We can provide the land, but we need the Government to contribute between $10 million and $12 million to build a four or five-level unit building.”

Cameron Parsell, a researcher with the University of Queensland, last year revealed that it costs governments more to provide services to the homeless than it costs to provide standard accommodation.

He produced ‘compelling and robust’ data in The Conversation which showed that chronically homeless people used state government funded services that cost approximately $48,217 each over a 12-month period. He compared this with another 12-month period in which the chronically homeless were tenants of permanent supportive housing.

“The same people used state government services that cost approximately $35,117 – $13,100 less when securely housed, compared to the services they used when they were chronically homeless.”

 

Urban studies researcher Emma Power, also writing in The Conversation, says single, older women are among the fastest-growing groups of homeless people in Australia. Yet most are unable to apply for community housing because the sole eligibility criterion is their low-income status.

Sadly, women who are not leaving a violent situation or who do not have a recognised disability will risk homelessness before they qualify for community housing.

The answer is for governments to provide more secure, low-cost social housing and/or increase rent-assistance payments across the board.

But as Power points out, the latter is not ideal. Although it assists renters in the short-term, it effectively subsidises private landlords.

This has been going on for a long time and it is getting worse, despite a lot of work by charitable organisations like St Vinnies. I tucked myself into my cosy bed (early) last night, feeling OK about raising the equivalent of a fortnight’s rent for someone.

But it is a band-aid at best.

Further reading:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/06/27/australias-homelessness-crisis-summed-up-in-four-news-events_a_23005274/

Everyone should have a home

 

Homelessness and affordable housing

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Homelessness and affordable housing, photo by Giulio Saggin

Last week I was walking from Roma Street Station to the top end of George Street, the hub of State Government. I was meeting friends for lunch and on the way passed a few apparently homeless young men on park benches, one tucked inside a doorway, others hovering around intersections, nervously smoking.

One young person was sitting on the footpath with a cardboard sign that read “homeless – please help”. I was too preoccupied on my mission so I ignored the hat, not even dropping a few coins on the return journey.

So now I’m hunting around the house for a decent sleeping bag and a beanie, hoping to make amends for my lapse in empathy by participating in a fund-raising community sleep-out on June 29. (If I chicken out I promise to donate money to the cause.)

Our local member Andrew Powell (Member for Glass House) has agreed to participate in the annual sleep-out.

Mr Powell wrote about this in his regular Glasshouse Country and Maleny News column. He will be among local dignitaries, business people and community members sleeping rough outside the Maroochydore Surf Club on June 29. Participants will be given a sheet of cardboard to sleep on and fed a simple meal of soup and bread rolls. Mr Powell says there are 1,500 homeless men, women and children on the Sunshine Coast.

The St Vincent de Paul northern diocese (which is organising the sleep-out), has provided support over the eight months to March 2017 to 450 homeless people, including 250 children.

The gesture by the Member for Glass House is admirable, but this is a problem that has, at best, been patched up by successive Queensland governments. The Sunshine Coast, which has a paucity of affordable and public housing, is named as one of the regional areas to be targeted by the new housing strategy.

The Rental Tenancies Authority published median rents for the Sunshine Coast region in December 2016. Tenants pay between $315 and $400 a week for a three-bedroom home or a two-bedroom unit. Rents are cheaper in the Hinterland areas like Beerwah, Peachester, Mooloolah, Palmwoods, Hunchy and Woombye, but public transport is limited and one needs a reliable car to live in these areas.

Meanwhile, Queensland has a plan

As the debate continues about the lack of affordable housing and how to find beds for homeless people, the Queensland Government has a 10-year plan.

The Government had some fairly positive (and uncritical), press about its plan to provide more than 5000 social and affordable houses. The $1.8 billion Housing Strategy announced in this week’s State Budget aims to get the private sector involved and utilise State government-owned land.

Treasurer Curtis Pitt said it was the biggest commitment to housing in Queensland’s recent history. The strategy will see more than 5,500 social and affordable homes built over the next decade. Eight hundred homes are to be built each year for the first five years. This is about double the number of social and affordable homes built in 2016-2017.

The Minister said the housing strategy includes $1.2 billion to renew the existing social housing property portfolio. A $420 million housing construction program aims to boost the supply of social and affordable housing. This includes $3.5 million to build two refuges for women and children escaping domestic and family violence.

The Government is also allocating $75 million to advance home ownership in ‘discrete’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

At first glance this sounds like a bold plan, made with some compassion for those struggling to survive in a competitive housing market. On second glance, it is unlikely to make a dent in Queensland’s 25,000+ public housing waiting list.

Too little, too late?

Public and social housing comprised 4.8% of the total national housing stock, according to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (2011 Census data). AHURI’s research showed that at a minimum, the social housing system would have to have been around 43% larger (on 2011 figures) to accommodate all those who met public housing eligibility criteria and who pay more than 50% rent.

Nevertheless the Queensland strategy has been welcomed by the construction industry and the housing sector, as it is said to provide 450 jobs. One of the more positive aspects of the plan is that 5% to 25% of the land used for these purposes will be land already owned by State Government. This implies vacant or under-utilised land near public buildings like hospitals and schools. So maybe at last the under-privileged will get to live in the middle-ring suburbs of Brisbane rather than 49 km away in fast-growing Logan City.

In December 2016, the State Government announced a $1 billion investment plan to build 3000 new houses in Logan City over 20 years. Minister for Housing and Public Works Mick de Brenni said the Better Neighbourhoods Logan initiative would deliver a range of economic and social benefits, including 410 new social and affordable dwellings over the next five years and over 3,000 new homes by 2036. A spokesman confirmed that the 3000 social and affordable homes are part of the Budget housing strategy. That leads me to surmise that another 4000 homes will be built in other regions over 10 years, on average, 40 new houses per year for each of the 10 regions identified by State Development.

The strategy shows some progressive thinking in that new social or affordable housing strategy should incorporate:

  • Rental bond loans to help tenants meet the private market;
  • Provision for public housing tenants to own their own home through shared equity loans or rent-to-buy schemes;
  • A new Housing Partnerships Office to streamline processes and lower costs and time frames;
  • Private sector involvement through expressions of interest to develop small, medium and large developments in regional centres;
  • $29.4 million to provide front line services for victims of domestic violence and young people at risk of homelessness. This includes a $20 million boost for ‘youth foyers’ – supported accommodation for young people aged 16-25 who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Looking after property investors

The State Budget announcement follows a plan revealed in the 2017 Federal Budget to allow a tax break to invest in social housing.

Retail and institutional investors are being offered a 10% increase in capital gains discount (from 50% to 60%). The Australian Financial Review reported that the scheme, aimed at Management Investment Trusts, would allow the discount to MITs and their investors, provided they offer the properties at an affordable rent for at least 10 years. The AFR said the Government also planned to issue bonds backed by rental income from social housing, replacing bank debt issued to approved social housing developers.

While governments play ‘catch up’ with affordable housing, the onset of winter should turn our thoughts to the homeless.

As Andrew Powell observed, it is not a matter of choice.

“In many cases homelessness comes about through factors out of a person’s control – whether this is mental or physical illness, financial instability, lack of education, domestic violence or something else entirely,” he wrote in the GCMN.

Yes, and sometimes all of the above.