Apartments, starter housing and the impatience of youth

Housing: Inspiration for the song ‘Little Boxes’ – tract housing in Daly City, northern California; image by Tim Adams

A developer friend from my days as a business journalist sent me his frank appraisal of the housing affordability crisis, which he described as more of a ‘crisis of expectations’. There are many Brisbane suburbs, Dan wrote, where post-war houses sell for less than $450,000. He named a few – Keperra, Ferny Grove, Grovely, all 12 kms from the CBD with good public transport networks and excellent shopping amenity.  Most of these homes are ex- housing commission or ex- war service homes built in the 1950s & 1960s. They tend to be on larger blocks of land than is common in the more sought-after inner city. But they are not on the shopping list of generation X or Y.

“Young home buyers don’t want a bar of them,” Dan said. “They want to be in the trendy inner suburbs with cute Queenslanders which have already been renovated.

“These (older) suburbs are ripe for gentrification and renovation, but the young guns want four bedrooms, a plasma screen on every wall and hip cafés on every corner.

“And they don’t want to dedicate their weekends to renovations, mending fences, tidying up yards, gardening and landscaping.”

As we observed last week, in the first part of this commentary on residential development, many of today’s generation think they can bypass the ‘starter home’.

This means buying a sound, but probably tired, older property in an outer suburb and gradually improving it as time and money allows. At some point in the property cycle, there will be an opportunity to take a profit and move up another rung. And at least older suburbs have character.

In 1962, US songwriter Malvina Reynolds wrote the quintessential commentary on middle-class conformism, ‘Little Boxes’. American activist songwriter Pete Seeger made it a big hit in 1963. You are maybe familiar with the song from its revival as the theme song to the TV series ‘Weeds’ or Roz Pappalardo’s cover with the Wayward Gentlemen.

“Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky

Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same.”

This satire on fast-developing tract housing in the sprawling outer suburbs of San Francisco does not seem out of place in Australia, 2018. The Little Boxes of our generation are stacked one atop the other in apartment blocks where you can step out on to the balcony and listen to the traffic, admiring the view of your neighbour’s balcony.

The little boxes analogy also exists in the fast-developing outer suburbs of Brisbane – the conurbation developing along the transport corridors between the north and south coasts. The typical house and land package in these new suburbs are quite generic, dominated by a two-car garage which typically takes up a quarter of the house. The house often takes up 80% or more of the land on which it sits, so there is little opportunity to adapt the property as your family grows.

There are advantages and disadvantages to buying an older house in an older suburb. The main disadvantage is it will probably have been rented for years and the upkeep let slide. The main advantage is there will be enough land for kids and dogs, a garden and maybe even a pool!

Older housing such as the ones described by our property developer can be bought by anyone who has saved up a deposit of about $90,000, along with sufficient income to service mortgage repayments of about $2,000 a month.

Considering that many young people in Brisbane are paying between $1,600 and $2,400 a month in rent, that seems like an affordable deal.

While the humble starter home in the post-war suburbs is an option, younger people seeking affordable housing are attracted to inner Brisbane’s proliferating apartment blocks. There was a time (the 1970s and 1980s) when the only people who lived in city apartments were the caretakers of city office blocks. Now, the CBD and its close neighbours (South Bank, New Farm, Fortitude Valley, West End, Kangaroo Point, Milton etc.) have a well-documented over-supply of new apartments.

Brisbane inner city is the only Queensland region where a majority of households’ dwellings are flats/apartments (50.1%) and townhouses/semi-detached (7.4%). The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Census showed that 41.7% of inner Brisbane housing stock is detached houses (compared with 76.6% for Queensland overall).

My take on the Census data for inner Brisbane suggests that the majority of people living there can afford the city lifestyle.

Almost 30% of households in this region earn more than $3,000 a week, with 56% earning between $651 and $2,999 per week. The proportion of people renting (49.9%) is higher than the state and national figures, but the income numbers suggest they can easily afford the median rent of $415 per week. This is not to say the inner city is completely populated by the well-to-do. Some 15% of residents earn less than $650 a week and 11.9% share expenses by living in ‘group households’.

The key demographics attracted to inner city apartments are international students, well paid young professionals and my cohort, older people who have downsized from big houses in established suburbs. If you own a big Queenslander in Ascot, it’s not hard imagine the property selling for $1.2m, which means the empty nesters can buy a three bedroom apartment in South Bank and have change left over to furnish it anew and take a cruise or two. They will also have to budget for storage costs, as there will typically be no room in the high-rise apartment for antique furniture, paintings, vintage cars, boats, jet skis and all the knick-knackery collected over a lifetime.

BIS Oxford Economics created a stir in April with a widely quoted report which highlighted the long-term oversupply issues facing Brisbane.

The report said 20% of Brisbane apartments were vacant and 52 projects had been shelved as a result of the over-supply, The withdrawal of 10,000 apartments before they were even built demonstrates the seriousness of the supply issue, which could last until 2025, report author Angie Zigomanis said. reported that BIS arrived at this (disputed) forecast by analysing occupier demand instead of sales demand. Despite the withdrawal of planned apartment buildings, there are another 3,500 apartments being added to the inner Brisbane market before Christmas.

So to answer the question posted last week (can tree changers afford to move back to the big smoke), it all comes down to the price cycle and what a long-term over-supply might do to apartment prices in coming years. The trick might be to shop around in the middle ring suburbs. Instead of looking for a starter home, determined downsizers might find there are three-bedroom apartments in the regional hubs (like Chermside), priced between $500k and $600k.

If you are willing to forego the inner city vibe, you’re still only a 20-minute bus ride from the CBD, but you won’t have to worry about what the over-supply will do to property prices. And the dog, if you still have one, will be able to ‘stretch his legs’ on the lawn outside.

Postscript: If you liked my Nauru song, I have made it available as an MP3 download, with 50% of net proceeds going to a local refugee charity. Here’s the link.


Residential development – is anything sacred

Culloden – residential development – is anything sacred? Photo by Laurel Wilson

To begin this two-part series on residential development and how it became not only unaffordable but also distressingly generic, we ask the universal question – is anything sacred? The example here looks at an unpopular proposal to build luxury houses on the doorstep of Scotland’s famous battlefield, Culloden. Regular readers would be familiar with this image on my website, cheekily captioned ‘Bob’s writer’s cottage’. In truth it is a stone crofter’s cottage within Culloden Battlefield, a spooky windswept moor near Inverness.

The proposal to build 16 luxury homes half a mile from Culloden Battlefield, a war grave, was given planning permission by Highland Council in May this year (12-8 vote). The BBC reported that the National Trust for Scotland, which manages the battlefield and opposed the housing project, said the case “Illustrated why Scotland’s planning system has to be reformed”.

Culloden Battlefield is where Jacobite and government forces clashed in April 1746. The housing development is within the battlefield’s conservation area and campaigners have argued that the fighting took place in a much wider area.

A protest movement continues to agitate, with a petition on attracting more than 100,000 signatures.

Much nearer to home, the story is depressingly familiar. The green hills of former dairy farms near Maleny Township have largely been given over to sprawling housing estates. It’s even worse on the Sunshine Coast, where houses on new estates are packed tightly together, not a tree in sight and often with only one road in and out. Pro-development people, and I know a few, would tell you that this is the free market at work – supply and demand. Affordable maybe, and eagerly sought-after yes, but not on my housing short-list.

Houses are ‘unaffordable’ – blame the baby-boomers?

We read a lot about how (we) baby boomers created the unaffordable housing market, buying, renovating and selling during a period when house prices doubled and in some cases tripled. Guilty as charged, but we just took the opportunities as they arose, as most people do. And in my experience, most ‘boomers’ bought a modest starter house, not always in a capital city, gradually up-grading as time and savings allowed.

So, apart from profit-taking baby boomers, the factors most prominent in the ongoing cost of housing include the rising cost and scarcity of development land, steadily increasing council infrastructure charges (passed on to the buyer) and population growth. Property investors, drawn to the sector by negative gearing (writing off costs on tax), also contribute to the affordability crisis by steadily increasing rents.

Too much house these days?

The flip side to the ‘baby boomers got rich on real estate story’ is what happens to our generation now, when we are all knocking on 70+ and need to downsize to more manageable properties? Downsizing in the same market, we are finding, is a rat race, as other people in the same circumstances move first. It is hard to find a smaller property of equal standard to the one you now have, and, take a profit on the way through.

Many older people take the retirement village option, the strictly legal but egregious models where you don’t own the real estate and pay rent and other costs which inevitably rise as time passes. Another real downside is that the retirement village unit usually ends up as someone else’s problem: the adult children of elders who are either in care or have died. So, Four Corners exposé or not, this arm of development will continue apace. The main reason, as once voiced by Spike Milligan’s Goons’ character, Eccles: “Everybody’s gotta be somewhere”.

Mobility –sometimes a choice, sometimes a necessity

The tendency is for Australians to be always on the move, looking for greener grass in a drought-stricken country. The 2016 Census found that just under half of Australians moved house between 2011 and 2016, with one in six moving in the previous 12 months.

This is a healthy state of affairs for people who earn a living in the businesses of development, property investment, real estate sales, conveyancing, house removal, storage and retail furniture, whitegoods and hardware. But as any psychologist would tell you, moving house is up there on the stress register with divorce and death of a loved one.

Young people are the most mobile, with one third of Australians aged 20-29 and a quarter of those aged 30-39 moved house between 2015 and 2016.

An earlier Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found that people living in young households without children were very mobile: the vast majority (90%) moved at least once and 40% reported having moved three or more times in the previous five years.  Young households were most likely to be private renters (58%) or owners with a mortgage 39%). Statistics like these do not change much over the years – as one might expect, the age group 75-79 are the least likely to move. although there is an upward spike in the 80+ age group, reflecting no doubt a move into care of one kind or another.

Young people are often forced to move from rented accommodation because of a range of factors including obtaining employment elsewhere, rising rentals, owners selling the rental property or eviction.

Therein lies the beauty of owning your own home – you don’t usually have to move until you decide.  Of course, the housing market may not co-operate when you decide to sell. You may not get the price you want/need or the property might sit on the market for months, if not years.

We moved to the Sunshine Coast hinterland in 2002 and bought half an acre with a two-level brick home. When we think about downsizing to a more manageable property (say 1,000 sqm and a one-level brick house), we find there is little on the market that fits the bill. There are plenty of spacious properties a few kilometres out of town with acreage, sheds, dams and ride-on-mowers. Those people are trying to downsize too. The alternative is to sell the house and buy a unit, with the issues of body corporate fees and the smell of burnt toast from close neighbours.

As we drove around Australia in 2014 and on many forays since, this is a story repeated all over the country. Many retirees, finding they are running short of cash, sell up and move to a more affordable town. They risk becoming isolated and lonely, split from support networks. On the other hand, they are cashed up and can afford to improve the cheaper property they bought in Mungadillabiddy-on-Trent. As for support networks, there’s always Facebook, Skype and travelling to stay with friends you made in your last six or seven moves.

Next week: Can you afford to move back to the big smoke?

Postscript: If you have not heard my song about Nauru, here is the YouTube link. Please share with your friends if you agree with the sentiments.