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 Change.org 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.