Housing affordability and the empty homes scandal

housing-affordability-empty-houses
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

john-hewson-integrity
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.