Sunday, March 19, 2017

Housing affordability: An honest debate

I spoke on Sunday at an event in Sydney, hosted by Sustainable Australia, called Housing Affordability: An honest debate. A video should be on the Facebook page and is below, as are the notes for my talk.

Imagine explaining 2017 to someone from 1987
I would like to start today by imagining a conversation. It’s the conversation I would have with my grandfather if I could go back in time 30 years to 1987. It might go a bit like this.

Grandad, how are you? I’m so glad I could come back from the future to tell you all about the amazing progress we have made.

Oh, look at how you’ve grown. What amazing things can you tell me all about it.

Well, remember how you were the first person out of everyone you knew to fly in an aeroplane? Well, in 2017, people fly all around the world all the time. Not only that, you know how you saw a computer once? Now everyone has a computer in their pocket. It’s like every encyclopaedia in the world has been shrunk down. And we can video call anyone, anywhere in the world, anytime. We have clean solar energy now, and China, South Korea, and many countries in Asia have become wealthy and brought their people out of poverty.

That does sound rather fantastical. And how are you?

Well, I’m 34 now. I got a university degree, and a PhD, so I’m the first in the family for that. And I have a loverly wife and two young boys who are 6 and 9.

Oh how lovely. You must have a beautiful house and garden then with all those grand things the future holds.

Well. Actually no Grandad. We live in a house smaller that the one Mum and Dad moved into when they were first married. It’s very similar in fact – I don’t think it has been renovated or improved in 30 years. And our garden? I’ve tried, but I don’t want to put too much money and effort into it. Because I rent Grandad. Although I have a university degree, and so does my wife, we can’t buy a house. They cost $1 million in and around Sydney. Even in Brisbane, homes are around half a million. Less if you go out of town, but it’s hard to find work outside of the city. And we have no chance of saving more than one hundred thousand dollars for a deposit when our rent takes up 40% of our income.

And what’s worse, the price of the average house in Australian capital cities went up 11% last year. In Sydney and Melbourne, the average home went up in price in one year by more than the average wage! So saving up for a deposit is like running up the down escalator. You never make progress!

So we are in a pickle. I can’t have a nice garden, because if we do spend the money and time to spruce it up, the real estate agent will see it and realise that they can rent the house for more, then ask us to pay for it by putting the rent up at the end of our lease. And every year, when the lease is up, we don’t know if we can stay anyway. We’ve moved 4 times in the last 10 years. I don’t really think we will ever have a house and nice garden. Probably not even a nice apartment.

What an absurd situation. You have all this technology – a computer in your pocket, world travel – and you can’t have a place with a nice garden to call your own.

How can we change my story?
Despite being absurd, this conversation contains many truths about modern Australia. And it doesn’t have to be this way. The past 30 years could have taken another path.

By many metrics Australia is one of the wealthiest handful of countries in the world. So why are we having an event today talking about the basic challenge of making housing secure and affordable?

If anyone can do it, we should. Many of our wealthy peer countries have established home ownership is a genuine option, and they’ve made law that make renting a secure alternative.

You see, the heart of this story not about housing, but about economic diversity. When wealthy countries ensure that economic investment is made across many different sectors, they establish demand for skilled workers, demand for cheap housing also comes from the companies who need to attract those workers. Mobility, in terms of households moving cities for work, has declined, mostly because of the challenge of finding affordable accomodation.

We could be in a different place today. We could be talking instead about Australia cementing its place as a global manufacturer of solar and wind energy, one of a our natural advantages. We could be talking about how a world class satellite industry and growing remote sensing industry has revolutionised agriculture, and how we’re exporting this expertise to the world. I could have regaled my grandfather with these wonders instead.

The reality however is that Australia has dropped in the world rankings of economic productivity and diversity. Harvard University researchers called Australia a ‘laggard’ of the Asian region, along with Mongolia and Papua New Guinea. We’ve dropped in their rankings from 32 in 1994 to 54 in 2008, and are still declining. Our exports are now dirt. Mostly coal and iron ore. Canada still beats us, ranked 29, but having declined from being ranked 19 just 20 years ago. Canada too has similar housing affordability problems to us.

As a side note, Canada is second place in the developed world in terms of immigration rates. If Australia just decreased the immigration intake to match the rate of Canada over the past ten years, there would be 1.3 million fewer people. That’s three Canberras!

We can actually see part of the cause of our narrowing of our economic base in the pattern of bank lending. Fundamentally, the pattern of new lending determines the patterns of real investment in the economy. It determines where we invest in new manufacturing and production capabilities, or instead take leveraged gambles by reselling homes to each other. That’s why the fast growing Asian countries use State-owned banks to direct investment towards new production facilities that expand their capabilities.

In the early 1990s, over 50% of Australia new bank lending was for business investment. Only 4% was for investor housing. 25% OO housing.

Now? It’s down to 30% for business. Investor housing has jumped from 4% to 20% of lending, and OO lending too has leaped from 25% to nearly 40%.

But it’s worse. 95% if that massively increase investor housing lending is for established homes, up from 50% in the late 1980s. Only 5% is for newly constructed homes, down from 50% a quarter of a century ago. We are directing our powerful monetary system, our bank lending, away from new investment in new housing, towards trading the same homes with each other. Home ownership rates have steadily declined for twenty years.

Why is this?

In many ways it was a conscious political choice. While the decline of our economic diversity, has failed the average worker, it has been a boon for the landlord class. Those who already own land and housing benefit at the expense of those who want access to housing for their own household security.  Those who own the banks benefit too. And we have seen the enormous lengths to which government will go to support the way things are. Every “affordable housing” policy, from FHBG to super access, is designed not to let housing prices fall, and housing become genuinely more affordable.

What can work?
While the main challenge here is political, one thing we can do is have a shortlist of effective policies proposed, analysed, and scrutinised, that are ready to be adopted when the political timing is right.

Let’s start by debunking a furphy. Anyone who says that we need less regulation and freer markets to solve housing affordability is a fool. They have not though this through. They have ignored all the evidence from extensive regulations in wealthy countries that do promote affordable housing.  Australia’s problem come in many way from “market forces”.

I’m an economist, I love markets. But I’m not an idiot.

In terms of the larger economic diversity problems, much of this stems from lobbying pressure to sell the assets of the nation to well-connected interests on the cheap, with these new monopolies doing the rational market thing of constraining output and increases prices. No longer do we have a public sector able to use these institutions to take risks, or invest in new technologies that have obvious public benefits.

Public investment has always laid a platform upon which the private sector has built, innovated, and thrived. We know that the space race of the 1960s had huge economic benefits for the economy broadly. We know the many waves of public investment in our city infrastructure also supported private sector producers in terms of transport, communications, water, energy and health. The same is true today. We actually need to defy market forces if we want to make progress. We need to gamble with public investment for major capital projects – yes, like the NBN – for the future.

For example. it’s not too late to do economic CPR on the manufacturing sector if we want to, and that sector will help us invest in the clean energy and information technology future.

Moving on to banking. We should see new lending and money creation, as a social function. It’s a public good. And we have let this money creation gift that we provide our banks to be used to fund land and housing speculation, rather than new businesses and real investment. This is the natural market outcome in the absence of regulations that direct our monetary system is be used for broad economic goals.

We need to massively tighten lending rules for banks to the housing market, and force them to look elsewhere and take risks on genuine productive investment. We could go beyond LVR rules, to loan-to-income rules, that restrict investor lending based on the rental income of the property. We could completely ban investor housing lending except for newly built homes, which do not expand our productive capacity. While it seems extreme, being a wealthy nation where citizens cant afford housing IS AN EXTREME problem!

We should be taxing unproductive activities, and un-taxing productive ones. That means charging for our land and mineral rights. The ACT is six years into a 20 year transition to land value taxation. Loopholes in the PRRT can be closed, and the system expanded onshore as we once tried with the MRRT. As you might now be realising that one of the problems with getting back our economic diversity is the concentration of political power by a few narrow interests. Many came out against the attempt to retain control of mineral right with the MRRT. Expect nothing less next time effective reforms are proposed.

In terms of housing more generally, we could ban foreign purchases altogether. I see absolutely no reason not to. It is clearly a myth that we need the money – after all our domestic lending for housing investment is off the charts! There was around $120 billion if new lending to investors last year. If this was direct to new housing only, it could have funded over 300,000 new homes, far more than one each for our new population over the period. Removing foreign buyers would take a large chunk of the wealthiest potential buyers out of the price-bidding contest for homes. 11% of home buyers in NSW last year alone.

And on the same note, the 50% CGT discount merely serves to increase the payoff from speculation rather than investment and production. It was a mistake. We can admit it. Let’s move on.

I want renting to be a valid and equal alternative to ownership. To that end my general view is that balance of bargaining power needs to shift towards renters, which would decrease the price-competition that keeps rents high.

There are a number of ways to do this.

Tenancy laws: Remove options for not-fault termination of lease, and limits rental increases.
Vacant homes: Introduce a vacant home tax that would punish owners of multiple dwellings, many of which are held for asset speculation, and kept vacant to time their exit from the market and maximise the sale price by selling it vacant.
Social housing: Broaden the number of state-owned social housing projects, ensuring they are widely integrated into the community. As well as funding them directly, make them part of development conditions for large new subdivisions. This provides an outside option to renters who are no longer being funnelled into the private rental market.

These laws are absolutely standard across the our peers of successful, wealthy, economically diverse countries, like France, Germany, Denmark. If I were in these countries I could have told my grandfather about my beautiful garden, and I could have told him how we have not had to move 4 times.

Before I finish I should comment briefly on supply. Many people see that as the answer, despite the fact that Australia has the most homes per person that any time in history, and has just had the biggest housing construction boom in history. There certainly has been a small effect on rental prices, in the order of a percent or two less growth here or there. But it has done nothing for prices. Sydney prices are up 75% in 5 years.

Nor does rezoning increase supply. It makes no sense to tell a landowner who has for decades decided not to build houses that they can built more densely. It is a pure gift. There are examples of sites rezoned because of the urgency of supply, only for the developer to turn around and tell investors that they want to take 35 years or more to develop. Sure rezone, but if you are doing it for housing supply, make it a condition that homes are built in a short time period. I have seen developers lobby for rezoning and be granted it due to concerns over housing supply, only to then turn around and tell their investors that the housing development will take 35 years and they will sell as slow as necessary to keep prices high.

Additionally, rezoning rights can be sold rather than given away. In the ACT, rezoning rights are taxed at 75% of their market value. In Sau Paulo Brazil, rezoning rights are auctioned months, and they have raised $10 bill USD in 10 years from that.

I will wrap up now.

I would love to have gone back in time and had a different conversation with my grandad from an alternative 2017. One where there was more to life that speculating on housing, and we could laugh at the idea of housing reality television on our screens. We could instead talk about gardening.

But we can learn from these past decades, and if my grandchildren do the same exercise in 30 years, they can tell me about their family, their work and their garden, and their beautiful home.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Cameron. I enjoyed your talk yesterday (via the video link provided). What was the vibe in the room? What did you get by way of feedback on your ideas?

  2. One thing I didn't see here, is new cities. Any reason that wasn't considered? If there is an optimum city size (given sufficient infrastructure) and an increasing population aren't new cities automatically part of the answer?