Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What does affordable housing mean?

In my submission to the Senate Inquiry on Housing Affordability I wrote the following

Home ownership and reducing housing costs are not necessarily related policy goals. Housing can be cheap with extremely low rates of home ownership, and expensive with high rates of ownership. Clarity about what housing affordability means as a social policy goal is necessary.

There is usually an implicit stance in the housing affordability debate in Australia that a high rate of home ownership is a desirable policy goal. For some reason, a renting society is frowned upon. I put this down to tradition.

In Switzerland and Germany for example, around 60% of households rent. In Denmark and Austria it is around 50%. In Australia 30% of households rent.

We must remember that affordability of buying homes is not the same as making housing cheaper. Making housing cheaper means focussing on rental prices and their share of household income. If rents fell by 25% but prices didn’t, surely we would say housing has become more affordable. And vice-versa, if home prices increase 25% but rents were flat, we should say that housing has become less affordable.

A home is a financial asset that produces a place to live. Why do we care about owning the financial asset that produces our housing, but we don’t care about owning the assets used to produce our food, clothing and other goods? No one ever talks about a BHP share affordability problem!

The exact meaning of affordable housing is a crucial question to consider before any constructive housing policy can be developed.

Some may argue home ownership is about security. Home owners can put down roots because they know they won’t be evicted by a greedy landlord. But security of tenure can equally apply to rental housing, as it does in many countries. We just choose not enact the regulation to enable this to happen. Maybe readers have other reasons that home ownership is socially desirable.

For my part, I believe it is actually counterproductive to tackle housing affordability by encouraging greater home ownership.

Here’s why.

High home-ownership rates imply that most of the electorate has a financial interest in keeping prices high. This implies an interest in keeping rents high in order to maintain those prices. Thus, the interests of the home owner and the investor are aligned against the interests of the renter. 

When the bargaining power of renters is curtailed it merely enables investors to extract the full share of rents - that is, they are able to charge the maximum that renters are willing to pay. Any reduction in rents is merely a transfer of wealth from investors and home owners to renters.

With a higher proportion of rental households governments would be forced to improve conditions for tenants, and by doing so, increase their bargaining power.

Buying a home in Australia currently costs between 1.5 and 2 times more than renting, meaning that few rental households have an outside option of buying. They rent because they have to.

We can improve the bargaining power of renters either though changes to rental regulations, or through improving the home-buying outside option. This means that the very act of reducing prices, via LVR restrictions, removing the FHOG, and limiting CGT discounts and negative gearing, means that home buying will reduce in cost compared to renting, allowing buying to be a financially viable alternative to more currently renting households.

For more discussion on the issue I recommend this paper, which contains a wealth of data on rental housing in the OECD, and reasonable discussion about these important issues, including rent controls and the need to shift bargaining power towards tenants to reduce housing costs.

Once we focus on the rental price of housing, and not the price of the financial asset of residential property, we get a very different picture of the housing affordability debate. In fact, we get a picture where housing affordability has remained relatively stable in Australia over the past 20 years. And one where home ownership may even be a policy goal at odds with the goal of affordable rental housing.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t change the situation if we wanted to. We just have to accept that doing so involves a massive transfer of wealth.

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