City Futures Blog

News and research in housing and urban policy, from Australia’s leading urban policy research centre.

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The elephant in the room: to broaden home ownership access, governments must tackle housing affordability head-on

Posted by on September 20th, 2022 · Affordability, Housing

By Prof Hal Pawson. Originally published at Red Brick, the UK housing policy blog.

Boosting home ownership: an overriding housing policy objective for many decades, not only in Britain but the world over. And yet, as also seen in many countries, the past 10-20 years have witnessed owner occupancy rates static or falling – see graph. 

Figure: Changing home-ownership rates (owner occupiers as a percentage of all households) in selected countries indexed to 2003 (2003=100) – for sources see Figure 19 in our report

Home ownership levels among young adults have widely plunged in much more dramatic fashion. In the UK, for example, the 25-34 age group owner occupancy rate declined from 51% in 1989 to only 28% in 2019. And, in another concerning dimension, both in the UK and Australia, within each age cohort, ownership rates have declined disproportionately among lower income households. Given the range of inherent benefits believed associated with home ownership, these trends present a major housing policy challenge.

It is not as though official endorsement for home ownership can be dismissed as purely rhetorical. Quite the contrary. As demonstrated by our recent research comparing approaches across eight countries including the UK, a highly diverse array of first-time buyer assistance interventions have been, and are being, pursued around the world. 

Demand-side and supply-side interventions

In Britain this has lately involved schemes such as the Help to Buy shared equity model, where government effectively takes an equity stake in the value of an acquired home via a (time limited) interest-free loan, thus reducing the size of a purchaser’s necessary mortgage. Significant stamp duty concessions and government-backed low deposit mortgages have also been recently offered for first time property acquisition.

Since these types of help effectively enhance consumers’ ability to pay for housing, they can be classed as ‘demand-side’ instruments. Supply-side measures, by contrast, involve government support for home ownership targeted through housing suppliers (developers) or through the below-market-value disposal of publicly owned assets. 

UK examples include grant funding for housing association shared ownership dwellings and the effective subsidy offered to council tenants exercising the Right to Buy, as well as developer contributions to affordable home ownership mandated through land use planning. 

In Australia, while supply-side interventions are nowadays virtually absent, government-commissioned build-for-sale schemes formed an important instrument for boosting home ownership in the early post-war period. Direct state involvement in land and housing development to generate ‘entry level’ homes for sale meanwhile remains significant in both Germany and the Netherlands, and extensive in Singapore. 

All demand-side and supply-side models identified in our research feature among seven distinct forms of first-time buyer assistance identified in our generic policy typology – see Table 1 in our published report.

Political potency

Generally speaking, anglophone countries (e.g. Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, UK) have in the past 10-20 years tended to see growing deployment of demand-side first-time buyer assistance measures. 

Approaches of this kind chime with the neo-liberal preference for governments to act as ‘market enablers’ rather than to play a more direct role in provision. They also tend to be politically attractive because of their media appeal and electoral resonance. 

However, especially where they take the form of cash grants or tax concessions, demand-side measures are widely criticised by economists and public policy experts as inequitable (because the beneficiaries tend to be moderate income rather than low income households) and ultimately counter-productive since, by boosting purchasing power for a commodity with inelastic supply, they contribute to house price inflation. 

Those losing out under this type of approach – because of the higher prices consequently faced – include all aspirant first-time buyers failing to qualify for such assistance. The main beneficiaries, on the other hand, are existing home owners, whose properties consequently appreciate in value without any effort by property holders themselves. 

Nonetheless, the political potency of home ownership affordability was notably highlighted in recent national elections in both Australia and Canada where rival demand-side first time buyer assistance measures were pushed high among contested issues by the leading rival parties.

Broadening access to home ownership?

How far do first-time buyer assistance schemes in fact broaden home ownership across the income spectrum, as sometimes claimed? From our own work we would largely endorse the conclusion of UK researchers who concluded in 2017 that:

‘[Low cost home ownership] schemes are not expanding … social mobility by opening up home ownership to new groups of lower income households. Rather they are being used by households who would most likely buy anyway’.

Instead, the main effect of models such as shared equity (e.g. Help to Buy) or low deposit mortgages is to bring forward home purchase for moderate income earners otherwise destined to buy some time later. Alternatively, beneficiaries are enabled to buy a home somewhat bigger, or better located, than in the absence of assistance.

Arguably, regarding the scope for broadening access to home ownership, the discounted sale of council housing to sitting tenants could be something of an exception to the rule, since many scheme participants have indeed been relatively low-income households. Nevertheless, considering the eye-watering value of the effective subsidy receivable via discount entitlement (currently up to £100,000 per buyer), the true program cost to government is, and has been, colossal.

Because such costs have been historically incurred without direct government expenditure (but, rather, by accepting a below-market price for a state-owned asset), they have had low political visibility. However, if the Conservative government was serious about its recently declared intention to promote housing association Right to Buy sales, this would change because the associations concerned would expect Treasury compensation for the value of discounts approved. 

Some more recommendable first-time buyer assistance measures include:

  • Mandating developers to include below-market price housing for sale (as well as affordable rental) in residential developments is recommendable on the grounds that the discount is effectively financed by taxing land value
  • A strength of the shared equity model (e.g. Help to Buy) is its potential for lowering both the income and wealth threshold for home ownership access, to the benefit of lower income households.
  • Enabling development of for-sale housing by state agencies or housing associations offers a means of providing dwellings that can be sold to qualifying applicants at cost price (i.e. no need to factor-in profit), while also expanding overall housing supply to the benefit of the wider market.

Housing unaffordability – the elephant in the room 

Well-chosen measures to assist first-time buyers are a desirable element of a wider housing strategy. But their potential for expanding access down the income spectrum remains very limited if other key policy settings remain sacrosanct. Overall home ownership growth demands systemic change to tackle the much tougher challenge of easing broader housing affordability. 

Yet this objective calls for the dampening of property values, an objective in tension with the dominant theme of home ownership policy: to facilitate wealth accumulation through asset ownership. 

Some will argue that this demands land-use planning de-regulation to ‘free up supply’. In our view, however, the volume of new housing output is primarily influenced by developer response to market conditions, not by the planning system. Rather, the key problem lies in the taboo status of key tax and/or social security policy settings that in many countries encourage people with spare money – or credit capacity – to plough it into housing. In the UK context this could refer to the unlimited exemption from capital gains tax for the principal home, the weakness of the inheritance tax regime and the absence of a broad-based land tax.

A serious commitment to expanded home ownership demands consideration of phased reforms in areas like these.

Is it time to talk about rent control in Australia?

Posted by on August 29th, 2022 · Housing

By Ben Knight, UNSW Sydney. Originally published at UNSW Sydney Newsroom.

The rising cost of everyday essentials has most people feeling the pinch. But if you’re a renter and haven’t already been hit with a rent increase, there’s a good chance you’re especially worried.

Property data sources like CoreLogic show rents in Australia are climbing across capital cities and the regions. Meanwhile, vacancy rates are also at record lows – below 1 per cent in some areas – as the demand for rental housing continues to drive up prices.

While landlords have benefited from these stunning rent increases, the real impact is felt by households – many on low incomes – relying on rental housing, says Dr Chris Martin, Senior Research Fellow from the UNSW City Futures Research Centre.

“If there’s a supply response, it just can’t come fast enough,” Dr Martin says. “In the meantime, it’s causing pain to households, many of whom are already in rental stress, and it can displace them from the communities they want to be in or have been in for a long time.”

Currently, tenancy laws regulate the frequency of rent increases – usually no more than once every six or 12 months, depending on the jurisdiction. Tenants can also challenge a rent increase for being excessive to the general market level of rents for comparable premises.

“We currently have very light regulation of rents during tenancies, in terms of frequency of increases and ‘excessive to market’ provisions, and there’s no regulation of rents at the beginning of tenancies at all. It’s just whatever the market will bear,” Dr Martin says.

But greater use of rent regulation, including capping the amounts rents can increase during tenancies, could be one way to help relieve pressure on renters’ pockets and keep them in their homes.

“Proper rent control hasn’t been discussed for a while in Australia, but it’s something that should be on the research and policy agenda,” Dr Martin says.

The argument for controlling rents

Dr Martin says housing is often treated as a means to grow wealth rather than a fundamental need. He says there’s no reason housing shouldn’t be considered, and regulated, like many other essential goods or services are.

“There should be regulation of rents in principle because everyone needs housing, and the consequences of not having it are dire,” Dr Martin says.

Regulating the price of rents would help ease a significant cost of living pressure for households, Dr Martin says. It would better enable renters to stay in their homes through more affordable pricing, while preventing landlords from taking windfall gains at their expense.

“Rents are increasing but not the quality or output of the housing service. This is the problem with property investment: it promises that you can make a lot of money doing absolutely nothing,” Dr Martin says. “A landlord just happens to have acquired property in a place that has become more desirable. In almost all cases, the dwelling quality is declining while they make more gains.”

“There should be regulation of rents in principle because everyone needs housing, and the consequences of not having it are dire.”

In the absence of rent regulation, Rent Assistance paid through the social security system is the principal policy intervention for housing affordability in Australia. However, Dr Martin says it isn’t effective enough because many households in need are ineligible, and the amount is insufficient to make market-level rents affordable for many.

“There are about a quarter of a million low-income renters who don’t receive Rent Assistance at all and are paying unaffordable rents,” Dr Martin says. “And for more than a third of people who do receive it, even after accounting for all their Rent Assistance going towards the rent, they’re still in rental stress.”

The other alternative to private rental is the social housing sector. However, the construction of new social housing has stagnated for decades, and what little stock is available can’t keep up with demand.

“While social housing does provide more affordable rents, there’s not nearly enough to meet the needs of everyone who needs it,” Dr Martin says.

Regulation of rents could be pro-housing development, Dr Martin says, as it encourages landlords to increase land use intensity, increasing the availability of rental housing.

“If you’re the owner of land and rents are properly regulated, the way to increase your rental income would be to develop it further. So, rent regulation could be consistent with or even encourage rental housing development.”

Read more: Report highlights post-pandemic housing affordability pressures and rapid rent inflation

Making rent control work in Australia

While you might think rent control in Australia would be innovative, many states – particularly New South Wales – already have a history of rent control measures during economic crises.

Rents were regulated as part of the Fair Rents Act during the First World War, and a form of control was also reintroduced in 1931 during the Great Depression to help make housing more affordable. Rents were also regulated nationally throughout the Second World War, where rents were capped at the 1939 levels.

“To this day, there are still a handful of properties that would be covered by post-war rent control regulations in New South Wales that have kept them well below the market level,” Dr Martin says.

But there are also other forms of rental regulation in many countries today.

Most Canadian provinces have guidelines that stipulate the maximum percentage increase in rent that can be charged in the next year. Ireland introduced location-specific rent regulation where rents are capped at 2 per cent a year in designated ‘rent pressure zones’. Some properties in the United States are also subject to regulation where rents are benchmarked and adjusted to historic price levels.

Dr Martin says capping rent increases in line with the Consumer Price Index could be one of the ways to implement rent control in Australia. The rationale would be that it maintains the real value of the landlord’s return on their investment. In the interim, though, we could return to a temporary freeze on rent increases to alleviate the pressures on renters immediately.

“During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some states introduced six-month rent freezes, which helped to keep households in their homes,” Dr Martin says. “We should be looking around the world to see how other countries have successfully implemented rent control for the long term, without being too prescriptive now about any particular method.”

Read more: Cost of living: more low-income households face the prospect of homelessness

Eliminating no-grounds eviction

Another fundamental reform in tenancy law is needed to make any rent regulation work – strengthening the legal security of tenants. In particular, eviction laws must be reformed for any rent regulation measures to be effective, Dr Martin says.

“If rents are regulated, but you’re not also providing reasonable security for tenants, landlords can threaten tenants with no-grounds evictions to put their properties back onto the market,” Dr Martin says.

Victoria has tightened their tenancy eviction laws recently – no-grounds evictions can only be served at the end of the first fixed term – while Queensland and Tasmania still allow no-grounds termination at the end of any fixed term. All other Australian jurisdictions still allow no-grounds terminations at the end of fixed terms and periodic leases.

Dr Martin says reforms need to go further to ensure landlords can’t unreasonably terminate tenancies without grounds, including at the end of fixed terms, as it undermines every other tenancy right such as challenging a rent increase.

“The legal insecurity of being a renter in Australia is routinely exploited by landlords,” Dr Martin says. “Getting rid of no-grounds terminations is something all jurisdictions should be looking to do right now to better protect renters.”

Recess is a time of conflict for children. Here are 6 school design tips to keep the peace

Posted by on July 25th, 2022 · Uncategorized
Photo: Fatemeh Aminpour, Author provided (no reuse)

By Dr Fatemeh Aminpour, City Futures Research Centre. Originally published at The Conversation.

Conflict is one of the main barriers to children’s play during school recess. Research has found students experience an average of one conflict at recess every three minutes. My own research shows how well-designed school grounds can reduce conflict and help vulnerable students take part in recess play activities.

Clashes happen most often when children organise play themselves. Causes include difficulties sharing resources and disputes over who’s taking control of them, including play space. School staff can manage conflicts. However, this tends to limit children’s self-directed executive functioning, through which they regulate thoughts and behaviours to support goal-directed actions.

My study explored children’s views on the activities that usually triggered conflict and the ways in which school grounds could be designed to avoid it. The study was carried out at three public primary schools in Sydney, Australia. It offers the following six design recommendations that draw upon children’s perspectives.

1. Offer more than one grassed area

Children recognise grassed areas as major areas of conflict. The school rule of “No Running Fast on Concrete” generally restricts running games to these grassed areas, but these activities can easily clash when all in the same area.

Instead of having a single grassed area, children prefer to “play more separate games”. This means they need separate grassed areas for playing soccer, gymnastics or bullrush – a game in which children must race across a field without getting tagged by those who are “in”.

Children in a focus group voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of alternative grassed areas. As students said:

When you’re back to score a goal, someone just runs in the way and kicks it […]

There’s three goalkeepers in the goals […]

You can’t even see your ball and it makes everyone stop.

When multiple grassed areas are not available, older children, particularly boys, often dominate the main play space. As a result, more sensitive children – usually younger girls – feel excluded from these settings. They retreat to the edges or corners to avoid those who play “rough”.

To avoid clashing with boys playing soccer, some girls used leaves to extend the line of the soccer field to the edges for a race. Photo: Fatemeh Aminpour, Author provided (no reuse)

2. Separate zones for different types of activities

Although this seems an obvious design recommendation, separate zones are not always available, particularly in schools with limited space. As a result, a zone is used for both fine and gross motor activities. Children running around fast or playing with balls are then seen as “disruptive” to those sitting or playing with cards, and vice versa.

The space is no longer felt as a “very relaxing place”. Children who seek “peace” and “quiet” have to withdraw.

Hectic games and quieter activities don’t fit in well with each other. Photo: Fatemeh Aminpour, Author provided (no reuse)

3. Offer more natural settings

My research indicates that children of diverse personal characteristics – including gender, age and ability – use natural settings without conflict, although their play activities in these settings vary. They hide behind tree trunks, use them as “base” in running games, practise balancing on their massive roots, build imaginary houses under their canopies and use their malleable resources in their creative play. These activities don’t usually come into conflict.

As indicated by children, their preferred natural settings in Australian schools include trees such as bottlebrushes, Moreton bay figs and paperbarks, and bushes with no “spiky” leaves. Increasing these natural environments can encourage more peaceful school ground activities, with benefits for children’s social functioning.

Despite children’s varied uses of natural settings, their activities in these areas do not usually come into conflict. Photo: Fatemeh Aminpour, Author provided (no reuse)

4. Use physical barriers to separate activities

To reduce disruption, barriers can be subtly incorporated into the design of school grounds. These might be a row of trees, furniture, raised edges or retaining walls. Barriers can be also imposed, such as fences or netting around playing fields.

Children identify ball games as the most invasive activity that justifies barriers. Children can be easily struck by balls flying out of playing fields, but physical barriers can stop this sort of interference with other activities.

A tree, bench and raised garden bed work as barriers that reduce conflict between different play activities. Photo: Fatemeh Aminpour, Author provided (no reuse)

5. Allow buffer space to create clear pathways

If a school playground is densely populated and/or play areas are in close proximity, children inevitably pass through the playing fields and that can cause conflict:

I found it annoying when the year 6s run through our handball court […] When we’re playing with the ball, they run through it and they take the ball and hit it and it sometimes becomes really hard to find it.

Providing an adequate buffer area allows children to pass around games and avoid situations like this.

6. Ensure all students have a place to play

Enough play areas and opportunities are needed to keep all children engaged during recess. Otherwise, as observations show, children can loiter and annoy others to avoid getting “bored”.

If school grounds lack suitable settings, children may also create informal play spaces in areas disruptive to other play activities. Unorganised play settings can worsen conflict and bullying.

Contrary to common beliefs, children who retreat to the edges of school grounds are not necessarily “unable” or “unwilling” to take part in play; they are often trying to avoid conflict in the main play zones. By minimising the chance of conflict during recess, school design can support children in building positive, reciprocal social relationships through play.

Without meaningful national housing strategies, first-home buyer schemes will only increase owners’ wealth

Posted by on July 7th, 2022 · Housing

By Hal Pawson and Chris Martin. Originally published in The Guardian.

The Albanese government plans new help for entering the market but systemic change is needed to tackle housing affordability.

More than $20bn was given by Australian governments in tax breaks and cash grants to first-home buyers in the decade to 2021.

While assisting access to home ownership is an electorally popular policy, these schemes are widely criticised by economists and public policy experts as inequitable and ultimately counter-productive, with each new boost in assistance driving prices further beyond reach for those who miss out.

That $20bn could instead have funded around 60,000 social housing dwellings or 137,000 homes for first-home buyers on a shared-equity basis.

Even before being ramped up in the economic stimulus response to Covid-19, Australian annual spending on first-home buyer cash payments and stamp duty concessions was escalating – up from $1.2bn to almost $3bn in the three years from 2016.

Additionally, governments have been introducing other schemes to boost first-home buyer purchasing power. These wider measures included the Housing Guarantee, a new national program to facilitate low-deposit mortgages, initially unveiled by Scott Morrison in the heat of the 2019 election campaign.

Now, following a lively debate on the topic ahead of the latest federal poll, the Albanese government plans to further broaden the approach through its new Help to Buy shared equity scheme. For up to 10,000 moderate income households a year, this scheme would offer a federal contribution of up to 40% of the purchase price of a home, with government taking an equity stake in the property.

First-home buyer assistance schemes in Australia do little to enable home ownership access for people otherwise permanently excluded. Rather, their main effect is to bring forward home ownership for moderate income earners already close to purchasing. In doing so, they help assisted households set a new, higher price in the market.

This limitation links to the wider reality that renewed home ownership growth cannot be achieved solely through further expanding first-home buyer support on the current model. To seriously confront this broader aim demands systemic change to tackle the much tougher challenge of easing broader housing affordability.

Yet this objective is in tension with the dominant theme of home ownership policy: to facilitate wealth accumulation through asset ownership.

Some will argue that this demands land-use planning deregulation. In our view, however, the key problem lies in the sacrosanct status of the major tax and social security policy settings that encourage people with spare money – or credit capacity – to spend it on housing.

While this remains embedded, measures that aim to assist first-home buyer access and affordability will achieve little beyond increasing the wealth of existing home owners.

As in Australia, this reflects growing concern at falling – or at least plateaued – home ownership rates seen in many advanced economies during the early 21st century, and particularly since the global financial crisis.

This, in turn, arguably results from the growing financialisation of housing – its treatment as an attractive investible asset – that has combined with record low interest rates to push house purchase out of reach for growing numbers of younger adult households.

In Australia, the likelihood of attaining home ownership by age 30 has fallen substantially. Since the 1970s, first-home buyer average age has risen by six years to 32 – almost doubling the number of years between reaching adulthood and reaching home ownership.

At the same time, especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, first-home buyers are now buying fewer houses and more units, while growing numbers are achieving this life goal only with the aid of parental financial subsidy.

While Australian governments have recently reacted to the first-home ownership policy challenge by broadening and deepening the array of assistance programs, they have continued to focus efforts on the demand side of the housing market – that is, boosting consumer purchasing power.

In contrast with other countries, as well as with Australia’s own historical experience, little or no attention has been lately paid to supply-side measures to expand development of dwellings suitable for this cohort.

In early post-war Australia, rapidly rising home ownership was supported through large-scale state-commissioned housing development for low-cost sale, as well as through government mortgage issuance, and regulatory preference for first-home buyer private lending.

Nowadays, most notably in Singapore but also in European countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, national and state governments continue to play an active role in land and housing development to the benefit of first-home buyers.

Meanwhile, authorities in the UK and Ireland leverage land-use planning powers to ensure that private market housing developments include both affordable rental and lower-priced sale units.

Not only are such approaches largely absent in Australia, but we also lack a coherent overarching policy framework for addressing housing system problems.

Again, this puts us out of step with some of the countries mentioned above which frame first-home buyer assistance measures within meaningful national housing strategies.

Read our AHURI Final Report, Assisting first homebuyers: an international policy review, and the Guardian’s news report.

Freezing indoors? That’s because Australian homes are closer to tents than insulated eco-buildings

Posted by on June 14th, 2022 · Climate change, Housing

By Associate Professor Philip Oldfield, Head of School, Built Environment, UNSW. Originally published at The Guardian.

As winter sets in, and temperatures plummet, it can sometimes feel as cold inside as it does outside. The reason for this is the poor thermal performance of houses in Australia. Our homes need to be rapidly improved to combat climate change, tackle energy poverty and improve our everyday lives.

Minimum building standards for energy and comfort in Australian houses lag far behind many regions. Fifty years ago, it was the oil crises of the 1970s that triggered the creation of building energy standards across Europe and North America, and a widespread switch to double-glazing, increased insulation and concern for energy efficiency. In Australia, it wasn’t until the 1990s that minimum insulation requirements emerged. Only in 2003 did the Building Code of Australia set housing energy efficiency standards across the country.

The performance of our homes is governed by the nationwide house energy rating scheme (NatHERS for short). Ratings range from 0 stars, for a house that would provide no protection at all from the climate, to 10 stars, where virtually no artificial heating or cooling is needed all year round. The current minimum performance for new homes is 6 stars, which has been in place since 2011. However, the average Australian home sits at just 1.8 stars. This is perhaps closer to a tent than a modern eco-house.

Australian housing then leaves a lot to be desired in terms of comfort and energy. Single-glazing is still typical, whereas in Sweden double-glazing has been required by building codes since 1960, with triple-glazing now the norm in many colder climates. Australian homes are leaky too. Older houses can have an “airtightness” of more than 30 changes an hour – that is, all the air inside them will leak out 30 times every hour at 50 pascals of pressure. In newer homes it’s closer to 10-15 air changes. In comparison a high performance “Passivhaus” benefits from 0.6 or fewer air changes per hour. For many of us, we are paying thousands of dollars a year to heat our homes, only for this heat to escape straight through gaps in the walls.

What’s the impact of this? Sky-high bills for starters. Estimates in 2015 suggest about 28% of Australian households suffer from some form of fuel poverty – that is they either struggle to pay energy bills, or restrict energy use to the detriment of their health to keep them affordable. While spiralling energy prices are the driver, leaky uninsulated homes can magnify the effects. Take a 180 sq metres home in Canberra. If this received a 2-star NatHERS rating it would need 27,349kWh’s of electricity. If we assume $0.20/kWh, the cost would be $5,470 per year. A 6-star home would require 8,249kWh and cost $1,650, while a 10-star home would need only 100 kWh, costing a mere $20 a year.

The most vulnerable feel the effects most acutely. Research by UNSW found indoor temperatures in social housing as low as 5C in the winter and as high as 39.8C in the summer. The health impacts of this extend beyond being uncomfortable, with cold homes linked to increased blood pressure, asthma, poor mental health, respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

There are two solutions to this crisis. Firstly, we need to significantly tighten our building regulations. Why is this important? We know that over three-quarters of new houses are built to just minimum performance requirements – few go above this. The good news is Australian regulations will increase minimum performance from 6 stars to 7 stars from September. While this is a start, we will still be behind the EU, where all new buildings are required to meet nearly zero energy performance – these are buildings that require very low amounts of energy.

Arguably though, improving our new homes is the easy part. The second solution is we need to radically retrofit our existing buildings.

There are some DIY options – insulating roof spaces, sealing gaps around windows, etc. But for significant energy savings, we need to undertake “deep retrofits” – that is the systematic improvement of walls, roof, floor and windows while simultaneously installing highly efficient heating and cooling systems. This can require extensive work and subsequent expense. The recent retrofit of the Little Loft House in Canberra increased energy efficiency from 3.8 stars to 7.7 stars, for a cost of $400,000.

To achieve this at a national scale would require significant government backing, with a focus on the most vulnerable first – social housing, disabled people, elderly people. Perhaps we can look to Italy, where the recent 110% superbonus scheme allows homeowners a tax credit of up to 110% of the cost of retrofitting their dwelling.

There’s no place like home, at least as the saying goes. But if that home is cold, mouldy, expensive to heat and unhealthy, it can also be an incredible source of stress, discomfort and cost. We have an opportunity to improve this by tightening our building regulations and comprehensively refurbishing existing houses. We’ve been behind much of the world for far too long.

Unravelling the paradox of social housing demand

Posted by on May 26th, 2022 · Uncategorized

By Prof Hal Pawson. A version of this story was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original version here.

Despite its prominence in the election, housing affordability campaign debate remained largely one-sided. Plenty was said about the very real challenges faced by first home buyers and by homeowners already mortgaged to the hilt. But relatively little comment focused on the cost-of-living predicament faced by low income renters – or on the policy measures that might help to relieve this.

Rental stress is the situation where a tenant’s housing costs leave not enough remaining income to cover basic household essentials. This is officially estimated as affecting two thirds of the low-income private tenant population which totals around a million households. So failing to pay proper attention to this issue is a serious political and media oversight.

And across Australia, but especially in the regions, the past two years have seen rents rising at rates unseen in more than a decade. However, this only compounds the much more longstanding trend of growing demand pressure at the lower end of the market.

Recent indications of growing system stress

As calibrated by waiting list applications, these processes look to have been recently inflating social housing demand. In the three years to 2021 overall applicant numbers rose by 16%, Australia-wide, to 164,000 households. Nationally, annual ‘new greatest need applications’ (mainly people experiencing homeless or under threat of homelessness) grew by 48% over this period, suggesting a significant spike in demand.

As revealed by our new research, intensifying stress on the New South Wales social housing system can be seen in that the proportion of total lettings to highest priority applicants increased from 41% to 60% in the six years to 2020-21. One outcome will be substantially lengthening wait times for income-eligible, but non-priority, social housing applicants.

Similarly in Queensland, not only did waiting list numbers grow by 78% in the four years to June 2021 (to some 28,000 households), but average waiting time for registered applicants increased by 83% (to 2.4 years).

Dwindling social housing supply

Growing stress on social housing also reflects inadequate supply – usually calibrated with reference to the near stagnation in public and community housing dwelling numbers in twenty-first century Australia, at a time of rapid population growth. But by analysing the social housing system in terms of flows, rather than stocks, it can be concluded that system capacity has been cut by more than half over the past 30 years. As we report, just under 30,000 new applicants were granted a social housing tenancy, Australia-wide, in 2020-21. That compares with 52,000 in 1991 – a 42% reduction. But proportionate to population, the latest figure is 61% down.

This is attributable to two factors. First, with new build rates reduced to minimal levels over the past decade, only very small numbers of homes become available for letting each year in this way. Second, with the social rental sector accommodating an increasingly disadvantaged population cohort, and with what has become a yawning cost gap between social and private housing, the scope for existing tenants to ‘advance their housing career’ by moving into market housing is hugely diminished by comparison with the historic situation.

A ‘silted up’ social housing system is a low tenancy turnover sector that generates few social mobility-generated vacancies available for letting to new applicants.

Investigating the paradox

As regards demand, however, analysis over a longer timeframe reveals something of a paradox. Despite recent increases, the longer-term trend of social housing waiting list numbers has remained largely flat – 2021 registrations barely exceeded the number for 2006. This, despite substantially increased housing need as evidenced by trends in homelessness, rental stress and other indicators.  

Our research reveals some of the likely explanations for this apparent contradiction. Most importantly, social housing waiting lists nowadays see high rates of ‘churn’, with large cohorts of applicants newly registering each year paralleled by substantial numbers exiting lists without gaining a social housing tenancy.

Quantifying these processes, we draw on unpublished statistics for New South Wales where 30 June 2021 waiting list applications totalled nearly 50,000. Our evidence suggests that during 2020-21, over 6,000 registrations were cancelled or withdrawn, in addition to the 12,000 ended via a social housing tenancy allocation.

In part, this pattern likely reflects the realisation by many non-priority applicants that the prospect of a tenancy offer is remote. After all, for those needing a 3-bedroom property, the NSW Government itself projects typical waiting times for such applicants as exceeding 10 years in 17 of its 25 Sydney letting areas. Also probably implicated is rigorous waiting list management practice, with registrations deleted when an applicant (intentionally or otherwise) fails to reconfirm their eligible status and interest.

Limiting social housing eligibility

Restricting eligibility to register for social housing is central to the rationing of this scarce resource in Australia; in particular, through income limits. As revealed in our report, allowable income maxima vary substantially across the country, and in most jurisdictions the 2021 income limit for a single person was below the current minimum wage (assuming full-time employment).

Moreover, weekly income limits defined by the Queensland and West Australian governments ($609 and $450 for single adults in 2021, respectively) have remained static or almost unchanged for more than a decade – managing demand by effectively tightening applicant eligibility over time.

The rationing challenge

We may debate the ways that social housing waiting lists are managed, and some of the policy choices involved, but it has to be accepted that state and territory government staff  face unenviable challenges in rationing a static or shrinking resource at a time of continuing growth in need.

This situation has arisen mainly because Australia’s routine national public housing construction program that ran for 50 years until 1996 was effectively ended by the Howard Government at that time.

The incoming Labor Government has pledged a six year scheme to construct 30,000 new social and affordable rental homes. This will be greatly welcomed by advocates representing disadvantaged groups. But to have any significant impact in relieving low income housing stress, this will need to be both expanded in scale and maintained for the long term.

Otherwise, the challenge faced by state and territory governments in rationing scarce social housing will become tougher still.

Giving ex-prisoners public housing cuts crime and re-incarceration – and saves money

Posted by on May 4th, 2022 · Housing
Shutterstock

By Chris Martin, UNSW Sydney; Eileen Baldry, UNSW Sydney; Patrick Burton, University of Tasmania; Rebecca Reeve, UNSW Sydney; Rob White, University of Tasmania; Ruth McCausland, UNSW Sydney, and Stuart Thomas, RMIT University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

“Going home” is a classic metaphor for exiting prison. But most people exiting prison in Australia either expect to be homeless, or don’t know where they will be staying when released.

Our recent research for AHURI (the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute) shows post-release housing assistance is a potentially powerful lever in arresting the imprisonment–homelessness cycle.

We found ex-prisoners who get public housing have significantly better criminal justice outcomes than those who receive private rental assistance only.

The benefit, in dollars terms, of public housing outweighs the cost.

The imprisonment-homelessness connection

There is strong evidence linking imprisonment and homelessness. Post-release homelessness and unstable housing is a predictor of reincarceration. And prior imprisonment is a known predictor of homelessness. It is a vicious cycle.

People in prison often contend with:

  • mental health conditions (40%)
  • cognitive disability (33%)
  • problematic alcohol or other drug use (up to 66%) and
  • past homelessness (33%).

People with such complex support needs are often deemed “too difficult” for community-based support services and so end up entangled in the criminal justice system.

Also, prisons are themselves places of stress and suffering. So people leaving prison a high-needs group for housing assistance and support.

There are about 43,000 people in prison in Australia. Over the year there will be even more prison releases (because some people exit and enter multiple times).

According to the latest published data:

  • only 46% of releasees expect to go to their own home (owned or rented) on release
  • more expect to be in short-term or emergency accommodation (44%) or sleeping rough (2%), or
  • they don’t know where they will stay.

Ex-prisoners are the fastest growing client group for Australia’s Specialist Homelessness Services.

Over the past decade, imprisonment rates in Australia have been rising.

Meanwhile, funding for social housing – public housing provided by state governments, and the community housing provided by non-profit community organisations – has been declining in real terms.

We must turn both those trends around.

The difference public housing makes

In our research, we investigated the effect of public housing on post-release pathways. We analysed data about a sample of people with complex support needs who had been in prison in NSW.

The de-identified data show peoples’ contacts before and after prison with various NSW government agencies, including criminal justice institutions and DCJ Housing, the state public housing provider.

We compared 623 people who received a public housing tenancy at some point after prison with a similar number of people who were eligible for public housing but received private rental assistance only (such as bond money).

On a range of measures, the public housing group had better criminal justice outcomes.

The charts below compare the number of police incidents for each group.

The first chart shows recorded police incidents for the private rental assistance group, which gradually rose over the period for which we have data.

The second chart shows police incidents for the public housing group: they also had a rising trend, until they received public housing (year 0 on the x-axis), after which police incidents went down 8.9% per year.

Charts showing trends in police incidents
Police incidents, private rental assistance and public housing groups. Authors provided.

For the housed group:

  • court appearances were down 7.6% per year
  • proven offences (being found guilty of something at trial) were down 7.6% per year
  • time in custody was down 11.2% per year
  • time on supervised orders (court orders served in the community, including parole) initially increased, then went down 7.8% per year
  • justice costs per person, following an initial decrease of A$4,996, went down a further $2,040 per year per person.

When we put a dollar value on these benefits, providing a public housing tenancy is less costly than paying Rent Assistance in private rental (net benefit $5,000) or assisting through Specialist Homelessness Services (net benefit $35,000).

Unfortunately, public housing is in very short supply.

For our public housing group, the average time between release and public housing was five years. Others are never housed.

Post-release pathways are fraught

We interviewed corrections officers, reintegration support workers, housing workers, and people who had been in prison, across three states.

They were unanimous: there is a dearth of housing options for people exiting prison.

A Tasmanian ex-prisoner, who lived in a roof-top tent on his car on release, said:

You basically get kicked out the door and kicked in the guts and they say, ‘Go do whatever you need to do, see ya’.

Planning for release is often last-minute. A NSW reintegration support worker told us:

It’s not coordinated. We’ll get a prison ringing up on the day of release saying, ‘Can you pick this woman up?’ on the day of release, when they knew it was coming months in advance. There’s no planning.

A housing worker in Victoria described those next steps as a series of unstable, short-term arrangements, beset by pitfalls:

They could easily be waiting a couple of years, realistically. And for them that’s a long time, and so far off in the distance it’s difficult to conceive of. And a long time in which for things could go wrong in their lives – to be homeless or back in prison, all sorts of things … What they do in the meantime: they couch surf, stay with family, stay in motels, stay in cars/stolen cars, stay with friends, sleep rough, all those things.

A Tasmanian corrections officer told us:

People want to come back to custody because they’ve then got a roof over their head. They don’t have to worry; they’re getting fed, they can stay warm.

It’s not just about housing support

Community sector organisations specialising in supporting people in contact with the criminal justice system, such as the Community Restorative Centre (CRC) in NSW, do extraordinary work providing services and support that aim to break entrenched cycles of disadvantage and imprisonment.

However, this sector’s funding has been turbulent, marked by short-term programs.

In another project by some members of this research team, we saw the difference CRC made to 275 of its clients over a number of years. This evaluation found supported clients had 63% fewer custody episodes than a comparison group – a net cost saving to government of $10-16 million.

These support services would be even more effective if clients had more stable housing. As it is, specialist alcohol and other drug case workers are often spending their time dealing with clients’ housing crises.

Secure, affordable public housing is an anchor for people exiting prison as they work to build lives outside of the criminal justice system.

It is also a stable base from which to receive and engage with support services. It pays to invest in both.

Chris Martin, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney; Eileen Baldry, Deputy Vice Chancellor Equity Diversity and Inclusion, Professor of Criminology, UNSW Sydney; Patrick Burton, Research Associate, University of Tasmania; Rebecca Reeve, Senior Research Fellow, Yuwaya Ngarra-li, UNSW Sydney; Rob White, Professor of Criminology, University of Tasmania; Ruth McCausland, Associate Professor, UNSW Sydney, and Stuart Thomas, Professor in Justice and Legal Studies, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

Priority actions for the next federal housing minister

Posted by on May 3rd, 2022 · Housing

By Hal Pawson, CFRC

Housing is yet again up there as a major concern in this year’s federal election debate. Given the rising cost of putting a roof over your head in today’s Australia, that’s hardly surprising. Buying a home will now set you back 30% more than at the start of the Morrison government’s current term in office. Meanwhile, rent increases have escalated to their highest levels for more than a decade.

The Prime Minister is defending a housing policy record that is decidedly patchy when it comes to tackling such challenges. His government’s focus has been almost exclusively devoted to promoting home ownership. Most creditable during the current parliamentary term has been the Coalition’s new national scheme enabling aspiring first home buyers to access low deposit mortgages.

More contentious was the 2020-21 HomeBuilder program. This gifted homebuyers and renovators $2.5 billion in public funds, in the process compounding house price inflation, further aggravating wealth inequality, while also failing to deliver any improved quality or performance outcomes.

But no such Morrison largesse has cushioned lower income Australians doing it tough in our latterly overheating rental market. On the contrary, people in this position have been recently insulted by the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the best solution to rental stress is to buy your house – a remark aptly described by my City Futures colleague Dr Chris Martin as a veritable ‘let them eat cake moment’.

So, given a clean slate by the coming election, what should an incoming housing minister prioritise for Federal action in the coming term of government? In addressing this question, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the poll results in a balance of power situation where the new minister’s options are unconstrained by the narrow housing commitments pledged by the ALP and the Coalition election platforms.

Before we get to the actual priorities, though, it’s important to recognise that housing unaffordability is only one aspect of the housing policy challenge that any responsible national government should be confronting.

The physical condition of our housing stock is one huge and neglected area of concern, especially when it comes to energy consumption. Only a ‘negligible proportion’ of new homes are being built to an ‘optimal [energy] performance standard’, leaving Australia as an international laggard. And the highly energy inefficient state of our existing residential building stock presents a huge obstacle in achieving professed net zero ambitions.

A more specific worry is the ongoing deterioration of Australia’s investment-starved public housing system, a direct government responsibility. The inadequate scale of low cost housing provision is rightly a campaigning focus. But, although the precise dimensions of the issue remain largely concealed, the declining condition of our social housing stock must also be addressed.

Measure the problem

So, underpinned by an official acknowledgement that none of these policy challenges can be effectively tackled without Commonwealth Government leadership, I would argue that the first commitment for an incoming federal housing minister should be to quantify these concerns through a comprehensive housing system review, ideally headed by a respected heavyweight player.

Associated institutional reforms would be part of this, perhaps including the re-establishment of the Rudd Government’s National Housing Supply Council, scrapped by Tony Abbott in 2014. Or, better still, inclusion of NHSC functions within a new national housing agency. Creating a permanent body of ‘domain expertise’ at arms length from Ministers would also serve the wider purpose of helping to rebuild badly eroded housing policymaking and analytical capacity within government.

Factoring in realistic population growth expectations, the Review must emulate the NHSC’s role in setting overall new housing construction targets. Crucially, though, it must extend beyond that remit by specifically calibrating the unmet need for low-cost rental housing. Not only how much more social and affordable housing we need, but also of what types and in what places.

Partly as a key contribution to a meaningful national climate action plan, the review must also assess the condition and environmental performance of our existing housing stock – not least in terms of the negative health and well-being impacts that result. A more detailed analysis of social housing property condition will also be needed to estimate the cost of upgrading to an acceptable standard. Here, Australia would do well to emulate the US Federal Government’s recent equivalent commitment.

The body of published evidence generated by the Housing System Review will make it harder for current and future governments (state and territory, as well as Commonwealth) to downplay or deny housing policy challenges in familiar fashion. It could even provide a basis for ‘holy grail’ bipartisan reform commitments of the kind recently seen in New Zealand.

Redirect government support for housing

A second commitment by an incoming federal housing minister should be to shape longer-term reforms on the basis of progressively re-directing existing public funding. The national exchequer, in fact, already underpins Australia’s housing system on a huge scale. Tax concessions to owner occupiers and private landlords total in the region of $100 billion per year, more than ten times the Commonwealth Government’s annual spend on social housing, homelessness and Rent Assistance.

Not only are these policy settings highly regressive in effect – disproportionately benefiting the already wealthy – but they also distort our housing market in resource-inefficient ways by encouraging over-investment in what is a relatively unproductive asset. Given that such support is effectively capitalised into house prices, of course, it also contributes to housing unaffordability.

What’s needed is a gradually phased long-term shift in the balance of support away from, say, private landlord tax handouts to increased investment in low cost rental housing and higher rates of rent assistance better matched to the actual cost of renting.

Establish a national housing strategy

Building on the first two commitments, and a realistic goal for the coming parliamentary term, the third priority pledge for our new housing minister should be to publish a national housing strategy. As in any strategy worth the name, this must analyse the problems to be tackled and set measurable goals. It must also specify actions to achieve those goals, and a a plan for mobilising resources to implement them within given timescales.

This process will of course demand the meaningful involvement of numerous stakeholders – including state and territory governments as well as multiple industry and consumer interests. A crucial initial step in the process, involving all relevant players, should be to determine overarching strategy objectives of the kind we have proposed elsewhere.

Naturally, none of this should be to the exclusion of immediate Ministerial actions to address the most pressing housing challenges faced by the incoming government. But, if blue skies thinking were allowed, the broader objective for the next parliamentary term should be to chart Australia’s long-term course towards a more equitable and sustainable housing future.

This story was first published on John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations site. Read the original article here.

Unprincipled moves: Is World Health Day worth celebrating?

Posted by on April 19th, 2022 · Government, Planning, Wellbeing

By Susan Thompson, Norma Shankie-Williams and Danny Wiggins. Originally published by The Fifth Estate for World Health Day (7 April).

Our physical environment is central to our health. So with the NSW government dumping the D&P SEPP, is there much to celebrate this World Health Day?

We celebrate and affirm many important causes and programs during the year, but did you know that today (7 April) is World Health Day? . While significant global health challenges are always addressed, this year’s theme embraces both the health and wellbeing of people and their planet. The World Health Organization has declared that it will “focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being”.? 

Colleagues in urban planning and public health are excited to see acknowledgment of this integrated thinking and call for immediate action. We are no doubt joined by Australian communities ravaged by the recent floods and those devastated by the latest round of catastrophic fires in early 2020. This year’s World Health Day follows close behind the release of the sixth IPCC report into climate change.  Hoesung Lee, the IPCC chair, declared the report to be “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction [showing] that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet”. 

While joined-up policy, practice and action on health is well overdue, calls for it to happen have been around for decades. For some this goes back to the early 1970s when designers Rittel and Webber identified “wicked problems” – those incredibly tricky, sticky and infinitely intertwined issues that defy simplistic understanding and are not fixed with linear and singular focused solutions. The crises of climate change, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating are classic wicked problems – examples of complex challenges that have not been resolved by traditional siloed approaches emanating from single government departments. 

For other stakeholders, particularly those in public health, advocating for integrated policy and practice is very much associated with the mid 1980’s declaration of the Ottawa Charter.  This acknowledges that maintaining good health from infancy to old age is complex and dependent on many factors outside the individual, well beyond the scope of medical and surgical interventions. Systems thinking has also been influential in laying the groundwork for the integration of urban planning and public health.  

These integrated ways of understanding have laid the foundations for much of the work that is now embodied under the rubric of healthy planning. In NSW, mirroring national and international movements, urban planners and public health professionals have enthusiastically embraced healthy planning principles and practices. Together, we have progressed our understanding of how the built environment – the places where we live, work, enjoy recreation and travel in between – can best support human health and wellbeing as part of their everyday activities.  And, more recently, we have realised that a health supportive environment is dependent on a healthy and sustainable planet – the theme of World Health Day.

And it’s not just professionals.  Communities too have wholeheartedly welcomed the advantages of walkable neighbourhoods that are safe and attractive, with abundant and easily accessible local open space and enhanced community connections.  The pandemic has served to reinforce just how important this is.

As a result, we enthusiastically greeted the recent initiatives of the NSW Government, including:

  • the close relationship between state-level planning and the Government Architect NSW and the wealth of detailed guidance to all levels of government and all environmental and cultural-types.  For example, the recently published Urban Design Guidelines and Connecting with Country (a framework for developing connections with Country that can inform the planning, design and delivery of built environment projects in NSW).
  • the draft Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy (D&P SEPP), with legislative authority, accompanied by the draft urban design guidelines and requiring consideration of such urban design, energy efficiency and place-specific matters for significant development proposals.

Underpinning these initiatives is the fundamental notion, introduced by the former Minister for Planning Rob Stokes to nominate best practice principles to integrate and synthesise strategic planning and development assessment systems (December 2021). Of particular note:

  • delivering well-designed places that enhance quality of life and the economy
  • maintaining development within environmental limits and assessing climate change impact, flood and fire risk
  • providing well-designed and located transport and infrastructure integrated with land use
  • delivering a sufficient supply of safe, diverse and affordable housing
  • growing a competitive and resilient economy that is adaptive, innovative and delivers jobs

Surely there’s no argument with the importance of such priorities as we progress the planning system into the 21st Century? Well there is: the current Minister for Planning abandoned the Planning Principles just before axing the draft Design and Place SEPP earlier this week.  

The wholesale trashing of the planning principles shows a lack of support by the state government for principles-based planning and, by default (and some intent), continued reliance on the prescriptive, place-blind approach abandoned internationally over the last few decades. In the previous minister’s words, to “move from compliance to creativity”. 

The eight policy focus areas underpinning the planning principles formed the titles and grouping of the consolidation of 42 state environmental planning policies (SEPPs) into eight. The foundations have been undermined. What is arguably worse is that the draft D&P SEPP has now been axed. Gone are the improved residential apartment guidelines and in jeopardy are building sustainability provisions. Unaffected by all of these actions is the Complying Development SEPP (especially the fast track, prescriptive housing standards). Ready-made for the new Minister for Homes (and Planning). 

The peak body for local councils has expressed dismay: “The decision to overturn a suite of nine recently introduced sustainable planning principles does nothing to reassure communities that the government has its sights on the long-term health and wellbeing of our citizens,” Local Government NSW president Darriea Turley told the Sydney Morning Herald. And further: “How long can we deceive ourselves into thinking that high-risk housing is affordable housing?” Indeed, is a home affordable if it comes with the immediate and longer term economic, health and social costs of commuting hours every day to jobs located far away, living beyond a short walk or cycle to reach reliable public transport or near to cooling green spaces or shady tree canopy? And how can diverse community needs be met if there is no diversity of housing options?

It’s critical that we protest the unravelling of these integrated and innovative guidelines and principles.  We propose a short manifesto titled: “Healthy places for people and planet”.  Here are our 10 core principles (not in any particular order) for the creation of places that support the health of people and planet, reinforcing the priorities that need to be at the heart of planning today: 

  1. healthy places celebrate and respectfully honour their history – Indigenous and post-colonial history – this gives people a sense of belonging which underpins mental health and wellbeing 
  2. healthy places are where people love to be
  3. healthy places are easy to get around on foot – the pedestrian comes first, then bikes, then public transport and last, the car
  4. healthy places support safe and enjoyable cycling for commuting and recreation 
  5. healthy places cool a heating world – this is achieved in part by the provision of tree canopy, light coloured surfaces and roof tops 
  6. healthy places are green with the provision of excellent quality and sufficient amounts of green space 
  7. healthy places are blue – quality water bodies provide co-benefits for human and planetary health 
  8. healthy places are accessible for everyone – they embrace child to age friendly city principles
  9. healthy places are safe for everyone – feeling and being safe is fundamental to a health supportive place 
  10.  healthy places are created by teams of committed and like-minded professionals from multiple disciplines across the built environment, sustainability, health and community building

Integrated policy and practice in urban planning cannot be abandoned by the NSW government. We have to find a way to join together (practitioners, developers and communities) to create health supportive places on a healthy planet for everyone. A reason to celebrate World Health Day and planning in NSW.

The Healthy Planning Expert Working Group (HPEWG) is an independent NSW based group, comprising healthy planning experts from the academic, planning, health, local and state government sectors. The group originally formed in 2012 and sees its role as one of advocacy and provision of expert advice. The HPEWG’s vision is that built environments should be planned, designed, developed and managed to promote and protect health for all people.

Susan Thompson is a professor of planning at UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre and a member of the HPEWG. Norma Shankie-Williams is an urban planner and chair of HPEWG. Danny Wiggins is an urban Planner and member of HPEWG.

Housing affordability takes a global hit from COVID-19

Posted by on March 25th, 2022 · Uncategorized

By Hal Pawson; CFRC

With newly released evidence of slowing house price inflation in early 2022, it may be that Australia’s latest property boom is subsiding. Especially with higher interest rates expected within months that seems highly likely. But any plateau or even gentle decline will be starting from property values dramatically higher than before the pandemic.

By late 2021 the typical Australian house was 30% more expensive than in early 2019. That will have markedly raised the barrier faced by aspiring first home buyers, especially in terms of mortgage down-payments. After all, wages increased by only 6% over this period.

Far from triggering a property market crash, as widely expected, the 2020 COVID-19 recession turns out to have activated an extraordinary residential price surge. And, as highlighted in our new international comparative research, Australia is far from alone in this. The equivalent COVID-19 house price increases in New Zealand the United States have been even greater.

Sources: OECD and UK Office for National Statistics

In fact, during the pandemic to date, nominal house prices rose in all eight case study countries covered in our research – Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US. In sharp contrast to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, none of these countries saw any significant nominal price decline episodes in 2020 or 2021.

What ‘saved’ the market?

Avoiding a pandemic-triggered housing market slump can be largely credited to the remarkable government measures to maintain incomes and shield economies, widely implemented during the first two years of COVID-19 both in Australia and internationally.

Extraordinary actions that directly safeguarded housing systems and tried to protect at-risk populations also helped to confound initial fears of crashing property values and surging homelessness. Activities of this kind – as seen in most of the countries covered in our research  – included mortgage payment deferrals, rental eviction bans and emergency housing for homeless people.

What powered prices?

While measures like this seem to have effectively placed a floor under the market in 2020, other factors combined to touch off the price booms widely seen in 2021. Crucial to this have been the rock-bottom interest rates and quantitative easing measures that have formed key elements of central bank responses to the crisis around the world. While deemed essential to protect economic activity, these have also pumped vast liquidity into housing demand.

In Australia and the UK an additional factor was direct government-funded housing market stimulus – generous home purchase grants and stamp duty concessions initiated in 2020. With hindsight these look to have been a misdirected form of official pandemic response, since they only compounded market overheating.

In some countries pent-up household savings will also have contributed to price booms. Many better-off households, working from home through the pandemic, with unusually low expenditure and with housing wealth to cash-in, have been motivated to spend big on improving their housing position. At the same time, many others have been priced out as a result.

Spiking rental markets

For lower income households pandemic-triggered housing cost pressures have been more importantly intensified through the equally marked spike in rent inflation seen in Australia and in many other countries in 2021. Whereas some of the nations in our research had restricted rent increases in the early ‘income shock’ phase of the pandemic, almost all had lifted these limits when rents began rising, on shifts in demand.

By year end 2021, with the possible exception of Canada, national annual rent increases were topping 8% in all of the Anglosphere countries – a rate of increase generally far exceeding past decade norms. Rent inflation in Australia, the UK and the US was, by this time, running at rates unseen since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Sources: Multiple – see Figure 6.1 in published report for details.

Equally, there have been marked within-country variations in pandemic rental market impacts. In Australia, for example, Sydney and Melbourne rental demand in many inner areas was hard-hit by international border closure through most of 2020 and 2021, through the resulting absence of overseas students and foreign tourists. By year end 2021, capital city rents across Australia had barely recovered to their pre-pandemic values. Rental prices in non-metropolitan Australia, by contrast, were on average 18% higher than at the start of the crisis.

Higher rates of property price and rent inflation affecting non-metropolitan locations and houses (as opposed to apartments) have also been seen in other countries during the pandemic. These trends probably also reflect the residential ‘race for space’, a trend powered by the rapid rise of working from home. This has placed an increased premium on property size and also weakened spatial ties to city centre office locations, enabling many (generally more privileged) employees to contemplate out of town moves. As a result, pandemic-triggered damage to housing affordability is likely to be all the greater in the non-metropolitan settings attractive from this perspective.

Different stories in Germany and Spain

Importantly, much of the preceding account most directly describes pandemic-era experience in Australia and other Anglophone countries. The market impact has played out quite differently in some other high income nations. In Germany’s house sales market, for example, relatively robust pre-2020 price growth continued on a similar trajectory during the crisis to date. Spanish price growth, meanwhile, remained subdued.

Germany’s rental market likewise appears to have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic, with rent inflation generally continuing to moderate during 2020 and 2021. In Spain, meanwhile, rents continued to decline in nominal terms.

The German experience here probably reflects the country’s unusually stable and resilient economic and housing systems, a tradition of conservative mortgage lending, and a stronger social safety net. For Spain a key factor affecting the nation’s economy and housing market during COVID-19 will have been the heavy damage sustained by the dominant tourism industry.

Housing affordability impacts

Although in key respects contrary to predictions, the direct and indirect housing system impacts of COVID-19 have been profound. Not all of the novel housing market trends seen in 2020 and 2021 are likely to be sustained. But, as things stand two years after the pandemic was declared, consequently rising house prices and rents will have further intensified housing affordability stress in many nations. Specifically, in five of the six countries for which we have obtained national statistics, nominal rent increases exceeded wage increases in the two year period to late 2021.

Coinciding in many countries with energy price and tax rises, these developments will only compound the cost of living crises evoking calls for action to cushion these impacts – including through enhanced rental housing regulation and investment, and stepped-up social security payment rates.