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Another senate housing affordability inquiry – but what’s happened since the last?

In the final hours of Federal Parliament for 2013, Labor Senator Jan McLucas succeeded in establishing an inquiry by the Economics References Committee, in addressing Australia’s growing housing affordability crisis, stating:  

“Pressures on affordability of housing in Australia have continued to intensify, especially in capital cities and mining communities.”

This appears to be good news and something that a growing ground swell of home buyers and renters, limited by budget and feasible supply, have been hoping for.  

The inquiry is set to investigate the role of all levels of government in facilitating affordable home ownership and private rental, social, and public accommodation.  

Importantly, it will also look into policies designed to increase the supply of housing – perhaps the most critical and well proven factor in the potential long-term effectiveness of any sustainable solution.  

As welcome as any inquiry into housing affordability is, I question why we are using taxpayer dollars to produce a repeat version of the investigation undertaken by the Rudd administration back in June 2008?  

The 2008 report entitled “A good house is hard to find: Housing affordability in Australia” was detailed in its content, drawing on evidence from organisations such as the housing section in the Department of Families, the Master Builders’ Association, the Planning Institute, the Urban Development Institute, the Housing Industry Association, NATSEM and the Treasury.  

It addressed Australia’s tax policies, such as capital gains tax and negative gearing, which under the current structure are widely recognised as having a negative impact on affordability and market activity. It included an assessment of the construction industry's future skilled labour workforce – a job to be undertaken by the National Housing Supply Council, which has subsequently been abolished by the Abbot government, thus giving a very clear indication where their priorities lie (not with housing).  It also covered rental accommodation, and social housing policy.  

The report correctly stated “the need for greater responsiveness of land release and housing supply to market demand.” Stressing, “Efforts to this end should occur in a variety of contexts.”  

Some of the highlights included:  

  • Recognition that state and local governments' planning processes are too complex and often involve long delays and high costs.

  • Housing supply not adequately facilitated with community infrastructure.

  • Developer infrastructure charges being too excessive and further restricting supply and inflating purchasing costs.

  • The negative impacts of the 'urban growth boundaries' implemented by the Victorian and South Australian governments, resulting in land banking and increased prices.

  • The type and quality of housing being constructed – i.e. not appealing to elderly downsizers or single parent buyers.

  • And notably, a critical assessment of New South Wales, with the suggestion it had probably done more than any other state in Australia to restrict the opportunities for urban growth on fringe land.

  The 238 page document contains many submissions; including this one, by the New South Wales Division of UDIA (Urban Development Institute of Australia),

in which Mr Blancato recommends the Commonwealth government expedite the release, rezoning and servicing of Commonwealth land with critical lead infrastructure to support the supply of new dwellings to the market;  

“We are proposing that there should be an amount of land—a forward train of land of maybe 20 years—that is released and serviced.  

“The word ‘released’ is something that is very difficult to get a handle on. You will have successive governments release the same patch of land five times but not a dollar will be spent on infrastructure…  

“The government used to invest in it—20 years ago you would go out to a release like Blacktown and the main sewer carriers were in and the sewage treatment plant was built. You would go out there and you could develop this five-acre parcel or that five-acre parcel. You might do a little bit of a lead-in, connecting infrastructure, but it was affordable.”  

Whilst I wouldn’t advocate all the recommendations concluded in the paper, it’s five years later and we seem to be no further forward.  

Prices continue to rise from a bull run on established property in our most populated states – and first home buyers are barely treading water against a speculative investment sector.  

Urban boundaries and a propensity towards land banking, hefty tax overlays and poor infrastructure development, ensure land on the outskirts continues to be priced at a level that doesn’t incentivise buyers to correctly evaluate the trade-off between price and time. Therefore demand remains marginal, with a downward slide in the number of new dwellings completed per annum.  

There is no forward thinking on infrastructure financing, or a full understanding that people don’t purchase houses as much as they buy into communities.  

Additionally, there is little diversity on the type of housing built in greenfield developments to enable newly created suburbs to market to a broad socioeconomic mix of residents, who do not just want McMansions built to the edges of a 400-500 square metres blocks of land.  

Rents continue to rise, with vacancy rates in areas such as Sydney, close to 1%.

Crowded houses – with three or more families sharing accommodation, has increased nationally by 64% to 48,499 according to the ABS.  

The ACT is abolishing stamp duty over a slow transitional 20 year period and reverting to a land tax system, and some states have reduced stamp duty payments for first home buyers, however there has been no action federally on recommendations in the Henry Tax review on negative gearing, capital gains tax, or the rapid rise of residential investment and gearing in SMSFs.  

So what happened?  

In one respect it’s the deluded thinking perpetuated by policy makers, who theorise urban sprawl to be essentially bad, imagining it’s possible to develop affordable housing on expensive land in inner urban localities. This is a picture of a bright future where residents live a handbreadth apart, compacted in small apartments around existing infrastructure hubs within computable distance to the CBD – questioning ‘isn’t this where everybody wants to be anyway?’  

As if to prove their point - when fringe land is released and an additional abundance of ‘roof space’ is built, it fails to lure a diverse range of home buyers, because - as the 2008 report correctly highlighted - the housing lacks diversity, the cost of raw land remains too high, and the developments are burdened with hefty taxes transferred onto the buyer.  

More importantly, the surrounds are not adequately facilitated with infrastructure such as schools, transport, medical and recreational facilities to cater for an individual and family’s personal needs.  

Therefore, our outer suburbs tend to be black listed as low socio economic hubs, populated by those who are deemed to sit at the bottom of the housing ladder.  

I listened to an auctioneer’s preamble a few days ago, which summed it up perfectly.  After he elucidated the various attributes of the modest two-bedroom home, he threw his hands up and with a flourish, exclaimed: “And let me tell you what you get for free!” And proceeded to point out the local school, shopping strip and park.  

Accordingly, if a buyer is able to travel to work, the supermarket and any other amenity on the priority list within a 30-40 minute period, the distance from the CBD is not an imposing factor. The decider is in the time it takes to drop the kids off to school in one direction and travel to work in the other.  

Furthermore, an acknowledgement that the value of land and the capital gains achieved by its owner lays in the facilitated connections around it, forms the argument for broad based land value tax, as I explained here.  

The Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey has aptly demonstrated, in cities where supply is not artificially constrained by poor policy and planning, which fails to cater for community needs, house prices remain affordable and relatively stable.  

Realistically, a well developed city, which has policies flexible enough to meet the demands of its home buying demographic, should see price rises track only the rate of inflation, with growth in household incomes somewhat influential in those areas in which there is greater demand.  

Not the well spruiked figures of 7% plus median growth per annum we experienced in some suburbs prior to the GFC, – or figures outpacing both wage growth and inflation.  

Across Australia, every state faces its own intrinsic economic and geographical challenges, for which housing policies need to be flexible enough to adhere, local resident voices need to be heard, and councils need to have the freedom to respond.  

However, if the only options we offer first home buyers are candy style incentives in a low interest rate environment, which must stay at rock bottom levels in order to support the inflated levels of debt it encourages. Then, over the longer term, our real estate obsession from which so many feed, will become a noose around the neck, provoking broader concerns.  

It’s very important we correctly understand where our policy makers have let us down in the delivery of affordable housing stock. A worrying trend is starting to emerge, which was highlighted in a recent news report showing footage of Julia Gillard's Altona house auction.  

In the post auction interview, the sales agent said that the Chinese purchaser wanted her to express to everyone that 'she is an Australian citizen.'

The comment speaks volumes - emphasising how important it is to stop blaming current high prices solely on 'foreign buyers' whilst at the same time, singling out a unique demographic - a large proportion of which are Australian citizens, work and pay their taxes and have a right to purchase residential real estate.

One of the most powerful tools for the regulation of any market is transparency. Without it, speculation ensues and leads to undesirable assumptions - such as the belief that every Asian face seen at an auction is 'foreign'.

The reason real estate prices are high in Australia is due to years of poor government policy and planning - and this is where the blame should be placed and this is where the pressure should be directed.


Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition.


Catherine Cashmore

Catherine Cashmore

Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition.

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