Showing posts with label rent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rent. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

When house prices soar, everyone forgets who suffers most

One of the darker arts of politics involves manoeuvring to ensure that election campaigns focus on issues that favour my side over yours, regardless of whether these are the issues most likely to be pertinent to the nation’s needs over the next three years.

Because the pollies believe us all to be self-centred, they never try to appeal to the greater good. If the world worked the way it should, you’d expect housing affordability – and what each side was promising to do about it – to be a big issue in the coming campaign, but I doubt it will be.

The Libs won’t want to draw attention to it, and though Labor will make noises about how terrible it is for young people, it’s unlikely to have any serious proposal to take the heat out of house prices. It did take a plan to discourage negatively geared property investment to the last election, but now believes this contributed to its defeat, so has dropped it.

As I’ve said before, since home-owning voters far outnumber would-be home-owning voters, neither side wants to be seen as doing anything that stops homes becoming ever-more valuable.

But if you think that’s all there is to the issue of housing affordability, it just shows how narrowly the politicians – and the media – have shaped our perception of the issue. In all the agonising over house prices and home ownership – which has gone on for as long as I’ve been a journalist – we always forget the renters.

If you define housing as having a place to live rather than to own, renters also suffer when house prices soar. The relationship between house prices and rents is far from one-to-one but, even so, rising house prices usually mean rising rents.

The more the number of people moving from renting to owning is restricted by high house prices, the more the growing number of renters puts upward pressure on rents. Rents are rising much faster than prices in general, or than wages.

Our thinking is still heavily influenced by the Great Australian Dream, which sees renting as a temporary state while young couples save the deposit for a home. In truth, many of the roughly one-third of households living in rented accommodation have never had high enough incomes to afford a home of their own.

So, many people will live all their lives in rented accommodation and their proportion is growing as many middle-income couples who, in former times, would have moved on to home ownership, now do so at a much later age – or go into retirement as renters.

The value of the age pension is based on the implicit assumption that retirees own their home. If so, living on the age pension is tolerable. If not, having to rent privately pushes age pensioners below the poverty line. That’s particularly true of single, usually widowed pensioners.

For many years, the federal government dealt with the problem of people on very low incomes by funding the states to provide a lot of what used to be called “housing commission” accommodation, now called public housing.

Trouble is, the rise of neo-liberalism has made government ownership of housing deeply unfashionable. As the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates reminds us in a paper issued this week, the national stock of about 430,000 public housing dwellings has barely grown in 20 years, while the population has increased by 33 per cent.

Whereas in 1991 public housing accounted for about 6 per cent of all housing, it’s now less than 4 per cent. Some of this is made up by government-subsidised “community housing”, but not much.

In public housing, rents are capped at 25 per cent of tenants’ incomes. By contrast, Coates says, the typical low-income private renter pays 37 per cent of their income.

When the Hawke-Keating government turned away from public housing, it shifted to paying rent assistance to people on social welfare. But these payments have failed to keep up with private rents.

The Morrison government says spending on social housing is up to the states. But compared to the feds, the states have a lot less money to spare. Anthony Albanese’s Labor has proposed setting up a $10 billion “housing Australia future fund”, the earnings from which would be used to finance the building of additional public housing.

Coates proposes a fund twice that size, which he calculates would provide 3000 extra housing units a year, in perpetuity. Which, he says, would cost the taxpayer very little. He also wants the feds’ rent assistance to be indexed to the cost of renting.

The point is that when people on low incomes become unable to afford private rents, the next step is homelessness.

If, under pressure from all us affluent home owners, neither side of politics is willing to make home ownership more affordable by removing the many tax breaks that make it so attractive as a form of investment, then the least they – and we – can do is reduce the housing pain of those who really struggle to rent a place.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

This country is run for home owners, by home owners

Name a group that accounts for about a third of the population and rising, is much more likely to suffer stress in affording their housing than other groups, and yet has never had much sympathy from politicians, voters or the media.

Ironically, the bit of sympathy they’ve had in recent days hasn’t been warranted.

They’re the forgotten minority – more forgotten than the forgotten people we keep being reminded about. They’re renters.

They get forgotten because we live in a land where home ownership is the only recognised real estate religion. This country is run for home owners, by home owners.

Now, it may have occurred to you that a supposedly sacred group known as “first home buyers” – actually, would-be home buyers - are renters. Surely a fair bit of sympathy exists for them?

Well, not really. We profess to be sympathetic, but we aren’t. That’s because, as economists get tired of pointing out, all the things we do in the name of helping would-be home owners – first home buyer grants or stamp duty concessions, capital gains tax exemptions for owner-occupiers, even negative gearing – actually benefit existing home owners at the expense of aspiring home owners.

These things add to the demand for homes, relative to supply, and thus push up their prices, making them harder to afford.

Politicians are almost always unwilling to help aspiring home owners by reversing these concessions because they know how angry existing owners would be if they did.

But getting back to renters generally, why do we take so little interest in them and their problems?

Partly because, in a world that values home ownership above all else, renting is assumed to be just a brief transitional state while young people get together the money for a deposit.

Unfortunately, that assumption gets less true as each year passes. When I became a journo in the mid-1970s, we were particularly proud of Australia’s 70 per cent rate of home ownership. It’s been declining, slowly but inexorably, ever since.

Meaning the proportion of renters has been growing ever since. A lot of people still attain home ownership, of course, but it takes them many years longer.

The other reason we take so little interest in renters is that, since almost all of us aspire to own our home, those who never make it – those who stay renting all their lives – are those never able to afford it. And who spends much time worrying about the poor?

But this, too, is becoming less true as the years pass, with a lot more middle-income earners spending a lot more of their lives in rented accommodation.

In the day, we used to rely on “the housing commission” to take the poor off our conscience. In the years since then, the enthusiasm of governments, federal and state, for what we now euphemistically call “social housing”, including “affordable housing”, has steadily diminished – further demonstrating our lack of interest in renters.

The latest report from HILDA – the long-running, government-funded survey of Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia – includes a most informative chapter on renters, by Professor Roger Wilkins, of the Melbourne Institute at Melbourne University.

Wilkins confirms that renters of social housing are 10 percentage points more likely to experience financial hardship than people who own their homes outright. But renters of private housing are 15 percentage points more likely.

HILDA defines “housing stress” as households in the bottom 40 per cent of the distribution of household incomes who spend more than 30 per cent of their income on mortgage payments or rent. (Plenty of high-income households spend more than 30 per cent, but that’s a choice they can afford.)

The proportion of private renters suffering housing stress rose from almost 18 per cent after the turn of the century to 20 per cent by the end of the decade, but hasn’t increased since then.

Of late, some sympathy has been expressed for renters, who must be suffering huge increases in their rent as house prices in Sydney and Melbourne have soared.

Sorry, I’ve looked up the consumer price figures and they don’t compute. In Sydney, over the four years to June this year, the prices of newly built dwellings bought by owner-occupiers rose by almost 20 per cent, whereas rents rose by less than 10 per cent – not a lot higher than the rise in all consumer prices of 7.5 per cent.

In Melbourne, new home prices rose by more than 16 per cent, whereas rents rose by less than half that – only a fraction more than consumer prices generally.

But if soaring rents don’t explain renters’ high rates of financial and housing stress, what does? Their generally low and lower-middle incomes, which have probably worsened somewhat, relative to the rest of us, so far this century.

Note that housing stress is surprisingly low among people of retirement age. That’s because this is the group with by far the highest rate of outright home ownership. The modest level of the age pension takes this fact into account.

But that means those relatively few pensioners who rent privately do suffer much hardship. When a spate of complaints about the inadequacy of the single age pension prompted an investigation, it found that only single pensioners in private rental were doing it tough.

Kevin Rudd responded with a big one-off increase for all single pensioners, plus an increase for married pensioners so they wouldn’t feel left out. As I say, renters don’t count.
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