Recent media commentary suggests we have a housing crisis in Australia – ranging from affordability and supply, to quality and location, as reported here. Renters are being priced out of the market, ageing stock means houses that are too cold in winter or too hot in summer, and there aren’t enough homes to rent where people want to live. I suspect that all of these factors have been in place for several years, but the knock-on effects from the Covid pandemic have exacerbated these trends.
For background, I should explain that at the start of my career, I worked as a housing officer and paralegal in the UK. I worked for three different local councils in inner London, advising tenants, leaseholders and landlords on their respective rights and obligations – and where there were infringements, preparing prosecutions against landlords and their agents. I dealt with people facing harassment, unlawful eviction, homelessness and housing disrepair. Mostly, my work involved advising the parties of their legal position and available remedies, often I helped them reach an amicable solution, and occasionally I had to take enforcement action with the support of the council’s legal powers. The latter included injunctions against the threat of unlawful eviction, the issuance of proper rent records, repair notices, rehousing directives, and even compulsory purchase orders.
It was stressful, and at times confrontational, work – after 5 years, I was pretty burned out, and decided to make a career change. At the time, London (and the UK) was experiencing a huge amount of change that impacted both the public and private rental sectors. First, the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher had introduced “right to buy” legislation, meaning public housing tenants could apply to buy the homes they lived in. Second, the government also introduced “mortgage interest relief at source” (MIRAS) which meant home buyers received tax relief on their interest payments. Third, central London in particular was going through a period of gentrification, with public money made available to property owners to improve and upgrade period homes. As a result, Georgian and Victorian houses that had been sub-divided into apartments (mainly occupied by long-term tenants) were restored to single family homes. Added to that, one of the council’s I worked for had been engaged in a “homes for votes” scandal, a “policy” to (re-)engineer the local demographics.
In the past, I’ve been both a tenant and a landlord, so I’ve also experienced some of these issues for myself. As a tenant, I’ve had landlords who denied that their properties were poorly wired or had defective plumbing (despite formal notifications from the council), and denied all requests to have the defects fixed. As a landlord, I’ve had tenants sub-letting to their “friends”, and who assured me that these “friends” could pay the rent.
So what is going on in parts of Australia, that there is such a misalignment between where tenants want to live, and vacant housing stock?
First, to touch on property ownership. Home owners don’t receive anything like the former MIRAS scheme in the UK, but there are various financial incentives for first-time buyers (such as zero stamp duty when buying a property off the plan), and during the Covid pandemic, some first-time buyers could access their superannuation (pension) fund to help with the deposit or down-payment. Property investors can take advantage of negative gearing to offset mortgage interest payments and costs of repairs against their income tax. These factors are generally considered to push up house prices – and despite recent interest rate rises, the cost of borrowing has remained at historic lows for more than a decade. Housing inflation means aspiring buyers are priced out of the market (especially as wages have not kept pace with inflation, let alone the rise in property prices). And landlords are now seeking to increase rents to offset rising interest rates.
Second, I’ve never really understood why some landlords don’t maintain their properties to an adequate standard – it surely detracts from the value of their assets, as well as deterring potential tenants. And when there may be improvement funds available (e.g., insulation grants, solar rebates) why wouldn’t they take advantage? On the reverse, should tenants have more powers to undertake essential repairs and improvements, and withhold rent to cover the costs? (Equally, I find it surprising that some tenants don’t feel it is their responsibility to undertake minor maintenance or running repairs, such as mowing the grass, clearing gutters or replacing cracked window panes.)
Third, it’s an economic imperative to have a supply of housing stock in the rental market. It helps people who prefer to rent rather then buy, it allows for workforce mobility, and it supports seasonal demand in industries like agriculture. I don’t believe that all rental stock should be held and managed in the public sector – it represents a huge obligation (not just an asset) on government balance sheets, tying up capital and incurring huge running costs. We need a component of public housing, but otherwise leave it to the private sector, with appropriate safeguards.
Fourth, why the apparent mismatch between supply and demand? On one level, developers are building the wrong types of properties and/or building in the wrong locations. Inner city areas have seen a massive growth in high-rise apartments over the past 20 years, supposedly in response to increased housing demand. In theory, these projects generate more yield for developers, although the apparent over-supply leads to depressed rents, and some banks won’t lend against these properties due to uncertain re-sale value and over-capitalised assets.
In the suburbs, archetypal quarter acre blocks have been sub-divided to cram in more town houses and units, or developers are building bigger houses (McMansions) on smaller plots, leaving minimal gardens and no breathing space between properties, as they build right up to the boundary lines. Many new suburban developments lack proper infrastructure and services (public transport, schools, shops, clinics), making them less attractive to renters – while the owners expect higher rents to cover the cost of their mortgages. Plus, many new properties have been built “on the cheap”, using inferior materials and design – hence the issues with heating/cooling. On the other hand, ageing stock, especially weatherboard and brick veneer structures, can also be hard to heat/cool. Many houses (new and old) lack double-glazing, for example, which would go a long way to resolving this energy conundrum.
Meanwhile, the recent lock downs in Melbourne (and to a lesser extent, Sydney) have meant many urbanites have moved to regional locations, putting upward pressure on property values and rents, pricing out locals who already live and work there. Of course, another reason for the mismatch in supply and demand is the growth in short-term lets, mainly for holiday-makers – such that local stock is taken out of the regular rental market. However, a lot of the Airbnb accommodation I have used over the years would never have been available on the rental market, because they were pre-existing holiday lets, or they are principal homes, where the owners are temporarily working abroad or interstate. And this type of flexible accommodation is also in demand by a mobile workforce that can, and prefers to, work from anywhere (so-called digital nomads).
None of which explains or resolves the current crisis. If governments want to address the bigger issues, they need to consider a range of solutions: updating building standards, upgrading land-use rezoning and planning regulations, encouraging a greater variety of housing development and management (soclal housing, shared ownership, property exchanges, rent holidays in return for repairs and improvements), and the use of modular/portable homes to meet fluctuating demand. All of which requires vision, and most party political objectives are driven by short term goals and the next election cycle.
* Apologies to Pere Ubu for (mis-)appropriating the title of their second album
Next week: Picasso and his circle