Housing and the small steps without reward

Housing will continue to be damagingly expensive if governments don’t focus on actually increasing supply instead of farcical projects, writes Michael Pascoe.

South Australia had more public and community housing a decade ago than it does now. Photo: TND/Getty

South Australia had more public and community housing a decade ago than it does now. Photo: TND/Getty

Like the Pope’s religion and where the sun rises, it’s a sure thing politicians faced with a housing crisis will ignore expert advice and give tax breaks to first-home buyers.

It’s just part of the housing policy mishmash that will maintain the crisis for as long as anyone dares guess.

For all the announcements at state and federal levels, the billions of dollars add up to maintaining the status quo – housing will continue to be damagingly expensive, keeping the million Australians receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance poor and insecure.

Ask just about any economist what the main impact is of first-home buyer grants of one sort of another and the answer will be: It helps push up prices.

But that doesn’t stop state governments doing it.

Business as usual

As part of the Queensland government’s big spendathon ahead of the October election, Premier Steven Miles has increased the maximum value of a home qualifying for the full first-home buyer concession from $550,000 to $700,000, the concession then phasing out at $800,000.

To actually deal with the shelter crisis, all government efforts should be aimed at increasing supply – preferably by immediate direct government action – rather than further fuelling demand.

It is a small step in the right direction that the Queensland first-home buyer grant was doubled to $30,000 for new homes. Well, until June next year anyway.

Whether FHB grants and concessions or negative gearing, restricting government largesse to new builds, doing a little something to encourage greater supply instead of bidding up existing housing, would be the minimum requirement in a rational nation. This is not a rational nation.

Irrational actions

South Australia – arguably the state reaping the rewards of having the nation’s worst housing policies – has scrapped stamp duty for FHBs purchasing any new home.

Not all FHBs are struggling to get on the first rung of the housing ladder – some able to buy homes more expensive than the average, but in SA they will nonetheless be subsidised.

If you think that’s a bit silly, there’s the Malinauskas government’s Seaton housing development farce, a 36-hectare site that is to be developed with 1315 houses, townhouses and apartments.

The land is owned by the South Australian Housing Authority and presently has 388 social housing properties that will be demolished and “be progressively redeveloped to restore the amount of public housing on a one-for-one basis,” to quote Treasurer Stephen Mullighan.

Yes, a major development on government land, but no increase in public housing, of which the state has a desperate shortage. South Australia had more public and community housing a decade ago than it does now.

‘Affordable housing’

Treasurer Mullighan does allege “at least 15 per cent” of the new dwellings will be “affordable housing” – whatever that might end up meaning.

And then there’s NSW’s latest housing announceable – $450 million in the state budget to build 400 units over the next three years for essential workers to rent at a discount.

Premier Chris Minns enjoyed plenty of unquestioning media coverage for that one and it does sound like a positive step – the government taking direct action to increase supply.

But it only takes a moment’s thought to see some shortcomings.

For a start, 133 units a year is a small drop in a large ocean of demand, particularly when the NSW government has much larger developments available to it if it was serious, such as the 2000 dwellings to be developed on the government’s Frenchs Forest school site, previously reported here.

Alas, that is being left to the private market with the vague promise of at most 15 per cent subsidised community rental housing.

Costs query

Also curious is the suggested costing.

“We can offer competitive rates because the government will own the land. It will be the builder of the project,” Premier Minns said.

“Any profits that come about as a result of the project will be reinvested so that we can potentially envisage stage two or stage three of this.”

Um, if the government already owns the land, why is each apartment costing $1.125 million?

There’s also the tricky question of exactly who is an “essential” worker. It plays well to be seen doing something for a lucky handful of teachers, nurses, paramedics, police and firefighters – but bus drivers, for example, also are essential workers, priced out of where they work.

The exercise is far more PR than substance at this tiny scale.

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Less spin

But wait, there is indeed more. Public housing was a feature of the NSW budget delivered on Tuesday afternoon and, as usual, there was as much spin as substance. Well done NSW for having the substance bit, but the government would improve its credibility if it reduced the spin.

For example, Treasurer Mookhey announced there will be 30,000 new homes including 8400 public housing dwellings in “the state’s largest-ever investment in housing” – and that was dutifully reported that way in various outlets.

Thankfully the ABC checked the detail. There will actually only be 6200 new social housing homes – the other 2200 will be existing public housing rebuilt.

And the government is still relying on the private sector to provide the vast majority of the claimed new home total:

“An audit of NSW government-owned land has identified 44 sites which will be sold to Housing NSW, Landcom or property developers, to build 21,000 new homes,” the ABC reported.

“Mr Moohkey said Landcom and Housing NSW would get first dibs in the land sales, with private developers able to develop the land and sell it on the private market after that.

“The locations of those pieces of land are yet to be announced, but most are in Sydney.”

Follow the money

Riiiight… show me the money the government is committing and then I will believe a little more.

The announced $5.1 billion for the 8400 new and old social homes works out at $607,143 each – nearly half the cost of the build-to-rent for essential workers.

And, as usual, this is being spread over four years. $1.28 billion a year doesn’t sound nearly as flash.

As for it being the “biggest-ever investment”, kids, housing is much more expensive than it used to be. Decades of dud policies have inflated the dollar number – it’s providing nothing like the most social housing dwellings ever.

Oh dear.

Federal action

At the top end of housing announceables sits the federal government. After the Coalition’s big housing effort – the absolutely disastrous HomeBuilder scheme during the pandemic – Prime Minister Albanese now has a National Housing Accord, a National Housing and Homelessness Plan, the Housing Australia Future Fund, the Social Housing Accelerator Payment, a Housing Support Program, a New Homes Bonus, established the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council, Affordable Housing Bond Aggregator, the National Housing Infrastructure Facility, a National Planning Reform Blueprint, a Help to Buy scheme and there’s the Home Guarantee Scheme. Phew.

Against all that, the Liberal Party’s grand plan consists of encouraging the few young people with substantial superannuation to use those saving to increase the bidding at auctions, assisting in pushing up prices, continuing to make life worse for the third of Australians who rent.

In other words, the Liberals have no housing policy.

It is a matter of considerable perversity then that both the Sydney Morning Herald/Age Resolve poll and the AFR’s Freshwater poll on Monday had the public rating the Liberal Party more highly than Labor on “housing affordability and rent”.

Go figure, if you can.

Maybe instead of making any attempt to ease the crisis, politicians may as well just keep handing out FHB grants.


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