If you want to make new affordable housing, don't just think about the purchase price

Houses under construction in Sydney. Image: Getty.

Solving the affordable housing crisis is a high priority for state governments around Australia. The Conversation

This is understandable given the hyper-inflated property markets in many Australian capital cities. Rising concerns that interest rates will increase over coming years also fuel the unaffordability fires.

Proposed solutions to this crisis often focus on opening up new greenfield areas of land in the outer suburbs to develop lower-cost housing. Hence, the solution to the affordable housing process is often thought to lie in creating housing with a low purchase price. This approach incentivises developers and housing suppliers to keep the price of new housing stock as low as possible.

But this leads to houses that are more costly to own and maintain. Construction savings on features such as insulation, passive solar design, and heating and cooling systems mean such houses have high energy demands. That, in turn, means ongoing living costs such as the cost of air conditioning remain high for the life of the house.

Such houses are also constructed to the minimum standards dictated by the building codes. Poorer design and lower-quality materials can lead to large deferred maintenance costs and lower resilience to natural hazards.

In addition, housing in the outer suburbs has poorer prospects for capital growth, effectively trapping poorer households on the fringes of our cities. The residents of these suburbs also generally face higher transport costs to get to work and services.

We are, in effect, encouraging new home owners to take on larger future risks and costs just so they can buy a house. This keeps government happy by increasing the number of new home owners – a proxy for affordable housing.

But this approach ignores the issue that home owners increasingly cannot afford to continue to own a home, not just buy one.


Exposed to future risks

Increasingly, the first cost-saving action for struggling home owners is to be uninsured or underinsured. About 14 per cent per cent of people have no home or contents insurance whatsoever.

Of those who are insured, many know they are not adequately covered. Back in 2012 it was identified that around one-quarter of home owners and renters had no insurance cover for house contents. Other estimates suggest that nearly one-third of households in Australia remain uninsured. Other studies more recently concluded that 41 per cent of tenants do not have contents insurance.

Events like the recent Cyclone Debbie remind us just how exposed many families are to natural hazards, including physical damage to assets and the associated emotional hardship.

In many cases, families have been financially wiped out as a result of their lack of insurance coverage. These families then go back onto the long waiting list for affordable social housing.

Therefore, by defining affordable housing in terms of only purchase price of housing and number of new home owners, we are dramatically understating the problem of housing affordability.

By facilitating families to invest in houses that require high energy demands to be liveable, and which are located in areas increasingly exposed to natural hazards while households are uninsured or underinsured, we are simply mismanaging the affordable housing challenge.

Reframing affordability

A key action that can be taken is to frame housing affordability in terms of whole-of-ownership-life costs. This means we move away from defining affordable housing in terms of the initial capital cost and instead consider the total cost of owning a house over the term of ownership.

This approach explicitly encapsulates the risks of under-insurance and higher interest rates.

This is the approach used when funding infrastructure and major utilities assets. When planning major infrastructure, cost-benefit analyses must now consider the whole-of-life costs. This is to account for enthusiastic infrastructure advocates deferring costs through to increased maintenance obligations so the capital costs remains low, and hence the project becomes more attractive.

It’s the same for housing development. Therefore, the same approach needs to be adopted for home ownership.

Mark Gibbs is chair of Green Cross Australia at Queensland University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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