Can Britain cope with a fall in house prices?

Uhoh: a man browses in an estate agent window. Image: Getty.

Britain is locked in a seemingly constant battle with the burden of its overheated housing market. Theresa May has announced measures at the Conservative Party conference designed, at the very least, to dampen criticism over a lack of housing and ever-increasing prices.

It is unclear for now just what impact May’s announcement for land releases and an extra £2bnn for affordable housing may have. After all, the UK’s housing stock is valued at close to £7trn. But her announcement comes after London real estate prices registered their biggest fall in a decade, stoking expectations for further drops in real estate prices.

So what would falling house prices mean for Britain? How might it affect employment, household consumption, investment, the government deficit and, critically, the UK current account – the net measure of cash flows in and out of the economy.

The greater fool

Brexit and associated uncertainty about the future of the UK financial sector are making real estate investors, home buyers and households more cautious. One of the things that has fuelled London real-estate prices over the years is the “greater fool” mechanism. Buyers knew that a property was expensive, and perhaps ridiculously expensive, but they counted on the fact that they could sell it later to a “greater fool” at an even higher price, for a handsome profit.

That phenomenon was perhaps best displayed in the first recorded crisis in free markets. Tulip mania in 17th century Holland built to a crescendo which saw single, rare tulip bulbs change hands for extraordinary sums. Historian Mike Dash has described it as enough to “purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an 80 foot garden”.

As tulip mania went on to show, however, if prices show indications of a fall, the upward trend reverses violently. If property investors become skittish, they will try to sell before prices fall further, and all of them at the same time. Property values built over decades could collapse within months: the expectation of falling prices causes the falling prices.

This mechanism is a real danger in London which relies heavily on local and international investors who view properties not as a home but as a commodity, readily sold to maximise profit. In 2013 alone, international investors accounted for 82 per cent of London property activity.

Falling for it

However, most properties in the UK still belong to households. Families, by and large, don’t need to sell. So what would falling property prices mean for them?

First, many pension funds and investment bonds rely on UK property to generate income for their beneficiaries. Second, we have what economists call the Wealth Effect.

Economists have long associated consumers’ perceived real estate wealth with spending behaviour: if you believe your house is worth a lot, you feel financially secure. And then you allow yourself to save less and spend more. Just consider the rising number of people who plan to subsidise their retirement with wealth generated by their homes.

If their assumed valuations start to look shaky, these people will spend less to build up their savings. The pain would be felt by many: about 64 per cent of households in England are owner-occupiers.

The Wealth Effect is important in most developed economies but even more so in the UK which relies on ever-rising levels of consumer spending for its growth. A 10 per cent fall in the value of dwellings in the UK would correspond to a loss of wealth equivalent to more than the value of all the cars exported from the UK in a decade.


Ripple effects

The climate of economic uncertainty, reduced consumption and falling real estate values brings an additional problem for the UK. Britain has long had a trade deficit, but it has also benefited from positive foreign direct investment.

The Current Account itself has been in the red for nearly 20 years now but the hundreds of billions of inward foreign investment channelled to UK property over the same period meant that this deficit remained manageable – just about.

According to the Bank of England, overseas companies have accounted for roughly half of all UK commercial real estate transactions since 2013. If international investors expect prices to fall in any sustained way, the inflow of money would stop and many would sell up. Why buy or hold an asset just at the start of what might be a long decline?

This would not only put pressure on real estate prices but would affect UK GDP, reduce government revenues and worsen the UK Current Account position. The credit rating of the UK would come under more pressure, and trillions of UK government debt would cost more to refinance. Then the UK government deficit would deteriorate further, taxes might rise to cover for this and the domino effect would be in full cry, spreading to all sectors of the economy, similar to events in Greece.

Policy plays

Real estate values are critical to the UK’s prosperity. Households, pension funds and businesses have invested heavily; most of the country has, in one way or another, skin in this game. Britain may need to wean itself of its property addiction, but it also needs to sustain confidence in the single asset class that counts for almost two thirds of its wealth.

It is deeply difficult politically to sell that story, however, when the understandable clamour is to make housing more affordable. In a move designed to win over younger voters, May has imposed punitive taxation on landlords, cutting one of the life-lines of UK real estate and driving many out of the market. The new measures announced at the Conservative party conference apply further pressure.

May is desperate for a positive message but the implications of targetting the real estate market right now are huge. Britain’s Brexit fumbling is already failing to inspire confidence. The fear has always been that Brexit would spark a period of stagnation, but the danger of deeper, more accelerated damage now seems real, and the potential effect on property values and the economy stark.

The ConversationThe UK government should act decisively. This would require the continuation of loose monetary policy, a reinstatement of tax incentives for real estate investment and, of course, a real plan for Brexit and the future of London’s financial services industry.

Alexander Tziamalis is a senior lecturer and associate professor in economics at Sheffield Hallam University.

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

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.