The Looming Sydney Housing Crisis

What is it that people say? It’s a recession until you loose your job, then it’s a depression. I feel it’s a bit like that with the Sydney housing market. It’s not a crisis, it’s a bubble, until your bubble pops and you are pushed out of the property and rental market because you’ve been out priced.

One of the problems with the Sydney housing market is that it’s been treated by many as an easy no brainer investment class. I’m talking about people who buy houses as an investment to sell at a profit rather than to live in them. It doesn’t really matter whether they are local baby boomer investors or overseas investors, the end result is that because there has been so much speculation in the market for so long, we in Sydney (and Melbourne) have seen an artificial elevation in house prices that is not linked to wage growth. This has ultimately out priced many younger people from the market, and basically anyone who wasn’t on the property ladder to begin with.

Now there is a phrase I have a real problem with “the property ladder”, which implies a buying and selling of properties to upgrade ones housing, presumably for comfort, but more recently (say the last decade at least) for sheer profit.

The thing about houses is they don’t generate any income until they are rented out or sold, and if you have a very big loan you won’t really see the revenue until you sell. People have seen housing as an easy get rich quick scheme, they don’t tend to loose value because people always need somewhere to live, and the more people started investing, the more new investors were drawn in. Until recently property investors (that sounds a bit ominous “investors”, but here I mean anyone who was not buying a property for themselves to live in long term) could buy in parts of Sydney and sell a year later making a 20% profit. It’s a bit reminiscent of other bubbles in the past, most recently the Bitcoin bubble which worked on the same easy money principle.

The problem with the housing bubble, is that it’s not just currency like in the case of Bitcoin, it’s houses, that is homes that people live in. If prices get too high many people are spending too much of their income on loan repayments or rising rent prices. This becomes a delicate balance and if something happens, like you loose your job or prices go up again or let’s say interest rates rise, some people are ultimately going to be pushed off the edge, when their bubble pops (e.g. they can’t make their mortgage repayments and default on their loan). This  can even be the first step towards homelessness. If you are a young person paying high rent with low wage growth and probably low wages due to the casualisation of the workforce that is happening in Australia, you can’t even save enough money to become an investor or home buyer to get yourself out of paying high rents.

The problem is, houses only really generate income when they are sold, and because people have seen the housing market as an easy way to make money there has been a massive wave of speculation. The housing market isn’t as complicated as the stock market, prices have tended to go up without the investor having to do much research or anything much once they have invested. Sure this has made some people rich, but the purpose of housing, something I think people in Australia and some other parts of the world have forgotten, is that houses should be viewed primarily as places for people to live in, not an income generating stream or investment class.

Investing in housing only pushes house prices up and doesn’t have any real benefit. Because really, if you own a place that is overvalued, there will eventually be a price adjustment (read price fall). You don’t really have a million dollars if you own a house valued at million dollars. You own a house and if you sell you will only receive what the market says it’s worth. You only have a million dollars if you sell that house for a million dollars and put that money in the bank.

People should be investing in local businesses and companies as those forms of investment do generate income and they can cause growth in the economy in areas that actually have some benefit to Australia like growth in jobs and wages. Australia has had so many great new technology companies leave because they couldn’t find investors here. The ones that spring first to my mind are the new energy solar power companies that went to China or the US when they couldn’t find investors here. There are your jobs of the future and they’ve all gone overseas and will never benefit Australia.

Australia having a trillion dollars in private home loan debt is not benefiting anyone except the banks that are selling the majority of the loans (1), who will see even more profits roll in when interest rates eventually rise, and they will eventually rise . It wasn’t that long ago real interest rates were around 6% and in the 1980’s they came close to 8% (2). I’m talking about real interest rates too here, not what the banks charged as the interest rate on their home loans which reached staggering levels close to 17% in the 1980’s. Anyone with a large home loan should be very concerned about what interest rate they are paying. If interest rates were raised a few percent higher without wage growth in Australia, many borrowers would default on their loans.

Being tied to high home loan repayments and rents also limits what households can spend as consumers, because all their income is going into housing. This also does nothing to stimulate wage growth and other parts of the economy.

To exacerbate the problem there has been very poor housing affordability policy by all levels government which has played a part in rising house prices and household debt.

The Housing Bubble and Homelessness

We are already seeing the effect of this bubble in the increase in homelessness in Sydney. Don’t think there is a connection between homelessness and rising house and rental prices? Think again. When the Government doesn’t provide enough crisis housing or long term housing for people on low incomes, and the unemployment policy is that if you leave an area with more jobs (like Sydney) for an area with less jobs (like a country town with a cheaper cost of living) you could be cut off unemployment benefits.

So picture the scenario,  you loose your job or you get sick and can’t work for a long period, then because of the drop in income you can’t pay your rent or mortgage and you loose that place. You can’t afford rent on a new place in your area because you haven’t found work again and there is not enough crisis accommodation for all who require it, so you have to find somewhere to go. You probably can’t leave Sydney and move somewhere cheaper because you will be cut off any unemployment benefits by the Government. If you can’t find a place you can afford in the city and unless you have someone who can support you you might eventually end up homeless. you might couch surf for a while, but one day you might run out of people to stay with or you might have some kids, and your friends don’t have room for all of you, so you are living in your car, until you can’t afford your car anymore.

This is a reality, and it is partially caused by housing speculation. There are however many other contributing factors to homelessness. Low wage growth, poor housing policy by Government, poor (or should I say stagnant and un-evolving) unemployment benefit policy and poor mental health and domestic violence policies by Government have all contributed to homelessness in Australia.

 

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