As the final-term Reserve Bank Governor, Philip Lowe, faced the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics last Friday, a sigh of relief was shared amongst mortgage holders that “the worst is over” regarding the fight against inflation. It only took 12 interest rate hikes to bring inflation at bay in the quickest contraction in monetary policy in Australia’s modern history. As many Australian mortgage holders are now tipping over the wretched mortgage cliff, we see signs within leading economic indicators such as retail sales, consumer business confidence and mortgage arrears, that there is much more pain to come.
To many people’s surprise, the economy has been incredibly resilient, despite stubbornly persistent rental and service inflation. Raising interest rates is unlikely to reduce these two lingering inflationary pests substantially. As further critical economic data comes to light, we believe the justification for further interest rises will soon abate.
At the same time, Australia’s largest trading partner, China, is experiencing the unthinkable ‘deflation’, which may have a contagion impact on our economy and prompt us to anticipate rate cuts sooner than we expect, leading to revisions in rate forecasts.
As the inflation storm clouds begin to settle down, we can assess the damage caused, especially concerning ongoing cost-of-living crises, inequitable wealth distribution, rental crises and falling labour productivity.
The Structural Problem
The most significant casualty is the housing market, specifically its ability to supply sufficient housing to keep rents stable and improve affordability. At the peak of the interest rate cycle and property unaffordability, it is economically strange that property prices are bucking the trend and have increased 9% from the trough to its current heights, reinforcing that something is fundamentally wrong with the housing market.
The first glaring issue in our current structural problem is rampant rental growth. CoreLogic’s latest July figures confirm annual national rental growth at 9.4% p.a. In the months ahead, there will surely be a vibrant, albeit distressing, public debate examining perhaps one of the biggest threats to our economy and quality of life: the dreaded ‘Housing Crisis’.
Our current Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, will no doubt attempt to unify the states and territories to find an appropriate, balanced solution to ease the rental crisis and increase the supply of properties as he goes into this week’s cabinet meeting.
Rental Market and Rent Freezes
Sydney, and Australia more broadly, grapple with a clear rental crisis as we observe low vacancy rates (0.9%) and soaring rents.11 With 31% of Australians being renters,12 these issues impact a large, vulnerable demographic, who feel the full impacts associated with cost-of-living pressures. This is playing out not only as an economic issue but as an ongoing social issue that warrants immediate attention from politicians.
11 Vacancy rates: August 2022 (domain.com.au).
12 Housing statistics in Australia: home ownership & rent | Savings.com.au.
13The ACT is the only territory to limit rent increases but tenant groups say gaps in protection leave tenants vulnerable | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT.
As a result, many people across the political spectrum propose rent control as a solution. However, such measures may backfire, as seen in ACT.13 As Philip Lowe recently made clear, rent control could be a short-term solution to improve housing affordability; however, in the long-term, such a solution will prove inadequate as the fundamental structural problem of low housing supply will persist.14
This is because a cap on rent increases would discourage property development and investment, leading to a lower supply and higher rents in the long-term, as observed in San Francisco and Ireland.15 These rental rules burden property investors as they are not given a reprieve from an increase in mortgage repayments and holding costs, which will drive much-needed investment away from the property sector.
When it comes to increasing supply, property developers and investors are the essential lubrication that enable the property machine to function. Therefore, even rumours of
additional tax for property investors is enough to spook and jeopardise the pipeline for much-needed developments, which is already significantly insufficient to meet current demand.
As Philip Lowe echoed his view on this matter at the parliamentary committee, government interventions in the rental market via rent freezes and caps have immediate short-term gains. However, it does not resolve long-term structural problems and only exacerbates these issues in the future.16
The key to addressing the crisis lies in increasing the housing supply. Government inefficiencies, especially with regard to planning systems, stifle progress. Efforts to aid homebuyers through subsidies, which has been a popular policy in the past, can also inadvertently drive-up housing prices.
Why has so Much Gone so Wrong so Quickly
There has been a long history of housing stock deficiency in Australia; we need to build enough property to meet demand, especially since the immigration reprieve experienced during COVID-19 lockdowns is slowly fading away. Once international borders reopened, net migration skyrocketed, with future forecasts migration and total population growth remaining elevated.
This is placing further pressure on our fragile construction industry, which has experienced a once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm. This is especially so for builders operating within the residential sector, who are locked into fixed-price contracts, and have dealt with construction costs flying up by 30%-40%, La Niña (a climate pattern leading to greater rainfall in Australia), supply chain issues, rising interest costs, labour shortages, as well as COVID-19 lockdowns and disruptions, whilst on thin margins. Unsurprisingly, ASIC data shows 1031 construction companies falling to the liquidator’s knife – more than anytime experienced over the past decade.
Traditionally, many medium to large-scale development projects take 3-6 years to obtain necessary approvals, then a further 8-12 months to obtain construction certificates. This is followed by off-plan marketing campaigns to get enough sales to meet financiers’ requirements even before the first shovel hits the ground. Not to mention it also takes time for councils to consider re-zoning.
Construction costs over the past three years have skyrocketed by 30-40% due to inflation and labour shortages within the sector. Land values typically remain constant and do not provide room for adjustment. This has resulted in many approved projects being shelved as developers wait for property prices to increase enough to compensate for construction costs, holding costs and greater demand for purchasers to buy off-the-plan.
Ultimately, the supply component of the property market is driven by the private sector – an army of mum-and-dad investors to established property developers. Unfortunately, making money on property projects is at one of its most challenging times in decades, further contributing to the challenge of providing property supply to the system.
Planning and Rezoning Process
We also want to avoid knee-jerk, desperate planning outcomes as well as unnecessary rezoning of more farmland and urban sprawl, which have only been short-term fixes to the underlying problem of inadequate supply; however, in most cases, this does not generate net gains as the benefits are outweighed by government spending and immense costs on infrastructure projects.
It takes 4-8 years for councils to consider large-scale rezoning projects properly. Nevertheless, we should look at best practices and improve the bureaucratic red tape to avoid future property price and rental increases; however, make no mistake – there is no quick fix.
Solutions to the housing crisis will involve all levels of government coordination, patience, well-measured policies, and a deep understanding of the delicate balance between different stakeholders’ interests.
In short, the housing crisis is here to stay for several years. We will continue having to talk about it and lay blame to governments, developers, builders, and investors. The government’s job is to make the planning system more efficient, promote property development and investment, and let the market deliver supply based on demand.
Ultimately, market forces will result in property prices remaining elevated and, over time, property will attract capital once the perceived market risk normalises. We should then see the necessary supply to meet demand.
Msquared Capital is a private credit provider with investment opportunities backed by quality property along the Eastern Seaboard; we ensure that all investment opportunities are based on risk-to-reward as our core offering and performance. Mortgage funds perform well during volatile times, and capital preservation is regular, with a reliable monthly income that gives our investors peace of mind.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Stronger demand in some areas is pushing unit rents up faster than houses
Renters are returning to the apartment market, leading to higher growth in weekly rents for units than houses over the past year, according to REA data. As workers return to their corporate offices, tenants are coming back to the inner city and choosing apartment living for its affordability.
This is a reversal of the pandemic trend which saw many renters leave their inner city units to rent affordable houses on the outskirts. Working from home meant they did not have to commute to the CBD, so they moved into large houses in outer areas where they could enjoy more space and privacy.
REA Group economic analyst Megan Lieu said the return to apartment living among tenants began in late 2021, when most lockdown restrictions were lifted, and accelerated in 2022 after Australia’s international border reopened.
“Following the reopening of offices and in-person work, living within close proximity to CBDs has regained importance,” Ms Lieu said. “Units not only tend to be located closer to public transport and in inner city areas, but are also cheaper to rent compared to houses in similar areas. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that units, particularly those in inner city areas, are growing in popularity among renters.”
But the return to work in the CBD is not the only factor driving demand for apartment rentals. Rapidly rising weekly rents for all types of property, coupled with a cost-of-living crisis created by high inflation, has forced tenants to look for cheaper accommodation. This typically means compromising on space, with many families embracing apartment living again. At the same time, a huge wave of migration led by international students has turbocharged demand for unit rentals in inner city areas, in particular, because this is where many universities are located.
But it’s not simply a demand-side equation. Lockdowns put a pause on building activity, which reduced the supply of new rental homes to the market. People had to wait longer for their new houses to be built, which meant many of them were forced to remain in rental homes longer than expected. On top of that, a chronic shortage of social housing continued to push more people into the private rental market. After the world reopened, disrupted supply chains meant the cost of building increased, the supply of materials was strained, and a shortage of labour delayed projects.
All of this has driven up rents for all types of property, and the strength of demand has allowed landlords to raise rents more than usual to help them recover the increased costs of servicing their mortgages following 13 interest rate rises since May 2022. Many applicants for rentals are also offering more rent than advertised just to secure a home, which is pushing rental values even higher.
Tenants’ reversion to preferring apartments over houses is a nationwide trend that has led to stronger rental growth for units than houses, especially in the capital cities, says Ms Lieu. “Year-on-year, national weekly house rents have increased by 10.5 percent, an increase of $55 per week,” she said.“However, unit rents have increased by 17 percent, which equates to an $80 weekly increase.”
The variance is greatest in the capital cities where unit rents have risen twice as fast as house rents. Sydney is the most expensive city to rent in today, according to REA data. The house rent median is $720 per week, up 10.8 percent over the past year. The apartment rental median is $650 per week, up 18.2 percent. In Brisbane, the median house rent is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent over the past year, while the median rent for units is $535 per week, up 18.9 percent. In Melbourne, the median house rent is $540 per week, up 13.7 percent, while the apartment median is $500 per week, up 16.3 percent.
In regional markets, Queensland is the most expensive place to rent either a house or an apartment. The house median rent in regional Queensland is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent year-on–year, while the apartment median rent is $525, up 16.7 percent.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’