'Affordable' housing

It is a sad state when political leaders talk about "affordable'' housing costing only $500,000 to $600,000 in Auckland and Queenstown.

When the cost of an average home climbs towards $1 million and land is scarce, that is the way it is. An "affordable'' $500,000 house at a 20% deposit would require a $100,000 in capital. At 5%, an interest-only mortgage would cost another $20,000 a year (or $385 a week).

Is it little wonder home ownership in those centres is becoming the preserve of double professional income earners? Is it surprising home ownership rates are slipping away?

Even in an era of investors/speculators buying for capital gain, prices do become reflected in rent, and those on lower-paid jobs are priced out of even the rental market.

The Government is then forced to subsidise rents for many lower-income families and individuals, and taxes make it possible for some to live in such places, thereby - in effect - subsidising employers. The Government now says it spends $2 billion a year on housing subsidies.

The focus on the housing crisis, and it is a crisis, however the Government chooses to describe it, clearly has senior ministers concerned, as evidenced by their flaying around with policies.

At the moment a new one seems to be introduced just about every week, the latest including a $1 billion fund for interest-free loans to local authorities to fund upfront infrastructure for new housing developments - which will not go far - and the apparent decision not to require the Housing Corporation to pay a dividend so that money can be put to refurbishing homes or building new houses.

Crucially, it argues the soon to be notified Auckland unitary plan must encourage Auckland to build up and out. Without doubt, that is part of the answer, but infrastructure and building industry constraints are also central parts of the problem.

Labour made its major play last weekend. A total of 100,000 houses nationally would be built over 10 years, about half in Auckland (it sounds a lot but in practice would not be that many given the demand), the "bright line'' capital gains tax would be extended from two years to five years, tax write-offs for investment costs that exceed rent would be removed and sales of existing homes banned to buyers who are neither New Zealand citizens nor permanent residents.

A Housing Authority would also be set up. Supposedly, this is meant to prevent house inflation of more than 2% a year in Auckland. And Labour has put together a multi-pronged plan that has a significant public perception jump on National's piecemeal and reactive measures.

But even Labour leader Andrew Little seems determined to avoid facing down the electoral reality of all the house-owing voters who see their asset worth in houses soaring.

As former Reserve Bank chairman Arthur Grimes said this month, if "affordable'' housing is to be a reality then prices should fall by about 40%. He called for a massive building programme.

Former Reserve Bank governor and former National leader Don Brash this week also pointed out that under Labour's plan at best it would take two generations before homes in Auckland became "affordable''.

When the cheapest homes cost 10-times the average wage, the only way to return to increased home ownership, that New Zealand dream and a traditional part of this property-owning democracy, was for prices to fall dramatically.

Large underlying forces, including migration to Auckland and Queenstown, have led to the current predicament, one which hamstrings this country's largest city and which is spilling to other areas. Meanwhile, the Government endeavours to ameliorate matters with little success, and Labour promotes a useful but not decisive plan.

What will, at some stage, really make a difference, are market forces working in another direction. If there is another global financial crisis as from 2007, or worse, if immigration dries up or mass emigration to Australia returns, then the situation can change dramatically.

Even the banks are showing signs of caution about indebtedness and the risks of the Auckland housing bubble bursting.

Whatever the Government does, or Labour promises, for better and for worse, such a dramatic and damaging fall seems to be the only way "affordable'' housing will be possible in Auckland.

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