NAB expects prices to slow in 2018-19, but not a severe adjustment.

The latest NAB Residential Property Index is out, and it rose 6 points to +20 in Q3, with sentiment (based on current prices and rents) improving in all states except NSW (which edged down). Sentiment rose sharply in Victoria (up 27 to +63) and in Queensland (up 4 to +16). Whilst sentiment rises and confidence lifts among property experts in Q3, NAB expects prices to slow in 2018-19, but not a severe adjustment.

Australian housing market sentiment lifted over the third quarter of 2017, supported mainly by a large increase in the number of property experts reporting positive rental growth in the quarter and continued house price growth in most states.

“The NAB Residential Property Survey shows an improvement in market sentiment across most states last quarter, but we continue to see market conditions that vary across different locations. The momentum is clearly with Victoria, while NSW is experiencing something of a slowdown,” NAB Chief Economist Alan Oster said.

Confidence (based on forward expectations for prices and rents) lifted in all states, led by Victoria, and with WA the big improver. Despite weakening price growth in NSW, higher confidence is being supported by predictions for higher rents.

First home buyers continue emerging as key buyers in both new and established housing markets, accounting for over 36% of all sales in new housing markets and around 29% in established markets.

During Q3, the overall market share of foreign buyers in new property markets fell to a 5-year low of 9.5%, potentially due to lending restrictions on foreign buyers. Low foreign buying activity in new property markets was led by Victoria, where the share of sales to foreign buyers fell to 14.4% (20.8% in Q2).

For the first time, tight credit was identified as the biggest constraint on new developments in all states, while access to credit was the biggest barrier for buyers of established property. Price levels were the biggest concern in both Victoria and NSW. In WA and SA/NT, property experts said that employment security was the biggest barrier to buying an established home.

They also highlighted lower foreign buying activity in new property markets, with VIC saw the share fall to 14.4% (from 20.8% in Q2) and NSW down to 7.8% from 12% in Q2. In contrast, QLD saw a rise to 11.4%, up from 8.6% last quarter.

NAB’s forecasts on residential prices

NAB Group Economics has revised its national house price forecasts, predicting an increase of 3.4% in 2018 (previously 4.3%) and easing to 2.5% in 2019. Unit prices are forecast to rise 0.5% in 2018 (-0.3% previously), with a modest fall expected in 2019.

“More moderate market conditions reflect a combination of factors which vary across markets, including deteriorating affordability, rising supply of apartments, tighter credit conditions and rising interest rates in the second half of 2018” said Mr Oster.

“But still relatively low mortgage rates, a favourable housing supply-demand balance and strong population growth population growth should continue to provide support for prices going forward.”

“By capital city, house price growth is forecast to be moderate outside of Perth – where prices are flattening out – consistent with good business conditions and better employment growth.”

“Melbourne and Hobart are currently experiencing solid growth in prices; Sydney is cooling and we expect Brisbane and Adelaide will cool. Finally, we expect 2018 to mark the beginning of a gradual turnaround for Perth.”
About 300 property professionals participated in the Q3 2017 survey.

Residential Construction Rotates

The latest data from the ABS shows building construction activity to June 2017. We see a small rotation towards non-residential work, supported by investment from the public sector. The trend estimates, which irons out the bumps in the series, shows a rise in total building work done, with a fall in residential building of 1.2% and a rise in non-residential building of 2.8%.

Within the residential data, new houses fell 1.3% and other new residential building fell 1.0%.

The trend estimate of the value of total building work done rose 0.3% in the June 2017 quarter.

The trend estimate of the value of new residential building work done fell 1.2% in the June quarter. The value of work done on new houses fell 1.3% while new other residential building fell 1.0%.

The trend estimate of the value of non-residential building work done rose 2.8% in the June quarter.

The trend estimate for the total number of dwelling units commenced fell 3.0% in the June 2017 quarter following a fall of 2.8% in the March quarter.

The trend estimate for new private sector house commencements fell 1.6% in the June quarter following a fall of 2.7% in the March quarter.

The trend estimate for new private sector other residential building commencements fell 4.6% in the June quarter following a fall of 3.0% in the March quarter.

Trend dwelling approvals rise 1.1 per cent in August

The number of dwellings approved rose 1.1 per cent in August 2017, in trend terms, and has risen for seven months, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) today.

In trend terms, approvals for private sector houses rose 0.9 per cent in August. Private sector house approvals rose in Queensland (2.0 per cent), South Australia (1.4 per cent), Victoria (1.1 per cent) and Western Australia (0.3 per cent), but fell in New South Wales (0.3 per cent).

 

Dwelling approvals increased in August in the Australian Capital Territory (8.9 per cent), Northern Territory (8.3 per cent), Victoria (1.5 per cent), Tasmania (1.2 per cent), Queensland (1.0 per cent), South Australia (0.9 per cent) and New South Wales (0.7 per cent), but decreased in Western Australia (0.8 per cent) in trend terms.

“Dwelling approvals have shown signs of strength in recent months, although are still below the record high in 2016,” said Bill Becker, Assistant Director of Construction Statistics at the ABS. “The August 2017 data showed that the number of dwellings approved is now 6.5 per cent lower than in the same month last year, in trend terms.”

In seasonally adjusted terms, dwelling approvals increased by 0.4 per cent in August, driven by a rise in private dwellings excluding houses (4.8 per cent), while private house approvals fell 0.6 per cent.

The value of total building approved fell 0.3 per cent in August, in trend terms, after rising for six months. The value of residential building rose 0.7 per cent while non-residential building fell 1.8 per cent.

New home sales lift in August – HIA

The HIA New Home Sales report – a monthly survey of the largest volume home builders in the five largest states – says for the three months to August compared with the same period last year, house sales in Victoria are 15.7 per cent higher and up by 9.2 per cent in South Australia. Over the same period, sales declined in Queensland (-7.3 per cent), WA (-15.4 per cent), NSW (-17.4 per cent) and Queensland (-37.9 per cent).

“New home sales increased by 9.1 per cent last month as a result of very strong results in Victoria and Western Australia, but over the year sales have continued to slow,” stated HIA’s Principal Economist, Tim Reardon.

“The jump in sales in July confirms our forecast of a slowdown in building activity through until 2018/19.

The increase in sales in August offsets larger declines in sales in recent months, but it is not sufficient to reverse the decline in sales that is evident since early 2016,” continued Mr Reardon.

“Results in July and August have been affected by government interventions in NSW and Victoria which have seen first home-buyers returning to the new home market.

“Victoria has seen record numbers of new building approvals and new home sales are continuing to drive even higher. Strong population growth and employment growth, fortified with enhanced first home buyer incentives, is prolonging the boom in building activity.”

“The trend in new home sales continues to provide a strong leading indicator of the trend in residential building approval figures from the ABS as can be seen in the chart below,” concluded Mr Reardon.

The Light In the Tunnel – The Property Imperative 09 Sep 2017

A bunch of new data came out this week, so we discuss the findings and explore what it means for households and their budgets.

Welcome to the Property Imperative weekly to 9th September 2017, the latest edition of our finance and property news digest.

We released the August edition of our Mortgage Stress research which showed that across the nation, more than 860,000 households are estimated to be now in mortgage stress (last month 820,000) with more than 20,000 of these in severe stress. This equates to 26.4% of households, up from 25.8% last month.

The main drivers of stress are rising mortgage rates and living costs whilst real incomes continue to fall and underemployment is on the rise.  This is a deadly combination and is touching households across the country, not just in the mortgage belts. In August higher power prices, council rates and childcare costs hit home. You can watch our video where we walk through the post codes most at risk.

The latest Adelaide Bank/REIA Housing Affordability Report showed that buying a house became even less affordable during the June quarter with the proportion of median family income required to meet average home loan repayments increasing by 0.2 percentage points to 31.4 per cent.

Research from Mozo.com.au showed that one third of first time buyers were reliant on help from the Bank of Mum and Dad, and the average value of that assistance in NSW was $88,250. This is pretty similar to our own findings on the rise and rise of the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Data from Roy Morgan highlighted the fact that more Australians are now under-employed than at this time last year. 1.24 million (9.5%) Australians are under-employed (which means looking for work or looking for more work), up a significant 324,000 (2.4%) in a year. They also called the “real” unemployment rate at 10.2%, as opposed to the official ABS data of 5.6%.

CoreLogic said that while auction clearance rates were pretty firm, the volume of sales continued to fall.  But there is no stopping the housing train. Demand for property is still strong, but the mix of purchasers is changing as shown by the housing finance from the ABS which came out on Friday.

Owner occupied purchases are steaming ahead, while investment lending is stagnating. A clear reflection of the tightening in investor lending regulation, and the availability of new incentives and grants for first time buyers, alongside the attractor loan rates for new borrowers. We saw first time buyers more active in NSW and VIC, two states where new concessions started in July. The proportion of first home buyer commitments rose to 16.6% in July from 14.9% in June.  Just remember back in 2009 they comprised more than 30% of total transactions, so all the hype about the return of first time buyers is over done in our view.

But in July, trend lending flows were $33 billion, up 0.1% overall, with owner occupied lending up $20.8 billion or 0.7%, and Investment lending down 1% to $12.1 billion.  The number of owner occupied transactions rose 0.6%, construction of dwellings rose 2%, new dwellings 2% and the purchase of established dwellings 0.3%. As a result, total bank home lending stock rose again to $1.61 trillion, another record.

There are some amazing attractor mortgage loan offers in the market right now, as lenders fight for market share. We see significant falls in some investment property loan offer rates, as well as discounts for new owner occupied borrowers, with rates down to as low as 3.65%. These rates of course are not available for existing borrowers, the oldest trick in the book, so this may explain a rise in refinanced transactions.

ASIC launched a series of videos to help consumers make “MoneySmart” decisions when buying a home. Some would say, better late than never! The recommendations on budgeting are especially pertinent.  However, a weakness of the MoneySmart calculators are they are static, we think they need a calculator to show the impact of changing interest rates for example. That said, their TrackMySpend App is a really useful tool to get to grips with what is being spent.

The point is that our research shows households are exposed to potential future interest rate rises, and whilst lenders are required to factor in expense and interest rate buffers, they are probably not sufficient to protect borrowers in a rising rate environment, and in any case, the majority of borrowers do not understand the financial impact of such rises, nor are they planning for them. We think lenders should have an obligation to display the recalculated monthly repayment at an average long term rate, which would be at least 3% above current levels. Households would be shocked to see the impact, and it may reduce the overreach which many are locked into at the moment.  It all depends on when rates rise.

Treasurer Scott Morrison said that interest rates are “obviously” going to rise in the future but that many home owners would be able to avoid mortgage stress thanks to “mortgage buffers”.

It’s worth noting that ASIC is alleging Westpac used an expenditure benchmark that was based on “conservative” estimates of what a household would spend and “represents only an estimate of what Australian families consume”.

APRA said this week it is important that lenders accurately assess borrower income and living expenses. Living expenses, in particular, are difficult to measure, and so banks often utilise benchmarks as a proxy where borrower estimates appear too low. In fact, APRA’s recent work showed the lion’s share of loans by the larger lenders are assessed using expense benchmarks, rather than the borrower’s own estimates. There is nothing wrong in principle with using benchmarks, provided they aren’t seen as a substitute for proper inquiries of the borrower about their expenses.

Actually, in some cases, across the market, loans were being made where the borrower had only the slimmest of spare income.

The RBA Governor also warned that rates will rise at some point and discussed why lenders may trade off risks in their book against market share.  To stress the point about rate rises, Canada lifted their cash rate this week, and already there are signs of home price corrections following there. The RBA held the cash rate again this week, and they highlighted the fact that the growth in housing debt has been outpacing the slow growth in household incomes, as well as poor wage growth. They still hold their view on positive future growth.

Some of the economic news this week was quite positive, with ANZ job ads higher rising 2.0% m/m in August, the sixth straight rise. Job advertisements currently sit 13.3% higher than a year ago.

The current account data from the ABS showed a deficient increase to $9.6 billion, partly due to lower export commodity prices.  Exports grew faster than imports though.

Overall the economy grew 0.8% in the June quarter. This was below expectations and was helped by significant government investment. Household consumption figure were pretty solid, but at the expense of the household savings ratio which dipped to 4.6%, (5.3% in March). As a result, the current savings ratio is the lowest since 2008, thanks to very weak wage growth. The point though is this cannot continue indefinitely, because household savings are not infinite, and they are also skewed in distribution terms towards those with more assets and net worth.  Stress resides among households with lower net worth and little or no savings.

Dwelling construction grew a moderate 0.2 per cent with growth being observed in New South Wales and Queensland. On an annual basis GDP growth is 1.9%, and to meet the RBA’s expectations will need to lift over the next year or so. We are not sure where such growth will come from.  We need new ways to lift productivity.

Finally, Retail turnover was flat in July, further evidence of the pressure on household budgets after stronger growth earlier in the year.

So to conclude, we still see home lending growing faster than inflation or wage growth, lifting household debt higher. This is at a time when interest rates are clearly going to rise higher, later.

Lenders are still trading off risk against market share, because at the end of the day, households will pick up the tab in a crash. But households should not simply rely on an assurance from the bank they can afford a loan, they should do their own work, to calculate the real effect on their budgets of a 3% rate rise.  In fact, borrowing less is the best insurance against future stress.

And that’s the Property Imperative weekly to 9th September 2017. If you found this useful do subscribe to get our updates, and check back next week.

 

Building Approvals Rose In July

The number of dwellings approved rose 0.7 per cent in July 2017, in trend terms, and has risen for three months, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) today.

Dwelling approvals increased in July in the Australian Capital Territory (8.8 per cent), Victoria (1.0 per cent), Western Australia (0.8 per cent), South Australia (0.8 per cent), New South Wales (0.4 per cent) and Queensland (0.2 per cent), but decreased in the Northern Territory (9.7 per cent) and Tasmania (1.0 per cent) in trend terms.

In trend terms, approvals for private sector houses rose 1.0 per cent in July. Private sector house approvals rose in Queensland (1.5 per cent), Victoria (1.1 per cent), South Australia (0.9 per cent) and New South Wales (0.8 per cent), but fell in Western Australia (0.1 per cent).

In seasonally adjusted terms, dwelling approvals decreased by 1.7 per cent in July, driven by a fall in private dwellings excluding houses (6.7 per cent), while private house approvals were flat.

The value of total building approved rose 1.3 per cent in July, in trend terms, and has risen for six months. The value of non-residential building rose 3.1 per cent while residential building was flat.

“The value of non-residential building approvals have risen for the past six months, in trend terms, reaching a record high in July 2017,” said Daniel Rossi, Director of Construction Statistics at the ABS.

“The strength in non-residential building has been driven by approvals in New South Wales and Victoria, where a number of office and education buildings have been approved in recent months.”

Commenting on the figures, the HIA said:

“Today’s building approval figures show that the detached house building sector has plateaued at a high level while the building of multi-unit projects is sliding, was confirmed by ABS data today,” stated Tim Reardon, HIA’s Principal Economist.

The ABS released July Building Approval data today which shows that the paths of detached and multiunit residential building continue to diverge as the industry’s contribution to GDP is set to fall.

“Multi-unit sector approvals fell by 3.3 per cent to be 27.5 per cent lower than twelve months ago while detached house building approvals remained constant over the year.

“Detached home approvals were 2.4 per cent better in July this year than compared with July 2016.

“The slowdown in the multi-unit sector is also showing up in the amount of work done on all residential sites has fallen by 3.2 per cent in the first half of this year, based on the construction data also released by ABS today.

“This slowdown in on-site activity is likely to see residential building have a negative impact on GDP growth for the June quarter.

“There is also significant variation in residential building conditions around the country.

“Compared with a year ago multi-unit approvals in July were down by 20 per cent or more in all the eastern states while movements in detached home approvals included a 9.6 per cent increase in South Australia to a fall of 8.7 per cent in Western Australia.

“The significant variation in industry conditions between the multi-unit sector and detached homes and around the states is likely to continue for some time consistent with HIA’s latest forecasts”, Mr Reardon concluded.

New Home Sales Decline In July

The HIA New Home Sales report – a monthly survey of the largest volume home builders in the five largest states – show that sales volumes declined by 3.7 per cent during July 2017 compared with June 2017. Sales for the first seven months of this year are 4.6 per cent lower than in the same period of 2016.

Sales of new detached houses during July 2017 fell by 0.4 per cent nationally to their lowest level since October 2014. Victoria was the only state to experience growth (+9.8 per cent). Detached house sales fell in South Australia (-16.2 per cent), Queensland (-16.1 per cent), Western Australia (-9.1 per cent) and New South Wales (-5.2 per cent) during the month.

“A drop in new apartment sales have contributed to the continuing decline in new home sales nationally since they peaked in mid 2015,” stated HIA’s Principal Economist, Tim Reardon.

“July’s result was driven by a 15.7 per cent decline in multi-unit sales and a more measured reduction in detached house sales. The large drop in multi-unit sales this month is in contrast to strong sales volumes late in 2016 and early 2017,” outlined Mr Reardon.

“This trend is consistent with HIA’s expectation that activity will decline modestly from these record high levels over a number of years,” added Mr Reardon.

“Victoria was the notable exception – as the only state to grow sales during July 2017. Sales were up by 9.8 per cent on what is already a very high level of activity.

“On the other hand, the Western Australian Government’s First Home Buyers grant ended on 30 June 2017 and as a consequence sales in July fell sharply from what was already a very low base.

How governments have widened the gap between generations in home ownership

From The Conversation.

Various government policies have fuelled the demand for housing over time, expanding the wealth of older home owners and pushing it further and further beyond the reach of young would-be home buyers. A new study highlights this divide between millennials and their boomer parents.

The study is part of a Committee of Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) report called Housing Australia. It compares trends in property ownership across age groups over a period of three decades.

Between 1982 and 2013, the share of home owners among 25-34 year olds shrunk the most, by more than 20%. On the other hand, the share of home owners among those aged 65+ years has risen slightly.

The rate of renting has spiralled among young people. By 2013, renting had outstripped home ownership among 25-34 year olds.

Same policies, different impacts on generations

There is undoubtedly a growing intergenerational divide in access to the housing market. The timing of policy reforms has been a major driver of this widening housing wealth gap.

Negative gearing has long advantaged property investors, potentially crowding out aspiring first home buyers. While negative gearing was briefly quarantined in 1985, this was repealed after just two years.

The appeal of negative gearing grew as financial deregulation spread rapidly during the 70s and 80s. This deregulation widened access to mortgage finance, but also pushed real property prices to ever higher levels.

In 1999, the Ralph review paved the way for the reform of capital gains tax on investment properties. Instead of taxing real capital gains at investors’ marginal income tax rates, only 50% of capital gains were taxed from 1999 onwards, albeit at nominal values.

The move, designed to promote investment activity, actually aggravated housing market volatility. The confluence of negative gearing benefits and the capital gains tax discount encouraged investors to go into more debt to finance buying property, taxed at discounted rates. The First Home Owners Grant, introduced in 2000, was another lever that increased demand. In the face of land supply constraints, these sorts of subsidies were likely to result in rising house prices.

Other policy reforms, while not directly housing related, have also affected young people’s opportunities to accumulate wealth.

The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced in 1989, at a time when many Gen X’s were entering tertiary education. This ended access to the free education that their boomer parents enjoyed.

HECS parameters were tightened over time. And in 1997, HECS contribution rates rose for new students and repayment thresholds were reduced.

Of course, the 1992 introduction of the superannuation guarantee would have boosted Gen X’s retirement savings relative to boomers. However, these savings are not accessible till the compulsory preservation age, so can’t be used now to buy a house.

All these policies have clearly had varying generational impacts, adversely affecting home purchase opportunities for younger generations while delivering significant wealth expansion to older home owners.

An intergenerational housing policy lens

A new housing landscape has emerged in recent years. It is marked by precarious home ownership and long-term renting for young people.

It’s also dominated by a growing wealth chasm – not just between the young and old – but also between young people who have access to wealth transfers from affluent parents and those who do not.

The majority of housing related policies do not consider issues of equity across generations. There are currently very few examples of potential housing reforms that can benefit multiple generations.

However, there is one policy that could – the abolition of stamp duties. It would remove a significant barrier to downsizing by seniors.

The equity released from downsizing would boost retirement incomes for seniors, while freeing up more housing space for young growing families. Negative impacts on revenue flowing to government could be mitigated by a simultaneous implementation of a broad based land tax. This would in turn push down house prices.

As life expectancies increase, the need for governments to take into account policy impact on different generations is critical. On the other hand, policies that take a short-term view will only worsen intergenerational tensions and entrench property ownership as a marker of distinction between the “haves” and “have nots” in Australia.

Author: Rachel Ong, Deputy Director, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Curtin University

The Housing Magic Bullet May Be Shot

The HIA suggests the housing sector will become less of an economic driver of the Australian economy, and also underscores the various regulatory interventions from state taxes, to limiting foreign investment and investor lending.

Another plank in the argument that the housing party is over, leaving households with a mighty debt driven hangover.

According to the HIA, the Winter 2017 edition of the HIA’s National Outlook Report discusses the downturn in building activity that started in March 2016 and forecasts the length and depth of the cycle. It also highlights the role foreign investment plays in growing housing stock in Australia.

 

“The housing sector has already stepped back from its role driving the Australian economy and now is not the time for governments to hit the industry with punitive charges,” warned Tim Reardon, HIA’s Principal Economist.

“Government interventions into the market so far include: state governments imposing punitive Stamp Duty charges on foreign investors, Federal charges for foreign investors, a new set of visa rules that could slow overseas migration, restricting lending to domestic investors and new regulations limiting interest only lending.

“The Chinese government has also imposed restrictions on capital leaving the country which may have a significant impact on Australian home building.

“Foreign investors have been attracted to the Australian housing market and they have been investing billions annually in the construction of new residential dwellings.

“These investors have contributed to activity and employment in metropolitan areas building the supply of new housing stock and easing pressure on rental markets.

“Governments of all jurisdictions should proceed with caution when imposing new punitive measures on this segment of the market.

“Foreign capital is highly mobile and if it is forced from the market rapidly it could accelerate the downturn in the sector unnecessarily.

“A number of state governments have recently hit foreign investors with punitive charges.

“The Australian Government has also imposed additional regulations that will impact on investors in the sector.

“The HIA is forecasting that building activity will decline modestly – from record highs – over a number of years, consistent with typical cyclical trends in the industry. Activity will bottom out in 2019 with activity still at solid levels.

“There is a risk – if uncoordinated and poorly considered policies are introduced to curb foreign investment – that the decline in activity in the sector will be accelerated,” Mr Reardon concluded.

Why investor-driven urban density is inevitably linked to disadvantage

From The Conversation.

The densification of Australian cities has been heralded as a boon for housing choice and diversity. The up-beat promotion of “the swing to urban living” by one of Australia’s leading developer lobby groups epitomises the rhetoric around this seismic shift in housing.

Glossy advertisements for luxury living in our city centres and suburbs adorn the property pages of our newspapers.

Brochures boast of breathtaking city views from uppers storeys and gush about amenity, lifestyle and “liveability” – often touting the benefits of adjacent public infrastructure investments (but please don’t mention “value sharing”).

Depictions of attractive younger people, occasionally clutching a smiling infant, are prominent as the image of all things new, urban and desirable.

Long gone are the days when the manifestations of property marketeers’ imaginations were restricted to images of low-density master-planned estates on the urban fringe. We hardly ever hear about these nowadays.

There’s truth in the claims that housing choice and diversity have indeed widened in the last few decades as a result. The statistics clearly show a much greater spread of dwelling options in our cities.

The rise and rise of the apartment block

Apartments now account for 28% of housing in Sydney and 15% in Melbourne. As the maps below show, most recent growth in apartment stock is clearly in and around the inner city. Yet even the more distant suburbs have had an increase in higher-density residential development.

Changes in the number of flats and apartments, 2011 to 2016, in Sydney (above) and Melbourne (below). Data: ABS Census 2011, 2016, Author provided
Data: ABS Census 2011, 2016, Author provided

For many, inner-city apartment living is clearly a preferred choice for the stage in their life when an upcoming, “vibrant” neighbourhood is attractive. High-density urban renewal has been a boon for hipsters and students alike.

But the issue of choice needs to be unpacked carefully. For many others, the “swing to urban living” is more of a necessity.

True, the surge in apartment building has put many properties onto the market to rent or buy that are clearly cheaper than houses in the same suburb. From that point of view, they have added to the affordability of these neighbourhoods.

However, affordable to whom is an open question. At A$850,000 and upwards for a standard two-bedder in Waterloo, South Sydney, and $500,000 or more in Melbourne’s Docklands for a similar property, these are not exactly a cheap option for anyone on a low income.

But other than in the prestige areas where higher-income downsizers and pied-à-terre owners can be enticed to buy in some comfort, much of what is being built is straightforward “investor grade product” – flats built to attract the burgeoning investment market.

It can be argued that the investor has always been a major target of apartment developers, even in the 1960s and 1970s when strata units became common, particularly in Sydney. But it is even more so today.

Despite the clamour to control overseas investors perceived to be flooding the market, the bulk of investors are home grown. We don’t need to rehearse the debates on the factors that have fuelled this splurge, but clearly the development industry has been savvy to the possibilities of this market.

In the last decade, backed by state planning authorities and politicians desperate to claim they have “solved” housing affordability by letting apartment building rip, developers have got involved on an unprecedented scale. The figures bear this out: in 2016, for the first time, Australia built more apartments than houses. The majority end up for rent.

Problematic products with too few protections

In the rush, we, the housing consumer, have been offered a motley range of new housing with a series of escalating problems. Leaving aside amateur management by owners’ bodies in charge of multi-million-dollar assets, problems of short-term holiday lettings and neighbour disputes, there are more serious concerns over build quality, defective materials and fire compliance.

The apartment market has been left wide open for poor-quality outcomes by building industry deregulation. This includes:

  • moves toward complying development approval for high-rise;
  • self-certification of building components;
  • complex design and non-traditional building methods;
  • relaxation of defect rectification requirements;
  • long chains of sub-contractors;
  • poor oversight by local planners and authorities; and
  • cheap or non-compliant fittings and finishes.

Plus there’s the rush to get buildings up and sold off. Not to mention fly-by-night “phoenix” developers who vanish as soon as the last flat is occupied, never to be found when the defects bills come in.

The lack of consumer protection in this market is astounding. The average toaster comes with more consumer protection – at least you can get your money back if the product fails.

‘Vertical slums’ in the making

These chickens will surely come home to roost in the lower end of the market, which will never attract the wealthy empty-nesters or cashed-up young professionals with the resources to ensure quality outcomes.

In Melbourne, space and design standards, including windowless bedrooms, have come under critical scrutiny, as has site cramming. Tall apartment blocks stand cheek-by-jowl in overdeveloped inner-city precincts.

At least New South Wales has State Environmental Planning Policy 65, which regulates space and amenity standards, and the BASIX environmental standard to prevent the more egregious practices.

But people are most likely to confront the problems of density in the many thousands of new units adorning precincts around suburban rail stations and town centres. These have been built under the uncertain logic of “transport-orientated development”, often replacing light industrial or secondary commercial development.

These developments attract a mixed community of lower-income renters. Many are recently arrived immigrants and marginal home buyers – often first-timers. Many have young children, as these units are the only option for young families to buy or rent in otherwise unaffordable markets. Overall, though, renters predominate.

What will be the trajectory of these blocks, once the gloss wears off and those who can move on do so? You only have to look at the previous generation of suburban walk-up blocks in these areas to find the answer.

Far from bastions of gentrification, the large multi-unit buildings in less prestigious locations will drift inexorably into the lower reaches of the private rental market.

Town centres like Liverpool, Fairfield, Auburn, Bankstown and Blacktown in Sydney point the way. The cracks in the density juggernaut are already showing in many of the more recently built blocks in these areas – literally, in many cases.

This inexorable logic of the market will create suburban concentrations of lower-income households on a scale hitherto experienced only in the legacy inner-city high-rise public housing estates.

With the latter being systematically cleared away, the formation of vertical slums of the future owned by the massed ranks of unaccountable, profit-driven investor landlords is a racing certainty. The consequences are all too easy to imagine.

The call for greater regulation of apartment, planning, design and construction is being heard in some quarters. The 2015 NSW Independent Review of the Building Professionals Act highlights these concerns.

But don’t hold your breath for rapid reform. No-one wants to kill the goose that’s laying so many golden eggs for the development industry and government alike – especially in inflated stamp-duty receipts.

The market has a habit of self-regulating on supply. Evidence of a marked downturn in apartment building is a clear sign of that. But don’t expect the market to self-regulate on quality, at least with the current highly fragmented, confusing (not least to builders and bureaucrats), under-resourced and largely unpoliced regulatory system.

The legacy of this entirely avoidable crisis is completely predictable, but will be for future generations to pick up

Author: Bill Randolph, Director, City Futures – Faculty Leadership, City Futures Research Centre, Urban Analytics and City Data, Infrastructure in the Built Environment, UNSW