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Budget sticks to the same failed script on housing

17 May 2021

Budget sticks to the same failed script on housing

The initial reactions to this week’s big spending budget have been relatively positive. Extra money for childcare, aged care and an extension of low and middle income tax offsets are all welcome. On the question of housing however, this budget falls well short of the mark.  

Yet again there is no meaningful investment in social and affordable housing. Instead, what we have is another counterproductive mish-mash of grants and subsidies designed to lure marginal or sub-prime borrowers into the property market.

As always, these measures are being pitched as a way of improving housing affordability. This is pure nonsense. Rather than improving affordability, a better way to think about first home buyer subsidies is as an admission that homes are so unaffordable that regular people can’t buy one unless the government helps pay for it. As affordability declines, the size of the government’s contribution has to increase, hence the extension of the First Home Loan Deposit scheme which helps buyers into the market with deposits as low as 5 per cent, and the creation of a new version for single parents where the required deposit could be as low as 2 per cent. 

The reason subsidies and deposit guarantees don’t improve affordability is because they’re not designed to control house prices – they’re designed to take people who can’t afford a house under the normal rules and bend those rules so they can afford one. And while it is true that subsidies improve affordability for those who receive them, the recipients represent a miniscule share of total buyers. At the broader level, subsidies do nothing to prevent prices from going up, in fact they do the opposite by enabling people to pay prices they couldn’t otherwise afford.

The other striking aspect of the budget’s approach to housing is the degree to which spending is skewed towards the private sector. In total, the budget contains roughly $905 million of new housing related expenditure. Of this, almost $775 million (85%) has been set aside for the HomeBuilder program, originally unveiled during the height of the pandemic as a way to stimulate the construction industry. But with private dwelling commencements running at their highest level in more than a decade, and prices rising faster than any time in the previous 30 years, it is far from clear that the construction industry needs additional support, let alone 85% of the new allocation. At the other end of the housing spectrum, the budget contains just $124m in additional money for the states under the National Housing and Homelessness agreements – this at a time when there are more than 150,000 households on social housing waiting lists across the country.

The Commonwealth would no doubt say that social housing is a state responsibility and point to the fact that it provides roughly $1.6 billion to the states each year to help take care of the problem. Technically, that is correct. The problem is that it isn’t working. The NSW Government already spends more than six times what it receives from the Commonwealth on housing and homelessness services, and there are still 50,000 households on the waiting list. The unavoidable conclusion is that this problem is beyond the ability of state governments to resolve. Without substantial intervention from the federal government, including the creation and oversight of a national housing strategy, we risk sliding into a neo-feudal model of society characterised by a shrinking class of highly indebted property owners, a growing underclass of permanent renters, and high levels of homelessness.

Adequate and affordable housing is a prerequisite for a thriving economy as well as a flourishing society. Most experts agree we need at least 500,000 new social and affordable dwellings over the next decade, merely to prevent Australia’s housing crisis from becoming worse. As well as helping relieve pressure on low-income households, a nation building investment in social and affordable housing would create a long-term pipeline of work for the construction industry, as opposed to the  short-term sugar hits from schemes like HomeBuilder.

This week’s budget proved that the government’s long-standing aversion to debt and deficits is a thing of the past. It is a shame the counterproductive approach to housing affordability wasn’t jettisoned at the same time.

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