Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why infrastructure levies are hard to justify

Upfront per lot infrastructure levies, in addition to raising the price of new housing (and hence dampening demand) are also highly discriminatory. They apply only to new houses or apartments and effectively transfer a community wide infrastructure burden onto the mortgages of new home buyers. This approach is hard to justify on social fairness grounds.

One way to highlight the manifestly unfair discrimination of per lot infrastructure levies is to contrast the cost impact on a young low to middle income family buying their new home, with a wealthy family buying an established multi-million dollar home.

If you thought the millionaires would pay more, you’d be wrong. Yes, the way levies are now applied means that the young family will pay more tax on their new home in absolute dollar terms, and in percentage terms, than millionaires. Little wonder the new home building market is at generational record lows, and little wonder new home buyers have been on strike.

Here’s a simple illustration.

Alan and Kylie have finally scraped together their deposit monies for a new project home (or it could be an apartment) and got their bank approval. The purchase price is $450,000. Built into that purchase price is GST (10%) plus a $30,000 infrastructure levy. Add in the additional compliance costs, application fees and related government costs and the total tax and charges figure reaches the $120,000 mark. That’s a conservative number.  Other estimates put it higher.

So Alan and Kylie, possibly on a combined income of around $70,000 per annum, are paying upfront a $120,000 tax bill on their new home.  That’s money they’ll have to borrow. Even at today’s low interest rates that’s an extra $848 per month they’ll have to find just to pay the upfront tax bill (calculated on the basis of the extra $120,000 borrowed at 7% over 25 years).  With that extra mortgage burden, they’re deferring having children until later in life.  They’re deferring a lot of things actually. If this is their first home, they are exempt from stamp duty and can get a $15,000 grant (in Queensland anyway). But this grant and exemption combined, however well intentioned, does little to offset the discriminatory tax regime which their new home is subject to.

Now let’s contrast this young couple with another couple. Let’s call this couple Will and Kate, who are buying an established home in an established inner city suburb. They’re on a high household income (Will’s income alone is enough to support a big mortgage plus private school fees for their tribe) and want to live close to the CBD for Will’s job and so their kids can get to the best schools. They’re forking out $1.5 million. They’ll be up for stamp duty, which is $59,600. And that’s about it in terms of property taxes.

Will and Kate’s home also comes with all the handy neighbourhood infrastructure they could want, already in place. There’s taxpayer subsidised rail, buses, libraries and they’re close to action of the CBD’s cultural and recreational attractions. They’ve paid their stamp duty and will only need to pay rates going forward.

So our first young couple Alan and Kylie have kicked the tin for around $120,000 in taxes on their new home. Even netting off the grant for buying a new build, they’re still up for around $100,000 on a $450,000 home.  Let’s call it 25% for simplicity.

Will and Kate by contrast have only had to fork out a touch under $60,000, or around 4%.

Now don’t for a minute take this as some sort of excuse to impose even higher taxes on established homes. Taxes on housing are already too high and we have an affordability problem as it is which is locking out a generation from home ownership. Increasing housing taxes further would be disastrous.

The better and fairer way is to scrap the upfront tax burden on new supply, stimulate demand and produce more lower taxed supply. Spreading the infrastructure burden across the entire community makes sense because the entire community benefits.

However you look at it, the impact of the current infrastructure levies approach on young families buying new homes is very hard to justify. I'd challenge anyone to try do so.

Footnote: Yes, there’s a first home buyer grant, but as it applies equally to new builds and second hand (established) homes, it’s left out of this for obvious reasons.

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