Wednesday, February 25, 2015

High density housing’s biggest myth

Advocates of higher density housing development in Australia’s major cities – inner city areas in particular - are fond of pointing to a range of statistics as evidence of rising demand. Dwelling approvals, dwelling commencements, tower crane counts and various other sources, both reputable and dodgy, are referenced and then highly leveraged to support claims that our housing preferences have fundamentally changed in favour of high density apartments. But what’s the one inescapable fact that these advocates are missing?

“Higher density living on the rise” is typical of the light weight PR puffery that passes for market analysis these days.  This piece is typical of the boosterism: 

“Since 2008/09 multi-unit housings’ share of dwelling approvals in Queensland has jumped from 31 per cent to 46 per cent. Much of the increase can be attributed to an increase in approvals for high-rise apartments, with the sector’s share of dwelling approvals doubling between 2008/09 and 2013/14, from about 12 per cent to approximately 24 per cent.” So far, correct.

But it goes on to draw this unjustified but widely supported conclusion: “the popularity of apartment living in the larger capital cities had been driven by a number of factors including decreasing housing affordability and the changing lifestyle of baby boomers and young professionals.”

Or how about this piece of PR chasing nonsense pumped out by a bank no less: “Australians are favouring smaller, more affordable homes, with approvals for the construction of flats, townhouses and semi-detached houses nearing their highest level in 20 years.”

What’s wrong with these conclusions? Simply this: rising dwelling starts for apartments in inner city areas do not necessarily reflect ‘changing lifestyles’ or any ‘popularity’ for this product by home buyers. What it does reflect is a (so far) ravenous investor appetite for the product. This is entirely different to an owner occupier appetite. If owner occupiers were buying these apartments in large numbers, you could then conclude that inner city apartment living was becoming more and more popular. But speculative investors have no intention of living in the product they’re buying.

Owner occupiers in the main aren’t looking for tiny one or two bedroom units. Some developers have targeted the owner occupier unit market, and their designs feature more three and even four bedroom units, spacious in design and with features designed for living in as adults or families. The price points are vastly different. This is so far a niche market which is performing strongly, but it’s completely different to the cookie-cutter apartment stock which is driving the stats.

What is happening in Australia now, and which is being reflected in the dwelling stats for apartment construction, is a nation-wide frenzy of speculative investment in inner city apartments, fuelled by negative gearing, SMSFs, foreign buyers and the search for returns in a very low yielding market. For many apartment projects, more than 80% or 90% of the stock is sold to investors, not to people with the intention of living there. This includes a significant proportion of first home buyers as investors, as Michael Pascoe recently pointed out. 

To meet the investor market, apartments are getting smaller and smaller – to meet the price points demanded by investors. Typically, most projects offer a mix of one and two bedroom units only – and these are designed to squeeze every square inch of efficiency out of them. Construction economics and pricing is all about size, features and finishes and every dynamic is put under the microscope and cut from the project if it means the unit offering can be sold for less without sacrificing margin. Many continue to be offered through project selling agencies or “investment channels” in order to achieve a certain level of pre-sales. ‘Rental guarantees’ from developers provide investors with some certainty that their investment will perform predictably for the first year or two. A successful project is one that is sold out, preferably pre-sold. Actually being occupied is another thing altogether.

What this is doing is creating a large pool of rental units of similar size and design and in similar locations. And contrary to the sort of froth and bubble many commentators attach to the ‘rising popularity’ of apartments, many are vacant: simply locked up and not used by their owners (often overseas buyers). Others are looking for tenants, but can’t rent for what investors need to get. Inner city apartment vacancy rates are rising, and rents are starting to fall: a sure sign of market where supply is beginning to exceed demand. 

‘Official’ vacancy stats produced by Real Estate Institutes only count the properties actively being marketed for rent. The ones that are simply unoccupied and not available for rent don’t form part of the figures. A recent study in Melbourne reviewed water consumption in a number of Docklands Towers and concluded that those apartments with next to no water consumption were effectively empty. They put the vacancy at nearly one in four. Or you can simply look at these towers at night, and count the lights that are on, and draw your own conclusion. Or maybe ask some restaurant or shop owners who took leases in new projects on the promise of “a bustling inner city café society” what the trade is really like.

Increasingly, smart developers are selling sites with approvals in place but before a sod has been turned. In some cases they’re selling even before the approval has been obtained. Why go through the grief of developing something when someone else is happy to pay you a premium many times what the site cost you? 

I don’t actually see anything wrong with any of this. Property markets going through booms and busts are not a new thing. Just ask industry people on the Gold Coast. Or have a look at CBD office markets. Plus, if it weren’t for the frenzy of activity we’re seeing in the apartment market now, there’d be precious little else going on. So it’s keeping an industry alive, and all those whose jobs depend on it. Investors are entitled to take risks and they are just as entitled to lose money as make it. There are no guarantees. 

But please, stop suggesting that what we’re seeing is anything but a case of investor-fueled activity. Investors are buying a financial product, not a lifestyle choice. To suggest it means Australian society is surrendering a three or four bedroom home in favour of a one bedroom apartment is stretching the conclusions that can be drawn from the stats way way way too far. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Is it time for suburban renewal?

Addressing infrastructure deficits in our nation’s major cities has gone from drought to flood in recent times. For residents and business of inner city locations of many of our major cities, it’s now almost an embarrassment of riches. The same can’t be said for suburban communities of those same cities. Yet it’s the suburbs where most of us live, where most of us work, and where we largely play. Maybe it’s time to bring some focus back to our suburbs?

I’ll start this with a confession. In the late 1990s, as one of a number of leaders of the industry lobby The Property Council, I was an active proponent of building a national agenda for revisiting an urban renewal agenda. At the time, our cities were looking tired. Infrastructure deficits were widening. If cities were to be the engines of the new economy, those engines needed some major surgery to keep Australia competitive.

What followed was a minor flood of industry-driven policy initiatives focussed on rebuilding the cubic capacity of our city engine rooms. And mainly, that meant a focus on the inner cities of our major centres. Industry policy fell into step with public policy and the re-birth of a nation-wide “urban renewal agenda” – led first by former Labor Minister Brian Howe (of ‘Better Cities’ fame in the early 1990s) and later supported by Prime Minister Keating.  The case for ‘Building Better Cities’ found renewed support in almost every major urban centre, to a greater or lesser degree. 

In some centres, particularly Brisbane and Perth, the urban renewal agenda became a driver of planning policy, and other cities later followed. Brisbane’s then Mayor Jim Soorley was a particularly efficient advocate, and his appointment of former Lend Lease executive Trevor Reddacliff to the role of leading an Urban Renewal Task Force, funded under the Building Better Cities program, saw a massive inner city transformation begin to take place. Without those early initiatives in Brisbane and elsewhere and without subsequent bi-partisan public policy support from Liberals and Labor alike - Australia’s inner city areas would be nothing like they are today.

It all made economic sense. It was good public policy (with some notable failings – particularly the idea that urban renewal would lead to more affordable housing for working people, when it actually led to the opposite) and it was good politics too.

Fast forward to today. In almost every capital, there are a multitude of projects and even more planned, which are building further on the urban renewal agenda. Many are transformational, exciting and even overdue. But the price tag for these projects is becoming increasingly daunting, and the relatively few beneficiaries are becoming – to me at least - increasingly obvious. In short, there seem now to be no shortage of publicly funded initiatives focused on delivering a better quality of urban existence within a five kilometre ring of the CBD, and too few focused on the hard and soft infrastructure deficits that our suburban areas are still living with. 

Take the Sydney light rail extension for example. The cost has now blown out by an extra $600 million to $2.2 billion. Oops. That’s billion with a ‘b’. And the length? Just 12.2 kilometres. This project is almost entirely about improving circulation in and around the Sydney CBD, where the highest paying jobs are. That’s something like $180 million per kilometre for NSW taxpayers. Lovely stuff if you’re a resident within shooting distance of the light rail (in which case your home is probably worth millions) or a CBD worker likely to make use of it (in which case the evidence says you’re probably earning at least 50% more than your suburban counterparts). Even though you could quite probably afford a higher priced ticket to ride than the average punter, you won’t be asked to do so because public policy somehow now presumes that all public transport – even where it benefits a privileged few – should be massively subsidised by the taxpayer. 

So just this one transit initiative will cost NSW taxpayers $2.2 billion to build (not including the operational losses it will also need taxpayers to cover) but will only benefit a small number of relatively privileged passengers who won’t even be asked to pay an economically justifiable fare. "People are agog that they have managed to get away with it," one source said in a recent news article. I’ll bet they are. 

I could point to a number of other examples of bike ways, pedestrian bridges, parks and transport initiatives which will largely benefit residents and businesses within a 5 klm ring of our major CBDs. Some don’t stand close scrutiny in terms of ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. It’s as if it’s become accepted wisdom that spending tax payer dollars on the inner city is a good thing. Minimal justification required. Minimal public objection likely.

My problem isn’t with investing in our cities, or even with inner cities. It’s been a transformational period and what we have achieved in terms of urban renewal has been world best practice. My question is now whether we haven’t forgotten the importance of supporting and nurturing our suburban economies and our suburban communities: have we become preoccupied with cutting yet more ribbons on projects of inner city fiscal largesse?

There are three reasons we could think about returning some focus to the suburbs:

1. It’s where nearly all of us live. You can take all the column centimetres written about ‘inner city café lifestyle’ and the ‘inner city apartment boom’ and put them all in a pile and it would mean nothing compared with the raw statistics of where we actually live. Forget the hype and agenda-based marketing spiel; we remain a suburban nation and the overwhelming majority of us live not just in a handful of major cities, but also in the suburbs of those cities. 

2. It’s where most of us actually work. I have written before about the suburban nature of our economy, and where the jobs actually are. Across our major metro areas, only between 10% to 15% of jobs are in the inner cities. 85% to 90% are in suburban locations. Fact.

3. It’s where we mainly play. Inner cities are logical locations for major cultural facilities because they’re central, but for most Australians, weekend recreation involves backyard BBQs, or visits to a local suburban park, or (increasingly it seems) mixing recreation and retail at a suburban shopping centre. There are large proportions of our suburban community who have no interest in travelling into our inner city areas and dealing with congestion and exorbitant parking prices in exchange for the privilege. On special occasions (fireworks seem a big drawcard) they will come in droves but to suggest that continued investment in inner city recreational facilities benefits people who live 10 or 20 or 30 kilometres away, is stretching things.

So have I re-canted earlier views on the importance of cities to our economy? No. But I also equally believe that there are many worthy projects and initiatives, capable of better economic and social justification in suburban locations – projects and locations which maybe just aren’t getting the policy or financial attention they deserve. 

Urban renewal has been a fine and worthwhile policy pursuit and our city centres are better for it. But there are only so many taxpayer dollars available and we need to ask if we’re now at risk of imbalance. Has the time for suburban renewal come? 

More on this subject throughout the year.