Watching the dream disappear

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 05:00 24/02/2013
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Young, educated, upwardly mobile - the Websters are the type of couple who would normally glide easily into the Kiwi dream of home ownership.

Paul, 26, works in the public sector, while Kerryn, 30, is a lawyer. Parents on both sides own their own homes and the couple have talked about buying since they were married two years ago.

But the prospect of taking on the kind of mortgage required to buy anything near the house they rent in Avondale, west Auckland, means ownership in New Zealand's largest city is off the cards.

"We're looking at it now and saying, ‘we don't want a $600,000 mortgage'," Paul said.

"To get a $400,000 house in Auckland you either have to go as far south as you possibly can or way out west," too far to be practical for their central city jobs.

The "tiny" two-bedroom house next door sold recently for about $460,000.

Kerryn says friends in similar life situations have managed to buy in Auckland, but they have chosen not to "because of the potential cost of servicing the mortgage if interest rates go up".

The latest Fairfax Media-Ipsos political poll finds that rather than expecting to have their own "quarter acre", most now believe young people cannot expect to own at all. Asked if they agreed that young people could expect to own a home "in their lifetime" only 48.6 per cent did so.

Paul says the couple want to live their lives, whereas for some friends mortgages seemed to eat into social lives.

Family members have warned the couple they may "miss out" if they do not get on the property ladder.

"Quite a lot of people around us own houses, and we get a lot of pressure to get on the property ladder, but none of our direct family live in Auckland," Paul said.

Kerryn's father, who is an accountant, had told the couple "you'd be crazy to take on that sort of debt", Paul said.

"We'd both had those thoughts but to hear that from him was reassuring."

They were now discussing the possibility of buying a home in Hamilton, not because they plan to live there, but as a rental property, in the hope of one day selling it "and then, maybe, using that to get in the market in Auckland".

The alternative was the prospect that they may never get on the housing market.

In January, Demographia described New Zealand's housing stock, as "severely unaffordable", the same description as previous years, but getting worse.

The situation is most severe in Auckland, where the median house price is 6.7 times the average wage, but affordability is stretched in most major centres. Median house prices in Christchurch (6.6 times the average wage), Tauranga-Western Bay of Plenty (5.9), Wellington (5.4) and Dunedin (5.1) are all considered severely unaffordable.

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Prime Minister John Key has repeatedly claimed the biggest influence the Government can have on affordability is by keeping interest rates low, which they are - the lowest in decades. But experts warn this is simply fuelling the market and creating an artificially flattering picture.

Bob Hargreaves, chairman of Massey University's property studies, said interest rates were a "key variable" in affordability, along with prices and wages.

"Interest rates are so jolly low, but they're also likely to be the most volatile [affordability variable]," Hargreaves said.

Any interest rate increase would mean people would have to downsize their mortgages, making houses less affordable "and those who have taken on big mortgages will be left vulnerable".

Hundreds of those interviewed in our poll said the "Kiwi dream" of home ownership was getting more and more difficult.

Cynthia Checkley, 61, of Mt Eden, Auckland, said prices in the city were "ridiculous".

While she hoped her three grandchildren, aged 4, 9 and 11, would one day "be well educated and earn good money", both of her children required parental assistance to buy their homes.

Without that assistance young people today would likely miss out.

"I think if you don't have that sort of help, then you can't do it."

It was time for the Government to intervene to control to market, she said.

"They [the Government] should be doing something to stop it spiralling out of control. It is well within their means to do that but they don't want to."

She was not alone.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed believed the Government should be intervening, especially to give more assistance to first-time buyers.

Not everyone agrees the Government should push the market around, though.

Guy King, chairman of Auckland's Historic Places Trust, and member of the St Heliers/Glendowie Residents Association, admits house prices have become quite unaffordable, but building "affordable housing" may damage the city he loves.

"We have to face the reality that home ownership is not what it used to be. As long as you have cheap money [low interest rates], property prices have gone up and in many cases have become unrealistic," he said.

"But I'm not sure I agree with the council coming in and bailing out the situation by building ghettos, or what you could call ghettos... We just have to accept that for a lot of people, owning your own home is not an option."

The Government is giving the strongest hints it will play a greater role, although it will not say when.

New Housing Minister Nick Smith agreed with the 67 per cent of Kiwis who said the Government needed to intervene to solve problems in the housing market.

"Nothing has been ruled out" in Smith's "monumental task" of turning the tide of declining home ownership, which is down from 73 per cent in the late 1980s, to 67 per cent today.

No corner of the housing market escapes Smith's glare. The initial target has been councils, with pressure to make land available, but the Government may also put the squeeze on infrastructure providers.

But what about property developers, who have an incentive to drip-feed land into the market?

"We need to look at all components, and all players that are involved in the housing market," Smith said.

Officials are also developing "smart assistance for first-time buyers", although he is wary of making the situation worse by driving up demand for the same number of houses.

All this comes only after prolonged pressure, and the results of our poll will probably mirror what focus groups have been telling politicians for months.

Labour has already announced an ambitious - and much-attacked - plan to build 100,000 state homes over a decade, claiming it can do so at an average price of $300,000.

The Green Party has announced its own policy to piggy back Labour's, but in a possible sign of concession, its "rent to own" scheme was announced at the same time as a plan to reform residential tenancy laws in favour of renters, which it admits reflects dropping ownership.

It has also been in the face of open attack, which was getting close to home.

Before she stepped down as Retirement Commissioner, Diana Crossan warned publicly of a "looming crisis in the Kiwi dream". Her concern was not the impact of home affordability of ownership per se, but that a lack of savings would cause a savings crisis later, with renters unlikely to save enough for retirement.

Massey's Hargreaves has his doubts about whether the Government really has the will to take steps that would make a difference, especially in the three-year electoral cycle that frames all political thinking.

"Even if you tell local authorities to free up more land, what you're then faced with is, who actually owns the land. Are you going to force [developers] to sell, or tax them in a way which forces them to sell?"

Hargreaves said the best way for landowners to maximise returns was to "drip-feed" sections onto the market.

"For a National Government to start a compulsory acquisition scheme, I think it's unlikely."

- Sunday Star Times

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