Something weird is happening in the politics of housing in Australia. On the one hand, we’ve got federal Treasurer Scott Morrison reportedly hellbent on making supply the focus of housing policy in his forthcoming budget.

On the other, we’ve got the changes to stamp duty announced on Sunday by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews that directly affect the demand for housing.

It’s bizarre because the federal government controls the big demand levers like capital gains, negative gearing and immigration policy, but with the important exception of funding for social housing, it has little direct control over housing supply. The states, on the other hand, have very limited control over the demand for housing but are the key players in managing supply through the planning system.

In both cases, I fear, this reversal is happening because politicians are more interested in marketing a plausible narrative to voters than they are in real outcomes. If the Turnbull government were serious about doing something to improve affordability it would vigorously tackle the areas where it has most muscle. If the Andrews government were serious it would act to dramatically increase dwelling supply, especially in Melbourne’s established suburbs.

Of course it’s difficult politically to do what’s really required, but it’s disappointing politicians are so ready to settle for the appearance of action, even to the extent of promoting policies that are only tangential to their real responsibilities. We end up with the sort of window dressing Daniel Andrews trotted out on the weekend.

At first glance, the Victorian government’s headline initiative to abolish stamp duty for first-home purchasers acquiring a dwelling costing up to $600,000 might look like the government is really serious about tackling affordability. Daniel Andrews says “for thousands of buyers, it’ll be the difference that means they can finally find their home”.

But the saving for first-home buyers of the median $450,000 outer-suburban Melbourne house will be only $9485. Better than a poke in the eye, but a 2% saving in a city where prices have escalated by more than that in a single quarter isn’t going to seriously address the problem of affordability. There’s already zero stamp duty on dwellings costing up to $500,000 in Queensland and up to $550,000 in NSW, yet they’re affordability problems haven’t materially improved.

In fact there’s a real risk the saving announced by Andrews could increase demand and be cancelled out in part or whole by higher prices, ultimately benefiting land owners and developers rather than first home buyers. This is largely what happened with John Howard’s first-home owners scheme because demand surged ahead of supply.

The Victorian government didn’t show any awareness of this potential problem in its announcement. At the least, it might have sought to minimise the possibility by requiring buyers to pay the stamp duty upfront and obtain reimbursement later.

Daniel Andrews also announced on Sunday that stamp duty would now apply to investors purchasing off-the-plan units. This change is mainly about financing the concessions for first-home buyers, but the possible effects, while not likely to be huge, are uncertain. Will it lower prices for owner-occupiers by reducing competition from investors? Will it reduce the supply of rental units leading to higher costs for tenants? Or could it decrease the viability of new developments and lead to an overall drop in dwelling supply?

What’s disappointing is the government hasn’t bothered to show publicly the modelling of the expected impacts of this change. It invites suspicion that it hasn’t done any, and that it really has no idea what the impact of this policy — beyond the venally political — might be.

The Victorian government also announced one ostensible supply measure on Sunday: the Vacant Residential Property tax. Its purpose is to encourage owners who “unreasonably leave their properties vacant” to instead make them available for either purchase or rent. It will be levied at 1% of the improved capital value on dwellings left unoccupied for a total of six months in a calendar year. There will be exemptions for holiday homes, deceased estates and homes owned by Victorians who are temporarily overseas.

While it’s a supply measure, it’s more about being seen to be active than making a serious impact on the problem of affordability. It exploits the popular idea that affordability problems stem to a large degree from the supposed massive numbers of dwellings purportedly sitting empty for long periods for no better reason than the (usually foreign!) owners can’t be bothered renting them out.

There’s a host of practical problems with this idea, starting with how to define “unreasonably vacant”, likely exemptions, and whether the number of dwellings at issue is significant. The Age reports a claim there are 24,000 “demonstrably unoccupied” dwellings in Melbourne, but that’s small beer given there are 1,520,996 dwellings in the urbanised area. There’s plenty of exaggeration when it comes to numbers but not much substance.

Just how offenders would be detected and the law enforced isn’t clear. And why an owner who’s prepared to forgo a 5% return would actively avoid a -1% return can’t be blithely explained away by loss aversion. These practicalities don’t matter much, though, because this policy is mainly about symbolism. It’ll likely prove a headache to implement and have little impact on affordability.

One of the regrettable aspects of Morrison’s emphasis on the role of supply is that many in the commentariat now seem obliged to disavow its relevance. It’s not the issue the federal government should be making a priority (that should be managing demand and directly funding a lot more social housing), but finding real ways to dramatically increase the supply of new housing, most especially in locations like established surburbs where the demand is high, should be a key focus for state governments.

Daniel Andrews says his suite of initiatives “will help thousands of Victorians make the Great Australian Dream a reality”. Small steps can be important, but there needs to be a number of them to make a sizeable difference. What Andrews is offering here is nowhere near enough; his initiatives are more about window dressing rather than generating a substantial improvement in affordability. What we need is a genuinely cop-operative effort across all tiers of government that covers both demand and supply policies.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Urbanist

Peter Fray

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