Last week the Commonwealth Bank released a report suggesting that house prices could drop by up to a third due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Such reports have some young people hopeful of a silver lining — they might finally own a home before their hair greys! Those lucky enough to still be earning and saving are praying that fewer, poorer and less eager rival buyers might allow them to finally snag an otherwise unreachable property.

I even briefly contemplated it. Pandemic restrictions enforced the kind of austere, savings-conducive lifestyle that boomers incensed by pricey smashed avo have long implored we youth adopt.

Alas, fellow millennials: don’t plan your housewarming just yet. House prices and housing affordability are two very different things. In fact, many economists say this crisis will both smash house prices and make it even harder for young people to break into the market.

A unique opportunity… for investors

In past economic crises, such as the GFC, cities that saw house prices slashed did not typically see rising home ownership in the aftermath.

A recent report by Swinburne University academics shows that prolonged reductions to household incomes and investors outbidding buyers for finance dampened the ability of young families to capitalise on downturns.

Many of those crossing their fingers for a sneaky corona purchase may soon see their incomes affected by an economic crisis that is only just beginning. And banks are now even less likely to approve loans to those with “uncertain incomes and those less likely to get a pay rise” — a growing category that already includes many young people.

Even if you’re financially prepared for auction, most will still find themselves pipped by investors on a bargain hunt.

The only miracle cure is policy change. To prevent a generation of perpetual renters, the least Australia must do is drain speculators from the demand pool by revoking ludicrous tax incentives (no matter how unpopular that may be in Canberra).

Constructing fairer cities

Another partial solution is massive investment in building new homes to stimulate the economy. It’s an option being pushed by Labor, the Greens, unions and building companies.

A building blitz could assist young buyers, but it depends on the type of housing. We already build lots of middle- and upper-class dwellings in Sydney and Melbourne, but far too few public, social and affordable houses. But it also depends on where the houses are built. As Crikey has long noted, NIMBYs rejecting reasonable residential developments have long been pushing young families and migrants away from affluent areas to urban fringes.

Lockdown has reminded us of the importance of well-serviced neighbourhoods with good parks, trails, shops and other amenities. It is precisely these features that middle-ring suburbs enjoy, and growing fringe suburbs often lack.

The pandemic is already renewing cynical calls for lower density in the name of hygiene — the affluent have long depicted lower classes as contaminants on their pristine streets. But despite flimsy objections by vested interests, increasing access to vibrant hubs remains economical, sustainable and simply more fun — you can’t treat neighbours to your amateur lockdown opera if they can’t hear you.

Having a say in our suburbs

A common and reasonable objection is that of heritage preservation. Yes, it can be used as a cudgel for exclusivity — a NIMBY activist once proudly told me her plan to stop residential development of an entirely essential private tennis court — but few would herald the bulldozing of historic and culturally significant architecture.

And the real estate moguls who do the bulldozing are as much progressive allies as big pharmaceutical companies are to universal healthcare; they’re self-interested accessories at best, greedy detractors at worst.

After Jack Mundey’s passing, many have fondly recalled the bonds forged between his union and bourgeois community activists to rebuff sleazy developers from plastering over Sydney’s history. But Mundey also fought for working-class neighbourhoods and public housing residents against corporate gentrification — many of whom now cry out for more and better-quality dwellings.

The politics of planning is complex and fraught. But what shone through Mundey’s activism, and the best critiques of urbanism today, is a commitment to worker democracy. Workers didn’t just pave Sydney’s streets, they influenced which bricks went where.

Today, housing decisions are most often contested between capital owners — those whose asset values stand to rise, and those who stand to lose.

As I stretch my lockdown legs walking through restless streets, it occurs to me that working people likely had no say in every two-storey weatherboard, every modern sharp-edged slab, every struggling coffee shop and poxy yoga studio.

Economic downturns won’t change that. Only better policy can, and that won’t happen without collective action.

If we see a construction boom, I politely ask our nation’s tradies to down tools until the asset-less get a say in the future of our cities.