Could this be the solution to Australia's housing crisis?

By Dana McCauley

Spiralling house prices have pushed many would-be young buyers out of the market. Photo / Greg Bowker
Spiralling house prices have pushed many would-be young buyers out of the market. Photo / Greg Bowker

While young Australian city dwellers battle to save for a deposit on a home out in the sticks, our British cousins have got housing affordability licked.

A decades-old scheme allows students, teachers, nurses and other low earners to live in below-market rental units throughout the United Kingdom, including the megacity of London.

Flats tucked away above shops on Regent St and in trendy Soho are rented out by not-for-profit housing organisations dedicated to ensuring that key workers can live near the communities they serve.

The community housing sector, which is in its naissance in Australia, is so well developed in the UK that it accounts for a quarter of new homes being built there, largely thanks to the unique way projects are funded.

Now the peak body in Australia has unveiled a proposal it hopes will enable it to emulate the UK approach and solve the affordability crisis.

"What we've got is a major shortage of affordable housing, so we're estimating that we need 100,000 homes," NSW Federation of Housing Associations chief executive Wendy Hayhurst told

"And what we're saying is that it's so big that we should be asking the question: 'Where will our children find somewhere affordable to live?' As an industry we can't just wait for government to tell us when they're ready. We've got to bring the solution to them."

And that's precisely what the sector has done, with an in-depth plan unveiled on Friday that aims to transform the way housing projects are funded.

How to boost supply

By next year, half of all Australians will be renters, as home ownership levels hit a new low.

Spiralling house prices have pushed many would-be young buyers out of the market in Sydney and Melbourne, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that boosting housing stock is the answer.

What Hayhurst is proposing is that the community housing sector be transformed into a third tier of the Australian housing market - between private developers and public housing - like the one that operates in the UK.

For this to be viable, she said, housing not-for-profits needed access to large scale institutional investment, on more advantageous terms than those being offered by the banks.

The proposed answer, unveiled at the 2016 NSW Affordable Housing Conference on Friday, centres on the establishment of a new financial body that will act as an intermediary between investors and affordable housing developers, giving the sector the cash boost it needs to grow the number of cheap rental properties.

This would unlock the A$1.5 trillion ($1.6t) held in superannuation funds, which could be invested in affordable housing through long-term, low-interest, government-backed bonds, which would be managed by the new financial body.

"Let's bring down the cost of borrowing and attract people to lend to us," Hayhurt said.

"People talk about coming up with innovative ideas, but this is not actually innovation because we know it works - it's proven and it's simple. The company will sit between us and the bond market and aggregate the money we need to borrow to build homes for our children."

How it works

In the United Kingdom, an independent body called the Housing Finance Corporation makes loans to regulated housing associations through the issue of bonds to private investors.

Just like ordinary bonds, they provide a low-risk investment option that's backed by a government guarantee, while acting as a stimulus to the building of affordable housing.

HFC chief executive Piers Williamson, in Australia this week for talks with state and federal Treasury departments, said mimicking the funding model would "allow the sector to start growing at the same sort of rate as we saw in the UK".

Williamson said Sydney's housing bubble reminded him of what London was like 30 years ago when his organisation was born.

"Many of the preconditions are here in Australia that were there in our mind in the late 1980s," he said. "It's the one unifying factor that everyone worries about in an asset bubble is affordability of housing, whether it be for buying or for renting."

Since HFC started funding projects in 1987, tens of thousands of affordable housing developments had sprung up across the UK, he said, quadrupling the sector to about $8 billion.

"There are now 2.4 million properties housing everyone from vulnerable people through to key workers like teachers, nurses, police, young people as well," Williamson said.

He said the approach would boost economic growth as well as serving the public policy aims of affordable housing, which were not serviced by the private sector.

"Sometimes in private housing, developers have an implicit benefit from sitting on sites; they buy up sites and wait for them to become more valuable, and it can be in their interest to actually slow down growth."

But community housing not-for-profits had the opposite imperative, he said, and were devoted to the incremental growth of housing stock.

Call for support

Hayhurst called on the Federal Government to support the creation of a new, independent finance body to help boost the affordable housing sector.

"Countries around the world have embraced non-profit housing as a critical component of a well functioning housing market but it's a sector that is still under developed here in Australia," she said.

"There's huge potential for it to grow and be a real solution to housing affordability."

With the government battling to reduce its deficit, she said, "leveraging private funding makes perfect sense."

She said superannuation funds had indicated that they were eager to invest in the sector if the necessary financial structure was set up.

"The not-for-profit superannuation sector alone can provide access to $200 billion in investment," she said.


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