Generation blessed - housing crisis sparks return to inherited wealth and class

Leroy Beckett from Generation Zero. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Leroy Beckett from Generation Zero. Photo / Jason Oxenham

By 2036 Leroy Beckett will have just turned 40.

The 21-year-old director of political youth movement Generation Zero has a university degree and lives with his mum in the Grey Lynn family home.

When he reaches the age at which some say life begins, he says he would have expected to be a proud homeowner.

But new figures suggest the average price of a house in Auckland in 20 years will be $3 million - more than 19 times the average income.

"Oh good Lord," says Beckett. "It's not what anyone wants for our city. Something desperately has to change - that's just not sustainable."

"Reasonably, I would have expected to be able to buy a house by (40 years old). I'm not from a lower social economic band. I have a university degree. With those numbers I can't imagine I ever will. It makes me feel despondent."

The PR graduate says his mum has done "reasonably well" out of buying their city fringe home six years ago.

But with that comes a sense of injustice.

"It's not an ancestral family home, we just snuck into the suburb. And now we feel very guilty. We are profiting, just on paper, because of the housing crisis which is forcing people out of their homes."

Beckett faces becoming a victim of a new phenomena that is poised to create a tale of two Aucklands.

Economists say there are those who will inherit houses and those who will never afford one.

This "bequest bulge" driven by a combination of crazy house prices and baby boomer housing wealth may spark a return to the Victorian-style class system.

And that places Auckland at the precipice of an unprecedented shift back in time.

Max Rashbrooke, author of Wealth and New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Max Rashbrooke, author of Wealth and New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

New figures from Corelogic based on average growth rate since 1990 put the average house price in Auckland in 20 years time at $3.25 million - triple its current value and a massive 19.5 times the projected average household income.

These crude projections are only indicative and based on market conditions remaining exactly the same. This is unlikely to happen. But the stats, which the researchers describe as "conservative", do give a taste of how incredibly unaffordable houses may become.

Max Rashbrooke, author of Wealth and New Zealand, says the picture of the future that is emerging is one where working, saving or studying hard won't guarantee you a house. It will be all about being born into the right family.

"I do think if housing remains extremely unaffordable and access to it is strongly influenced by inheritance you could have a strong class dynamic re-emerging," he says.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub agrees.

"There is a new kind of wedge between the haves and the have-nots.

"Home ownership will soon become the purview of those with property lineage - the landed gentry."

And though many might admire the costuming and witty repartee of Downton Abbey, as the Economist Magazine puts it: "Not many people see it (Downton) as a model for how society should function."

Rashbrooke's not suggesting we will see powdered aristocrats walking the inflated streets of Auckland but he does believe that housing wealth is quietly nurturing an elite in the better suburbs.

"Basically what you have there effectively is an extreme upper middle class," says Rashbrooke.

The second element in this "return to Victorian times" scenario is something known as the "bequest bulge" - the passing down of housing wealth by baby boomers.

"They are moving into the prime period of retiring, downsizing and thinking very hard about the assistance they can give their kids. That will accelerate over the next 20 years," says Rashbrooke.

The oldest of the boomers will hit 71 this year. Rashbrooke says the top 20-30 per cent have built up an enormous wealth base, courtesy of the housing market.

Many media reports have portrayed this accumulation as a sort of a prize fight between generations.

It will be all about being born into the right family.
Max Rashbrooke

In the blue corner, wealthy mortgage-free baby boomers in leafy suburbs, In the red, millennials with high levels of debt and a slim chance of ever buying a house.
"I'm not a huge advocate of the crude clash of the generations story."

Rashbrooke believes this perceived unfairness between generations is distracting from the real story, the massive difference in wealth within future generations.

Simply put: sons and daughters of the well-off, already well-off themselves, will be made even more well-off as they inherit - and with no inheritance tax to even things out. He says it compounds advantage and disadvantage.

The latest housing figures released this week show a slowing in the housing market. But the trajectory is not changing - and the numbers are shocking. $1.03m is the price of an average house in Auckland. The current house value to income ratio of 11.8.

So what happens if that divergence between house pieces and income continues - defying the ever-present danger of the boom going bust?

"For poorer parents living in an overcrowded house there may not even be anywhere for their children to study," says Rashbrooke. "Wealthier parents can give their kids all kinds of advantages. They can buy a place in the grammar zone, buy them equipment, give them experiences."

Then, as bonus the rich kids, get to inherit a family home worth millions.

"There will be a specific group of people: those who are blessed with inheritance. Generation Blessed."

Inheritance flows have been a topic of international conversation since French economist Thomas Piketty wrote the influential book Capital in the Twenty First Century two years ago.

Piketty claims low growth rates have caused inheritance to grow as a percentage of total wealth - moving the needle away from meritocracy towards aristocracy.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub. Photo / Nick Reed
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub. Photo / Nick Reed

If you plot New Zealand's figures you get a graph that looks very similar to France.

The only economist to do that, Geoff Bertram, warns it's hard to accurately predict how our inheritance patterns will affect wealth distribution. That's because many of our rich-listers live overseas.

"The wealthy and the elite fly around the world. Rather than accumulate assets domestically they have a tendency to accumulate assets offshore. Much of it is invisible."

But Rashbrooke sees Gen-Yers turning to their parents to get them into a house as a clear sign of things to come.

"If the deposit is $200,000, who's going to be able to save that without help? Parents who help out are, for the most part, property owners themselves."

"Now even if you have a good education it is unlikely that you will have sufficient income to buy a house, unless you have access to the bank of mummy and daddy," says Eaqub.

But with our average personal wealth at $90,000, even if they want to most Kiwis wont be able to offer that hand-up or hand-out.

A Salvation Army report from late last year projects that 200,000 boomers will retire without a house to call their own.

"They're really going to struggle in retirement and not really going to help their children much at all. You start to see how that inequality is going to build up and compound across generations."

So how might the lines of this new class system look?

There is a new kind of wedge between the haves and the have-nots.
Shamubeel Eaqub

Based on the very latest net worth figures from the Government it looks as if middle New Zealand is a fairly equitable place to be - 40 per cent of the population own 37.2 per cent of the wealth.

The real class divide is happening at the top and the bottom.

"There's an awful lot of people who have no meaningful wealth at all."

Rashbrooke says the poorest 50 per cent own a measly 3.8 per cent of wealth. With those at the very bottom entrenched in debt - negative wealth.

Bertram believes the lack of asset accumulation has been "absolutely destructive for the bottom end".

On the flip side you have the top 10 per cent who own 59 per cent of wealth.

"Upper professional classes, senior lawyers, doctors, accountants," explains Rashbrooke.
Perched above them are the one percenters who hold 18 per cent of the country's net worth.

Although officially New Zealand doesn't have an aristocracy with entitlement through birth, Rashbrooke says there are longstanding families who command social respect and power.

"The Myers, Goodmans, descendants of John Logan Campbell, that kind of crowd."

"New Zealand has always had an elite and over the past 30 years the elite has become more visible and wealthier. Over the next 30 years, if nothing changes, wealth will become more entrenched."

That is if the Auckland Council and Government fail in their attempts to solve the housing crisis. No pressure.

Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith claims the key inflationary factor in the last 25 years has been the rampant increase in the price of land. He blames the Resource Management Act and the limits on city growth.

"The Government's RMA reforms and the new Unitary Plan will mean a very different price trajectory during the next 25 years."

Then of course the housing bubble could simply burst, evaporating much of the property wealth.

"To some extent it's paper money and it could all come crashing down, not that I would wish that on anyone, but..." says Rashbrooke.

Bertram sounds a warning here.

"The smart movers will get out before the crash and leave the suckers holding the can. My advice would be to get out. But I gave the same advice 20 years ago and I was wrong."

Leroy Beckett. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Leroy Beckett. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Beckett's family maybe among those getting out, leaving him outside Generation Blessed.

"My sister and I have no expectations that this house is going to be passed down to us for our gain."

His mum Sue Ashfield, a health professional, has been eyeing up places outside the city.

"I think like a lot of Aucklanders she looks at Trade Me every now and again and sees large houses in the country that she can get, and is increasingly tempted by it."

But Beckett's sympathies lie with families not as lucky as his; those with parents who won't have a house going into retirement.

"Their kids will have to be supporting them and then paying how many hundreds of dollars in rent every week."

Beckett says the real sting is in the projection that the average house price when he is 40 will be 19 times household income - more than six times the United Nations recommended limit for affordable housing.

"I love this city but I cannot imagine living here if that's the situation."

- Herald on Sunday

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