This country is run for home owners, by home owners
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This country is run for home owners, by home owners

Name a group that accounts for about a third of the population and rising, is much more likely to suffer stress in affording their housing than other groups, and yet has never had much sympathy from politicians, voters or the media.

Ironically, the bit of sympathy they’ve had in recent days hasn’t been warranted.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

They’re the forgotten minority – more forgotten than the forgotten people we keep being reminded about. They’re renters.

They get forgotten because we live in a land where home ownership is the only recognised real estate religion. This country is run for home owners, by home owners.

Now, it may have occurred to you that a supposedly sacred group known as “first home buyers” – actually, would-be home buyers - are renters. Surely a fair bit of sympathy exists for them?

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Well, not really. We profess to be sympathetic, but we aren’t. That’s because, as economists get tired of pointing out, all the things we do in the name of helping would-be home owners – first home buyer grants or stamp duty concessions, capital gains tax exemptions for owner-occupiers, even negative gearing – actually benefit existing home owners at the expense of aspiring home owners.

These things add to the demand for homes, relative to supply, and thus push up their prices, making them harder to afford.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Politicians are almost always unwilling to help aspiring home owners by reversing these concessions because they know how angry existing owners would be if they did.

But getting back to renters generally, why do we take so little interest in them and their problems?

Partly because, in a world that values home ownership above all else, renting is assumed to be just a brief transitional state while young people get together the money for a deposit.

Unfortunately, that assumption gets less true as each year passes. When I became a journo in the mid-1970s, we were particularly proud of Australia’s 70 per cent rate of home ownership. It’s been declining, slowly but inexorably, ever since.

Meaning the proportion of renters has been growing ever since. A lot of people still attain home ownership, of course, but it takes them many years longer.

The other reason we take so little interest in renters is that, since almost all of us aspire to own our home, those who never make it – those who stay renting all their lives – are those never able to afford it. And who spends much time worrying about the poor?

But this, too, is becoming less true as the years pass, with a lot more middle-income earners spending a lot more of their lives in rented accommodation.

In the day, we used to rely on “the housing commission” to take the poor off our conscience. In the years since then, the enthusiasm of governments, federal and state, for what we now euphemistically call “social housing”, including “affordable housing”, has steadily diminished – further demonstrating our lack of interest in renters.

The latest report from HILDA – the long-running, government-funded survey of Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia – includes a most informative chapter on renters, by Professor Roger Wilkins, of the Melbourne Institute at Melbourne University.

Wilkins confirms that renters of social housing are 10 percentage points more likely to experience financial hardship than people who own their homes outright. But renters of private housing are 15 percentage points more likely.

HILDA defines “housing stress” as households in the bottom 40 per cent of the distribution of household incomes who spend more than 30 per cent of their income on mortgage payments or rent. (Plenty of high-income households spend more than 30 per cent, but that’s a choice they can afford.)

The proportion of private renters suffering housing stress rose from almost 18 per cent after the turn of the century to 20 per cent by the end of the decade, but hasn’t increased since then.

Of late, some sympathy has been expressed for renters, who must be suffering huge increases in their rent as house prices in Sydney and Melbourne have soared.

Sorry, I’ve looked up the consumer price figures and they don’t compute. In Sydney, over the four years to June this year, the prices of newly built dwellings bought by owner-occupiers rose by almost 20 per cent, whereas rents rose by less than 10 per cent – not a lot higher than the rise in all consumer prices of 7.5 per cent.

In Melbourne, new home prices rose by more than 16 per cent, whereas rents rose by less than half that – only a fraction more than consumer prices generally.

But if soaring rents don’t explain renters’ high rates of financial and housing stress, what does? Their generally low and lower-middle incomes, which have probably worsened somewhat, relative to the rest of us, so far this century.

Note that housing stress is surprisingly low among people of retirement age. That’s because this is the group with by far the highest rate of outright home ownership. The modest level of the age pension takes this fact into account.

But that means those relatively few pensioners who rent privately do suffer much hardship. When a spate of complaints about the inadequacy of the single age pension prompted an investigation, it found that only single pensioners in private rental were doing it tough.

Kevin Rudd responded with a big one-off increase for all single pensioners, plus an increase for married pensioners so they wouldn’t feel left out. As I say, renters don’t count.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

Ross Gittins is economics editor of the SMH and an economic columnist for The Age. His books include Gittins' Guide to Economics, The Happy Economist and Gittins: A life among budgets, bulldust and bastardry.