The Global Housing Market Is Broken, and It’s Dividing Entire Countries

The dream of owning a home is increasingly out of reach. Democratic and authoritarian governments alike are struggling with the consequences.

Bloomberg — By Alan Crawford

Soaring property prices are forcing people all over the world to abandon all hope of owning a home. The fallout is shaking governments of all political persuasions.

It’s a phenomenon given wings by the pandemic. And it’s not just buyers — rents are also soaring in many cities. The upshot is the perennial issue of housing costs has become one of acute housing inequality, and an entire generation is at risk of being left behind.

“We’re witnessing sections of society being shut out of parts of our city because they can no longer afford apartments,” Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller says. “That’s the case in London, in Paris, in Rome, and now unfortunately increasingly in Berlin.”

That exclusion is rapidly making housing a new fault line in politics, one with unpredictable repercussions. The leader of Germany’s Ver.di union called rent the 21st century equivalent of the bread price, the historic trigger for social unrest.

Politicians are throwing all sorts of ideas at the problem, from rent caps to special taxes on landlords, nationalizing private property, or turning vacant offices into housing. Nowhere is there evidence of an easy or sustainable fix.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in’s party took a drubbing in mayoral elections this year after failing to tackle a 90% rise in the average price of an apartment in Seoul since he took office in May 2017. The leading opposition candidate for next year’s presidential vote has warned of a potential housing market collapse as interest rates rise.

China has stepped up restrictions on the real-estate sector this year and speculation is mounting of a property tax to bring down prices. The cost of an apartment in Shenzhen, China’s answer to Silicon Valley, was equal to 43.5 times a resident’s average salary as of July, a disparity that helps explain President Xi Jinping’s drive for “common prosperity.”

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a two-year ban on foreign buyers if re-elected.

The pandemic has stoked the global housing market to fresh records over the past 18 months through a confluence of ultra-low interest rates, a dearth of house production, shifts in family spending, and fewer homes being put up for sale. While that’s a boon for existing owners, prospective buyers are finding it ever harder to gain entry.

What we’re witnessing is “a major event that should not be shrugged off or ignored,” Don Layton, the former CEO of U.S. mortgage giant Freddie Mac, wrote in a commentary for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

In the U.S., where nominal home prices are more than 30% above their previous peaks in the mid-2000s, government policies aimed at improving affordability and promoting home ownership risk stoking prices, leaving first-time buyers further adrift, Layton said.

The result, in America as elsewhere, is a widening generational gap between Baby Boomers, who are statistically more likely to own a home, and Millennials and Gen Z — who are watching their dreams of buying one go up in smoke.

Existing housing debt may be sowing the seeds of the next economic crunch if borrowing costs start to rise. Niraj Shah of Bloomberg Economics compiled a dashboard of countries most at threat of a real-estate bubble, and says risk gauges are “flashing warnings” at an intensity not seen since the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

In the search for solutions, governments must try and avoid penalizing either renters or homeowners. It’s an unenviable task.

Sweden’s government collapsed in June after it proposed changes that would have abandoned traditional controls and allowed more rents to be set by the market.

In Berlin, an attempt to tame rent increases was overturned by a court. Campaigners have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on seizing property from large private landlords. The motion goes to a vote on Sept. 26. The city government on Friday announced it’d buy nearly 15,000 apartments from two large corporate landlords for 2.46 billion euros ($2.9 billion) to expand supply.

Anthony Breach at the Centre for Cities think tank has even made the case for a link between housing and Britain’s 2016 vote to quit the European Union. Housing inequality, he concluded, is “scrambling our politics.”

As these stories from around the world show, that’s a recipe for upheaval.

Argentina

With annual inflation running around 50%, Argentines are no strangers to price increases. But for Buenos Aires residents like Lucia Cholakian, rent hikes are adding economic pressure, and with that political disaffection.

Like many during the pandemic, the 28-year-old writer and college professor moved with her partner from a downtown apartment to a residential neighborhood in search of more space. In the year since, her rent has more than tripled; together with bills it chews through about 40% of her income. That rules out saving for a home.

“We’re not going to be able to plan for the future like our parents did, with the dream of your own house,” she says. The upshot is “renting, buying and property in general” is becoming “much more present for our generation politically.”

Legislation passed by President Alberto Fernandez’s coalition aims to give greater rights to tenants like Cholakian. Under the new rules, contracts that were traditionally two years are now extended to three. And rather than landlords setting prices, the central bank created an index that determines how much rent goes up in the second and third year.

It’s proved hugely controversial, with evidence of some property owners raising prices excessively early on to counter the uncertainty of regulated increases later. Others are simply taking properties off the market. A government-decreed pandemic rent freeze exacerbated the squeeze.

Rental apartment listings in Buenos Aires city are down 12% this year compared to the average in 2019, and in the surrounding metro area they’re down 36%, according to real estate website ZonaProp.

The law “had good intentions but worsened the issue, as much for property owners as for tenants,” said Maria Eugenia Vidal, the former governor of Buenos Aires province and one of the main opposition figures in the city. She is contesting the November midterm elections on a ticket with economist Martin Tetaz with a pledge to repeal the legislation.

“Argentina is a country of uncertainty,” Tetaz said by phone, but with the housing rules it’s “even more uncertain now than before.”

Cholakian, who voted for Fernandez in 2019, acknowledges the rental reform is flawed, but also supports handing more power to tenants after an extended recession that wiped out incomes. If anything, she says greater regulation is needed to strike a balance between reassuring landlords and making rent affordable.

“If they don’t do something to control this in the city of Buenos Aires, only the rich will be left,” she says. —Patrick Gillespie

Australia

As the son of first-generation migrants from Romania, Alex Fagarasan should be living the Australian dream. Instead, he’s questioning his long-term prospects.

Fagarasan, a 28-year-old junior doctor at a major metropolitan hospital, would prefer to stay in Melbourne, close to his parents. But he’s being priced out of his city. He’s now facing the reality that he’ll have to move to a regional town to get a foothold in the property market. Then, all going well, in another eight years he’ll be a specialist and able to buy a house in Melbourne.

Even so, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones. His friends who aren’t doctors “have no chance” of ever owning a home. “My generation will be the first one in Australia that will be renting for the rest of their lives,” he says.

He currently rents a modern two-bedroom townhouse with two others in the inner suburb of Northcote — a study nook has been turned into a make-shift bedroom to keep down costs. About 30% of his salary is spent on rent; he calls it “exorbitant.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government announced a “comprehensive housing affordability plan” as part of the 2017-2018 budget, including A$1 billion ($728 million) to boost supply. It hasn’t tamed prices.

The opposition Labour Party hasn’t fared much better. It proposed closing a lucrative tax loophole for residential investment at the last election in 2019, a policy that would likely have brought down home prices. But it sparked an exodus back to the ruling Liberals of voters who owned their home, and probably contributed to Labor’s election loss.

The political lessons have been learned: Fagarasan doesn’t see much help on housing coming from whoever wins next year’s federal election. After all, Labor already rules the state of Victoria whose capital is Melbourne.

“I feel like neither of the main parties represents the voice of the younger generation,” he says.

It’s a sentiment shared by Ben Matthews, a 33-year-old project manager at a university in Sydney. He’s moving back in with his parents after the landlord of the house he shared with three others ordered them out, an experience he says he found disappointing and stressful, especially during the pandemic.

Staying with his parents will at least help him save for a deposit on a one-bedroom flat. But even that’s a downgrade from his original plan of a two-bedroom house so he could rent the other room out. The increases, he says, are “just insane.”

“It might not be until something breaks that we’ll get the political impetus to make changes,” he says. —Jason Scott

Canada

Days after calling an election, Justin Trudeau announced plans for a two-year ban on foreigners buying houses. If it was meant as a dramatic intervention to blind-side his rivals, it failed: they broadly agree.

The prime minister thought he was going to fight the Sept. 20 vote on the back of his handling of the pandemic, but instead housing costs are a dominant theme for all parties.

Trudeau’s Liberals are promising a review of “escalating” prices in markets including Vancouver and Toronto to clamp down on speculation; Conservative challenger Erin O’Toole pledges to build a million homes in three years to tackle the “housing crisis”; New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh wants a 20% tax on foreign buyers to combat a crisis he calls “out of hand.”

Facing a surprisingly tight race, Trudeau needs to attract young urban voters if he is to have any chance of regaining his majority. He chose Hamilton, outside Toronto, to launch his housing policy. Once considered an affordable place in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s faced rising pressure as people leave Canada’s biggest city in search of cheaper homes. The average single family home cost C$932,700 ($730,700) in June, a 30% increase from a year earlier, according to the Realtors Association of Hamilton and Burlington.

The City of Hamilton cites housing affordability among its priorities for the federal election, but that’s little comfort to Sarah Wardroper, a 32-year-old single mother of two young girls, who works part time and rents in the downtown east side. Hamilton, she says, represents “one of the worst housing crises in Canada.”

While she applauds promises to make it harder for foreigners to buy investment properties she’s skeptical of measures that might discourage homeowners from renting out their properties. That includes Trudeau’s bid to tax those who sell within 12 months of a house purchase. Neither is she convinced by plans for more affordable housing, seeing them as worthy but essentially a short-term fix when the real issue is “the economy is just so out of control the cost of living in general has skyrocketed.”

Wardroper says her traditionally lower-income community has become a luxury Toronto neighborhood.

“I don’t have the kind of job to buy a house, but I have the ambition and the drive to do that,” she says. “I want to build a future for my kids. I want them to be able to buy homes, but the way things are going right now, I don’t think that’s going to be possible.” —Kait Bolongaro

Singapore

Back in 2011, a public uproar over the city-state’s surging home prices contributed to what was at the time the ruling party’s worst parliamentary election result in more than five decades in power. While the People’s Action Party retained the vast majority of the seats in parliament, it was a wake-up call — and there are signs the pressure is building again.

Private home prices have risen the most in two years, and in the first half of 2021 buyers including ultra-rich foreigners splurged S$32.9 billion ($24 billion), according to Singapore-based ERA Realty Network Pte Ltd. That’s double the amount recorded in Manhattan over the same period.

However, close to 80% of Singapore’s citizens live in public housing, which the government has long promoted as an asset they can sell to move up in life.

It’s a model that has attracted attention from countries including China, but one that is under pressure amid a frenzy in the resale market. Singapore’s government-built homes bear little resemblance to low-income urban concentrations elsewhere: In the first five months of the year, a record 87 public apartments were resold for at least S$1 million. That’s stirring concerns about affordability even among the relatively affluent.

Junior banker Alex Ting, 25, is forgoing newly built public housing as it typically means a three-to-four-year wait. And under government rules for singles, Ting can only buy a public apartment when he turns 35 anyway.

His dream home is a resale flat near his parents. But even there a mismatch between supply and demand could push his dream out of reach.

While the government has imposed curbs on second-home owners and foreign buyers, younger people like Ting have grown resigned to the limits of what can be done.

Most Singaporeans aspire to own their own property, and the housing scarcity and surge in prices presents another hurdle to them realizing their goal, says Nydia Ngiow, Singapore-based senior director at BowerGroupAsia, a strategic policy advisory firm. If unaddressed, that challenge “may in turn build long-term resentment towards the ruling party,” she warns.

That’s an uncomfortable prospect for the PAP, even as the opposition faces barriers to winning parliamentary seats. The ruling party is already under scrutiny for a disrupted leadership succession plan, and housing costs may add to the pressure.

Younger voters may express their discontent by moving away from the PAP, according to Ting. “In Singapore, the only form of protest we can do is to vote for the opposition,” he says. —Faris Mokhtar

Ireland

Claire Kerrane is open about the role of housing in her winning a seat in Ireland’s parliament, the Dail.

Kerrane, 29, was one of a slew of Sinn Fein lawmakers to enter the Dail last year after the party unexpectedly won the largest number of first preference votes at the expense of Ireland’s dominant political forces, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

While the two main parties went on to form a coalition government, the outcome was a political earthquake. Sinn Fein was formerly the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, yet it’s been winning followers more for its housing policy than its push for a united Ireland.

“Housing was definitely a key issue in the election and I think our policies and ambition for housing played a role in our election success,” says Kerrane, who represents the parliamentary district of Roscommon-Galway.

Ireland still bears the scars of a crash triggered by a housing bubble that burst during the financial crisis. A shortage of affordable homes means prices are again marching higher.

Sinn Fein has proposed building 100,000 social and affordable homes, the reintroduction of a pandemic ban on evictions and rent increases, and legislation to limit the rate banks can charge for mortgages.

Those policies have struck a chord. The most recent Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll, in June, showed Sinn Fein leading all other parties, with 21% of respondents citing house prices as the issue most likely to influence their vote in the next general election, the same proportion that cited the economy. Only health care trumped housing as a concern.

Other parties are taking note. On Sept. 2, the coalition launched a housing plan as the pillar of its agenda for this parliamentary term, committing over 4 billion euros ($4.7 billion) a year to increase supply, the highest-ever level of government investment in social and affordable housing.

Whether it’s enough to blunt Sinn Fein’s popularity remains to be seen. North of the border, meanwhile, Sinn Fein holds a consistent poll lead ahead of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly due by May, putting it on course to nominate the region’s First Minister for the first time since the legislature was established as part of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.

For all the many hurdles that remain to reunification, Sinn Fein is arguably closer than it has ever been to achieving its founding goal by championing efforts to widen access to housing.

As Kerrane says: “Few, if any households aren’t affected in some way by the housing crisis.” —Morwenna Coniam

—With assistance by Philip Heijmans, Malcolm Scott, Olivia Konotey-Ahulu, Nasreen Seria, Aggi Cantrill, Lulu Yilun Chen, Adam Blenford and Patricia Suzara