Making up with Kevin Andrews

Data that indicates changing family and social relationships are behind Australia's housing supply and demand differences makes Kevin Andrews' most recent initiative not a bad idea at all.

Sometimes a myth becomes so entrenched, so polished as a phrase, as to become invisible -- and so it is with most Australians’ view of the housing market.

‘We are not building enough homes to cope with our growing population’. That’s the phrasing. It’s there in the newspaper pages day after day, and it is virtually universally accepted as true.

So let me repeat a chart Business Spectator published last week, which shows why that phrasing is wrong. In short, the dwellings available for Australians to live in are both more plentiful today than during the 1990s, and larger.

Graph for Making up with Kevin Andrews

The obvious question, then, is why we have become accustomed to the phrase ‘housing shortage’ and why affordability of homes is so low today compared to when house prices really started to take off in the mid-1990s.

The answer lies not in the ratio of the number of dwellings to residents, but what kind of residents we’ve become – that is, residents who don’t want to live with each other as much as we once did.

It is a complex picture, made up of numerous social trends, including:

– An ageing population, which means more ‘empty nesters’ rattling around in large houses;

– The newish phenomenon of ‘living apart together’ or LAT couples, who consider themselves to be an item but don’t want to share a dwelling;

– Increased demand for second/holiday homes; and

– A growing numbers of relationship breakdowns, and new patterns of habitation in the complex ‘lattice family’ structures such a change produces.

It is the last of these that I will focus on today.

As part of the 2014-15 budget, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews copped a fair bit of criticism and ribbing over a scheme to offer $200 vouchers to couples experiencing relationship difficulties, with the explicit intention of keeping more couples together. Newly-weds will also be able to access the money for relationship courses.

Andrews surprised many social conservatives by offering the vouchers to same-sex couples as well. And, of course, despite his personal support for marriage in the traditional sense, de facto splits are just as much the focus of the scheme.

Besides Coalition concerns for social cohesion and the moral aspects of marriage/family breakdowns, the government has also stressed the economic cost. One analysis suggested family breakdowns were costing taxpayers $14 billion in assistance payments a year.  

So what’s that got to do with housing?

Well two decades ago the familiar pattern of family breakdown was for the kids to go with Mum full-time, and for Dad to see them on weekends or perhaps have them camp on the floor of his new bachelor pad once a week. In fact, a lot of dads rarely saw their kids at all.

That has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s. The trend now is towards ‘shared-time’ parenting, which is defined as a situation in which children spend at least 30 per cent  of the week with the non-primary-carer. In many cases, the time split is 50-50.

A 2012 study co-authored by ANU researcher Bruce Smyth found that “in June 2003, only 9 per cent of new cases registered with the Child Support Agency reported shared-time parenting; by June 2008 this had almost doubled to 17 per cent”.

Smyth says the jury is still out on whether that trend will considerably increase, but the point is that between 2003 and 2008 the number of parents involved in family breakdowns and looking for large dwellings that would accommodate their children, nearly doubled.

In the census, however, the kids will only be under one roof on the night of the national head-count, so two three-bedroom homes could potentially only have, say, Mum, Dad, and two kids spread across six bedrooms in two houses.

Trends such as this one help explain why housing ‘supply’ has failed to keep up with demand.

We don’t have a problem with ‘the population’ growing ahead of housing stock, but with a population that doesn’t want to live together.

As suggested previously (Trouble in the bedroom for housing investors, July 4), leaner times, plus the government’s reining in of welfare and other benefits, are likely to cause habitation patterns to change further. LAT couples, for example, might not be able to afford two dwellings, even if they can’t stand picking up each others’ socks.

In the meantime, Andrews’ plans to keep couples together may not be as silly as some commentators suggest – $200 is not enough to pay for enough counselling to solve a family problem, but one session with a good counsellor (which is pretty much all it would cover) would at least show couples what they might experience if they forked out for subsequent sessions.

French playwright Sacha Guitry famously said that “the secret of a good marriage is forgiving your partner for marrying you in the first place”. In straitened times, and with seed funding from Kevin Andrews to get the counselling started, perhaps a bit more of that kind of forgiveness will prevail.