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How they’re tackling housing affordability in the West

House prices are soaring in comparison to incomes, making life difficult for many and threatening to undermine national economic performance. Western Australia has devised an innovative policy solution.

Using a shared equity model, the Shared Home Ownership scheme allows low-earning prospective homeowners who meet certain criteria to purchase a property by sharing up to 30% of the capital cost with the Department of Housing and borrow the rest with a SharedStart loan through state mortgage lender KeyStart Home Loans.

The loan is directly linked to a major construction expressions of interest project that means the department is able to procure newly built, affordable dwellings in bulk from the market at discounted rates. The discount to market prices gained by the department become its equity share in the portfolio of properties.

In recognition of its achievements, the Department of Housing won the overall award at the 2014 WA Premier’s Awards for Public Sector Excellence and the “Developing the Economy” award for the scheme.

“In the March quarter of 2014, the median rent reached $460 in Perth, while the median house price increased to $540,000 …”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Australians’ obsession with home ownership, previous research conducted with potential purchasers of shared equity homes showed focus group participants had two primary motivations that would impact on their interest in such schemes: wanting the security of having a place of their own on the one hand, and desiring asset accumulation on the other.

So unlike other shared ownership models where the government retains a permanent interest in the property, stunting the resident’s opportunities for wealth formation but ensuring long-term affordability is maintained, WA’s Shared Home Ownership scheme encourages the resident to eventually buy out the department’s share, offering a path to full home ownership.

Interest rates are set higher than the lowest variable market rate so that, while repayments will be lower for the period that the homebuyer owns only 70-80% of the property, they will be incentivised to refinance with a private institution once they buy out the department’s share.

So far the program has helped deliver home ownership to over 700 low-income households, many of whom would not have been able to do so otherwise. Though such a program cannot be targeted at the lowest socio-economic groups, as it still relies on a regular income to pay off a mortgage, it lowers barriers to entry for those making below-median incomes.

The program was developed “in response to an increased demand for affordable housing as rents became unaffordable in Western Australia”, says Adrian Warner, acting director of strategy and policy at the Department of Housing.

“In the March quarter of 2014, the median rent reached $460 in Perth, while the median house price increased to $540,000, up from $525,000 in the previous quarter,” he said.

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The program has been praised for its benefits to prospective purchasers, government and the wider community, he told The Mandarin:

  • Purchasers only need to borrow 70-80% of the property value;
  • The equity component is not dependent on a government grant or debt;
  • The supply of entry-level housing is increased;
  • It supports local industry and creates value for the economy — over $650 million in economic activity to date;
  • First home buyers require only a 2% or $2000 deposit;
  • No lender’s mortgage insurance or monthly account keeping fees.

According to figures provided by the Department of Housing, to date, SharedStart has delivered:

  • $149 million of direct construction activity;
  • $112 million of induced activity by suppliers;
  • 1491 jobs supported;
  • 722 households into home ownership;
  • Total economic benefit to the state of $465 million.

Return for households and government

A report by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers found the program was not only achieving its intended outcomes, but had generated significant returns for households, government and industry. AHURI found that the department’s practice of acquiring new homes had helped increase housing supply:

“The shared equity EOI initiative increased the overall supply of low-cost dwellings through its EOI procurement process. This distinguishes the EOI initiative from shared equity schemes that are linked to existing dwellings and therefore do not achieve an increase in the overall supply of dwellings …

“There was agreement amongst all stakeholders interviewed that the shared equity EOI initiative has been highly effective in increasing the supply of lower-cost housing. For example, a peak body representative described the effectiveness in relation to increasing lower-cost housing supply as ‘outstanding’ and a senior Keystart representative commented that the scheme has been highly effective in terms of providing low-cost properties, which were under $300,000 in several circumstances.

Resident satisfaction with housing affordability was very high:

“… the majority of respondents (87.4%) agreed or strongly agreed that their mortgage payments were affordable; and the majority of respondents (74.9%) agreed or strongly agreed that their home was affordable to run (e.g. in terms of utility bills).”

And the program has done well helping lower income people move into their own housing:

“The scheme was successful in providing home ownership opportunities to members of the targeted client groups. This included: eight public housing tenants who moved into home ownership via the shared equity EOI scheme; 188 survey respondents who were first home owners and 198 survey respondents who reported that they would never have been able to buy a home from the private market without the shared equity EOI scheme; six survey respondents who reported having a disability; and nine respondents who reported living with a person with a disability; 58 survey respondents who were single home owners with one child or more; and 42 survey respondents who were key workers [nurse, teacher, police etc].”

The program has encouraged more interest among developers for building one- and two-bedroom housing, something traditionally seen as more risky.

The report found that the typical expectation of housing assistance is that it is a form of subsidy to households that generates significant costs to government. “Instead,” said Warner, “this form of assistance makes a sustained, substantial difference to the financial wellbeing of lower-income households whilst also delivering a positive rate of return for government. Through this process, value has been created for government in the form of embedded equity stock.

“These initial equity shares had an estimated value of $58 million by September 2013 for 722 properties ($80,729 per property). These equity shares were created without capital expenditure by the department.

“Due to the nature of the SharedStart scheme, as house prices increase so will the value of equity shares held by the department. Additionally, the scheme ensures that the portfolio maintains a strong asset base as government sells down other state assets.”

The scheme is part of the government’s Affordable Housing Strategy 2010-2020, which sets a target of at least 20,000 new affordable homes by 2020.

“The government passed the halfway mark on its target just three years into the strategy,” said Warner. “Over 17,000 new affordable housing opportunities have been created since January 2010, on schedule to exceed the target of 20,000 by 2020.”

Research from 2003 showed shared equity to be a more effective policy option than the First Home Owners Grant at assisting low-income earners into housing. According to modelling, shared equity would have a greater impact on home ownership rates, is more likely to be taken up by lower income households, and is less likely to simply bring forward home purchase decisions.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.