Avocado toast may be symptom of our housing affordability crisis: Jennifer Wells
It's not up to millennials to fix the hyper-inflated real estate markets.
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It would be generous beyond measure to suggest that Australian real estate developer Tim Gurner didn’t anticipate the mess he would be stepping into with his riff on fancy toast.
By “fancy toast” we mean to say smashed avocado on toast, which Gurner seized as the apotheosis of millennials, literally, misspending their relative youth. “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for 19 bucks and four coffees at $4 each,” Gurner said in an interview with Australian media this week.
Telling those locked out of hyper-inflated real estate markets that the solution lies in becoming sharper savers drew excited responses on comment-friendly media sites. “Thanks one per cent!” reads as an especially efficient rejoinder, recognizing that in the markets of Sydney and Melbourne, as with Toronto, real estate is beyond the reach of the vast majority of wishful home owners regardless of how hard they work — and save.
Note that in March the Australian Bureau of Statistics compared the five-year 70-per-cent increase in Sydney house prices — that’s not a typo — to average wage increases of 13.2 per cent across the same period. The median house price in Sydney was just shy of $1.2 million (Australian dollars) in April. And a local point of reference: this month the Internet-cost-of-living data base NUMBEO found that getting by in Sydney is 28.8 per cent more expensive than Toronto.
Yet Gurner stuck to his smashed avocado thesis. “There’s no question it’s real,” he said in a follow-up radio interview when asked about the whingeing. “I think until the generation realizes that the people that own homes today worked very, very hard for it, saved every dollar, did everything they could to get up the property ladder.”
Gurner is a high-profile real estate success story in the land Down Under. Last year, the then 34-year-old was named Ernst & Young’s emerging Australian entrepreneur of the year. His net worth was pegged at $460 million.
In 2013 he founded his own eponymous company. According to its website, “Gurner [the company] currently has 19 buildings under development across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, totalling over 5,700 apartments with an end value of more than $3.8 billion, and a number of new projects in the pipeline.”
The developer professed some degree of sympathy for young workers swamped by aspirational culture. So it’s not just lunch fare, he said, but the push to buy the latest iPhone, etcetera.
He casts this as distinctly different from the two-cars-in-every-garage post-war mandate. “The expectations of younger people are very, very high,” he said. “They want to eat out every day; they want travel to Europe every year.”
Ignored are workers who have saved diligently only to find home prices successively knocked beyond reach. In Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto and Vancouver housing affordability has increasingly created a class divide. Today it’s less about earned income and more about access to capital — the inheritance, the well-off parent.
What that means is that home ownership is granted to those who are already favoured in the home ownership sweepstakes. It is unjust.
The Australian example is a worthwhile study beyond the musings of Tim Gurner. Consider the similarities to worries at home: rising indebtedness; little to no income growth; historically low interest rates. In March, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) directed deposit taking institutions to limit interest-only lending to 30 per cent of new residential mortgage lending.
According to the APRA, lending on interest-only terms currently stands at close to 40 per cent, a higher risk profile than the authority is comfortable with. Concerns about a borrower’s ability to service his or her loan lie behind the change.
Yet the government is eager to be seen addressing the issue of housing affordability. In last week’s federal budget, the Australian government announced an annual “ghost house” tax on foreign owners, along with a “super saver scheme” to assist wishful domestic first time home owners.
Interestingly, the government is also trying to appeal to potential “downsizers” — home owners aged 65 and over — with a plan that would boost a householder’s pension should the homestead be sold. Freeing up housing stock is the hoped for outcome.
Such an idea is helpful in this regard: as a reminder that this housing debacle is not the making of millennials. And it shouldn’t be their task to fix it. If smashed avocado on toast is a comforting way to salve the disappointment of not seeing home ownership in one’s future, it’s actually a small price to pay.