Why a social housing fund is bad policy

Buy and build houses with the money. Don’t buy financial assets.

A social housing fund is a policy idea gaining traction. The ALP has proposed a $10 billion one in their election platform. The Grattan Institute has proposed a $20 billion one.

The basic idea is to sell bonds to the market and use the cash from that sale to buy a range of higher-yielding assets. Because there will be a differential return between the low cost of borrowing and the higher return on assets, this creates a net return from the fund to pay for building new public housing.

It sounds so bland and innocuous that it is easy to miss how economically backwards the policy really is.

Opportunity cost

On the housing occupancy side of the ledger, if you are building homes and renting them below market, the opportunity cost to the homeowner is the market rent. The economic cost to the owner is therefore the gap between the market rent and the discounted rent. This is true for public landlords too.

Economically, this is always the exact situation. Just as a landlord with a mortgage who rents for $10,000 per year below the market misses out on that income, so too does the landlord without a mortgage. It really doesn’t matter what happens on the funding side.

On the funding side of the ledger, every billion dollars put in a fund for housing is a billion dollars that can’t be spent elsewhere. Every dollar of net return from the fund also has the same opportunity cost of being spent elsewhere.

A social housing fund doesn’t change the underlying economic trade-offs in any way.

A fund to fund the fund?

If we can’t find $20 billion to spend on new public housing, how are we finding $20 billion to spend buying a portfolio of shares and other assets?

Do we need a fund to fund the fund?

It sounds silly when you say it that way because it is silly.

If it is a good idea for governments to borrow by issuing low return assets like cash and bonds in order to buy higher return assets like shares, because of differential returns, then it is a good idea regardless of what the net return is spent on. If $20 billion in such a fund is a good idea, why not $200 billion?

Really ramp up those returns!

Further, if getting more housing is a policy concern, why not invest the fund in developing new homes and renting at market prices? This is another type of investment that gets higher returns than cash but has the advantage of directly expanding the housing stock.

The previous point applies here too—if this “cash for new housing” asset swap makes a decent net return then it is something government agencies should be doing regardless of where the returns are spent.

Public housing is a social housing fund

Just as new market-rate housing is an asset worth investing in, so too is new housing that is rented at a discounted price.

The New South Wales Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) owns the public housing stock in that state. In 2012 its stock of dwellings was worth $32 billion. After selling many of its assets, by 2019 it owned $54 billion worth of public housing assets. That’s a 7.8% annualised return while at the same time providing cheap homes to tens of thousands of people. An accurate way to describe this organisation would be a high-return fund that provides social housing—a social housing fund.

So why not simply give money to the existing agencies that build new public housing?

In short, a social housing fund solves nothing about the housing situation. A simpler and much better alternative is to sell bonds to directly fund building new public housing assets rather than to buy a portfolio of existing non-housing assets.

Dr Cameron Murray is co-author of the Book Game of Mates. Subscribe to his written work at Fresheconomicthinking.substack.com.


    • Strange Economics - Rental Assistance bestMEMBER

      The simple way is raise the Rental Assistance which will take 20 years to catch up., and much quicker and cheaper than social housing. Rental Assistance , which is a ridiculously low 70 a week in a market of 300 a week minimum rentals for 1 bedroom.
      it is extremely well targetted.
      This only helps low income earners,
      thus leaving out wealthy home owner boomers that have rigged onto the pension out.
      Housing is 80% of cost for low income earners/unemployed.

      • As soon as that happens the landlords will put up their rents. Direct building is the only solution. Increasing the stock of houses and competing to force private rents down. In the UK private rents have escalated decade after decade with the gradual run down of council and housing society stock.

      • Strange Economics – Rental Assistance best
        That is some dangerous rubbish you are peddling.

        When there is a physical shortage of housing for rent (eg 7 houses for 10 tenants) then rental price must rise just high enough to price out the exact number that must mathematically physical miss-out (eg 3 tenants).

        Your ridiculous scheme of giving extra money to the tenants (would it be 7 or 10 tenants?) will result in rents rising by the exact amount handed out, and the money will go directly to rich investing boomers and such.

        The solution is to expand the number of good houses FASTER than the number of extra people coming in to the country (via birth and immigration).