As we've discussed frequently over the past several years, home prices in some of Australia's largest markets have gone completely vertical since 2013 as wealthy Chinese buyers have increasingly sought safe havens outside of the mainland to launder invest their cash. Per the chart below, home prices in Melbourne have more than tripled since 2002 and Sydney is almost as bad.
Not surprisingly, the bubbly home prices have angered locals, not only because they've been priced out of the market by foreign buyers, but more so because those foreign buyers scoop up prime real estate and then proceed to let it sit vacant. The problem is so pervasive that these luxury towers, with apartments approaching $1 million, have been dubbed "ghost towers" by locals. Per Bloomberg:
These "ghost towers," as the high-end residential property with three-bedroom apartments costing almost $1 million have been dubbed, are popular with Chinese investors who mostly live abroad. Their darkened blocks loom as sparsely occupied symbols of a property market where even solidly middle class households have increasingly found themselves priced out.
Now, policy makers are seizing on public resentment and hitting foreign buyers with more taxes. New South Wales has doubled its surcharge when foreigners purchase residential property, and Western Australia has added a new tax as well. More controversially, both the conservative federal government and the left-leaning one in Victoria state that includes Melbourne this year imposed additional taxes on properties deemed to be empty for six months or more.
More than 60 percent of Sydney residents blame foreign investment for the rising prices, according to a survey by University of Sydney academic Dallas Rogers. The idea of taking prime real estate out of the housing supply and leaving it vacant has become a focus of anger as homelessness has risen and hundreds of people have been camping in the rough out outside places like the Reserve Bank of Australia.
“It’s just absurd," said Tony Keenan, chief executive officer of affordability advocacy group Launch Housing, referring to the fact that Australia’s long period of uninterrupted growth should have ensured homes for everyone instead of "record levels of homeless and massive construction with empty properties at the end."
An analysis of Australian census data by the City Futures Research Centre found more than one in 10 homes unoccupied on the night of the count last year, with empty properties having risen 19 percent in Melbourne and 15 percent in Sydney since the last census five years previously.
Foreigners, mainly from China, purchased 25 percent and 16 percent of the new housing supply in New South Wales and Victoria, respectively, in the year through September 2016, according to a Credit Suisse Group AG examination of state tax receipts.
But, much like Vancouver where city officials slapped foreign nationals with a 15% transfer tax on home purchases last summer, the city of Melbourne has decided to fight back by imposing its own taxes to curb what increasingly looks like one of the world's largest housing bubbles.
Melbourne’s tax of 1 percent of an empty home’s value takes effect in January, adding to a nationwide tax imposed in May that starts at A$5,500 ($4,400) and scales sharply upward for properties worth more than A$1 million.
Figuring out if a home is vacant is a vexing subject for public officials. Those in Victoria have said they plan to ask owners to self-declare, and also intend to monitor electricity and water usage to find cheaters. The Australian Taxation Office suggests the government investigate tips from informants. Other potential sources could include postal data or tax returns, said Catherine Cashmore, president of land tax reform group Prosper.
But real estate professionals say it’s easy enough to hire someone to come in and turn on switches and taps, making a place appear lived-in. Agents say many properties are only temporarily empty, waiting for children to attend university or a family to able to move in. They also raise questions of fairness.
Of course, not everyone is happy with the new taxes, including Monika Tu who has undoubtedly made a fortune helping rich Chinese buyers launder money through the Australian real estate market.
“What next?" said Monika Tu, the Sydney-based director of Black Diamondz, which specializes in high end property sales to mainly Chinese buyers. "Shall we tax people who buy new shoes and don’t wear them?’’
Sorry, Monika...you can always move to Seattle...we hear they're still very receptive to helping launder Chinese cash...