Cities with unaffordable homes a global trend

Quantitative easing has skewed property markets as those who qualify for low mortgage rates price out the ones who don't

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 4:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 5:47am

Hong Kong has very pricey real estate. For the uninitiated (or the ignorant, if you happen to be local), most, i.e. 99 per cent of the 7 million-plus population reside in some form of high-rise apartments, be these public rental housing, public assisted ownership housing, or private ownership housing, ranging from the very basic to the very plush.

The 99 per cent of the remaining 1 per cent reside in some form of townhouse or semi-detached unit. Only perhaps 1 per cent of the 1 per cent can afford to have a detached house. Wooden huts on the hillside do not count, although these are now rare too.

Nearly half the population reside in public rental or assisted ownership housing, with the remaining half living in privately owned accommodations. There are tens of thousands of households, many of whom are younger individuals and couples with or without children, who are not poor enough to qualify for public housing, yet who do not have sufficient savings to even contemplate buying the very basic private homes, especially when overall prices have increased 100 per cent since 2009.

So why are there such increases? The simple answer is quantitative easing, which means low mortgage rates, which in turn means the "qualified" households can take advantage of them, and which on the other hand means the "unqualified" households are priced out of the market.

You can imagine the societal grudge, whether rightly or wrongly - which is not the point here anyway - circulating in some quarters of the population, especially among the non-homeowners.

Even homeowners could find upgrading immensely difficult if not impossible.

Just a few years ago, a couple who said they were a doctor and a lawyer complained in a radio show that they could not afford the home which they liked or which they thought might properly reflect or match their social status and lifestyle.

The above phenomena are not unique to Hong Kong. Many cities have similar prices beyond generally affordable homes.

Your humble author has recently come across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2013 report on home prices in selected countries. The researchers compared the typical home prices to the respective country income and the rental level.

Beyond these ratios, the research classifies the countries as having less-than-affordable home prices. A positive percentage infers overpricing while a negative percentage suggests the opposite. There are two percentages for each country, one based on income and the other on rental level. No verification has been done either on the method or data on our part. So, use it as a very rough reference only. Note also positive percentages do not imply demise; nor do negative percentages mean immediate investment gains (see table).

Watch out! Belgium! And Canada, and Sweden, and New Zealand, France, UK…

Stephen Chung is the managing director of Zeppelin Real Estate Analysis