Housing prices in the world’s premier markets – London, New York and Hong Kong, all of which were recently highlighted on the latest UBS ranking of cities with the largest housing bubble risk…
…. have finally started to retreat after years of unprecedented growth (a trend that can be attributed both to the stupefying price-to-income ratios facing local buyers and the Chinese government’s crackdown on capital outflows, among other factors).
But these pullbacks, which have mostly manifested over the past year, have had little, if any, impact on rates of homelessness, which have jumped in most urban centers (just look at Seattle). Given the tremendous public pressure for the government to do something to alleviate financial burdens on renters and aspiring buyers, UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday became the latest politician to declare that something must indeed be done.
And that something, as Bloomberg and the Financial Times reported, is a proposed stamp tax on foreign buyers who don’t pay taxes in the UK, with the proceeds going to initiatives for rough sleepers (a slightly more dignified term for “the homeless”). The London proposal comes one week after officials in British Columbia promised a crack down on the “dirty money” (read Chinese buyers) that has helped make Vancouver’s housing market the most unaffordable in North America.
Meanwhile, in 2018 house prices in London declined more quickly than the broader UK market, a sign that property prices across high-end markets have peaked, and that homeowners are in for a punishing pullback.
FTSE-listed homebuilder stocks including Berkeley, Barratt and Taylor Wimpey were among the biggest losers on the first trading day of the quarter since their operations are concentrated in London, one of the most popular markets for foreigners.
Here’s the FT with more:
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference on Sunday, Mrs May announced plans for buyers of UK property who do not pay tax in Britain to be subject to a new stamp duty surcharge of up to 3 per cent, with the proceeds going towards a scheme for tackling rough sleeping. The proposed tax would be levied on both individuals and companies.
While London house prices have been falling this year, they have risen at a rapid clip in recent years. The high number of luxury housing developments and of homes bought as investments that stand empty, particularly in the capital but also elsewhere in the country, have prompted calls for the government to tackle what is seen as a UK-wide housing crisis and build more affordable housing to accommodate the rising population.
Mrs May said there was evidence that foreign buyers who do not pay UK taxes had helped push up prices and reduce the rate of home ownership in the UK. When she became prime minister in 2016, she made solving Britain’s housing crisis a priority.
Of course, housing costs aren’t the only factor contributing to homelessness in the UK (austerity-related cutbacks have also played a role). But some analysts worry that May’s tax might be ill-timed as Britain tries to signal to the world that it’s still “open” to foreigners as Brexit looms.
“This policy, with its uncomfortable echoes of blaming foreigners for every ill, may make good headlines, but it sends an uncomfortable message to the rest of the world and will do nothing to create more homes for those unable to buy or to rent today,” said Henry Pryor, a U.K.-based luxury real estate broker.
Back when he was mayor of London, Boris Johnson said it would be “nuts” to deter foreign ownership in London, warning that it could trigger a precipitous collapse in home prices.
Still, there’s no denying that policies to beat back foreign buyers who have helped inflate property prices are politically popular. And with May’s grip looking increasingly tenuous thanks to her “Chequers plan” and her European partners unwillingness to give an inch in their negotiations over a Brexit deal, the timing of this announcement is hardly surprising.
Moving forward, if London cracks down on foreign buyers, other property markets like New York City could feel the sting as foreigners worry that “progressive” mayors like Bill de Blasio, who has already pushed through new disclosure laws applying to foreign property buyers, could follow suit. Such measures could risk exacerbating this latest decline in luxury markets, turning it into a full-fledged selloff with echoes of 2007.