The global housing market is broken, and it's dividing entire countries

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a two-year ban on foreign buyers if re-elected.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a two-year ban on foreign buyers if re-elected.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Soaring property prices are forcing people all over the world to abandon all hope of owning a home. The fallout is shaking governments of all political persuasions.

It's a phenomenon given wings by the Covid-19 pandemic. And it's not just buyers - rents are also soaring in many cities. The upshot is the perennial issue of housing costs has become one of acute housing inequality, and an entire generation is at risk of being left behind.

"We're witnessing sections of society being shut out of parts of our city because they can no longer afford apartments," Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller says. "That's the case in London, in Paris, in Rome, and now unfortunately increasingly in Berlin."

That exclusion is rapidly making housing a new fault line in politics, one with unpredictable repercussions. The leader of Germany's Ver.di union called rent the 21st century equivalent of the bread price, the historic trigger for social unrest.

Politicians are throwing all sorts of ideas at the problem, from rent caps to special taxes on landlords, nationalising private property or turning vacant offices into housing. Nowhere is there evidence of an easy or sustainable fix.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in's party took a drubbing in mayoral elections this year after failing to tackle a 90 per cent rise in the average price of an apartment in Seoul since he took office in May 2017. The leading opposition candidate for next year's presidential vote has warned of a potential housing market collapse as interest rates rise.

China has stepped up restrictions on the real-estate sector this year and speculation is mounting of a property tax to bring down prices. The cost of an apartment in Shenzhen, China's answer to Silicon Valley, was equal to 43.5 times a resident's average salary as of July, a disparity that helps explain President Xi Jinping's drive for "common prosperity".

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a two-year ban on foreign property buyers if re-elected.

The Covid-19 pandemic has stoked the global housing market to fresh records over the past 18 months through a confluence of ultra-low interest rates, a dearth of house production, shifts in family spending, and fewer homes being put up for sale. While that's a boon for existing owners, prospective buyers are finding it ever harder to gain entry.

What we're witnessing is "a major event that should not be shrugged off or ignored", Mr Don Layton, the former CEO of US mortgage giant Freddie Mac, wrote in a commentary for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

In the US, where nominal home prices are more than 30 per cent above their previous peaks in the mid-2000s, government policies aimed at improving affordability and promoting home ownership risk stoking prices, leaving first-time buyers further adrift, Mr Layton said.

The result, in America and elsewhere, is a widening generational gap between baby boomers, who are statistically more likely to own a home, and millennials and Gen Z - who are watching their dreams of buying one go up in smoke.

Existing housing debt may be sowing the seeds of the next economic crunch if borrowing costs start to rise. Mr Niraj Shah of Bloomberg Economics compiled a dashboard of countries most at threat of a real-estate bubble, and says risk gauges are "flashing warnings" at an intensity not seen since the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

In the search for solutions, governments must try and avoid penalising either renters or homeowners. It's an unenviable task.

Sweden's government collapsed in June after it proposed changes that would have abandoned traditional controls and allowed more rents to be set by the market.

In Berlin, an attempt to tame rent increases was overturned by a court. Campaigners have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on seizing property from large private landlords. The motion goes to a vote on Sept 26. The city government on Friday announced it'd buy nearly 15,000 apartments from two large corporate landlords for 2.46 billion euros (S$3.89 billion) to expand supply.

Mr Anthony Breach at the Centre for Cities think-tank has even made the case for a link between housing and Britain's 2016 vote to quit the European Union. Housing inequality, he concluded, is "scrambling our politics". As these stories from around the world show, that's a recipe for upheaval.