On housing and avocados: why Tim Gurner is wrong

Two weeks ago, Tim Gurner, an Australian property developer, caused a wave of social media outrage. Gurner had suggested that the reason why so many young people cannot afford to buy a home is that they spend too much money on fancy stuff – he specifically mentioned ‘smashed avocado’ and ‘four coffees’ – rather than saving for a deposit.

During social media witch hunts, I normally instinctively side with the witches. They are often right, and even when they are not, there is something repulsive about the mob psychology and the mass virtue-signalling that is on display on those occasions. Gurner, however, was just plain wrong. The problem with his comments is not that they were ‘insensitive’ or ‘out of touch’, but that they represent bad economics, at least insofar as the British housing market is concerned.[1]

Gurner’s critics pointed out that deposits in the UK have reached levels which are just not realistically attainable for a lot of people, even if they live very frugally. That is correct. The average deposit for first-time buyers in the UK is now over £37,000, and in London, it is almost £88,000. Meanwhile, the median annual gross salary for full-time employees is about £28,000, or £35,000 in London. The median rent for a one-bedroom flat is over £7,000 per year in the East of England, over £8,000 in the South East, and over £15,000 in London. You do the maths.

But that’s not even the main problem. Let’s suppose all private renters, who wanted to get on the housing ladder, adopted a lifestyle more ascetic than that of a Tibetan monk. Let’s suppose they save every penny they don’t need for physical survival towards their deposit. Would that deliver a nation of homeowners?

It wouldn’t. Or rather, if only a handful of individuals adopted this strategy, it would work for that handful of individuals. But if everybody did it, it would not work for everybody.

In terms of its impact on the market for owner-occupied housing, a higher savings rate among potential homebuyers would have the same effect as rising incomes, falling interest rates, immigration or a mortgage subsidy programme: it would shift the demand curve to the right. And in a market where supply is largely fixed, an increase in demand only leads to an increase in price, not quantity.

Unfortunately, the British housing market is such a market. Between 1995 and 2007, house prices increased two and a half fold, over and above the rate of inflation, and yet house building rates remained almost flat. Due to tight planning constraints and well-organised ‘Nimby’ resistance to development, housing supply in the UK is almost completely unresponsive to changes in price.

In a sense, Gurner’s logic is the flipside of the logic behind the government’s Help To Buy programme, under which the state underwrites part of the mortgage default risk, thus making it less risky for banks to approve mortgages with a high loan-to-value ratio. The government’s version sounds nicer, it uses a language of help and support, while Gurner’s adopts a more Tebbit-like stop-munching-avocado-toast-and-get-on-yer-bike tone. But both try to solve a supply-side problem through changes on the demand side. And that is why neither can work.

Imagine a popular rock star can, for whatever reason, only give one concert per year, and they cannot find a venue which can accommodate more than 1,000 fans. Let’s say that the market-clearing price which corresponds to a volume of 1,000 tickets is £200. Let’s also assume that there are armies of fans who would have been willing, and able, to pay a fair amount, but just not that much. This means that many fans will be disappointed.

Our current government would probably launch a ‘Help To Rock’ programme, a guaranteed, subsidised low-interest loan for fans who cannot quite get on the ‘ticket ladder’ on their own. Tim Gurner would tell them to stop stuffing themselves with avocado and coffee, and save money for a ticket instead. Both approaches would lead to the same result. They would help some fans to get a ticket, namely those who qualify for the support programme, or those who follow Gurner’s advice. But since the concert venue has not got any bigger, this must necessarily be a zero-sum game, in which these new ticketholders are crowding somebody else out of the market by pushing up the ticket price.

If it is true that young people spend obscene amounts of money on avocado toast and coffee, I am rather glad that they do. Our housing market resembles a game of musical chairs, with a very low chair-to-player ratio, in which many players are set up to lose. And if they are set up to lose anyway, it is a good thing if they do not take the game too seriously.


[1] I don’t know whether Gurner actually did refer to the British housing market, but his comments were interpreted that way, and in any case, the Australian situation is not that different from the British situation.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

3 thoughts on “On housing and avocados: why Tim Gurner is wrong”

  1. Posted 31/05/2017 at 23:12 | Permalink

    Kristian, you say housing issues are a supply side problem. However a 100% tax on the rental value of land under UK housing (initially raising about £200bn pa) would move the demand curve over to the left.

    Could you please comment on how this would affect the following ?

    1. House prices and rental incomes.
    2. Housing affordability as measured by ratios of discretionary incomes to selling prices/rents (for typical working households).
    3. The allocation of existing housing stock.
    4. Regional tax liabilities.
    5. Its effect on reducing urban sprawl, and thus the need for Greenbelt regulations.
    6. The incentives it would give to the State to get the correct balance between development and restrictions.
    7. The effect on the wider economy of using such revenues to eliminate other taxes.
    8. And NIMBYism, of course.

    Finally, shouldn’t policy recommendations be based purely on cost reduction? In which case, does increasing housing supply or reducing demand add or subtract costs? I’m not saying the UK doesn’t need to be building houses, only perhaps we should sort out the demand side first, and then see if there is still a problem. What do you think?

  2. Posted 01/06/2017 at 15:10 | Permalink

    There is slightly more to it than this. If there is a fixed supply of houses and they were all priced at £50,000 (because the supply was huge) and the young never saved a bean, they would not own houses either. It is, as you note, very, very difficult to save for a house deposit, but the less housing market purchase activity there is amongst the young the fewer houses are transferred from the old to the young or from the rented sector to the owner-occupation sector. Or, to put it another way, owners are not heterogeneous.

  3. Posted 12/06/2017 at 07:35 | Permalink

    Your post is such amazing for me. I want your help can you please comment on how this would affect the following?

    1. House prices and rental incomes.
    2. Housing affordability as measured by ratios of discretionary incomes to selling prices/rents (for typical working households).
    3. The allocation of existing housing stock.
    4. Regional tax liabilities.

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