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We all know about JobKeeper, which helped Australians keep their jobs in a global crisis. So how about HomeKeeper?

Bipartisan support for temporary extra government spending to preserve businesses and jobs through JobKeeper was one of the few positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recognition that the long-term damage caused by short-term economic crises far exceeds the cost of temporary government spending to avoid it underpinned that consensus.

It’s worth considering now whether the same logic could be applied to create a “HomeKeeper” program, especially given Reserve Bank Governor Michele Bullock’s recent message that interest rates could stay higher for longer than expected.

JobKeeper kept businesses open and preserved jobs during the short pandemic economic chasm.

Equally, HomeKeeper could help financially stressed mortgagors avoid losing their homes during the current interest rate crunch, and stop them joining already too-long rental queues – or worse, becoming homeless.

The government could apply vital lessons from JobKeeper’s design flaws too, making HomeKeeper a winner not just for vulnerable mortgagors but for the government’s balance sheet too.

How a ‘HomeKeeper’ scheme could work

Rather than loans or handouts, the government could take a small equity stake in the property, equal to the value of the mortgage aid as a proportion of the property’s market value at that time.

The idea is to give those experiencing mortgage stress a little breathing space to recapitalise and get them through until interest rates ease without having to lose their homes.

Up to $25,000 in assistance per family would be a reasonable ceiling.

It would work like this.

Say, for example, someone has a $500,000 mortgage and their monthly repayment is $5,000.

They could apply for HomeKeeper assistance for five months (reaching the $25,000 cap).

In return, the government would get a 5% equity stake in their house.

This could also be taken out as partial assistance, depending on the homeowner’s needs.

Then, when the owner can pay back the government’s stake, or when the house is sold – whichever is sooner – the government is paid back the market value of the equity stake at that time.

These equity stakes could be held in a government “housing trust” until repaid on market terms.

This would reflect growth in the property’s capital value and make it a sound investment for taxpayers.

By keeping the maximum size of the stake low, the help would matter most to families on low incomes in modest homes.

Relative to the size of their mortgage, it would be significant assistance and might mean the difference between keeping the family home or having to sell.

Mortgage payments could be dispatched directly from the government to the relevant bank with the mortgagor’s permission, to ensure the funds are applied on time and for the agreed purpose.

Why is a HomeKeeper program necessary?

Australia has a crude system for identifying mortgage stress.

In research after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Western Sydney University’s Urban Research Centre found a range of partial, sometimes indirect measures using “inconsistent categories”.

There is “often a failure to disaggregate between wealthy and poorer households”, it said.

In other words, the government tends to cite the overall picture instead of the specific situation of different types of mortgagors.

There is also often the casual assumption that because Australia has full employment, people won’t have trouble meeting their mortgage payments.

“Most households, because employment is so strong and unemployment is so low, they seem to be coping,” ANU economist Ben Phillips told the Australian Financial Review last month.

Phillips conceded, though, that Australia doesn’t have meaningful, up-to-date financial stress indicators.

“Various measures such as arrears, insolvency, savings and so on are partial measures or measures that are perhaps too late in the game,” he said.

So the picture is opaque, and lags.

The early 1990s recession showed how immense damage can already happen by the time governments realise its dimensions.

This eventually had devastating consequences for the Labor government that oversaw it.

The then prime minister, Paul Keating, won the 1993 election immediately after the recession, up against the crusading neoliberal opposition leader, John Hewson, who had proposed a big new goods and services tax.

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But Labor lost the following election in a landslide as voters, in Queensland premier Wayne Goss’s words, sat “on their verandahs with baseball bats” waiting to vote the Keating government out.

Banks classify loans as “delinquent” when mortgage payments are in arrears.

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