Thursday, September 21, 2017

How do you solve a problem like Airbnb?

With the deadline for comments on the Government's options paper around short-term holiday letting in New South Wales drawing near - they're due at the end of October - we're starting to see a resurgence of articles and musings about the impact of short-term holiday listing companies on Australia's fragile housing system. We thought we'd weigh in with some early thoughts.

The week kicked off with a comment from Stephen Goddard, strata lawyer and spokesperson for the Owners Corporation Network, in Domain. The OCN advocates that strata lot owners should be given the right to make rules about short-term letting at the micro-level - that is, owners within each individual apartment block should be able to decide for themselves whether they will allow short-term lettings in their building, and under what conditions. Goddard makes some strong points, and it's hard to disagree with the notion of short-term lettings being regulated at that very local level as far as strata is concerned.

It's worth pulling out a couple of items for further discussion. The first is that strata laws in New South Wales don't allow tenants to have any meaningful representation on strata committees, which is where by-laws that would include rules about short-term lettings would be made. Once a by-law is made, tenants can't really challenge them - only the owner of a lot can do that. This presents a problem for the "local democracy" model: those residents who do not want their building to allow short-term letting, and who rent, would be excluded from any discussions or decision around the relevant by-laws. On the other hand their landlords - who may not reside in the same town or city, let alone within the strata complex - would be invited to contribute. That means decisions about short-term lettings would be influenced by people who have no direct interest in the day-to-day concerns of their strata community. The issue could be fixed with a few tweaks of the Strata Schemes Management Act 2015, along the lines argued by the Tenants' Union prior to the Act's implementation, to allow tenants greater say on the management of their strata schemes.

The second is Goddard's comments about the impact of short-term letting on housing affordability more generally. On this he cites research from the University of Sydney's Urban Housing Lab which he says "recently found that short-term letting platforms have removed 6,000 properties from the long-term rental market throughout NSW". He links to an earlier article in which the research was discussed - it quotes the Housing Lab researcher and provides further context around the findings - but we'll have to wait until the research is published before we can get a clear look at what it tells us. Given the fluidity of Australia's housing markets, where properties are traded back and forth between owner-occupiers and investors with relative frequency, the growth of short-term letting raises some interesting questions around the interplay between existing and emerging residential property uses.

The journalist who wrote the earlier story also sought comment from the Tenants' Union prior to publication. Our remarks were not included in the piece, but reference was made to our own research into the impact of Airbnb on Sydney's rental market. This research found no clear correlation between rising rents and an increase in listings in Sydney's Airbnb hot spots, suggesting that deteriorating rental affordability across the city is not necessarily down to Airbnb. This is in keeping with other analysis we've presented about declining rental affordability and the changing shape of the private rental market.

Not surprisingly, vocal opponents of short-term letting are unimpressed with our report, and we've been accused as recently as last week of "cosying up to Airbnb". To be fair, Airbnb Australia has taken to citing our report as part of their arsenal in fending off claims about their company's negative impact on housing affordability - and well they might. But let's be clear, where short-term lettings are concerned the impact on rental affordability is not the only game in town. Far more concerning is the impact on housing security for people who rent, and who can be evicted without grounds by landlords who might consider themselves simply experimenting with a new investment strategy by trying their luck with short-term letting. To be fair again, our "cosying up" accuser has agreed with us on this point.

As our report highlighted, listings for short-term lettings tend to spike during peak tourist times, and many listings do not result in numerous or frequent bookings. This is in keeping with Airbnb's repeated claims that the majority of people listing on their platform are just ordinary folk looking to cover their own costs while taking time away from home. Available data doesn't tell us how many listings are made by owner-occupiers or renters, and how many are made by investors, so we're only able to guess as to the specific impact of landlords turning away residential tenants over the summer in order to take on short-term holiday makers. But there can be no doubt such an impact has long been felt in popular tourist areas across New South Wales, and there can similarly be no doubt the increased ease by which property owners can solicit short-term lettings by using Airbnb is making this worse. Reforming the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 to ensure tenants can't be evicted "without grounds" to allow experimentation with short-term lettings will be critical to solving this problem.

Even with the above-mentioned reforms in mind, there will still be a need to regulate the short-term letting sector. Findings in our report suggest landlords would need to operate on a more-or-less commercial basis if they are to make short-term letting a viable financial alternative to simply renting a place out, but of course there are some who are already doing that. With various examples of third-parties offering their services to manage such operations there is a huge risk this practice will grow, particularly in high demand tourist areas that are already struggling with affordability issues. This is clearly a problem. A commercially operated short-term letting business should only be allowed subject to local government approval, and there should be clear guidelines as to what constitutes a "commercial operation" and the conditions under which it will be approved.

We'll return here to Airbnb's oft quoted claim that the majority of their hosts are not commercial operators, but everyday people simply sharing a spare room for extra cash or keeping their homes lived in and looked after while taking some time away - all part of the global "sharing economy" that some are even calling a financial lifeline. As far as a corporate narrative goes, it's not a bad one, but it clearly sidesteps some of the problems that are created or exacerbated by this highly profitable business. If they were genuine about the claim, they could very easily make it true by limiting the number of bookings a host could solicit via their online platform. There is no doubt they'd lose listings, as the commercial operators would take their business elsewhere, but they'd recover some credibility and perhaps even restore a little faith in their so-called sharing economy. They could trade a bit of money for some moral high-ground. But they don't.

Make sure you get your response to the Government's short-term holiday letting options paper by October 31st.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Building to let

The concept of "building-to-let" seems to be gaining some traction as a solution to Australia's housing affordability woes. As the name suggests, building-to-let happens when a developer builds residential dwellings - presumably apartments - with the intention of renting them out rather than selling them off once complete. As circumstances (aka house prices) are forcing many of us to re-imagine the great Australian dream, this is just the kind of blue sky thinking we need.

Imagine...! A landlord who is interested in a relationship with tenants rather than property! Who won't cringe at the thought of picture hooks, curtains, a new light fitting. Who will let you keep a pet, subject to reasonable by-laws. Who won't put the rent up just because everyone else is doing it. Who won't kick you out because they want the place for their kids, or to sell it, or simply for no reason at all.

Just imagine!

Perhaps the reason this would appeal to so many Australian renters is that it is the polar opposite of what our private rental market currently delivers. As we discussed in a recent post, Australia's landlords are
... mostly one-off or small-time investors, "mums and dads" who are more interested in property for its capacity to generate wealth than providing homes for families. They'll hang onto a property for maybe five years or so then sell it, banking the gains or putting them towards their next investment. For the most part, Australian landlords are not interested in building large portfolios, and they don't want to concern themselves with the day-to-day workings of property investment. They tend not to engage with things like renting laws, tribunal procedures, or tenants' rights unless they have to. Many are happy to ignore these aspects of investment altogether, handing them all over to real estate agents who know only too well they won't have anyone looking over their shoulder as long as the rent rolls in and the outgoings stay under control.
Building to let offers a genuine counter to this. At least, it does in theory.

But there's a problem, and it's one of culture. Australia's approach to housing is built on the assumption that you rent when you're young, then you buy a home, and then you buy an investment property. There's been a recent shift in this assumption, at least for some, so that you rent when you're young and then buy an investment property so you might be able to afford a home when you retire.

No doubt the sudden emergence of this build-to-let discussion is an indicator that whatever underpins these assumptions is faltering. That in itself is a very interesting development. But it will take a great deal more to change Australia's values when it comes to renting versus owning your own home for the long term. This is important, because it affects the rules and regulations under which our rental markets operate, and how they might change.

The establishment of "build-to-let" schemes could aide in the evolution of Australia's renting laws, as a new class of landlord emerges with interests that are somewhat less in conflict with tenants' than our millions of "mum and dad" investors' are. On the other hand, pushing against long-established cultural norms may prove all too difficult, or even undesirable, for such landlords. As always, the proof will be in the pudding.

Institutional investment does not mean investment in tenants' interests. For all the good they may do, consider the dearth of support from community housing landlords for a simple proposal to make renting fair: more than eighty organisations from across New South Wales are calling on the Government to end unfair evictions by removing no-grounds notices of termination and expanding the list of reasonable grounds available for landlords to use when a tenancy must be brought to an end - but socially responsible, not-for-profit landlords are notably absent from that list. You might think institutional landlords with a mission to improve outcomes for the households who need it most would be the first to engage with such ideas, but evidently the status quo suits.

So when you read statements from major developers who say things like
I believe, and based on the experience in other parts of the world, institutional grade multi-family housing tends to streamline the process of renting by providing tenants with the stability to live long term in rental property, should they elect to do so, without the risk of the owner selling, greater reaction time to any repairs and maintenance, access to modern properties within sought after locations and security in tenure over the property
Creating a sustainable, affordable housing market in NSW means providing a diverse range of housing options and build to rent could be a viable choice to provide certainty and security of tenure to people who want to rent rather than buy
... without reference to tenancy law reform, it should be taken with a grain of salt. If we can't even get our social housing landlords to commit to improved security of tenure for renters, what hope do we have for the private sector?

Consider comments attributed to Treasurer Dominic Perrottet while discussing the NSW Government's possible support for build-to-let schemes recently, that "finding ways to give renters that security without excessively curtailing the rights of property owners is a fine line to walk". Evidently the build-to-let solution has already surrendered to Australia's established housing culture.

Again, the proof will be in the pudding. We're aware that some developers in Sydney are already building to let - we know this because we sometimes hear from their tenants. What we're hearing are stories of unlawful, non-refundable "pet licenses", and evictions without grounds.

We'd like to see building to let flourish in New South Wales. A genuine market intervention from institutional landlords could be just what many of Australia's long-term renters need. Unfortunately, for the time being at least, it looks like it would be just another sideline for developers.

Friday, August 25, 2017

New Bonds data released but more is needed

Yesterday Fair Trading released bond data for the first time other than through the Rent and Sales Report. We welcome the release of this data as it will be very useful to enhance understanding of issues and trends in the rental sector. As the Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, Matt Kean said in his media release, “I want to put consumers first and this data does that by allowing open, transparent access to useful rental information.” Sounds good to us, Minister!

However, it pays to understand what this data tells us - and just as importantly what it does not.

An article this morning helped to demonstrate the limits of this data. Looking over the data, the journalists discovered that a much larger proportion of bonds being refunded in some areas of Sydney and New South Wales were going to the landlord rather than the tenant. The problem is we don't know the context of those bond refunds, and how they were claimed.

Click for full size!

Bonds can be released from the Rental Bond Board in one of three ways. The landlord and tenant can come to a mutual agreement and lodge a bond refund form with both parties agreeing to amounts payable either way. If the parties can't come to an agreement, one or other of them  can make a unilateral claim for what they think is appropriate, without the other party's signature. The person who didn't sign is given 14 days to lodge an application to the Tribunal if they disagree with the claim. If they do not take it to the Tribunal the bond is paid out as requested. This is the second option. The last option is that the dispute does go to the Tribunal and the bond is decided either by a final negotiation, or as decided by the Tribunal Member.

Tenants and landlords should both be aware that the bond is the tenants' money. It is held in trust by the Rental Bond Board - it is not some common pool of money and landlords should not regard it as theirs for the taking. Vulnerable tenants may be unaware of their ability to dispute a claim against the bond, or indeed feel unable to assert their rights due to their vulnerability in the rental sector.

Whether bond refunds are agreed upon, or disputed, and whether a claim made by the landlord has been tested in the Tribunal is a crucial piece of information which the Rental Bond Board already has in its data banks and could release. It would go a long way to allowing researchers and journalists to peer behind the information that's already been released and examine the geographic differences that have been drawn out.

We've also heard that exit surveys on bonds have been considered - we think this is an excellent idea. For instance there is no information currently collected about how and why tenancies in NSW end - this means a government and community making decisions about how effectively tenancy legislation is working have a very deep and dark blind spot on an incredibly important aspect of renting law. An exit survey on the bond claim form would be a simple and effective way of adding a depth of knowledge to our collective understanding of the renting experience in our state.

In the spirit of open and transparent access to information, we encourage the Minister and Fair Trading NSW to consider releasing both the currently available information of whether bond claims are disputed and tested, and strongly consider implementing the bond survey to develop a truly excellent source of data.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Tenants’ Union welcomes Labor’s flagged shift on renters’ rights

The Tenants' Union of NSW has released the following statement about reported changes to the NSW Labor Party's Sustainable Communities platform

NSW Labor has flagged a new policy agenda that could change the game for renters, says Tenants’ Union NSW.

Over the weekend, the NSW Labor party’s conference recognised a growing number of families rent their homes in New South Wales, and pledged to modernise rental laws to provide certainty, balance and fairness in the rental market. Early reports suggest this could include placing limits on rent increases, ending unfair evictions, and strengthening rights for renters with pets.

“These would be significant reforms, they’d be welcomed by renters right across New South Wales,” said Ned Cutcher, Senior Policy Officer with the state’s peak body for renters. “The Tenants’ Union of NSW has been calling for this kind of reform for years and it is extremely encouraging to see the discussion taking prominence.”

Mr Cutcher was quick to point out that the NSW Labor party changing its platform at conference time, while in opposition, does not necessarily lead to reform.

“The timing is good because the Government has still not brought in the changes it promised over a year ago, following a statutory review of our renting laws,” Mr Cutcher said. “We’re obviously following that pretty closely, and now we’ll be watching to see how Labor responds when those changes are brought through.”

“We know the NSW Greens have a strong renters’ rights platform so it makes for some healthy debate in Parliament when the time comes.”

Mr Cutcher said a limit on the frequency of rent increases would bring New South Wales into line with the rest of the country, but ending unfair evictions and strengthening rights for renters with pets would be genuine innovations in the Australian context.

“All over the country tenants can be evicted without a good reason, and all over the country families are prevented from making decisions about keeping pets because their landlords say no. For the growing number of renters across Australia these rules seem pretty harsh,” Mr Cutcher said.

“We’d love to see this change in New South Wales and we’ll happily work with NSW Labor to help develop these policies.”

For that matter, we’d love to work with Minister Matt Kean and the NSW Government on this all the more.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Hit the pause button

Front page of The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 2017
A fortnight ago ABC News reported that Australia looks almost certain to win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, do we deserve a seat?

In recent years Australia's human rights record has become very blemished ... not just in the area of treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Back in August 2014 Ms Kim Boettcher, solicitor for Seniors Rights Service addressed the United Nations' Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (5th session), and drew attention to the plight of tenants of social housing at Millers Point and The Rocks. She told the Working Group how one of the elderly residents said to relocate her away from her community is ‘one step short of putting you up against a wall and shooting you because it’s saying you are of no value to society. You are worthless.’ You may read her full address here. Indeed, last year The Millers Point Community Working Party and Tenants Union of NSW made submissions to the Australian Law Reform Commission on 'Protecting the Rights of Older Australians from Abuse', arguing that the actions of the NSW Government in Millers Point constitute systemic elder abuse.

The NSW Government's sale of public housing in Millers Point continues. As at 11 July 2017, there have been 151 sales, some of multiple properties. Altogether the sale of 200 properties at Millers Point has raised $422.77 million (with a further $22.09 million being generated in Stamp Duty!). You may check the NSW Government's dedicated website for their figures at the end of June 2017 here.

But at what cost? At the time of the Minister's announcement to sell all social housing stock in Millers Point, there were 579 residents in 399 tenancies in the portfolio.

At 19 July 2017, 16 residents in 10 tenancies remain. So, altogether 563 tenant and household members in 389 tenancies have either vacated or are committed to moving. There are 2 tenants remaining in the Sirius Building. We have previous reported extensively on the impact of forced relocation on the residents.

So when is enough, enough? This once proud and historic community indeed, the only community to have bestowed upon it the status of 'A Living Heritage', has been decimated by the cruel edict in March 2014 to remove all social housing tenants from their community and sell off their homes, resulting in great pain and suffering! The last few surviving elderly, vulnerable tenants ask the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to end this abuse of their basic human rights and allow the few to stay, and 'age-in-place'.

A new development gives our Premier the opportunity to redress this great injustice. On Tuesday of this week, the NSW Land and Environment Court made a ruling that the NSW Government's decision not to put the iconic Sirius Building on the heritage list was invalid. This gained wide media coverage on the ABC News , The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian . Shaun Carter, Save Our Sirius chairperson, said it was a good day for the building, the local community and the whole of NSW. He urged the Premier to hit pause on the demolition and and sale of Sirius. He said let's talk about the heritage listing of Sirius and how the building could be used for social housing again. He added: 'We are desperately short of social and affordable housing, let's now use it for what it was intended.'
Last two remaining Sirius residents Myra Demetriou and Cherie Johnson
and Save our Sirius chairperson Shaun Carter. (ABC News)
So the question becomes: Will the NSW Government show compassion and allow Myra and Cherie (and the other older residents of Millers Point) to age-in-place in their homes? Yes, stop the evictions, with more residents facing hearings at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Yes, seize the opportunity which the Land and Environment Court has provided and let's talk again about the importance of retaining social housing in Millers Point. You have received oodles of cash from the sales to date and you also announced a billion dollar windfall in revenue from stamp duty in this year's State Budget. If you still insist on selling the homes which are not in the Sirius building, then defer this and do so when these few remaining residents don't require them. 

Over to you, Premier! Show the nations of the world that our great state, New South Wales, has a government that leads the way by being fair and compassionate when it comes to its citizens, no matter of age, race or creed! Let's make a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council more than mere words.

The authors of this post are Barney Gardner, member of the Millers Point Community Working Party, and Robert Mowbray, Project Officer - Older Tenants with the Tenants' Union of NSW.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Renting with pets: a canary in the coal mine

To keep, or not to keep a pet? Ever since we raised the issue in our contribution to the review of NSW renting laws, debate has raged about whether this should be a decision for investors or homemakers to make. Unless you've got a particular love for, or an aversion to animals yourself, the side you come down on will perhaps be influenced by whether you spend your time talking to landlords or tenants.

Our views on this issue have been clearly and firmly put, and are a matter of public record. Today we're going to step back a little to explore what this discussion tells us about the state of our housing market. Our conclusion is that the "renting with pets" debate is a study in all that is wrong with our housing system, and a clear indicator of why it needs to change.

There are two stories to tell here. The first is how the private rental market has become the long-term landing place for a growing number of Australians looking to establish a new home, with limited prospects for debt-free home-ownership in the lifetimes of many. The second is how the residential property market remains dominated by small-time investors who are not motivated by the needs of householders, nor any broad sense of social responsibility, but by capital gains.

In New South Wales, there were 83,870 more rented dwellings at the 2016 Census than there were in 2011. Compare this to owner-occupied dwellings, which grew by 35,362 over the same period - with 19,649 more owned outright, and 15,713 more owned with a mortgage. The number of unoccupied dwellings grew by 19,403, which means any new dwelling built in the last five years, or established dwelling that changed hands during that time, is more likely to have become a rented home than anything else.

Of the 2.15 million renters in New South Wales at the Census, almost 90% were in the private rental market relying on so-called "mum and dad" investors for a place to call home. That's up from about 83% in 2011. The lion's share of renters are aged between 20 and 40, and a quarter are aged between 40 and 65. 41% of renter households are families with children, making them the single largest group of renters, while 20% are couples making a home together. 27% of renters are single and living alone, and 9% are sharing with others. Many would like to bring a pet into their homes.

Analysis from the 2011 Census confirmed that a growing number of households are renting for ten years or longer - not necessarily in the same home - and we expect to see this pattern continue as academics and researchers crunch the 2016 data. The proportion of dwellings that are owner-occupied is in slow decline, but those that are rented is rising more sharply, showing that fewer renters are now exiting the market to take on home ownership.

Critically, the number of people taking on debt to achieve home ownership has tapered off quite considerably. The growth of homes owned with a mortgage has slowed in each Census period since 2001. Compared to rented dwellings, for which that sharp rise has been recorded, this growth has been particularly slow in the last five years.

The number of homes owned outright has recorded similarly slow growth, which provides an ominous sign for the growing ranks of long-term renter households - even if you do manage to buy a home some day, chances are you'll never pay it off. In a nation that has defined itself as egalitarian and propertied, that's a source of frustration in its own right. Add the lack of agency Australia's renter households have over basic questions such as whether to plant a tree, paint a wall, or keep a pet, and it's easy to see why the "renting with pets" issue continues to flare up. For those who would write these frustrations off as mere indulgence, bear in mind that for the large numbers of tenants who are grown-up, pursuing long-term relationships and raising families in their rented homes they are simply the issues of the day. In another ten or fifteen years from now we may well be wondering why our aged-care and retirement systems - designed with a home-owning population in mind - have simply collapsed in a heap around us, but for now the "renting with pets" debate is a clear sign that all is not well and those most affected are not going to forget it anytime soon.

On the other side of this equation are our landlords, who by definition do not find themselves in the position of having "missed out" on property ownership. It's a little harder to get a handle on them, but we can use statistics from the Australian Tax Office to paint ourselves a picture. The last data we have available is from the 2014/15 financial year, and it tells us that the vast majority of Australia's tax-paying landlords own only a single rental property or two.

They're mostly one-off or small-time investors, "mums and dads" who are more interested in property for its capacity to generate wealth than providing homes for families. They'll hang onto a property for maybe five years or so then sell it, banking the gains or putting them towards their next investment. For the most part, Australian landlords are not interested in building large portfolios, and they don't want to concern themselves with the day-to-day workings of property investment. They tend not to engage with things like renting laws, tribunal procedures, or tenants' rights unless they have to. Many are happy to ignore these aspects of investment altogether, handing them all over to real estate agents who know only too well they won't have anyone looking over their shoulder as long as the rent rolls in and the outgoings stay under control.

Because they're not building economies of scale, landlords tend to stick to a simple and rigid formula. The tax data also shows that while they're holding property, almost two-thirds of Australia's landlords are operating at a loss.

They do this because they can count their investment losses against non-investment income, such as salaries and wages, for income tax purposes. By running at a loss, landlords can reduce their day-to-day tax liabilities, masking the expense of holding property. They also expect property to go up in value, providing tax-discounted windfalls when they sell. In a sense they're gambling - losing a little money today in the hope of making it all back and more in the future, and our tax system encourages this through negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts. But in the meantime the majority of Australia's landlords are still running at a loss, which makes them highly sensitive to unanticipated expenses.

For many, this sensitivity is built into their investment strategy, such that they will be overly concerned with the type of household they will rent their property to - and just as importantly, who they wont. Tenants with pets are seen as a risk, even though they are clearly liable under renting laws for any damage their pets might cause. Our renting laws are less clear on whether a landlord can over-rule a tenant's decision to keep a pet, but many take this as a given. It is common practice for tenancy agreements to include a "no pets" clause at the insistence of the landlord or their agent.

The "pets and renting" debate helps us identify key changes we need to make to our inequitable housing system in order that it may provide greater equality of experience. At the federal level we need to rethink the way property is taxed, and find ways to foster a view of investment that delivers homes for families rather than just bricks and mortar. At the state level we need to revisit renting laws, and give tenants greater agency over the decisions they may make, and the responsibilities they take on, as householders.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Australia's 10 million spare bedrooms

This morning The Guardian published an article using recent data released from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It was a good piece, but it had a somewhat misleading headline. The Brown Couch's founder had this to say:

If the vacancy rate in public housing is only 3% what was the headline trying to say? They were measuring the use of bedrooms in public housing and noting that one in six bedrooms is "under-utilised."

As it happens, this year the Census data introduced a specific measure of "Housing Suitability" which measures whether a household has spare bedrooms, or needs extra. Let's take a look at the state of bedroom use.

Not the typical use of a bed
The data shows about 75% of our spare bedrooms are in owner occupied housing. It isn't just that a majority of Australian homes are owner-occupied - 87% of homes owned outright have at least one spare bedroom, and almost 60% have two or more. Mortgaged homes are slightly better, as only 77% of these have a spare bedroom. 41% have two spare rooms or more.

Australia wide, the story is the same. There are more than 10 million spare bedrooms in Australia. Around two thirds of our mortgaged homes have spare rooms, as do 80% of homes that are owned outright.

Social housing looks very different. Not only do less than a third of tenanted social housing properties have a spare room, there are more in this tenure type that are mildly overcrowded. 2 in every 5 social housing dwellings are in need of at least one extra bedroom.

Renters both in the private rental market and social housing are much better at utilising their bedrooms than owner-occupiers. There are different reasons for this - where private renters are pushed to efficiency by price signals and competition (ie you generally only rent as many rooms as you need, unless you're either bonkers or rich), social housing renters are pushed by the allocation strategies of their landlords. Social housing tenants who do have a "spare" bedroom do so because they need it, and are entitled to it under the policies of their provider. For example, households may be given an additional room for a live-in carer, for family members who reside with them part-time, or for cultural reasons.

Of course, the other major reason we hear of social housing tenants ending up with a spare bedroom is that their allocation is not really suited to their needs, or their needs have changed since their allocation  made. You can't really blame a household for so-called "under utilising" if they're occupying the only property that is available to them - our failure to build enough social housing properties throughout the ages means many people have nowhere to downsize to as their needs change.

Despite this, social housing tenants are clearly putting their part of the nation's housing stock to the most efficient use, relative to the rest of the population.

Well done to you all!