Friday, May 20, 2016

Battlefield: rent

A number of large and powerful real estate agencies look set to recommend landlords increase your rent if Australia votes for changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts on July 2nd. We're not sure how else to read the "Negative Gearing Affects Everyone" campaign that's recently attracted media attention.

The agents will smite you if you vote for tax reform
The campaign suggests that "should current taxation arrangements for property be changed, as many are suggesting, rents could be expected to rise substantially". It provides nothing to support this theory, other than a couple of lines about supply and demand:
Because the incentive to buy property to rent out will be severely curtailed, fewer people will buy residential investments, meaning the supply of rental stock will contract: fewer houses means higher rents charged to those who don't own their own homes.
Nobody can argue with these fundamentals, right? Well...

When you're thinking about taxes, housing supply and rents, it's important to remember these two things:
1. Where rents and real estate are concerned, supply and demand dynamics get complicated by the tax system.
2. No matter what federal tax settings look like, the only way your rent can go up is if your landlord serves you with a valid notice of increase.

Let's explore this.

This "incentive to buy property to rent out" that the real estate agents' campaign refers to is, of course, capital gains. According to the campaign authors, the way to keep our rents down is to ensure that property values continue to go up. The idea is obvious enough - increasing property values draws more people into the housing market to buy investment properties, so more properties become available to rent. That's supply taken care of, right?

Well, no, because around 90% of money lent to landlords each year goes to purchase established dwellings. The majority of "new" supply into the rental market is actually existing housing that's just being recycled - moving in from the owner-occupier market or just transferring from one landlord to another. Even if it is new to the rental market, it probably isn't a new home, in which case it can't really be considered new supply. It's just borrowing from Peter to pay back Paul.

But even if we pretend not to notice this glaring hole in the real estate agents' logic, they still have a problem with their argument. The idea that rising prices can put downward pressure on rents is not just counter-intuitive - it's also demonstrably wrong. And it's not merely a question of ever increasing prices (landlords' expenses) dragging up rents (landlords' income), it's about which properties find their way into the rental market, who ends up paying to live in them, and how much they are willing to spend.

In short, it's the the type of supply and demand you're getting in the market that matters. Negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts actively distort the market by affecting supply and demand.

This happens in a couple of different ways.

First, these tax settings affect the supply of rental housing, by manipulating investor demand. The "incentive" to buy properties to rent causes landlord's to pick and choose their purchases based on the prospect of gains. Or, as the real estate agents' campaign authors have put it in another part of their website, to make "strategic investments":
If negative gearing is abolished on all but newly-built dwellings, investors will no longer be able to buy strategic investments, looking to acquire high value properties in prime locations that will realise the best gains over time.
We've talked about what this kind of "strategic investment" does to the shape of the rental market before, but here's a quick reprise: landlords don't buy the cheap stuff because the prospects for gains just aren't the same. 15% of 100 is better than 15% of 10, even at the same rate of growth. Rents at the lower end of the market are increasing faster than rents at the top, because affordable rental housing is actually disappearing from the market.
The shape-shifting private rental market: driven by gains
For six long years Anglicare's Rental Affordability Snapshot has told us what this means for low income households. In the latest snapshot there were only 902 properties advertised across Sydney at what could be considered affordable for a family whose income is made up of a minimum wage and some Family Tax Benefits. 902 properties, or 6.4% of what was advertised for rent during the snapshot period. For a single person on Newstart allowance, there was not a single property advertised during the snapshot that could have been considered affordable. Nada. Zip. Nothing.

National Shelter's Rental Affordability Index provides a somewhat more rigorous analysis. In it's inaugural release in November 2015 it noted that New South Wales faces "rental unaffordability across the board, and a dire situation for low income households".

Second, these tax settings affect the demand for rental housing, by reducing the supply of affordable housing to buy. Negative gearing encourages landlords to carry month-to-month losses by reducing their pay-as-you-go tax liabilities, while capital gains tax discounts increase the chances of these losses being fully recovered in the long-run. Thus landlords can afford to take on greater amounts of debt than their competition, the owner-occupier. They outbid would-be owner-occupiers for properties they do not intend to live in, using them instead to build wealth. This pushes prices higher, faster (and encourages more people to follow this investment strategy if they can).

This is generally understood to be a problem for first-home-buyers, and it is this concern that seems to be driving the current political discussions around tax reform. What these discussions fail to address is that most of these frustrated home-buyers are making homes in the private rental market in the meantime, as tenants. They're earning a decent enough income and can manage the high rents, even if they can't keep up with landlords bidding against them at auction. Then there are those who have simply given up on home-ownership: as house prices scale new heights, they simply wonder how they could ever come up with a deposit in the first place. They're still earning decent money, though, and they're contributing to demand for rental housing while dragging up rents because of what they can afford to pay.

Our housing market dynamics have been working to these conditions for many, many years. They are entrenched. Giving our federal tax settings a few necessary tweaks will not result in immediate or drastic change. Fundamentally, tax reform will not reset the incentive for buying and renting out property. Instead, it should alter the way capital gains are achieved, providing for more tenant friendly "strategic investment" by landlords. The system would adjust. New, more functional dynamics would emerge. But this would take time.

Nobody should expect wholesale rent increases in the short term, unless landlords strategically decided to put them up. We'll come back to that soon, for further discussion.

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