Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rental affordability deteriorates, again

Hot on the heels of the Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot for 2017, the SGS Economics and Planning, Community Sector Banking and National Shelter Rental Affordability Index for December 2016 reveals what most Sydney-siders and New South Welsh-folk already know: the squeeze on rents is getting tighter.

Picture by thepurpah
The headline finding is that Sydney's rental affordability is as bad as ever, having plunged to a record low towards the end of last year. The average household now pays around 29% of their income on rent - meaning that renters with even reasonable wages are heading towards a form of housing stress, if they're not already there.

Unsurprisingly, the least affordable suburbs are harbour-side. They include Elizabeth Bay, Rushcutters Bay, Potts Point, Woolloomooloo, Double Bay, Milsons Point, Kirribilli, Darling Point, Point Piper, Edgecliff and Woollahra. For a dual income household with kids, bringing in $140,000 a year, a three bedroom home in any of these iconic suburbs would be unaffordable (30%-38% of income) or severely unaffordable (38%-60% of income), according to the index. For a single working parent earning around $70,000 per year, a 2 bedroom home in most of these suburbs would come in at the unaffordable range. Rent for an unemployed person looking for a single bedroom unit would be extremely unaffordable (60% or more of income) in all of these suburbs.

There's still some hope for working families. The dual income couple with kids might find a three bedroom home with an acceptable rent (20%-25% of income) around places like Hornsby, Epping, Lidcombe, Lakemba, Earlwood, Kogarah or Miranda. A single working parent might pay an acceptable rent for a two-bedder around Liverpool or Penrith.

But there's no such hope for the single unemployed person. Rents for one bedroom homes remain in the extremely unaffordable range for this cohort, throughout the entire Greater Sydney area. Even if three or four unemployed folk decided to pool resources and go in together for a sharehouse, rents for suitable properties remain extremely unaffordable until about Blacktown, Liverpool or Engadine. Further out they become severely unaffordable, but that's as far is it goes across the remaining suburbs.

Things improve for dual income households with kids once you get past the limits of Sydney, with the rest of New South Wales showing rents for three bedroom homes as generally acceptable, affordable (20%-25% of income), or very affordable (less than 20% of income). Of course, that's based on an annual household income of $140,000, which might be harder to come by in some of the further flung parts of the state, so take that with a grain of salt.

Single working parents will also do better outside of Sydney, subject to the same caveat: two bedroom homes for a household with an income of $70,000 per year will be acceptable, affordable or very affordable in most parts of New South Wales. Wollongong, central Newcastle and Byron Bay are the exceptions.

Where available, single bedroom homes remain severely unaffordable or extremely unaffordable to an unemployed person receiving an income support payment, right across the state. For those prepared to share, a two bedroom place might be moderately unaffordable for anyone on an unemployment benefit (25%-30% of income) around Wellington, Parkes or Cobar. If you can find a third person, rent for a three bedroom home might be acceptable in Cobar. Of course, your income payments might take a bit of a hit if you leave Sydney for one of these towns, as your chances of finding paid work will be somewhat diminished. You'll probably have your payments cut for up to 26 weeks after moving to an area with lower work prospects so don't forget to factor that in...

Why is this happening?
Conventional wisdom is that prices go up when supply doesn't keep up with demand, but there are a number of indicators telling us things are a little more complicated when it comes to rents. For a start, contemporary discussion around housing affordability tends to focus on the supply and demand of housing as a financial asset, rather than for its purpose of providing shelter. "Housing demand" has become something of a proxy for "mortgage demand", and "housing supply" is geared towards meeting the needs of mortgagors rather than home-makers - even if at the micro level these are often the same thing.

A quick look at where the current demand for residential property finance is coming from reveals a whole lot of it is going to investors.

Aust. property lending monthly ('000), investment (red) v owner occupation (blue), Jun 2001 - Feb 2017. Source: ABS
Evidently there's been more money pulled into the rental market than for owner-occupation over the last little while. In other words, the rental market is currently enjoying the lion's share of supply. But we can't assume this puts us on a path to affordability because the vast majority of supply into the rental market is coming from investors purchasing established dwellings rather than new builds.

NSW property investment lending monthly ('000), June 2001 - Feb 2017, established (red) v new (blue) dwellings. Source: ABS
Much of the increase in rental market supply comes at the expense of supply for owner-occupiers. Potential first home-buyers are particularly impacted by this, and they're remaining in the rental market for longer. Increasing rental market supply is absorbed by a more-or-less corresponding increase in demand for rental housing. But as we can see from the blue line above, investors have been putting larger amounts of mortgage finance towards new construction over the last little while. New construction delivers supply to meet "mortgage demand" - not just the demand for shelter - which should be putting downward pressure on rents. But, as the index shows, it's not.

Our latest Rent Tracker report shows this as well, indicating that rents have gone up in Sydney even where large amounts of new supply has been brought into the rental market. Based on the number of new rental bonds lodged, Rent Tracker doesn't distinguish between new rental supply coming from construction compared to that which comes from increased investment in established dwellings. But checking this against data from the NSW Department of Planning & Environment we can see that a great many new dwelling completions across Sydney are in the form of new apartments. These are most likely being purchased by investors.

New dwelling completions, Sydney. Source: NSW Dept L&E
With a high proportion of one and two bedroom units turning up for rent over the last few months, despite families with children making up the highest chunk of demand for rental housing, it's evident that this kind of investment is not being driven by what households really need. Rental supply is not being driven by renter demand, because housing supply is being driven by mortgage demand.

That's the story with new construction, but it's also the story with increased rental market supply in general. Investors aren't pulling established dwellings away from owner-occupiers because they want to provide housing for people who can't afford to buy, but because they hope to grow their wealth. The allure of wealth, after all, is what is driving demand for mortgages. Aided by tax settings that expedite the debt-to-wealth strategy - negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts - investors are encouraged to buy property based on prospects for profit rather than any measured demand from renter households. They're buying more expensive property as higher price tags come with faster and bigger gains. They're leaving the cheap stuff to developers who can turn it into more expensive property in order to meet investor demand...

Over time, this has changed the shape of the rental market. Affordable rents are a thing of the past.

Volume and rents ($/2011) of Australian rental properties over time. Source: AHURI
For that matter, we don't measure demand for rental housing like we used to. Back in the olden days the National Housing Supply Council - now defunct - used to report on the affordability and availability of rental housing. Then, as now, there was a shortage of properties available for rent to households on the very lowest incomes, for much the same reasons that we can see today. But it's easy to imagine that if this work had continued with appropriate levels of government support, we'd have a much clearer understanding of our rental affordability challenges and how to tackle them once and for all. Instead we've allowed things to get much worse.

Last week's Federal Budget has pinned a lot of hope on measures to increase supply. This includes the renewal of the National Affordable Housing Agreement, to be renamed the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA). Under the NHHA the Australian Government will work with the states and territories to increase the supply of (mortgage driven) private rental housing through measures such as planning and zoning reforms. With the latest Rental Affordability Index in mind, we'll take a closer look at these Budget measures in a later post. In the meantime, parties to a new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement would do well to consider monitoring both rents and demand for private rental housing across the income spectrum, to ensure this Budget's impacts are being properly accounted for down the track.


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