Rental affordability scheme fears are misplaced

The National Rental Affordability Scheme is working as designed, but has failed to meet targets. jroyals/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) looks set for a major shakeup by the government, following suggestions it has been hijacked by universities to develop subsidised studio apartments for wealthy international students, and that foreign investors, brokers and small time investors are exploiting NRAS tax breaks.

It is true that about 20% of dwellings approved for NRAS subsidies are student accommodation. About 25% of these (5% of all the housing produced, or around 1000 dwellings) are apparently let to foreign students. Whether they are indeed wealthy is another question, though it’s clear some fine tuning of NRAS eligibility might be warranted.

At the same time, it could equally be argued that the increased supply of subsidised units in high rent areas around universities will create some downward pressure on rents to the benefit of all tenants in the area.

Indeed, even if some units are rented to people outside the initial target group, by far the more important concern should be the failure of the scheme to achieve anything like its supply target.

Failing to meet targets

To make a real difference for low income renters in major cities, NRAS needs to impact market rents by providing a genuine alternative at the local level. But against an initial target of 50,000 dwellings, more than six years in NRAS has stimulated construction of only about 20,000 new rental properties nationally. At this scale the supply effect of the scheme is minimal. So we are effectively left with another form of welfare housing – albeit for working households – which also means an emphasis on eligibility and targeting, and thus the worry about overseas students.

For more than 20 years governments in Australia have tried to attract private investors in ways that are sometimes creative, and sometimes crude. Examples include public-private toll roads, or the sell-off of once public assets like Qantas. Reducing public debt, increasing efficiency, improved choice for consumers and increased accountability are among the reasons given.

But there are two sides to this ledger, and recruiting market operators to deliver policy objectives carries inevitable costs. This might be in the form and distribution of services, the final cost to consumers, and the ethical behaviour of self-interested investors and providers.

Australia’s skewed housing market

NRAS was designed to induce private investors into providing affordable rental housing. The cost of housing is not just a problem for lower income households unable to afford decent and secure accommodation. Unavailability of affordable housing, especially in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, has much wider social, economic and environmental consequences.

Many lower paid workers are forced to choose between spending more than half their income on rent, or commuting long distances – if they are able to access work at all – and bearing the cost in time, money and family life. When unemployment or family breakdowns happen, the next step is often homelessness, which can so easily begin a cycle of social exclusion.

When the population is growing and there is undersupply of housing, rents rise to meet the repayment commitments of mortgage holders. These in turn are driven upwards by speculation. The same process adds to insecurity for tenants as landlords turn property over to realise their capital gains.

Of course negative gearing already allows investors to reduce the cost of housing investments. By offsetting interest payments, maintenance and other costs, investors reduce their taxable income. Despite plenty of opponents, governments have retained it for fear that investors will desert the rental property sector. But as its critics point out, negative gearing directs the biggest benefits to the most expensive properties and provides an incentive to upgrade property and charge more rent.

NRAS is also a tax benefit, but it provides a fixed rebate of around A$10,000 a year for ten years. Investors can claim the rebate so long as a property is rented through an approved non-profit housing manager at 20% below the market rate. Potential tenants are means tested. In this way NRAS sought to keep investors in the affordable sector for the longer term. If they sell early in order to realise capital gains then the benefit is lost. It also means that low income tenants are less exposed to unexpected rent rises and unscrupulous landlords.

Beware xenophobia

Hong Kong’s Mong Kok has one of the highest population densities in the world. Pondspider/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Concerns about international and small investors exploiting NRAS tax benefits appear to be misplaced if not simply mischievous. The main purpose of NRAS is to make affordable housing at least as attractive to investors as short term capital gains. It was intended to stimulate exactly the kind of activity that its critics describe. Indeed if it was really a “cash cow for canny investors” then a lot more new housing might have been built.

Pointing to international investors and students as somehow ripping off Australian taxpayers through NRAS plays directly into xenophobic fears about Asian interest in Australian property. The question must be asked: is a locally based speculator with an interest in short term capital gains preferable to an international investor committed to providing affordable rental housing in Australia for at least ten years?

In his review Housing Minister Kevin Andrews should carefully consider whether NRAS should be allowed to fulfil its aim of creating a viable long term investment option in affordable rental housing.

Should it be expanded so that it puts downward pressure on rents in our major cities, or should it be reduced to another welfare housing program?

If the government prefers closely targeted housing then a market/private sector driven scheme is surely not the way to go, while if private investment is to power the housing system then we have to accept that the property investment market is now a global one.