We all love small and independent businesses, except, it seems, in the PRS. RLA policy manager John Stewart looks at the obsession with institutional investment at the expense of the individual landlord.
It’s seen as a push back against globalisation and big corporates – backing small, local independent businesses like coffee shops, craft breweries and boutique hotels.
Thumbing our noses at tax-dodging majors like Starbucks, bland products like Carlsberg and the predictable any-city sameness of Premier Inn.
We’re even prepared to pay a premium to generate the feel-good glow that comes from putting money into the pockets of hard-working locals, instead of fuelling the bank balances of anonymous shareholders.
In fact, it’s become so common that big business is jumping on the bandwagon, passing off own brand products and outlets as independents, be it supermarket bakery produce, or Waterstones bookshops.
Yet, when it comes to private renting, everybody wants to kick the small, independent providers.
The government, councils and tenant groups are falling over themselves to back huge corporates and institutional investment in the housing market.
And social housing providers are getting in on the act, too.
Many are already massive organisations managing tens of thousands of homes, with chief executives taking home six-figure salaries.
Even their names sound more corporate than charitable – Affinity Sutton, L&Q, Gentoo.
Increasingly, they are moving to provide new build housing at market rents, directly, through subsidiary companies, or in partnership with banks and pension funds.
So why, when it comes to housing, are the very small independents that would be welcomed in any other sector, under attack?
Firstly, there is the image perpetuated by tenant campaigners, picked up by the media, of greedy landlords with dozens of sub-standard, dangerous properties, cramming in tenants at sky high rents.
While there are undoubtedly criminals in the sector, these are a small minority.
But while the focus of housing lobbyists and the media is on the very worst of the sector there will be little public sympathy.
Secondly, the impression that renting property is easy money.
All landlords have to do is sit back and rake in the cash – there’s even tax relief on the mortgage payments!
Rents are rising and if tenants can’t afford it, they can always be evicted and replaced with another who can pay.
This ignores the fact that the length of tenancies in the PRS is growing and that for the self-managing landlord, renting property is hard work.
In many parts of the UK, rents are not out of control – they are rising in line with wages and below inflation.
Finally, the Government doesn’t approve of investors taking their future into their own hands by investing in property.
They too, see private renting as passive investment that doesn’t boost the economy.
This ignores the pitiful returns from savings, and the mistrust in pension funds, bonds and shares following the financial crisis.
The government has taken a number of steps to boost institutional investment.
The Build to Rent Fund provides up-front cash to spur the development of major schemes, albeit recoverable at commercial rates and there is expert advice available.
Corporate investors are exempt from restrictions imposed on small independent landlords claiming mortgage interest relief.
A move to also exempt the big boys from the additional stamp duty rate on second homes was reversed after pressure from the RLA.
What is so intoxicating about build to rent?
The product is seen as high quality new build development, offering extra services in addition to a roof over your head.
Many build to rent developments have spun out of a successful student market in large-scale purpose built rental accommodation.
With an eye on a fixed yield and regular returns, it’s anticipated that build to rent will offer longer tenancies as standard, providing security for renters.
Dedicated maintenance contracts mean tenants should expect a responsive repairs service, and many will provide a range of communal services such as gyms, cinemas and social spaces.
This love affair with build to rent must come with a warning, however. The sector has been slow to grow.
Even with the enthusiastic backing of government there have been fewer than 20,000 completions and only a further 50,000 homes in the pipeline – a fraction of the additional private rental housing that traditional landlords have supplied over the same period – and a fraction of what the country needs.
Crucial to the success of build to rent is volume. Much like social housing of the 50s and 60s, and suburban new build, developments may lack diversity of design and location, and speed of construction can compromise quality.
Build to rent, even when undertaken by social housing providers, is aimed squarely at young middle class urban professionals.
The product is professional and expensive – a stepping stone from student accommodation to home ownership.
There is little in the build to rent offer for families, rural communities, and those on in-work benefits, and nothing for the out of work or on long-term benefits – the very areas where demand for PRS accommodation is growing fastest.
Again, the traditional PRS is expected to take up the slack, while the government encourages institutional investors to cherry-pick low risk tenants.
It’s the much-maligned buy-to-let brigade who are providing accommodation for working families and those on benefits, locked out of a shrinking supply of social housing, despite welfare cuts, additional regulation and an increasing tax burden.
So, while build to rent will be an important part of the housing mix, it’s certainly not the solution.
The independent private landlord will continue to be crucial to meeting housing need, particularly for those shut out of owner occupation and high-end rentals.
So, it’s time to re-evaluate the private rental market, to bring the same caution to big development as we do with retail, and celebrate the small independents who can be the heroes of the housing crisis.