New Grattan Institute research to be presented at the UNSW Social Policy Conference in Sydney today shows that restoring the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) won’t help because NRAS was expensive, inefficient, and poorly targeted.
Other policies, such as investing in social housing and increasing Commonwealth Rent Assistance, are better ways to help low-income earners cope with high housing costs:
What was NRAS?
NRAS was a Rudd-era policy that paid incentives to property developers and community housing organisations that built new dwellings and rented them out to eligible tenants at 20 per cent below market rents for 10 years.
The Abbott Government axed the scheme in 2014. The Department of Social Services estimates the whole-of-life cost of the scheme to the Commonwealth at $3.1 billion, with the final payments to be made in 2026-27.
Labor promised to introduce a new NRAS program if it won the 2019 federal election. Now advocates of affordable housing are calling on the Morrison Government to reinstate the scheme.
Here’s why it shouldn’t happen.
NRAS was poor value for money
The value of the NRAS subsidy was set much higher than it needed to be. NRAS developers who have ‘grandfathered’ dwellings still on the program receive about $11,000 of public money each year (the subsidy was set originally at $8,000). In exchange, the government ‘bought’ new dwellings that were rented out at a 20 per cent discount to eligible tenants in that year.
The problem is, $11,000 is much more money than the developers need to cover the rental discount received by tenants. In 2016, the value of a 20 per cent rental discount was just under $4,000 a year in the typical suburb in which NRAS properties were built. The leftover value of the subsidy – about $7,000 a year – was essentially a windfall gain for developers.
We estimate that NRAS provided windfall gains to private developers of at least $1 billion, or roughly one-third of total cost of the scheme. Community housing providers also received windfall gains although they are likely to have reinvested the funds into more affordable housing or a deeper rental discount to tenants.
The cost of the scheme was also much too high because the subsidy didn’t vary depending on the location or type of dwelling: the same subsidy was offered for a one-bedroom apartment or a four-bedroom home in the same location. Not surprisingly, the scheme ultimately funded a lot of small, cheap-to-build apartments.
Of course, the fact that NRAS led to the construction of many smaller dwellings is not a problem in itself. After all, there is a severe shortage of smaller one- and two-bedroom homes affordable to low-income Australians. And the existing social housing stock appears under-utilised: 60 per cent of social housing dwellings having at least one spare bedroom. But it is clear that governments got particularly poor value-for-money where NRAS subsidies were used to construct smaller dwellings.
NRAS didn’t help people who needed the most support
The eligibility criteria for NRAS properties were far too loose. An individual can qualify to live in one of the NRAS dwellings left on the scheme with an income of up to $50,000, higher than median income in Australia, and a couple can qualify if their household income is below $70,000. That means about half of all Australian households that rent qualify to live in an NRAS-subsidised home.
Even though NRAS was much less targeted than Commonwealth Rent Assistance, it cost far more. The annual cost of making an affordable home available through NRAS – $11,000 a year – is more than three times the maximum rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance for a single adult. About half of these NRAS-eligible households would not be eligible for Commonwealth Rent Assistance because their incomes are too high.
And NRAS housing does not appear to have been particularly well targeted at the most needy. Just one-third of the households living in an NRAS home in 2016 had gross household incomes below $30,000 a year, whereas one-third had incomes above $50,000 a year.
NRAS didn’t increase the supply of housing by much, if at all
There’s little evidence that NRAS led to more housing than would have been built anyway.
Government subsidies don’t create additional housing if they crowd out other private development. Crowding out is more likely when supply is already constrained, as it is in major Australian cities where land-use planning rules prevent greater density in established suburbs. International research confirms that affordable housing tends to crowd out the private market.
Testimonials claim NRAS created substantial new supply.5 But there is little definitive evidence that NRAS added substantially to housing construction. A 2016 report by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) concluded that NRAS did boost supply, but conceded in the fine print that it isn’t possible to determine whether the extra dwellings were truly additional.6 In evidence to the 2015 Senate Economics Committee inquiry into housing affordability, a Department of Social Services representative said NRAS ‘certainly reduced the rent for the houses in the scheme … however, it was difficult to determine whether NRAS had succeeded as a supply-side measure’.
Nor was NRAS an effective economic stimulus, because providing tax incentives for affordable housing development is both slow and administratively burdensome. NRAS began in 2008 at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, but NRAS construction took off only after 2013, by which time housing construction was already booming.
But there are better ways to house low-income Australians
Of course NRAS could be done differently, but there are inherent problems with government schemes to subsidise the supply of affordable housing: they inevitably mean fewer funds are available to help other households in greater need.
Instead of reinstating NRAS, state and Commonwealth governments should focus on policies that will do the most (at least cost) to better house low-income Australians.
As a priority governments should build more social, rather than affordable housing, and target it at people at serious risk of becoming homeless. The best Australian evidence shows that social housing substantially reduces tenants’ risk of homelessness. But Australia’s stagnating social housing stock means there is little ‘flow’ of social housing available for people whose lives take a big turn for the worse.
In particular, the Morrison Government should repeat another Rudd-era policy, the Social Housing Initiative, under which 20,000 social housing units were built and another 80,000 refurbished over two years, at a cost of $5.6 billion. The economic hit was immediate: construction approvals spiked within 12 months of the announcement. A repeat today would provide a more effective boost to housing construction than NRAS.
Boosting Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 40 per cent, and indexing it to changes in rents typically paid by people receiving income support, would be a fairer and more cost-effective way to help reduce financial stress and poverty among poorer renters. Rents won’t change much since only some of the extra income will be spent on housing.
The states should fix planning rules that prevent more homes being built in inner and middle-ring suburbs of our largest cities, to make housing cheaper to buy or rent. And the states should reforming tenancy rules, to make renting more secure.
There is a powerful case for governments to do more to help house low-income Australians. But unless we learn from past mistakes, we will wind up with another expensive housing policy that does little to help those who most need that support.
Good report, except that it ignores the obvious solution of slashing immigration to take the pressure off supply. This would be far more effective than “fixing planning rules”.