Opinion article

Why rent control isn’t a silver bullet for our housing crisis

The Greens say they’ll continue to call for rent freezes across the country despite reaching a deal to back the Albanese Government’s $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund bill. CEDA Economist Sebastian Tofts-Len and Senior Economist Andrew Barker explain why well-intentioned measures like rent control can have unintended consequences.

Australian renters are struggling.

Rapidly rising rents have turbocharged the cost-of-living crunch, with the impact concentrated on low-income households.

CEDA estimates that renters among the poorest fifth of Australian households could be paying an average of 44 per cent of their disposable income on rents this year. It’s therefore not surprising to see rent control make a return to the policy spotlight.

During the COVID-19 pandemic several states tried to pass rent freezes, with mixed results.

  • In 2021, Tasmania’s Greens introduced a rent control bill that Labor and the Liberals both voted against.
  • The Residential Tenancies (COVID-19 Response) Act in Western Australia effectively introduced rent control for about a year, banning rent increases across the board.
  • The Queensland Government recently proposed – then dropped – restricting the quantum of rental increases. Instead, it limited the number of increases to once every 12 months.
  • Nationally, the Greens had called for rent caps across the country (after a two-year rent freeze) as a precondition to backing the Albanese Government’s Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF). They have since backed the HAFF without these measures, although they continue to support them.

Rent controls do benefit tenants in the short-term. In the long term, however, the costs of rent control outweigh the benefits as it discourages housing supply, fuels housing deterioration, limits housing mobility and drives misallocation between tenants and rental housing.

Unintended costs

As with other goods and services, supply and demand drives the rental market. But rent control artificially pushes the price of rent below what would have otherwise prevailed. This increases demand for rentals while discouraging supply.

Current tenants will benefit from the lower rental prices, but owners will receive less rental income and it will be harder for people looking to rent to find a home.

The longer-term consequences of rent control are more pervasive, and point to the unintended costs of well-intentioned policy.

Existing tenants may remain in bigger or better-located housing even if their circumstances change. This makes it harder for new tenants to find accommodation. It also discourages people from moving house to take up a better job elsewhere, with adverse consequences for the labour market.   

Rent control also undermines the future supply of rental accommodation. By reducing returns, it discourages developers from building more housing, making the shortage of rental accommodation more acute. 

When owners can’t recoup operational costs through rents, they may decide to invest less in maintenance and amenity improvements. This reduces tenants’ quality of life. 

The unfortunate result is that rent control can constrain the availability and quality of rental housing, hurting those it was originally intended to help. 

What does the evidence say? 

Internationally, cross-country analysis by the OECD has found that strict rent control inhibits construction of new housing and discourages maintenance of existing housing. In San Francisco, it was found that rent control limited renters’ mobility by 20 per cent and reduced the supply of existing rental housing by 15 per cent. Although substantial benefits were accrued to incumbent tenants in the short-term, the lost rental supply drove up rental prices in the long-run.

Cross-country analysis also links tighter rent control with less responsive new housing supply. In Sweden, very strict rent control lowered the supply of rental dwellings in some locations, discouraged mobility and led to waiting times of up to 10 years for rental housing.

But less stringent approaches can deliver better outcomes. A 2014 paper that compared rental regulation across several European countries found the German system of capping rent increases using a local reference rent – while leaving initial rents largely unregulated – had struck a good balance that did not form a barrier to investment.  

The verdict 

In light of this evidence, CEDA opposes across-the-board rental caps. There are better ways to assist struggling renters. 

To provide immediate relief, we support plans to ban no-grounds evictions and limiting rent increases for sitting tenants in line with increases in the local market. These measures can deliver greater financial and tenure security for renters without compromising housing supply.

For the long-term, governments should adopt measures to boost housing supply, while ensuring rental rules protect struggling tenants without distorting prices. This includes: planning and zoning deregulation to encourage the supply of private housing investment (largely a responsibility of the states and local governments); continuing to invest in social housing through quality partnerships with public, private and community developers; and providing greater security of tenure for renters and supporting low-income households through better targeting of Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

Read more about these proposals in CEDA’s submission to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee’s Inquiry into the worsening rental crisis in Australia. 

About the authors

Andrew Barker

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Andrew Barker joined CEDA in 2022 as a Senior Economist based in Brisbane. He was previously a Senior Economist and Head of Desk in the OECD economics department, focusing on climate, labour market, productivity and housing policy. As a Research Manager at the Productivity Commission he led quantitative work on water, gas and labour markets and contributed to public inquiries on infrastructure access, automotive manufacturing, service exports and the economic effects of migration. Andrew holds a Master of Commerce (economics) and First Class Honours degrees in economics and environmental engineering from the University of Melbourne.

Sebastian Tofts-Len

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Sebastian Tofts-Len commenced his professional career with CEDA in 2022 as its new Graduate Economist, based in WA. During his undergraduate studies, Sebastian undertook internships with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA, as well as the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation. He also worked as a research assistant at Curtin University, drafting literature reviews on the economics of climate change. Sebastian holds a Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) with Distinction from Curtin University.

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