Can housing be made affordable again?

Published on: 14 April 2022

Current issues related to economics, (responsible) investment, pensions and income: every week an APG expert gives a clear answer to the question of the week. This time: Head of European real estate Robert-Jan Foortse talks about the question of whether housing can be made affordable again.

New homes threaten to become unaffordable for many people, warns the Home Owners Association (VEH) on Monday. The same day, the government says it wants to do something about the steep rise in rents in the free sector. The question arises whether housing can be made affordable again, and how. According to Foortse, there is only one solution, and that is to build more homes. A lot of homes. 

Rental Rates
“I think the solution is a bigger housing supply. Other measures may be counterproductive. One example of a counterproductive measure is limiting rent increases. After all, if rents are no longer allowed to rise, why would investors invest in Dutch homes? One consequence may be that large investors invest their capital in the housing market of the countries around us, where often the same problems apply as in the Netherlands. After all, part of the problem is partly the result of the monetary and fiscal policy pursued in recent years.”

When it comes to rental housing, corporations also play a role. “They could divest part of their rental housing in the free sector to institutional investors in order to focus entirely on social rental housing.” Foortse does not think that will send rental rates in the free sector through the roof. “Institutional investors generally invest in residential properties because they have a fairly low investment risk and are therefore a stable part of their portfolio. Residential investments have a somewhat lower return but if the rent increases are around the inflation level, I think it works well for investors. For this year, the largest Dutch investors, in consultation with IVBN and the Ministry of the Interior, have decided to limit the rent increase to 3.3%, despite higher inflation. A limited rent increase reduces competition because it makes private equity firms, which want to increase rent as much as possible in a short period of time, lose interest. Thus, you reduce the stress on the market and prices do not go through the roof. Long-term investors benefit most from a stable, predictable housing market.”

Investors are also looking at accessibility for housing in the large cities for workers such as teachers and medical staff

New buildings
The Dutch housing market now consists of 57 percent owner-occupied housing and 43 percent rental housing. Investments for new rental homes will have to come partly from investors, but the money for owner-occupied homes will have to be raised by private buyers. “Newly built homes are now in the 300 to 500,000s, but that is a price that few people can afford anymore, according to VEH. The question is how to build houses in the 200 to 250,000 range. They will either be much smaller than the current new construction, or they will be in places that are less desirable,” Foortse says. There are two major components in the price structure of a house that make it difficult to build much cheaper. “There are the construction and material costs, which are rising by the day due to high inflation, and there is the price of the site. That is often calculated by municipalities. It is difficult for them to offer the site cheaper, because then they are left with a hole in their budget and can no longer finance other projects.”

Last month, Housing Minister Hugo de Jonge did indicate that he can intervene with a so-called “designation” with local authorities to enable additional residential construction. To date, such a designation has rarely been used, and not without reason, Foortse believes. “That is considered a draconian measure in the Netherlands, because you touch the hierarchy that we have in this country with a national, provincial and municipal government. I understand that the cabinet wants to coordinate the solution to this problem centrally, but I can also understand if there is local resistance to new constructions projects here and there.

Finally, according to Foortse, the construction of new homes is not only hindered by the sharp increase in land and material costs, but also by the strict(er) laws and regulations regarding sustainability. Examples are regulations on insulation, on the disconnection of gas networks and on emissions of CO2 and nitrogen. "This limits the possibilities to designate new housing locations and often leads to higher construction costs. Institutional investors also have the task of investing heavily to make the existing housing portfolios more sustainable. The latter does contribute to lower energy costs for tenants."

There are several sides to the concept of affordability, Foortse explains. “For example, you can ask yourself for whom new construction should be affordable. If new houses are built for around 450,000, we can at least ensure that anyone currently living in a house valued at 200-300,000 could upgrade to a new house. This will create more supply in the lower segment for first-time buyers. In recent years, the supply in the 450,000-range lagged behind, which prevented people from advancing in the housing market. After all, if there are no better-quality new homes, why move? Traditionally, a person moves from a single to a double household and eventually to a family home. People generally look for more space in their next home.”

Building more is thus the long-term solution. There are, however, a number of concerns that Foortse believes should be taken into account. One is to ensure that the government does not scare off large investors by limiting rent increases. As far as new construction is concerned, consideration must be given to whom it is being built for: for those moving up to the higher segment or for first-time buyers. And in the case of new construction, it will be a balancing act for the government to remove any local resistance to new construction projects. "In the shorter term, we can investigate whether we could make better use of the existing housing stock, as was recently suggested by some economists. This could be done by further stimulating cohabitation, or at least not making it more financially unattractive. The number of single-person households has been rising for years. For the affordability of the housing market, it would be good if that trend could be stopped. In addition to affordability, institutional investors are also looking at accessibility for housing in the large(r) cities for so-called 'key workers', such as teachers and medical staff. This can be done by introducing priority arrangements."