Risk-assessment practices in the private rental sector : implications for low-income renters (Final Report)

Short, Patricia, Seelig, Tim, Warren, Clive, Susilawati, Connie, & Thompson, Alice (2008) Risk-assessment practices in the private rental sector : implications for low-income renters (Final Report). Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

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This report focuses on risk-assessment practices in the private rental market, with particular consideration of their impact on low-income renters. It is based on the fieldwork undertaken in the second stage of the research process that followed completion of the Positioning Paper. The key research question this study addressed was: What are the various factors included in ‘risk-assessments’ by real estate agents in allocating ‘affordable’ tenancies? How are these risks quantified and managed? What are the key outcomes of their decision-making?

The study builds on previous research demonstrating that a relatively large proportion of low-cost private rental accommodation is occupied by moderate- to high-income households (Wulff and Yates 2001; Seelig 2001; Yates et al. 2004). This is occurring in an environment where the private rental sector is now the de facto main provider of rental housing for lower-income households across Australia (Seelig et al. 2005) and where a number of factors are implicated in patterns of ‘income–rent mismatching’. These include ongoing shifts in public housing assistance; issues concerning eligibility for rent assistance; ‘supply’ factors, such as loss of low-cost rental stock through upgrading and/or transfer to owner-occupied housing; patterns of supply and demand driven largely by middle- to high-income owner-investors and renters; and patterns of housing need among low-income households for whom affordable housing is not appropriate.

In formulating a way of approaching the analysis of ‘risk-assessment’ in rental housing management, this study has applied three sociological perspectives on risk: Beck’s (1992) formulation of risk society as entailing processes of ‘individualisation’; a socio-cultural perspective which emphasises the situated nature of perceptions of risk; and a perspective which has drawn attention to different modes of institutional governance of subjects, as ‘carriers of specific indicators of risk’. The private rental market was viewed as a social institution, and the research strategy was informed by ‘institutional ethnography’ as a method of enquiry. The study was based on interviews with property managers, real estate industry representatives, tenant advocates and community housing providers. The primary focus of inquiry was on ‘the moment of allocation’. Six local areas across metropolitan and regional Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia were selected as case study localities.

In terms of the main findings, it is evident that access to private rental housing is not just a matter of ‘supply and demand’. It is also about assessment of risk among applicants. Risk – perceived or actual – is thus a critical factor in deciding who gets housed, and how. Risk and its assessment matter in the context of housing provision and in the development of policy responses.

The outcomes from this study also highlight a number of salient points: 1.There are two principal forms of risk associated with property management: financial risk and risk of litigation. 2. Certain tenant characteristics and/or circumstances – ability to pay and ability to care for the rented property – are the main factors focused on in assessing risk among applicants for rental housing. Signals of either ‘(in)ability to pay’ and/or ‘(in)ability to care for the property’ are almost always interpreted as markers of high levels of risk. 3. The processing of tenancy applications entails a complex and variable mix of formal and informal strategies of risk-assessment and allocation where sorting (out), ranking, discriminating and handing over characterise the process. 4. In the eyes of property managers, ‘suitable’ tenants can be conceptualised as those who are resourceful, reputable, competent, strategic and presentable. 5. Property managers clearly articulated concern about risks entailed in a number of characteristics or situations. Being on a low income was the principal and overarching factor which agents considered. Others included: - unemployment - ‘big’ families; sole parent families - domestic violence - marital breakdown - shift from home ownership to private rental - Aboriginality and specific ethnicities - physical incapacity - aspects of ‘presentation’. The financial vulnerability of applicants in these groups can be invoked, alongside expressed concerns about compromised capacities to manage income and/or ‘care for’ the property, as legitimate grounds for rejection or a lower ranking. 6. At the level of face-to-face interaction between the property manager and applicants, more intuitive assessments of risk based upon past experience or ‘gut feelings’ come into play. These judgements are interwoven with more systematic procedures of tenant selection.

The findings suggest that considerable ‘risk’ is associated with low-income status, either directly or insofar as it is associated with other forms of perceived risk, and that such risks are likely to impede access to the professionally managed private rental market. Detailed analysis suggests that opportunities for access to housing by low-income householders also arise where, for example: - the ‘local experience’ of an agency and/or property manager works in favour of particular applicants - applicants can demonstrate available social support and financial guarantors - an applicant’s preference or need for longer-term rental is seen to provide a level of financial security for the landlord - applicants are prepared to agree to specific, more stringent conditions for inspection of properties and review of contracts - the particular circumstances and motivations of landlords lead them to consider a wider range of applicants - In particular circumstances, property managers are prepared to give special consideration to applicants who appear worthy, albeit ‘risky’.

The strategic actions of demonstrating and documenting on the part of vulnerable (low-income) tenant applicants can improve their chances of being perceived as resourceful, capable and ‘savvy’. Such actions are significant because they help to persuade property managers not only that the applicant may have sufficient resources (personal and material) but that they accept that the onus is on themselves to show they are reputable, and that they have valued ‘competencies’ and understand ‘how the system works’.

The parameters of the market do shape the processes of risk-assessment and, ultimately, the strategic relation of power between property manager and the tenant applicant. Low vacancy rates and limited supply of lower-cost rental stock, in all areas, mean that there are many more tenant applicants than available properties, creating a highly competitive environment for applicants. The fundamental problem of supply is an aspect of the market that severely limits the chances of access to appropriate and affordable housing for low-income rental housing applicants. There is recognition of the impact of this problem of supply.

The study indicates three main directions for future focus in policy and program development: providing appropriate supports to tenants to access and sustain private rental housing, addressing issues of discrimination and privacy arising in the processes of selecting suitable tenants, and addressing problems of supply.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 28804
Item Type: Report
Refereed: No
Additional Information: Full text on I: Drive @ I:\Support_for_Research\ePrints\FULL TEXT-PDF
Additional URLs:
Keywords: Risk Assessment, Construction of Risk, Private Rental Market, Low-Income Renters, Tenant Allocation, Real Estate Agents
ISBN: 1 921201 47 9
ISSN: 1834-7223
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > COMMERCE MANAGEMENT TOURISM AND SERVICES (150000) > COMMERCIAL SERVICES (150400) > Real Estate and Valuation Services (150403)
Divisions: Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Built Environment and Engineering
Past > Schools > School of Urban Development
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2008 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute
Deposited On: 25 Nov 2009 00:31
Last Modified: 29 Feb 2012 14:09

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