Sunday 19 January 2020

Paris risks investor flight in the French rent cap revolution

As France’s presidential election looms, housing is a hot topic
As France’s presidential election looms, housing is a hot topic

Angeline Benoit and Sharon R Smyth

What is the price of a view of Paris's best-known monuments? France's Socialist government will tell you. For all Saint-Germain-des-Pres' charm, long gone are the days when a tiny 11 square-metre furnished studio flat commanded €656 in monthly rent.

Real-estate agency Inter Immobilier last month had to explain to the new owner of the left-bank apartment that he could charge a maximum of €550 a month because of new Parisian rent caps that are now set to be rolled out across France.

"Landlords are feeling very frustrated," Jacques Boucher, manager of real-estate agency Pierre de Paris in the 15th arrondissement said. "Regulation imposed on what is supposed to be a free market is upsetting business plans."

With a presidential election eight months away, the Socialist administration of Francois Hollande is encouraging tenants to ensure the laws are applied in Paris and extending them beyond the capital, a move that executives warn is discouraging investment and risks hampering growth.

The caps introduced in Paris last year apply to all leases signed after August 2015. Landlords can't charge more for a previously unrented unit and have to cut rent to the legal level for new tenants in cases where an outgoing one was paying more. Rents below the new limits have to remain unchanged following rules implemented in 2012 in several cities suffering from home shortages.

The only possibility left for increasing rent is an annual update bound by a legal index that was flat in the second quarter.

"Investors will once again flee in light of this political announcement," Jean-Francois Buet, president of Fnaim, the national federation of real-estate professionals, said after the government announced in June that the rules will be applied to suburbs of Paris as well as cities such as Lille and Grenoble by the end of 2018. Of the 6.3m privately rented homes in France, 4pc are owned by institutional investors, down from 14pc in 1990. A chronic shortage of urban housing fuelled rent increases over the past decade, meaning that tenants are spending more and the politicians have taken up their cause.

Tenants spend now about 31pc of their income on housing, up from 25pc in 2002, according to national statistics office Insee.

"The Paris investment market will suffer in relation to London, Madrid and other large European cities where there are no rent caps in place," said Patricio Palomar, Madrid-based director of alternative investments at CBRE Group Inc.

Since last year, rents in Paris are capped between €45.5 and €20.3 per square metre. The exact limit depends on the location, size and characteristics of the home and building.

Broker Isambert said the prospect of legal action prompted one of its clients to slash the rent for a nine square-metre studio flat in the exclusive 16th arrondissement to €350 a month from the €450 paid by the outgoing tenant.

Olap, the government agency that collects rental data, downplays such concerns. "The new rules simply prevent landlords from taking advantage of the housing shortage, they won't lead to an overall decline in rents," Olap director Genevieve Prandi said. "The caps were fixed above the most commonly observed levels of rent so as to follow the market, not overturn it."

Overall, leases signed 2015 in the capital saw the pace of rent increases halve to 1pc. That compares with annual gains varying between 6 and 12pc between 2000 to 2013, Olap data show.

Even so, executives say the restrictions risk a knock-on effect on the broader French economy, which is still lagging neighbours such as Germany and Spain in terms of growth. Pierre Andre de Chalendar, chief executive officer of construction materials manufacturer Cie de Saint-Gobain, warns that landlords may scale back investment. Meanwhile, Paris-based real-estate investment company Gecina, which held residential assets worth about €2.67bn on June 30, reported that its rental income rose a meagre 0.2pc on a comparable basis in the first half.

"This regulation does limit the increase in rental values," Gecina ceo Philippe Depoux said. "It prevents us from reaching the higher levels which we could consider."

Government agency Adil de Paris, which provides information on housing, this year dealt with 4,000 inquiries from landlords and tenants on rent controls, including 300 on the legal process to contest an amount. The law allows for overcharging only if a home boasts extraordinary features, leading one estate agency to advise an owner to overcharge by 15pc for a 19 square-metre flat close by Trocadero esplanade, given the size of the balcony and its electric shutters.

Still, such decisions are risky. A government-appointed committee this year examined about 70 complaints lodged by tenants. While the hearings are private, documents obtained by Bloomberg News show it consistently ordered landlords to apply the caps. Refusals to comply leave landlords subject to trial in court.

Recently, the government has started encouraging tenants in Paris to check their rents by promoting a website to "test rent" which enables consumers to check whether they are paying too much.

"This is a political move in the run up to next year's general election," said Michel Mouillart, an economics professor at Paris Ouest university.

"While the steps contain rents at investors' expense, they're not dealing with the root of the problem - which is home shortages." (Bloomberg)

Irish Independent

Also in Business