Build to rent: opening up opportunities for supply in the private rented sector

Anyone with any experience of the private rented sector (PRS) will tell you that it is a complex entity. Disjointed, difficult to regulate and control, but for many, an essential part of the housing market.

Despite the many criticisms often levelled at the private rented sector, demand is high – so high that in many areas it is outstripping supply. If you consider that the market in Scotland alone has grown by over a third since 1999 that will give you an idea of the scale of growth across the whole of the UK.

It has been suggested that this rise in demand for PRS properties has been driven in part by falling numbers of accessible social housing, and increasing numbers of people forced to rent in the private sector as they are unable to afford a deposit for a mortgage. The irony in many instances is that this group – largely segmented in customer profiles as “young professionals”, usually graduates with a reasonable wage – would probably be able to afford repayments on a mortgage but whether for the convenience and flexibility of renting, or lack of ability to save for a deposit (which in many areas of the UK are painfully high) they live in private rent housing.

The growth in the build-to-rent market

One of the emerging markets within the PRS, which has been popular for a few years now in cities in the USA, is the build to rent market and it is being heralded as (part of) the solution to the supply-demand challenge in the UK’s PRS.

Build to rent in principle involves an investor – usually a large multinational like Legal and General or Shell – putting up the money to build a complex, usually of self-contained studio, one or two-bedroom flats (although increasingly the model is being applied to suburban “family” homes too). There is usually also a communal space, where people living in the complex can come to meet one another, or perhaps work if they are able to work flexibly from home. There is also usually a shared kitchen area, as well as facilities like gyms, and even cinemas. These commercial landlords provide attrractive, and based on current models, high-end accommodation which often most suits the needs of the “young professional” market.

A solution to a social as well as a housing conundrum

Those who support the build to rent model within the PRS highlight that it has wider benefits than simply providing more accommodation in an increasingly stretched market. They also stress the benefits of the social aspect it can provide to residents, as well as facilities which enable flexible working and spaces which promote healthy living such as onsite gyms.

However, others criticise the projects on a number of fronts. Some are concerned that the projects could encourage gentrification of an area. With rents often being as much as a small mortgage, they are, critics argue, aimed at a market who are choosing to rent, either while they save for a house, or because the flexibility of renting suits their lifestyle, allowing them to be closer to jobs for example. They stress that those who are already being exploited by the PRS will see little to no benefit from these developments, which could potentially price them out of existing areas.

Supporters counter this by saying that these developments are aimed at a specific area of the market, and that actually introducing more mid-market renting accommodation may free up cheaper accommodation for lower income renters. Critics also question the benefit to the wider housing market, suggesting that while it looks good on the surface, in practice, build to rent is not going to solve the housing crisis.

How do we make it appealing to local authorities?

In Scotland, certainly, build to rent is in its infancy, with no specific build to rent projects in operation currently, although there are a number of planning applications in process, and some retrofitted buildings, previously derelict and remodelled to fit the build to rent spec. Meanwhile, there are a number of projects in the pipeline in England, where the model has already taken off in a number of locations, including London and Manchester.

However, it appears that in many instances, local authorities are cautious, and even at times reluctant to support build to rent projects, in part because of uncertainty about the schemes. In addition, a lack of support for the model, particularly among traditional planners is making them reluctant to bring build to rent projects forward. It is up to those within the sector to persuade sceptical local authorities that build to rent can work in a number of different settings, and does not just suit a young professional market in an inner city (although that is its current demographic target).

The future of build to rent

The housing sector is reliant on all areas of it functioning properly, and this includes the private rented sector. While build to rent is not being proclaimed as a panacea for the housing crisis in the UK, it can for many be a useful option within the PRS. How it will be utilised, and the potential impact on the PRS in the UK remains to be seen.


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