One of the most prominent trends in Australian housing markets over the past 12 months has been the deterioration of rents in inner city apartment markets across Sydney and Melbourne. At the greater capital city level, rent values have fallen -4.9% across Sydney units since March last year, while Melbourne unit rents have fallen -8.2%.
Much of the drag on unit rents in Sydney and Melbourne have come from inner city regions. CoreLogic estimates suggest the SA4 ‘City and Inner South’ market of Sydney accounts for 18.6% of investment units across the Greater Sydney area. The ‘Melbourne – Inner’ region comprises an estimated 45.9% of investment unit stock in the greater capital city.
In the 12 months to March, which virtually captures 12 months since COVID restrictions were implemented nationally, the City and Inner South of Sydney has seen a -14.5% decline in median asking rents from $620 per week, to $530. Median asking rents across the Melbourne – Inner region sank -18.9% over the year, from $475 per week to $385. For both cities, these inner city SA4 markets have seen the lowest rate of change in rents over the year.
Previous CoreLogic research has highlighted that these markets were disproportionately impacted by the closure of international borders, where most overseas arrivals to Australia are initially renters. In the year of measurement before COVID-19, ABS data suggests the City and Inner South and Melbourne – Inner markets alone accounted for 11.2% of net overseas arrivals to Australia. Hence, the halting of overseas migration has had a disproportionate impact on rental markets in these regions.
While these markets are far from recovery, there are signs that conditions may be stabilising, particularly across Sydney. Median asking rents across units in the City and Inner South of Sydney were -14.5% lower over the year to March, but they have risen 6.0% from a recent low of $500 per week in December. Melbourne – Inner median asking rents did slip another -3.8% through the March quarter, but listings stock appears to have been moderating since early February.
Total unit rental stock on the market across inner Sydney and Melbourne is falling. In the 28 days ending April 11th, the amount of listed rentals declined -9.4% across inner Melbourne, and -15.5% across inner Sydney.
For Melbourne however, available unit rentals remain 121.1% higher compared with the 28 day period to March 15 2020, when Australia recorded its 100th case of COVID-19. Sydney unit rental listings have now fallen below pre-COVID levels by -4.5%, highlighting a much faster recovery than across Melbourne.
The elevated rent listings volume through the second half of 2020 across inner Melbourne also shows how an extended lockdown and social distancing restrictions across the city had contributed to a deterioration in rents.
There are several factors which might explain the curious stabilisation of inner city unit markets;
- Economic activity in CBDs is recovering, but gradually. Easing of COVID-19 restrictions has seen a recovery trend across recreation and hospitality businesses, reflected in very strong gains in sentiment through the month of March. Higher employment levels in hospitality, tourism and the arts are particularly important for demand in inner city Sydney and Melbourne rental markets, because residents in these markets had a relatively high exposure to these industries pre-COVID.
Pedestrian foot traffic data from the City of Melbourne suggests visitation to the CBD has improved on 2020, but is still only at 50% of pre-COVID levels.
It is worth noting that this progress of economic activity in the CBDs may be hampered by the end of JobKeeper. This is particularly the case for Melbourne, where around 300,000 people are recipients of the wage subsidy (though a smaller portion of these JobKeeper recipients would currently have no working hours).
- Interstate travel may be tightening rental market conditions. The initial onset of COVID-19 had anecdotally seen short term rentals, namely Airbnb accommodation, put onto the long term rental market. While short term accommodation volumes may still be affected by a lack of international tourism, there is likely higher demand amid eased restrictions, open domestic borders and domestic tourism. Indeed, AirDNA data showed Melbourne short term accommodation volumes rise over the first quarter of Mach 2021.
- Investors may be selling up. The coming months may see some instances of investors looking to sell inner city apartments amid weak rental conditions. This could see properties, at least temporarily, taken off the rental market.
While conditions across inner city apartments seem to stabilising, it is clear the Melbourne apartment market has a long way to go before rents see a more consistent recovery trend. This may be further hampered by the construction pipeline, where recently released ABS building activity data showed there were still 43,302 apartments under construction across Victoria through the December quarter.
The return of international visitation to Australia has previously kept the Melbourne rental market buoyant amid high levels of new supply. A full recovery in rental incomes across Melbourne units is unlikely under international arrivals are closer to pre-COVID levels.