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Outlook 2020: Social Housing Providers Face Pressure From Rising Demand And Maintenance Backlog

Social housing providers face strong demand for affordable housing and a backlog of maintenance spending in 2020. The need to house increasing populations, and the question of how to pay for it, will remain hot topics into 2020. S&P Global Ratings anticipates that SHPs globally will increase their capital and maintenance spending over the next few years, to address the persistent demand. Although natural population growth and migration have weighed on the availability of affordable housing in developed countries, few governments have responded by expanding their development grant programs. As a result, in the countries where we rate SHPs, many are paying for new social housing by increasing borrowings or expanding their exposure to riskier sources of revenues, such as market sales. We rate SHPs in the U.K., the U.S., Sweden, Australia, France, Israel, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

For U.K. providers, the lack of clarity regarding Brexit and the December 2019 elections has created additional uncertainty. A sovereign downgrade could lead us to lower our ratings on about 10 of the U.K.-based providers. Conversely, a resolution of the Brexit situation, combined with a more-supportive housing policy, could boost the real estate market and further reduce borrowing costs.

The outlooks on our ratings on SHPs currently show a clear negative bias. Rating actions may depend on our view of management's liquidity policy, debt risk appetite, and ability to implement development projects as planned. The chief exception is Housing New Zealand Ltd. (HNZL), the dominant provider of social housing in New Zealand. We equalize our ratings on HNZL with those on its sovereign owner and the outlook on HNZL mirrors the positive outlook on our long-term rating on New Zealand.

In England and France, SHPs are looking forward to the end of their respective restrictive rent regimes. We anticipate that English and French housing associations will both report declining debt to EBITDA from 2021 as revenues from traditional activities rise. Combined with their proven ability to secure relatively cheap funding from the market and their respective governments, this could help them offset the pressures weighing on their creditworthiness. We could, therefore, see a smaller number of negative rating actions in 2020, compared with 2019.

From April 2020-April 2025, English SHPs will be allowed to raise rent by consumer price index (CPI) plus 1%. This follows four years in which they were forced to reduce rents by 1 percentage point a year. Similarly, French SHPs were required to cut their rents by 4% (€800 million) in 2018 and will have to cut rents again in 2020. From 2021, however, we expect rents to grow by at least CPI. Berlin-based Gewobag, by contrast, will see its rent regime tighten if the proposed state laws to limit rent increases in the city-state of Berlin are passed. The new regime is designed to last for five years, starting from 2020, but will highly likely be challenged in the courts.

Globally, SHPs will continue to benefit from a low cost of funding. Larger associations have proven their direct access to domestic and international capital markets. Other associations can access the capital market via aggregators, such as MorHomes, THFC, and GB Social Housing in the U.K.; Kommuninvest in Sweden; and National Housing Finance and Investment Corp. (NHFIC) in Australia. Many have issued bonds and arranged committed facilities during 2019, so they will enter 2020 with a solid liquidity cushion.

Housing associations in France, Canada, and Sweden may also rely on borrowings from state-related financial institutions, or directly from their owners. French SHPs can raise funds through Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations (CDC), which offers low-rate, regulated, long-term loans. Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC), the largest SHP in Canada and the second-largest in North America, expects to receive C$1.3 billion in loans and grants from the federal government over 10 years as part of its National Housing Co-Investment Fund. Municipal social housing providers in Sweden largely benefit from low-interest loans from the cities that own them.

U.K.

There are two main elements that could alter our forecast for the U.K. social housing industry, positively or negatively:

  • The U.K. general elections outcome, which could trigger changes to government policies and support for the industry.
  • The evolution of the Brexit process, which could influence the performance of the housing market and, thus the financial performance of U.K. SHPs.

Uncertainties linked to Brexit continue to weigh on English providers of social housing, although we anticipate that most credit ratings will remain in the 'A' category. Housing providers in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will continue to benefit from more-supportive policy environments and higher grant availability compared with their English peers. To a certain degree, this mitigates their higher debt burdens.

SHPs based in London and the southeast of England, where the housing market has weakened over the past 12 months, typically have much higher exposure to sales risk than those based in other regions of England. This highlights the additional volatility such activities carry. During 2019, we lowered seven ratings and revised our outlook on 11 housing associations to negative from stable, predominantly because of sales exposure.

That said, we anticipate taking fewer rating actions in 2020. We believe pressure on the housing market will ease, which should support demand for home ownership across the country. This could help house prices recover--we forecast they will grow by 1.5% nationally in 2020, after being flat in 2019. Meanwhile, interest rates are expected to remain at record lows, supported by the Bank of England's (BoE's) relatively accommodative stance.

U.K. SHPs' interest rate risk is also very low because a high proportion of the sector's drawn borrowings carry fixed interest rates and we forecast that inflation will not exceed 2% in 2020. Therefore, we anticipate that revenue will grow faster than costs, supporting the financial performance of housing providers.

Our outlook is based on the following elements:

  • Greater income certainty in England as a new rent regime comes into operation from April 2020.
  • Management's ability to adjust their strategies and financial policies when needed.
  • Strong liquidity profiles that we believe can support development programs.

Since 2016, English SHPs have controlled costs tightly to absorb the rent cuts imposed on them. They anticipate catching up on maintenance spending as the policy environment becomes more supportive. From April 2020, a new rent regime will come into effect in England whereby rents (including service charges) can be raised by CPI+1% over the next five years. In our base-case forecast, we assume the increased income certainty and stronger EBITDA levels should strengthen housing providers' financial performance and debt ratios.

U.K. SHPs have a track record of adjusting their strategies and financial policies when needed. We anticipate that U.K. SHPs' commitment to long-term financial planning and the stress tests they run will help them to preserve adequate financial ratios, including interest coverage. They could, for example, postpone development projects, including those for outright sales.

Capital market issuances have significantly increased in the past decade and we have recently observed a growth in private placements and unsecured debt deals, partly driven by non-domestic investors. We saw a record level of issuance in the first quarter of 2019, allowing our rated providers to strengthen their liquidity ratios further. In our view, even if U.K. housing associations use their current funds to pay for their development programs, they would not suffer a liquidity shortfall.

Housing associations have also started to dispose of more assets, especially void properties. In most cases, the increase is unlikely to be sufficient to reduce leverage or boost liquidity further. Only a few providers that have relatively large asset management programs could dent their leverage ratios through disposals.

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U.S.

Historical uncertainty regarding the availability of federal government funding, combined with rising overhead costs, led U.S. public housing authorities (PHAs) to try to diversify their revenues by various means. In 2018, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding constituted a median 75% of total revenue among the PHAs that we rate. The steps PHAs have taken to expand non-HUD-funded revenue have boosted asset quality and cash flow, and been positive for their creditworthiness.

We expect that more PHAs, fueled by generous capital funding in 2019-2020, will continue to use HUD's Rental Assistance Demonstration program. The program could help them address immediate needs such as deteriorating housing stocks. It could also provide increased operational flexibility and stabilize their revenue. We have not yet observed significant operating savings as a result of PHAs using the program. The Senate's proposed budget for transportation and housing and urban development in fiscal 2020 suggests a 10% increase over fiscal 2019, which will alleviate some of the risk to authorities' financial operations. That said, managing debt and liquidity profiles is critical to maintaining stable performance.

Recently, an unprecedented amount of capital has been committed to address the affordability issue in housing. Since January 2018, private capital, voter referendums, and government budgets have earmarked more than $10 billion for housing-related programs on the West Coast. This includes:

  • Google's $1 billion investment to address the Bay Area housing crisis;
  • Microsoft Corp.'s $500 million to address homelessness and develop affordable housing across the Puget Sound region of Washington; and
  • California's voter-approved $6 billion in general obligation bonds for housing programs and homelessness prevention.

State budgets have also provided funding; recent appropriations by the three West Coast states (California, Oregon, and Washington) have collectively advanced more than $2 billion to improve housing affordability. This influx of dollars could boost housing production by 10% over several years. This, in turn, could affect our assessment of rated West Coast PHAs in their varying capacities and business models as affordable housing developers and operators.

In the past year, high demand for affordable housing and the elevated need for alternative financing sources has led more PHAs to seek ratings. We anticipate that the number of authorities pursuing debt financing will increase as they plan for a multiyear effort to redevelop their respective public housing stocks and seek non-HUD-funded revenue through mixed-income developments and workforce housing acquisition. We also consider that expanding the Moving to Work program could be credit positive for any rated PHA that participates, allowing for more-efficient strategies and financial flexibility.

Sweden

Population growth is fueling demand for housing in Sweden, where there are minimal vacancies across the country. The sector remains very stable--the only recent rating action was our revision of the outlook on Forvaltaren to stable from negative in October 2018. We took this action after Forvaltaren made a number of divestments that strengthened its financial position.

Although several of the landlords in the sector are expanding their refurbishment programs, they are still seeing high demand for new developments. We therefore anticipate that they will continue to develop new properties alongside the refurbishments. Over the past couple of years, an undersupply of capacity in the construction sector has forced up costs and somewhat limited construction volumes at PHAs. Now that the private real-estate sector has started to cool off, it could free up capacity, allowing public housing entities' development to be more cost-efficient. We expect the sector to remain stable through 2020 and able to maintain its strong financial standings, despite high levels of capital expenditure (capex).

The municipal-owned public housing providers are continuing the long-term trend of integrating their financial activities with those of their owners, effectively increasing the benefits of scale and cost efficiency. The integration also effectively anchors the liquidity position of these entities because the municipal in-house bank typically assumes responsibility for the debt portfolio.

France

In 2020, French SHPs face the second stage of the rent cuts imposed by central government in 2018. We anticipate that they will be able to weather the negative impact through tight cost controls and because interest rates remain low. SHPs are likely to maintain strong credit quality and we see the industry trend for 2020 as stable. Our ratings on Maisons & Cités SA d'HLM ('A+') and SACVL ('A') both carry stable outlooks.

We expect the sector's financial resilience to improve as a result of increased consolidation. This may help SHPs and groups diversify their activity geographically and better allocate their funding to projects in economically vibrant areas. Although the new rent regime forced French SHPs to reconsider their operational and financial strategies, so far, they have not markedly diversified into nontraditional, competitive market-related activities, such as development for sale or private rentals. Instead, they reassessed their capex programs (including new construction), arbitraged their asset portfolios through sales and purchases, and took advantage of favorable credit conditions to manage their debt portfolios.

We base our view that the industry trend will be stable in 2020 on:

  • The more-supportive policy environment, in which the effect of the 2020 rent cuts could be softened by mitigating measures.
  • The easy availability of public and private funding for the sector, combined with increasing funding diversification.
  • Generally prudent financial policies, combined with strong oversight and continued financial support in case of need from local governments.

After the 2018 decision to impose two rounds of rent cuts on French SHAs, we expect to see a more-supportive policy environment develop from 2021. Rents should be able to rise by at least CPI, on average. The government accompanied the previous rent cuts with measures including sector equalization schemes and better funding conditions from state-controlled financial institution Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations (CDC; AA/Stable/A-1+).

Social housing tenants are also generally eligible for special means-tested allowances dedicated to rent payments and paid by a national public agency. The rent payments generally go directly to landlords and social housing operators, thereby reducing rent payment risk.

We anticipate that French SHPs will continue to benefit from large allocations of funding at CDC, which offers regulated, long-term loans. To a lesser extent, they will also receive funding from Action Logement Services and domestic commercial banks. The European Investment Bank (EIB; AAA/Stable/A-1+) is also increasingly active, and recently decided to extend multiyear funding allocations to French SHPs. For example, it extended funding to Maisons & Cités SA d'HLM in October 2019.

In addition, we see significant development of funding diversification--a growing number of French SHPs have tapped financial markets via long-term public bond issuances and private placements and via short-term, French commercial paper issuances. In our view, this signifies strong investor appetite for their debt.

The French government, the regulator and the social housing sector associations actively monitor French SHPs' activities and financials, providing ongoing support and preventing any sharp deterioration in an SHP's financial profile. SHPs also typically follow conservative and prudent financial policies, limiting the risks associated with nontraditional activities and constraining their exposure to market-related activities, such as market sales and development for private sales.

Beyond the ongoing support they receive through supervision and monitoring, we would generally not expect France's central government to offer extraordinary support to French SHPs in case of need. Instead, SHPs typically receive ad hoc extraordinary support from local governments that own a public law or a semipublic housing provider. These arrangements should continue.

Australia

In 2020, we do not expect many policy changes from the Commonwealth and state governments that would affect the social housing sector. The Australian social and affordable housing sector is dominated by state governments. Not-for-profit community housing providers comprise a small, but growing, proportion of the market.

We rate Brisbane Housing Co. (BHC), one of the State of Queensland's largest community housing providers, at AA-/Stable/A-1+. BHC operates about 1,700 properties.

The sovereign's National Housing Finance and Investment Corp. (NHFIC), which acts as a bond aggregator, among its other responsibilities, is expected to continue to provide community housing providers with attractive financing options in 2020. This will help them expand their offerings. NHFIC issued its first bond of A$315 million in March 2019. It has since begun to onlend the funds raised to community housing providers. In February 2019, we assigned a AAA/Stable/A-1+ rating to NHFIC, which is guaranteed by the Commonwealth of Australia (AAA/Stable/A-1+).

Israel

In 2020, we expect both of our rated social housing providers in Israel to maintain an overall stable ratings trend. We rate Amidar the national housing company in Israel Ltd. and Mishan Center Ltd.

Mishan is a non-for-profit company that mainly provides housing for seniors. It continues to have solid national economic prospects as its target population is growing, increasing demand for its services. Nonetheless, because it has only an informal development plan to expand its operations and asset base, Mishan is likely to focus on investing in its existing units. We expect that increased demand will not significantly affect Mishan, which we currently view as unlikely to absorb new commercial debt or significantly increase its operations over 2020.

Amidar operates in the more-traditional low-income-focused social housing sector, where it is the largest Israeli company. Given that the national population is expected to grow by just under 2% a year, we expect demand for services to remain healthy. This will increase the pressures to expand Amidar's housing stock, which has been gradually depleting over time.

Amidar is closely linked to the State of Israel (AA-/Stable/A-1+), which is the company's largest customer and guarantees the principal repayments of its outstanding bonds. Israel has had two rounds of snap elections earlier this year, and the political uncertainty could cause important strategic decisions to be postponed. Amidar and the government will need to decide how to cope with the shortage of social housing units, given the increasing demand. Amidar's stable ongoing relationship with the state is expected to continue to benefit its creditworthiness.

Table 1

Ratings List As Of Nov. 25, 2019
Country Name Local long-term currency rating Outlook Stand-alone credit profile
Australia

Brisbane Housing Co. Ltd.

AA- Stable a+
Canada

Toronto Community Housing Corp.

AA- Stable aa-
U.K.

Accent Group Ltd.

A+ Negative a

Apex Housing Association Ltd.

A- Stable bbb

Aster Group Ltd.

A+ Negative a

bpha Ltd.

A+ Negative a+

Bromford Housing Group Limited

A+ Negative a

Catalyst Housing Ltd.

A Negative a-

Chelmer Housing Partnership

A Negative a-

Clarion Housing Group Ltd.

A Negative a-

ClwydAlyn Housing Ltd

A Stable bbb+

Colne Housing Society Ltd.

A Stable a-

Cross Keys Homes Ltd.

A+ Stable a+

East Midlands Housing Group Ltd

A+ Stable a+

Futures Housing Group

A+ Stable a+

Gentoo Group

A- Negative bbb

GreenSquare Group Limited

A- Stable bbb+

Home Group Ltd.

A- Stable bbb+

Housing 21

A Stable a-

Housing Solutions Ltd.

A+ Stable a+

Hyde Housing Association Ltd

A Stable a-

Incommunities Group Ltd.

A+ Negative a

Karbon Homes Ltd.

A+ Negative a

Lincolnshire Housing Partnership Ltd.

A+ Negative a

Link Group Ltd.

A+ Negative a

Local Space Ltd.

AA- Negative aa-

London & Quadrant Housing Trust

A- Stable bbb+

Metropolitan Thames Valley

A- Stable bbb+

Notting Hill Genesis

A- Stable bbb+

Octavia Housing

A+ Negative a

Peabody Trust

A Stable a-

Places for People Group Ltd.

A- Stable bbb+

Plymouth Community Homes Ltd

A+ Negative a

Richmond Housing Partnership

A+ Stable a+

Sanctuary Housing Assn.

A+ Negative a

Silva Homes Ltd.

A+ Stable a+

Sovereign Housing Association Ltd.

A+ Negative a

Stonewater Ltd.

A+ Negative a

Swan Housing Association Ltd

A- Negative bbb

Guinness Partnership (The)

A Negative a-

Wrekin Housing Group Ltd.

A Stable a-

Thrive Homes Ltd.

A Negative a-

Wheatley Housing Group Ltd.

A+ Stable a+
France

Maisons & Cites S.A. d'HLM

A+ Stable a+

SACVL

A Stable bbb+
Germany

Gewobag Wohnungsbau-Aktiengesellschaft Berlin

A+ Watch Neg a+
Israel*

Amidar the national housing company in Israel Ltd.

ilAAA Stable

Mishan Center Ltd.

ilAA Stable
Netherlands

Stichting Stadgenoot

AA Stable aa-
New Zealand

Housing New Zealand Corp.§

AA+ Positive aa

Housing New Zealand Ltd.

AA+ Positive aa
Sweden

AB Stangastaden

AA- Stable

Fastighets AB Forvaltaren

AA- Stable

Forvaltnings AB Framtiden

AA- Stable a+

MKB Fastighets AB

AA Stable aa-

Rikshem AB

A- Stable a-

Stockholms Kooperativa Bostadsforening

AA- Stable aa-

Uppsalahem AB

AA- Stable a+

Willhem AB (publ)

A- Stable a-
U.S.

Boston Hsg Auth

A+ Stable

Bridge Hsg

A+ Stable

Butte Cnty Hsg Auth

A+ Negative

Chicago Hsg Auth

AA- Stable

Cuyahoga Metropolitan Hsg Auth (City of)

A+ Stable

Denver Housing Authority

AA- Stable

Fall River Hsg Auth

BBB+ Stable

Housing Catalyst

AA- Stable

Howard Cnty Hsg Commission

A+ Negative

King Cnty Hsg Auth

AA Stable

Los Angeles Hsg Auth

A+ Stable

Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority

A+ Stable

Milwaukee Hsg Auth

A+ Stable

Elm City Communities

A+ Stable

Newark Hsg Auth

A Stable

Philadelphia Hsg Auth

A+ Stable

San Diego Hsg Comm

AA Stable

Seattle Housing Authority

AA Stable

Snohomish Cnty Hsg Auth

A+ Stable

Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority

A- Stable

Vancouver Hsg Auth

AA Stable

Wisconsin Hsg Pres Corp

AA- Stable
*National scale ratings. As per Israeli regulatory requirements, the research for these entities is published in Hebrew and available at www.maalot.co.il. §Housing New Zealand Corp. was disestablished on Oct. 1, 2019. Its former activities are being subsumed under a new entity named Kainga Ora-Homes and Communities.

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analyst:Jean-Baptiste Legrand, New York (44) 20-7176-3609;
jb.legrand@spglobal.com
Secondary Contacts:Felix Ejgel, London (44) 20-7176-6780;
felix.ejgel@spglobal.com
Ki Beom K Park, New York (1) 212-438-8493;
kib.park@spglobal.com
Christophe Dore, Paris (33) 1-4420-6665;
christophe.dore@spglobal.com
Dennis Nilsson, Stockholm (46) 8-440-5354;
dennis.nilsson@spglobal.com
Anthony Walker, Melbourne + 61 3 9631 2019;
anthony.walker@spglobal.com
Martin J Foo, Melbourne + 61 3 9631 2016;
Martin.Foo@spglobal.com
Noa Fux, Frankfurt (49) 69-33-999-110;
noa.fux@spglobal.com
Adam J Gillespie, Toronto (1) 416-507-2565;
adam.gillespie@spglobal.com
Thomas F Fischinger, Frankfurt (49) 69-33-999-243;
thomas.fischinger@spglobal.com
Erik A Karlsson, Stockholm + 46(0)84405924;
erik.karlsson@spglobal.com

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