As Poslovni writes, the absence of a housing policy in Croatia has led to the absurd situation that the residential real estate market in Zagreb and larger cities is oriented toward tourist rentals, pushing up square footage prices, and making real estate unavailable to the local population with average income.
The profession keeps warning in vain about the problem and social repercussions, but it seems that private capital has recognised a niche in what should have been dealt with by policies.
The Austrian Erste Group has launched a strategic affordable housing project that will build 15,000 apartments in the region, including Croatia, and rent them out at affordable prices. The local project is still in its infancy, and the detailed outlines of the model should be clearer by the end of the year.
“The idea of realising affordable housing is very current in the environment of growing inflation and rising real estate prices in many European countries, including Croatia. In principle, there are positive examples in other countries, such as Austria, and such a model can be a good generator of cooperation between local administrations and banks, which contributes to ensuring a kind of social stability”, says the local Erste.
In Croatia, the bank has started preparations in this segment. “At this moment it is still too early for details, and it is to be expected that the bank will be able to share information with the public within a reasonable time, most likely towards the end of the current year”, they told Poslovni. Unofficially, Poslovni has learned that the project could first come to life in Rijeka and then in the capital, but there is still a need to devise models and work out cooperation with local authorities.
In doing so, the regulatory framework that paved the way for implementation in other countries will be crucial. In Austria, with a long-standing tradition of affordable housing, about one billion euros was invested in about 6,000 apartments for rent. In the Czech Republic, the bank founded a separate company for the construction of affordable apartments, while in Slovakia, where the co-investor is the government, about 200 apartments in 2022. Similar projects in Hungary and Romania are in the preparation phase.
There are several open questions to which answers will be sought in the coming months, starting with an adequate model. For example, if it will be a public-private partnership or some alternative such as reserving building rights.
The legal framework should regulate the rental market and the mutual relations (and protection) of tenants and landlords because an unregulated market regularly tells horror stories about landlords and tenants from hell, where it turns out that the key factor in renting is luck. However, it will come down to taxes to ensure that the affordable rental price remains some 10 or 20 percent lower than the market price.
According to the income tax law, it is possible to penalise selling or renting to natural persons at prices lower than market prices (on which additional taxes and contributions are calculated), so the treatment of affordable rent should be regulated because it aims to be lower than the market price by definition.
Housing is a need
The interlocutors point out that there is no possibility of VAT deduction during construction (or acquisition) if the purpose is to lease for housing, which consequently inflates the value of the investment and rent.
With the current rental prices, which the profession points out as some of the lowest in the EU, developers are not interested in building apartments for rent due to long payback periods (20-30 years), which is why it will be difficult for the initiative of affordable housing to move from a standstill without the cooperation of the state and local units (from taxes to all other benefits).
Even though he has not yet seen the details of the model, Dubravko Ranilović from the real estate agency Kastel-Zagreb points out that Croatia has a specific problem that, for example, apartments are not available for young families who are not creditworthy. “In principle, we support all initiatives. We need social programs so that housing can be available to citizens because it is a need”, he says.
The market is flooded with apartments for rent, but tourist apartments. The number of tourism listings outnumbers long-term rentals by four times, with forecasts that the gap will still widen. Ranilović sees a partial reason for this in the preferential tax treatment, which has “created a tax oasis in the taxation of tourist rentals”, so apartments have expanded into residential areas, taking away part of the space in favor of short-term rentals, and the situation is further aggravated by subsidies.
Tax policy, which steadily pushes the country towards apartment building, is part of the puzzle of the lack of a meaningful housing policy.
The government is not abandoning the housing loan subsidy program despite criticism that it freezes prices (or even pushes them up) being available only to a small group of citizens, while all others (those with weaker creditworthiness, the elderly, or simply those who do not meet the prescribed tender conditions) have to pay a higher price.
The neglected middle layer
“The corporate segment recognised that with the current dynamics of the real estate market and the rampant prices, the middle class of society with incomes for which the price of new square meters and existing square meters of apartments are not affordable has been neglected.
This is a large segment of society, the demand is high and will remain so in the future, especially in Zagreb and university cities, and this is where Erste sees the creation of a new niche”, says Vedrana Likan of Colliers.
He detects the problem in the lack of regulation, pointing out that the domestic legal framework does not know the terms of affordable housing or, for example, housing accessible to the elderly population, and if this were regulated, the market would already recognise the opportunity.
“Affordable housing does not necessarily have to include new construction, a lot would be done if someone dealt with the existing housing stock”, believes Likan. Colliers’ analysis, for example, shows that there are 7,074 apartments with an area of 410,600 square meters owned by the city of Zagreb and city companies alone, which could be used precisely for affordable and social housing.
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