The role of private rented sectors (PRS) in many European countries has been brought into sharp focus in recent years as nation states adjust to the destabilizing effects on housing provoked by the Global Financial Crisis. Outcomes including severe budget cuts, diminished labour market chances, welfare state change, and sudden but enduring shifts in owner-occupied and social rental sectors have led to increased interest in ways to ensure a well-functioning PRS within housing systems. While these concerns are not limited to Western European contexts, it should be noted that the sector is not evenly developed internationally.

Creating a well-functioning PRS is, however, easier in theory than in practice. From the viewpoint of tenants, there is a need to ensure housing access, availability and affordability, particularly where the sector is playing an increased role in housing marginal populations. On the supply-side, there is a renewed need to implement fiscal measures and solutions that can stimulate and maintain supply of rental accommodation, avoiding the oft-repeated concerns that regulation may lead to a reduction in the availability of private rental housing. These measures are contrasting and sometimes conflicting in their aims and objectives, and consequently there are trade-offs and compromises between different policy goals.

This virtual special issue addresses the theme of private rented sector regulation in Europe, placing emerging evidence on the topic in historical and comparative context. The virtual issue takes as its starting point the comparative papers of Haffner et al (2008) and Kemp and Kofner (2010). Haffner and colleagues provide a longer-term comparison of the impacts of rent regulation in Europe, while Kemp and Kofner’s comparison between England and Germany question the logic that deregulation is a necessary condition for PRS growth. Huisman (2016) reviews changes to the Dutch rental system, expressing concern that a shift to temporary rather than permanent renting will create the conditions for further deregulation and associated precarity for tenants.

This is a theme touched upon by Hegedus et al, who highlight the impact of under-regulation on the Hungarian private rented sector, which is illustrative of many East European cases. Deschermeier et al, meanwhile, argue that stronger rent controls recently introduced in Germany will prove counter-productive in remedying affordability issues. Taken together, these papers highlight that the most appropriate ways of regulating the PRS in Europe remain both highly contextual to nation states and a contested dimension of international housing policy.