To solve the housing crisis, we must first recognise that, to be precise, there is not ‘a housing crisis’, but multiple crises, each with numerous complex causes, which are related to housing. Contributing factors range from the ageing population to austerity to long-term economic and demographic trends, and some of these are easier to fix than others. But here is a little deconstruction of the elements that make up the housing crisis and the ways that we should combat them.
Homelessness and social housing
The most critical problem of housing in the UK is that we have tens of thousands of homeless people (defined as people without a permanent place of occupancy), and at any given time there are hundreds of rough sleepers on our streets. Homelessness is not as simple an issue as some people make out: in many cases, homeless people are ineligible for social housing or choose not to take it, as in the case of some rough sleepers with mental health difficulties, or failed asylum seekers.
But in most cases, homeless people are eligible for and willing to move into social housing, and thus if there were not a shortage of social housing, these people wouldn’t be homeless. As it is, many thousands are living in temporary and often unsuitable accommodation, on a waiting list for secure social housing that keeps getting longer. There are people currently in social housing who could move into private sector accommodation if housing were more affordable, and so tackling spiralling property, and rent prices can play a role in helping the situation, but ultimately there’s no getting past the fact that social housing is a tried and tested way of getting the people who need it most a suitable place to live.
Building social housing however will require a long-term view, to avoid repeating the problems of council estates built in the 1960s and being landed with the same issues in 50 years’ time that we are facing now – namely, poor quality builds (which have to be demolished) in areas devoid of infrastructure or services and isolated from wealthier neighbourhoods, leading to alienation and poverty.
Second homes and AirBnB
Second homes and long-term unoccupied housing is a problem in many areas, with over 200,000 such properties in the UK. This problem exists both in rural areas, where it can deprive small communities of what little housing stock they have, and in urban areas, where properties can be empty shells used for their value and not as places to live in. AirBnB is a newer development which has also been blamed for taking a lot of housing out of the reach of would-be residents, with entire flats being rented out to tourists.
Many solutions have been proposed and in some cases implemented to stop this. The infamous bedroom tax, though aimed at people with empty rooms rather than whole vacant second homes, was a good example of how not to do this, but especially in the case of Airbnb with its tens of thousands of properties in London alone, there are fixes which can free up housing relatively quickly, and these should be implemented.
Renting and property investing
The shortage of homes to buy has led to a surge in renting over the last 30 years. This can be seen as a bad thing for obvious reasons – if you buy a house then your mortgage payments result in the gain of an asset, whereas if you’re renting then the money goes to someone else and you don’t get it back. That said, renting is very common in many other countries, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The biggest problem with this development is that the private rental sector is unsustainable and not delivering its vital service to an adequate standard – it’s full of poor quality housing, with skyrocketing rents, leading in some cases to people being forced out of their neighbourhoods or even into homelessness, and pushing even rentals out of reach for low earners.
Tenancy contracts can provide little protection to tenants and often aren’t well-enforced. And so this sector requires a lot more regulation, from rent controls to increased enforcement of quality standards. In the long term, however, the trend of buy-to-let landlords getting rich from the proceeds of renters is massively increasing inequality, as well as leading to a false sense of security for many middle-class people who stand to lose potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds in the event of a property price crash, and so returning to the ideal of homeownership is a laudable long-term goal.
This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the housing crisis, and it has a major impact on all of the above problems. People generally want to live in certain areas of the country. Usually, that will be their local area, but if they are not well-provided for there, they’ll want to move to an area with jobs and a better quality of life. Much of the time that means those who can move to economically important cities such as London, and also the likes of Manchester and Edinburgh. As a result, these cities are the centre of the crisis, with skyrocketing house prices and a frightening housing shortage, while other areas of the country are comparatively less affected.
But although such areas are less affected by housing shortages and price increases, they are affected by brain drain and ageing population which increases inequality. Regional inequality is a huge contributor to general socioeconomic inequality, and to the tensions which are playing havoc with our national politics. We can focus on making housing more affordable in some very unaffordable cities, or more realistically, we could work at improving ‘less desirable’ areas so that they stop haemorrhaging young, educated and ambitious people, meaning the demand for housing would be geographically rebalanced.
This means taking a holistic approach to regional regeneration rather than just building houses and providing subsidies and tax cuts, hoping that businesses will move to areas of high unemployment like Hull or the eastern suburbs of Glasgow. It means investing in education so that there are enough skilled workers to attract businesses. It means funding is policed so that there’s less of a divide between cosy middle-class neighbourhoods and crime-plagued ‘broken Britain’. It means heavily investing in infrastructure, health care and neighbourhood self-actualisation in the form of community centres and business hubs, plus fast internet in the case of rural areas.
And most of all, it means taking a long-term view, spending money now to plant the seeds for sustainable communities, with good quality housing and functioning local services, which are both attractive and liveable. If this is achieved, then it will mean that cities such as Glasgow and Newcastle, which have so much potential, can compete with their wealthier rivals and thus ease the worst of the housing pressure.
These housing crises are a problem across the UK, and in much of the rest of the world too. A short-term solution to the acute problem of homelessness is to build more government social housing, and improve regulation in the private sector, which together will reduce the amount of evictions, move people out of temporary housing and social housing who don’t need it, and thus free up space for people on the waiting list.
But these policies will not solve the longer-term problems, which are mired in the inequality-fuelling property investment and rental sectors. Political decisions around housing currently help some people but harm others by perpetuating existing problems, fuelling division not just between wealthy landlords vs poor tenants but also old vs young, urban vs rural and region vs region.
In the short term, left-wing policies of the type seen in Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto can help, but in the long run, bold solutions that transcend party lines, such as massive holistic regeneration and directing of funding away from wealthy areas towards less wealthy ones, if not building whole new cities, may need to be pursued.