A Guide To Fixing the UK's Housing Crisis
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A Dummies’ Guide to Fixing the UK Housing Crisis

Those in charge could easily fix the housing crisis. We spoke to a bunch of experts about how this could feasibly be done.
March 8, 2021, 9:15am

Recently I compiled a 69 step guide to getting on the “property ladder” which – to save you clicking and reading – could be neatly boiled down to the following points: have a lot of savings, have a lot of income or suffer a massive bereavement. Ideally a combination of all three.

I realise now that a glib rundown of just 69 of the myriad forces that make the UK’s housing system so exclusionary to the average unpropertied young person may have resulted in dejection, despondency and perhaps even degeneracy among the VICE readership. You don’t want to resign yourself to eternal landlords until you’re evicted off the mortal coil. You want solutions!

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Consider this the paracetamol to the previous article’s self-destructive sambuca shot. Here is a thorough and complete guide to fixing the UK’s housing crisis.

CHANGE THE SYSTEM

“Other than finding a rich partner to buy with, the most prudent thing might be campaigning for systemic change,” says Simon Youel, the head of policy and advocacy at Positive Money.

Mathew Lawrence, founder of think tank Common Wealth, independently alights on the same solution: “The problem for the individual is, clearly, these problems are pretty structural and ingrained, and therefore need a political-economic intervention, at a systemic level. But, you know, one person can't do that on their own. So that can't really be your advice.”

Can’t it? Lawrence is clearly well versed in his economic and political analysis, but he underestimates the average reader of VICE UK and your ability to affect massive systemic change at his peril! So what aspects of The System do you need to change, should you find yourself in a position to change it?

MAKE PROPERTY A BAD INVESTMENT

“The challenge is that housing has proven the best investment that the majority of people can make since the early 70s,” says Neal Hudson, a housing market analyst at Residential Analysts. “The fact that you can take a leveraged punt on an asset that also works as your home at the same time, has a certain amount of enforced savings, and the tax benefits are massive, the alternatives are crap. While all of that remains in place, it's what people are going to want to do.”

The more prohibitively expensive housing becomes, the better investment it is. And the better investment it is, the more prohibitively expensive it becomes, etc. It surely follows that one way of making housing more affordable would be to break this infinite feedback loop, and make property a worse investment. But how?

BUILD MORE HOUSES

For Maja Gustafsson of the Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank, what's absolutely necessary is “investing in the housing stock to increase the number of houses available, so we can slow down the increase [in house price growth] and eventually and allow more people's earnings to potentially catch up”.

On the face of it, this seems relatively straightforward. Unless our population growth goes into abrupt and terminal decline, demand for homes will always be there, because humans have grown fond of such decadent luxuries as “comfort”, “security” and “shelter”, and rarely enjoy being exposed to “absolute destitution” and “the elements”.

PENALISE SPECULATION

“Despite what developers have got the government to believe, it’s not always as simple as building as many new houses as possible,” says Youel at Positive Money. “We need to make sure that all of this new housing is genuinely affordable.”

If property is effectively being built to be acquired by wealthy speculators as assets and not residences (which many are, given how reliable an investment UK property has proven for the best part of four decades) then housebuilding becomes a mocking pantomime, where property scarcity is perpetuated through the creation of more property.

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This could be discouraged by levying taxes on speculators - for instance, a currency-transactions tax on investors, an additional tax on landlord groups who avoid income tax by registering as limited companies and paying corporation tax on their rental income instead, and an end to the absurd tax discounts offered by some councils on second homes and empty properties and instead choosing to tax their emptiness.

OCCUPY EMPTY RESIDENCES

Chris Bailey, the National Campaign Manager of Action On Empty Homes, tells me: “We’ve seen numbers of wasted empty homes rising for the third year running, increasing a massive 20 percent this year.” Some 268,385 properties in England (around 1 percent of England’s total properties) are currently vacant, “while 100,000 homeless households languish in temporary accommodations”.

"We are continually told about sustainability, yet we let hundreds of thousands of homes sit empty, while building new homes that nobody on average incomes can afford," he says. Action On Empty Homes’ campaign has set its sights on bringing long-term empty homes back into use.

BUILD NON-MARKET HOUSING

“You want to make the market more equitable in terms of expanding access,” says Common Wealth’s Lawrence. “But then you also want to expand your non-market housing provision.” Essentially, this is housing that isn’t for rent or sale on the private market; social housing, or other community-led alternatives. “Not everyone wants to actually own their own house.”

It’s perhaps telling that this mentality seems like an outlier. Why are so many people so determined to get On The Ladder? Is it because, perversely, finding yourself in social housing seems an even less realistic proposition in the current economic climate?

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It wasn’t always this way. According to government figures, the social sector represented 33 percent of all housing in England, Scotland and Wales in the late 70s. Then Margaret Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy scheme and sold off the social housing stock. According to my calculations, the social sector now accounts for 17 percent of the housing in England (4.13 million of 24.2 million total.) Not only is there an obvious relationship between property values and the availability of social housing, but it doesn’t seem an unreasonable political demand that the present should at least catch up with what we had 40 years ago. In fact, this is a minimum demand. We should be improving on it.

BUILD NON-MARKET HOUSING FOR NEW TENANTS

Council housing currently being built is to catch up with council housing that was literally demolished. “It's very rare that you get new council housing which is just straightforwardly to someone that has never lived in a council house before,” says architecture writer and author Owen Hatherley.

It also doesn’t seem an unreasonable political demand that the present at least catches up with what we had 130 years ago.

EXPAND EXISTING COUNCIL HOUSING

“You need to look at the renovations of council housing in France,” says Hatherley. “Particularly the projects by the architects Lacaton & Vassal, where they've taken council blocks of the 60s and expanded them, without moving anyone without putting up the rents. They've made the flats larger and they've added new flats onto the same system-built blocks. A really impressive achievement.”

BUILD A WHOLE NEW TOWN

According to Youel, the best way of boosting the supply of affordable housing “would be the state buying up land to build on, as was done successfully in the UK when building New Towns in the 1960s”.

For those of you with a bit of ambition, Lawrence explains what you might need: “effective planning, public investment, a better spatial plan for where housing has to go, rather than just letting it be market-lead”.

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He elaborates: “Let’s say you go: right, okay, Cambridge is booming, because it's a science hub, and it's very flat around there. So a public corporation's going to buy a massive plot of land, and then we're just going to build a town of 250,000, like Milton Keynes. And it could be publicly owned stock.

“I'm not saying that is the answer, but it might be an answer.”

It’s time for some new New Towns for the Youth: Millennial Keynes, Gen Ztevenage. 

ABOLISH LANDLORDISM

As Dan Wilson Craw of Generation Rent, an advocacy group for private renters, tells me: “Homeownership does mean that you will reach retirement without housing costs to worry about, but more immediately you escape a housing situation where you’re at the whim of your landlord.” It begs the question: How much do people want to be homeowners, and how much do they just really hate their landlords?

The fact that a property can become a lucrative source of income through rent itself increases its value as an asset. Ergo, fewer people can become homeowners and more people are forced to rent. Ergo, rents can be increased, because the alternative is homelessness. Ergo, the value of the asset increases. Another hellish cycle, which could be quite simply ended by making landlordism illegal.

MAKE RENTING TOLERABLE (?) AGAIN (?)

Unless the Conservative Party of Great Britain goes rogue and uncharacteristically decides to abolish landlordism tomorrow, people will still be renting, and their treatment is intertwined with the housing market. 

“It's not the right focus to always push people into buying,” argues Gustafsson of the Resolution Foundation. “Because we also need to make sure that the people who are relying on the private rented sector also have a decent quality of living.”

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As Hatherley tells me, in many, many other countries, the private rented sector is not that big of an issue. “The central problem is not really private renting as such, not really owner occupancy at such, but the fact that the rights of renters are weaker than any other European country.”

“Things like short-hold tenancies; the apparently soon-to-be-ended (but we'll see about that) ‘no-fault’ evictions; the enormous levels of inflation; the lack of rent control; the fact that landlord regulation is still something in its infancy, with the government trying their best to stamp on it; all means that renting is just uniquely shit.”

BRING IN RENT CONTROLS

Wilson Craw of Generation Rent argues that for young people who move to cities like London, “it’s normally because that’s the only place you can pursue your chosen career or you have a support network. Either way, you have no choice but to pay high rents that suck up 40 percent or more of your income… That leaves very little to save. The Affordable Housing Commission says you shouldn’t need to pay more than a third of your income for a decent home”.

A 2018 study by Santander Mortgages found that mortgage repayments were cheaper than rent payments in every part of the UK, with homeowners saving on average £2,268 per year (£3,500 in London) compared to tenants. 

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But in order to buy, you’ll need a deposit, something which is significantly easier to accrue for people with lower costs-to-incomes, for instance: homeowners. People “on the ladder” are therefore able to save at a quicker rate than tenants, skewing the market in their favour.

“Ultimately rents need to fall substantially so that we can all save for the future, whether we want to buy a house or not,” says Wilson Craw.

ENSURE “NO-FAULT” EVICTIONS ARE ABOLISHED

“Right now a law called Section 21 means landlords can evict you without needing a reason,” says Wilson Craw. Legally, the place you live in is not your home, because it belongs to someone else, and the precariousness of this dynamic, he argues, “creates the enormous uncertainty that drives our desire for a home we own”.

“Following a campaign by Generation Rent and renter unions, the government agreed to abolish Section 21 and bring in more secure tenancies – though they haven’t published the Bill yet. It would let tenants start treating their home as something long term and give stability to those of us who can’t save.”

Though the formal government consultation on scrapping Section 21 was concluded on October 12th 2019, and the Tories’ intent was reiterated in Boris Johnson’s Queen’s Speech after their December 2019 election win, the law remains intact.

RENT STRIKES!

Thousands of students at universities including Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol, Aberdeen, Sussex, SOAS, Durham, Plymouth, UCL, York, Goldsmiths, Bath, Stirling, UAL, Surrey, Oxford and Cambridge have organised rent strikes in response to their farcical mistreatment at the hands of various unscrupulous cynical university managements during the COVID-19 crisis. The results have been heartening. 

This is a demonstration of the power collective action can still hold, in spite of centuries’ worth of attempts to break it. Of course, building class consciousness and solidarity, and the organising in general is somewhat easier when the tenants (fellow students) and target of resistance (university management) are clearly identifiable. The atomisation of tenants and myriad landlords of the private rented sector make this slightly more challenging to coordinate. I point you in the direction of rent-strike.org for information, strategic materials, legal info and other organising contacts.

IMPLEMENT VIENNA’S HOUSING SYSTEM

When I ask what an ideal approach to housing in the UK could look like, Hatherley the author points to the Viennese system. “It’s roughly divided into four sectors of an equal size: of about 25 percent owner occupancy, 25 percent social housing and cooperatives, 25 percent council housing and 25 percent private renting - which is strictly regulated.

“Everyone knows that if you want to have a relatively fair housing system and liberal democracy, that's what it looks like. And in a lot of Europe, that's more or less what the system looks like. But Vienna probably has the best example, and you'd want to bring in something like that.”

…OR SINGAPORE’S LAND NATIONALISATION

We can look even further afield. Youel of Positive Money points to the example of Singapore, which is “usually seen as a bastion of free market capitalism, but actually nationalised most of their land between the 1960s and 1980s, after passing a law which allowed the state to buy land without paying compensation to landowners.” 

“More than 80 percent of people in Singapore now live in housing leased to them through the government’s Housing Development Board (HDB). The HDB also provides those who want to buy with subsidised mortgages. Taken together, these measures mean that house prices relative to income are among the lowest in Asia, despite it being a densely populated city state.”

CONVERT THE FORMER WEWORKS

The COVID-accelerated rise of working from home has seen all sorts of companies arrive at the realisation that this could be a permanent cost-cutting measure, leaving huge amounts of commercial property has gone unused. So, could these be converted into residential properties? 

“We've already seen that happen in recent years with what's called the Permitted Development,” reckons Residential Analysts’s Neal Hudson. “Where developers could turn existing properties into residential homes, without needing to go through the planning system. The problem with that was there was a lack of oversight, and we've seen some real shit come through that process, to the point now, where even this government has said there needs to be minimum space standards.”

…OR DON’T CONVERT THEM

Hatherley is even less enthusiastic. He expects that we’ll see “office blocks in somewhere like Harlow, converted into flats, with incredibly poor standards of construction and space and light and all the things that actually make living somewhere pleasant”.

Harlow’s converted office block Terminus House is perhaps one of the more infamous examples. It’s been the subject of numerous exposes, detailing the cramped, unsafe, unsanitary and downright harrowing conditions, while being variously described as a “human warehouse”, a “ghetto” and “an open prison”. Let’s say you were willing to overlook all that; how much would it set you back?

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According to Zoopla, a cool £275,000! For a small slice of a building that was built for the express purpose of commerce, not habitation! A further addendum is that, despite scouring various sites, I couldn’t find a single property in the building for sale, but multiple ones for rent at around £650pcm, minimum. Which a) is more than my rent in Zone 2 London, and b) indicative that all of the properties have been snapped up by buy-to-let landlords! Seems healthy!

Hatherley believes the office conversion will be the Tories’ answer to dwindling support among younger generations. “I think the idea behind that is: you get people all into a flat in the Archway Tower or what have you, then you will restart the owner-occupancy system. And those people will feel that they have a stake in it and they'll feel like they're homeowners, and you will no longer get the situation where barely 15 percent of young people vote Conservative. And that's really what it's all about.”

“I don't think it's going to work, because people pretend not to be grateful for crap. Even in Britain, people tend to have some awareness of when they're being sold pap.”

STOP UNCONDITIONALLY BAILING OUT THE BANKS

A lot of people seem to think the 2007-2009 global financial crisis is far too complicated to comprehend, but I’ve watched The Big Short, so I reckon I can confidently assert that a large contributory factor was the risky lending in the mortgage market, where people without the requisite resources to pay back their mortgages were given mortgages, and then - surprisingly - defaulted on them. 

This, in turn, caused the Line To Go Down. All the money the banks had created and issued as credit was nearly lost to the ether, and all they had to show for it were all the rapidly depreciating properties they repossessed from their ruined, defaulting customers. Then governments stepped in, for instance, the UK, where we gave them a £500 billion rescue package.

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So, in effect, public money was given to banks to cover their losses, while their customers lost everything. “That's why [banks] love mortgage lending,” says Youel. “Even if the loans fail, they get to keep the property.”

“With no real reforms, like in 2008, we're bailing out a system which is inflating house prices [and] basically encourages them to keep inflating house prices, because they know they'll get bailed out when the bubble bursts.”

This seems like it should be illegal. But it's not. Lol.

SMASH THE HOUSE BUILDERS

“You cannot work with these institutions,” Hatherley insists, in full polemical swing. “I don't think you can really regulate something like Persimmon or Barratt Homes, or what have you. You just have to smash them to pieces.”

“You look at the Grenfell inquiry. The housing system in this country is utterly corrupt. And, you know, have been building unsafe buildings for a very long time. The same companies putting flammable cladding on now, are frequently linked to the companies that are building system-built towers that fell down in the late 60s. It's the same people, and that system just has to be broken. They have to be bought up, taken over and broken apart.” 

“I think any kind of reforming government would have to look at that, because those kinds of house building companies and the construction industry and so on, have always been very closely linked to the Conservative Party. They are deeply corrupt, and they have blood on their hands.”

CRASH THE HOUSING MARKET

The simplest way of making house prices become more affordable would be to orchestrate some sort of biblical collapse in the market. Let’s all collectively put irrefusable offers in on every property in the market, and then all pull out at the last minute, leaving the market in disarray. 

STOP THE HOUSING MARKET FROM CRASHING 

Housing market analyst Neal Hudson counters: “Clearly a crash in house prices looks appealing, and ultimately makes them more affordable in one way. But if you have a crash, then mortgage lending dies. You're not going to be able to get a mortgage.”

Common Wealth’s Mathew Lawrence agrees. “The wider problem is, if there was [a crash], that crash wouldn't then be like a crash in isolation to the economy. It would either be a symptom of, or it would be a trigger for an economic recession.”

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Maja Gustafsson at Resolution Foundation adds:  “We've looked at what could happen if there was a house price fall. The conclusion is that it's still too hard for young people to access their property market, because if the house prices fall, and largely it would be counteracted by their income hit to those young families.

“So unless you have parents who are willing to [lend] or gift you money, or you have inheritance coming up, or [you’ve] saved a lot, then you're unlikely to benefit from this kind of house price fall that we'd expect in a crisis.”

VOTE CONSERVATIVE

Lawrence points to the increase in people under 40 now living with their parents, and the decreasing number of owner-occupiers. “In some ways, that is really quite unusual and quite dangerous to the Conservative Party. Their political economy from 1979 onwards was Right To Buy and expanding homeownership to tie people into homeownership, creating an electoral bloc.”

Therefore (and turning to a point in the previous article) a notably skeptical Lawrence reckons the Tories could embark on a programme of mass house-building. “If I was them, that's how you consolidate your political coalition. So you may well see national state-building intervention. 'Build back better', ‘we're going to build like Harold MacMillan.’” 

VOTE LABOUR

“Housing was probably the only place where the 2019 [Labour] manifesto was significantly better than the 2017 one,” notes Hatherley.

“The manifesto commitments on housing mainly came from a Young Labour resolution. I think they were what I imagine people older than myself would consider to be really old school socialist ideas: committing councils to building council housing, en masse; committing the councils to taking over housing associations, strict rent regulation. I think these things would all make a very, very positive difference.”

END HOMELESSNESS

“I don't think it's remotely conspiratorial to argue that this is a system that works extraordinarily well for [the Conservative Party],” says Hatherley. “It has a dual thing; creating a large base of homeowners [and] a smaller – but still a large quantity – of people that are frightened. Frightened and insecure, and you know, will accept, let's say, a starter home. Because, you know, it's anything other than private renting or homelessness.”

“The genie's out of the bottle a little bit, in that rough sleeping was, you know, basically, for a few months abolished in the UK,” he says, referring to the Tories’ rapid ability to house the rough sleeping population during the first lockdown - a move born of fear for the wider public health, rather than altruism.

Still, it was achieved remarkably easily, and very quickly - as it can be, by any state which actually wants to. Of course, the Tories are now reversing that and “hoping that everyone forgets about it,” he says. 

The elimination of rough sleeping or homelessness isn’t necessarily incompatible with capitalism, as this brief COVID reprieve proved. And yet, that it went unaddressed for so long prior, has immediately resumed again, and continues apace, demonstrates how this is a system that will always privilege interests that stand to benefit from the existence of homelessness – except in the rare instance where the contagion factor of a pandemic running rife through the destitute might threaten the safety of the rich. The existence and proliferation of homelessness is massively beneficial to property value, and it must be eradicated.

SIMPLY DISMANTLE GLOBAL CAPITALISM

Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of two articles on housing and unlocked their super-secret subtext: anti-capitalism! Friedrich Engels, writing in 1872: 

“The so-called housing shortage, which plays such a great role in the press nowadays, does not consist in the fact that the working class generally lives in bad, overcrowded and unhealthy dwellings. This shortage is not something peculiar to the present… On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it… In order to make an end of this housing shortage, there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.”

Huh, turns out 150 more years of capitalism failed to make any of the above less applicable to the present moment. Well, we gave it a good go. Time for something else now, I reckon.

@tristandross