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Why It's a Big Deal that Nobody Can Afford to Own a House

Homeownership isn't a human right, but renting sucks, and what is the government doing about it? Fuck all.

by Mark Wilding
04 August 2016, 1:00pm

(Picture by: Alastair Grant / AP)

For a long time, owning your own home was a key milestone in Britain. Like leaving school or losing your virginity, it was another box to be ticked on the journey through life. But that was then, and this is now, an age of uncertainty where everything we knew to expect can no longer be taken for granted.

Home ownership in England has fallen to its lowest level for three decades. According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, the proportion of people who own their own homes hit a peak of 71 percent in April 2003, but has since fallen to 64 percent, the lowest level since 1986. London's housing crisis is well known, but the trend is being seen all over the country. In Greater Manchester, the proportion of homeowners has fallen from 72 percent in 2003 to 58 percent this year.

Of course, home ownership is not a right. But shelter is a necessity. And, if you don't own your own home, what is the alternative? Most of us don't aspire to property ownership for reasons of status or financial gain. (Although, in fairness, the free money is a nice bonus.) We want to own homes for one simple reason: Renting sucks.

Britain is geared up towards home ownership. For years, the rights of private tenants have been ignored because it's seen as a short-term fix, a rite of passage for those few short years between leaving your parents' home and buying your own. As the age of the average first-time buyer rises and rises, this attitude starts to look deeply flawed.

Figures from homelessness charity Shelter show that, by 2020, first-time buyers will need to earn £64,000 a year to secure a mortgage. Research by Halifax suggests the average age of first time-buyers is now 30. In London, it's 32. The truth is, many of us can never reasonably expect to own our own homes.

In the past, council housing has provided an alternative to the private rented sector. For everyone but the most desperately in need, this is now all but an impossibility. In 2014, there were 1.37million households on local authority waiting lists for housing. In the same year, councils built just 2,580 homes.

So, we're left to turn to Zoopla and Gumtree. For a snapshot of what's on offer, take a look at our London Rental Opportunity of the Week series. Even if your budget will stretch beyond a dirty mattress squeezed into a cupboard, you'll still be prey to spiralling prices, dodgy landlords, and rip-off estate agents' fees. In short, private renting is a racket.

Proponents of private renting often point to countries like Germany, where renting is the norm for many. But in Germany, you have rights. You can't be kicked out on a whim. Courts routinely side with tenants. There's rent control. You can find a two-bedroom flat in the centre of Berlin for less than you'd pay to go four ways on a bunk bed under the stairs of a suburban bedsit in London.

Beyond all this, there's the question of stability. Dan Wilson Craw, policy manager at campaign group Generation Rent, tells me: "Most tenants will be on six to 12 month tenancies. Outside of the contract, the landlord can raise the rent by whatever amount he thinks he can get away with and issue an eviction notice without having to give a reason. Basically, any private renter doesn't know where they are going to be living in a year's time."

According to Generation Rent, around a quarter of private renters have been forced to move unexpectedly or been issued with an increase in rent that they can't afford. "It's something that hangs over every tenant," says Wilson Craw. Even for those who aren't affected, the possibility of eviction is a constant threat.

When home ownership becomes a distant prospect, the rising cost and instability that is inherent to private renting has real consequences. It means an entire generation becomes transient. It means the break-up of communities. It means people trapped in damaging relationships because they can't afford to live alone.

It seems reasonable to ask what the government is doing to tackle this. The unfortunate answer is: fuck all. Construction in the wake of Brexit has come to a standstill. Even before the referendum, David Cameron presided over the building of fewer houses than any prime minister since 1923. Ministers routinely roll out policies aimed at boosting home ownership. Starter Homes allow first-time buyers to purchase properties at a 20 percent discount. How does that help when the average house price in London is now more than £600,000?

In 2015, the government extended Margaret Thatcher's Right to Buy policy to include housing association homes in England – offering discounts to tenants who wished to purchase their home. On the face of it, the policy brought home ownership within reach for half a million people. The reality is somewhat different. Analysis by Inside Housing last year revealed that almost 40 percent of properties sold under Right to Buy are now in the hands of private landlords. The policy exacerbates the very problem it was intended to solve.

This is what happens when housing is seen as an investment class rather than a human right. Generations before us have been taught to "invest in bricks and mortar", with no consideration for the fact that this would inevitably place housing out of reach for all but the privileged few. The prospect of a fall in house prices is still seen as a sign of economic apocalypse, rather than a correction to an unsustainable bubble.

For now, there is little sign that any of this will change. Everyone agrees we should be building more homes, but no one seems willing or able to do so. The truth is, there is no real incentive for politicians to bring house prices down. It is older people who vote in far greater numbers and, as a generation of homeowners, benefit the most from the status quo. House prices keep rising, and their investments rise in value. They never thought it would be any other way.

@mark_wilding

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