‘Don’t mention the housing crisis’ was the name of the lecture referring to politicians and home-owners happy to see house prices continue to rise while a generation face up to the prospect of renting for life.
Well that is exactly what we must do, according to speaker David Orr, head of the National Housing Federation, if we want to see housebuilding ramped up from the current 110k-a-year – required in London alone – to the 250k needed – make the housing crisis a political issue in the run-up to the elections by mentioning it no-end.
Orr was speaking at the East London Community Land Trust’s AGM in Mile End where they are in the process of converting an old asylum into truly affordable homes for its members who face being forced out of the area by ever-increasing prices.
“Political parties used to say housing was as important as social services, but now they talk like housing is a private good so responsibility has moved to the individual and housing is not talked about in strategic terms,” he said.
Since Thatcher introduced Right-to-Buy in the early eighties – and the cheap credit that followed – people have increasingly taken responsibility for their own housing rather than it being a collective responsibility for the collective good, he said. “It’s almost stopped being a political issue.”
Except that it couldn’t be more political as the vast sums of equity in people’s homes underpinned the consumer boom and more recently props up an ailing economy.
The change in political discourse since the late 70s has impressed on a nation that owning your own home is not only desirable, but essential for security, status and prosperity. “We’ve not always been in love with owner-occupation. We’ve been taught it,” he said.
Of course the root of the problem is a lack of supply. While between 1.5m and 2.5m council houses (depending on your source) have been sold off since 1979 the money largely went to the treasury instead of being reinvested in new stock. Meanwhile developers have failed to keep-up with demand helping prop-up prices to their own advantage while sitting on vast tracts of land much of which has planning permission already.
In fact the biggest builder of homes in recent years was not Barratt, Berkeley or Bovis, but individual self-builders. Last year they built 15k between them, according to architect and TV presenter George Clark, while the biggest developer managed a meagre 12k.
Another source of homes are housing associations, but their financial and building power is limited particularly with the high cost of land in places like London, although, they are facing the prospect of demolishing rather than building homes as the effects of the benefit cap and bedroom tax reduce demand for their three and four bedroom properties.
Of course not everyone will ever be able to afford to buy their own home or even wants to, but as demand for private rentals increases and newer buy-to-let property-owners have large mortgages to repay rents have increased with a very average one or two-bedroom privately rented flat in a reasonably affordable area in London costing around £1,100 a month. Social renters pay around £320 a month, but with waiting lists in their tens of thousands they are a pipe-dream for most.
Putting long-term (more than six months) empty homes – both private and social – back into use would help. As of November last year there were more than 24k long-term empty homes in London and nearly 260k across the country, according to the Office for National Statistics. While putting them back into use would not solve the problem it would give it a kick as would heavily taxing empty properties – or fines in the case of local authorities.
The CLT in East London, however, is taking matters into its own hands having acquired an old psychiatric hospital in Mile End from the GLA and is converting into truly affordable homes for its members. It proposes selling its homes based on a third of the average local income (the truly affordable) – £830 in Tower Hamlets – with a multiplier for two, three and four-bed homes.
That equates to £135,310 for a one-bedroom flat, £190,350 for a two-bed, £245,390 for a three-bed and £300,430 for a four-bed. Given the average price for a two-bedroom flat in Tower Hamlets is around £350k this is an impressive model, but given the time-scales and level of commitment by volunteers is unlikely to be successful beyond certain groups and institutions.
The CLT, an off-shoot of community action group London Citizens, is well organised and has been able to mobilise the help of professionals to get the project off the ground with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Meanwhile Tower Hamlets Council is pursuing the flawed model of getting the private sector to build ‘affordable’ homes in exchange for planning permission to build what it likes. Mayor Lutfur Rahman hopes to get around 1,200 ‘affordable’ homes for let, sale and shared ownership over the next 15 years as part of its £900m regeneration programme for Whitechapel.
No doubt their definition of affordable will be markedly different from the CLT’s and offer little help to those his Fairness Commission identified as needing it most. However, Rahman is up for election next year and MPs the next, so – as David Orr said – maybe its time to start mentioning the housing crisis along with re-defining what’s affordable in exchange for our vote.