How do we create affordable homes?

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at one of a series of events convened to explore the legacy of the financial crash of 2007.  (Here's the organisers; here's the event; and here's me.)

The three other speakers were knowledgeable and informative; I began by admitting I have no idea how to create affordable homes.  Despite involvement in a variety of housing-related projects and initiatives over the years - not least the wonderful work of Just Space - I  do not know what needs to be done.  I'm not sure I even understand the nature of the problem.  It all seems interminably complicated and difficult and dominated by heat rather than light.

The best I could offer, I said, was a few remarks that, in explaining my bewilderment, might help us, collectively, figure it out.  Roughly speaking (and it is very rough) I offered five thoughts:

1. The nature of The Crisis

It seems widely accepted that there is indeed a housing crisis; and I believe that too.  But it seems to me that the crisis is not universal and that, among Londoners especially, there is a risk that we see the problem through our own very particular spectacles.  Housing in some parts of the UK, for example, is less expensive than it was ten years ago (or, at least, more affordable); and there are some parts of the population, especially the comfortable middle-class millions, who are living in houses that are worth a great deal more than they paid for them and for whom the word 'crisis' may not be entirely accurate.

Fail to take account of the true nature and shape of the crisis, I suggested, and we may reach misplaced conclusions and propositions for action.

2. Drivers of the Crisis

Most people seem to want to build more houses, either for rent or to buy; and I, too, think that sounds sensible.  But what about that 'affordable' word in the title?  Maybe this is just another dimension of austerity, of poverty, of the lack of real wage growth about which we've heard so much.  Maybe, I wondered, it would be better if we focused on that side of the equation.

3. Households, Houses and Homes

There's a difference between these things.  A household is (roughly) (I said it was rough) a group of people that regularly eat together.  If there aren't enough houses - or, better, houses that a household finds affordable - then households do not move into a new house, they stay in the existing one.  That's what all these twenty-somethings (in London and the south east, at least) living in larger groups or staying at home with mum and/or dad are - multiple households in a single house.

Both of which are different from 'home'.  A home is something like this:

We derive multiple 'services' from something called 'home' - how many of them come from being part of a household?  How many of them do we get from being in a 'house'?  There is something here about the importance of context, of community, of connection.  (See my recent blog on Grenfell.)

4. Complexity

Housing, homes and households - a genuinely complex system, a mix of money and psychology and law and history and expectations and corporate power and politics and justice and...

And, as with any complex system, there's no beginning and no end - but there are 'key leverage points'. features of the system that are disproportionately significant in determining the behaviour of the system as a whole.

We can't, and don't need to, fix everything - we need to find that handful of key leverage points and work on those.

5. Possible Actions?

Well, yes - introduce a tax on land (and wealth generally), and bolster community land trusts and persuade (or enable or force) local authorities to build more houses and so on BUT whatever you do (or suggest) make sure you've thought through the resistance to your proposal.  There may well be a crisis, but there are plenty of people - landlords, housebuilders, people that have nearly paid off their mortgage - who are currently doing very nicely from the present situation and they are unlikely to react well to your idea.

Not only that, these self-same people overlap significantly with the prosperous and powerful elite and they are unlikely just to roll over.  Reform requires not just a good idea, but a good strategy for tackling the resistance.

Anyway, that's what I think I said...


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