Do we actually want to be a society of homeowners?

High rates of home ownership have large negative effects on the labour market. Why are we trying to boost it?

Photograph: Getty Images

It is widely understood that Britain's housing market is (how to put this delicately) sub-par.

Nearly everyone agrees that there are problems which need fixing. We have a society built around homeowning, in which the average age of a first time buyer is inexorably rising. We have a social housing system which involves the state paying rents to private sector landlords, even as private sector rents are rising faster than inflation. We have a planning regime which is slow enough to deliver judgments that it encourages developers to create "banks" of property with permission, just in case the time comes to build. And widespread as these problems are, they are an order of magnitude worse in London and the South East.

But while there's agreement on the problems – and much discussion about what policies might ease them – there's far less examination of what the ideal housing market would look like.

Would homes be owned by individuals, companies or the state? Would multifamily accommodation (blocks of flats, in other words) make up a higher proportion of the housing mix, or is our love affair with the house permanent? How acceptable is flat sharing? What about room sharing? What are the minimum standards we should accept from new builds? Is the problem that mortgages aren't available, or that house prices are too high? Is the solution to insecure tenancies more secure tenancies or fewer tenancies full stop?

These questions seem uncomfortably micro-level to be discussing, but at least some of them are crucial to answer before we can make a real stab at implementing effective reforms to housing policy. And the most important one of all is the one which no-one wants to address: why do we want to own our own homes?

Obviously, given current policy, the answer is clear. The last two decades have been about shoring up the housing market, guaranteeing house prices will never fall, and making it easier to buy in. Conversely, renting has remained as insecure as ever, but with more and more people renting more and more houses, it's a landlord's market.

But if policy could be reformed to make it harder to buy a house but in a way which made renting a far better choice, should it?

One way to answer the question is to look at the wider effects of owning or renting your home. A paper from our own David Blanchflower and the University of Warwick's Andrew Oswald does just that, examining the effects of high rates of home-ownership on one aspect of the economy: the labour market.

Oswald argued twenty years ago that a lot of people owning their own houses would result in higher rates of unemployment. The reasoning is intuitive: a home is a burden, keeping you tied to one place; and a mortgage keeps you tied to a minimum salary. Insofar as it is easier to move out of a rental property than it is to sell a house and buy a new one, we would then expect people who own homes (all else being equal) to be less flexible about the sort of work they can take – and so we'd expect them to be more likely to be unemployed.

Aggregate it up, and we would expect economies with higher levels of home-ownership to have higher unemployment rates. And that's what Blanchflower and Oswald have found:

We find that rises in the home-ownership rate in a US state are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state… A doubling of the rate of home-ownership in a US state is followed in the long-run by more than a doubling of the later unemployment rate.

Oswald's 1990s argument is backed up by the fact that areas with higher ownership have lower mobility – as we would expect – but there are two further effects that the authors find.

The first is that high home-ownership areas have longer commute-to-work times. That could be because home-ownership tends to promote less dense housing, due to the difficulties in selling rather than renting multifamily accommodation, and the contrary difficulties in renting rather than selling single houses.

The second is that high home-ownership areas have lower rates of business formation. The authors speculate that "this may be due to zoning or NIMBY effects", and offer it as a point for future research.

The conclusion, that "the housing market can generate important negative externalities upon the labor market", poses some tricky questions for nearly everyone discussing housing policy in Britain today. We may still want to build more, lower rents, and improve quality of life for tenants; but this research suggests that, rather than making it so that more people can buy their homes, we should make it so that more people don't feel like they have to buy their own homes. In short, make renting fairer, not buying easier.