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?

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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