Homeownership isn't a good aim of policy

A nation of homeowners isn't better than a nation of renters – and it may even be worse.

Over the weekend, Adam Posen, a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, made a point beloved of economists but all-too-rare in circles of public debate: there's not actually any reason to think home ownership is a good thing. Posen writes (in the Financial Times, although it's reposted outside the paywall by his employers the Peterson Institute):

Policies to increase home ownership do not necessarily improve the supply or distribution of housing, as the UK experience demonstrates, and often works against it. The OECD’s Better Life Index shows that no relationship exists between a country’s home-ownership levels and its average housing satisfaction and quality. And there is no iron law that higher-income economies must have higher rates of home ownership: Mexico, Nepal and Russia all have home-ownership rates of more than 80 per cent, while the French, German and Japanese rates are 30-40 percentage points lower. The US and the UK rates sit between them at about 65 to 70 per cent.

As housing policy, home ownership is pretty bloody terrible. Matt Yglesias, commenting on Posen's post, points out that it's essentially encouraging massive investments in what is, at heart, a consumer good. (Land is a commodity, but the house on top is a durable good). That then leads to the political debate around housing turning into a debate around how best to preserve the value of that consumer good. Imagine, Yglesias writes, a world in which most people had a car worth hundreds of thousands of pounds:

If we banned the construction of new cars and trucks, then America's existing stock of cars and trucks would become more valuable, but this would be a way of impoverishing the country, not enriching it.

To make the same point more succinctly, I always like coming back to Dan Davies of Crooked Timber:

 

 

Housing policy requires cheap houses, but the politics of lots of people owning houses leads to a pressure for continued increase in the sale price of homes.

(That's made worse still by the peculiarities of the UK housing market, specifically the typical way buy-to-let financing works. The landlord buys a house, the rent pays the mortgage, and then they profit from the appreciation on the property. That means it's not enough even for house prices to be stable; they need continued, reliable increases)

Indirectly, then, policies to support homeownership render effective housing policy impossible. But they also have damaging direct effects.

Treating homeownership as an untrammelled good serves to disguise the trade-off inherent in buying a house. Renting has a place in the housing mix: it allows people to live in a house without being tied to it, lets them pass on the financial risk of repairs, lets them avoid the need for loans or capital, and lets them downsize fair By increasing the relative cost of renting, the choice between owning a house and renting one becomes a no-brainer: if you can afford a house, you should buy one.

That leads to the sort of problems highlighted by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald earlier this year: homeownership is correlated with unemployment. Buying a house ties you to a particular area, and a particular labour market; it increases the hurdle required to move to find work. Similarly, buying a house locks you into a particular mortgage payment, making it a lot harder to take a pay cut (while retraining, say), which can amplify the effects of sectoral shifts.

Homeownership as a policy to be pursued has a steadily increasing set of downsides, and a steadily decreasing set of upsides. Whether that means change will actually come is a different question, though.

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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.