The housing crisis is pricing workers out of ever more of Britain

Renting is now more expensive than owning with a mortgage in 44 per cent of all local authorities, but for many families it is the only option.

The fact that many ordinary working families are priced out of central London boroughs such as Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Islington will surprise no one. But a new report by the Resolution Foundation shows that there are now affordability black spots across all parts of the country where low and middle income families would have to spend more than a third of their income on housing to find a decent place to rent or buy. Working families are being priced out.

A couple with one child on £22,000, for example, has to spend more than 35 per cent of its net income – a commonly accepted ceiling for affordability - to meet the ongoing costs of a mortgage in nearly two fifths of all local authorities. If the same family wanted to rent privately, they would find that renting was unaffordable in a third of all local authorities. Housing costs are becoming a struggle even for median income families on £28,000.  In one in 16 local authorities, rent would eat up more than 35 per cent of their income. And in London, there is no local authority where a family on £22,000 can rent even a modest a two-bedroom property and pay less than 35 per cent of their income in rent.

Of course, there are low income families renting in all of these 'unaffordable' parts of the country but they do so at a sacrifice. They are either paying a vast amount of their income towards housing costs and forgoing other essentials, living in cheap, substandard accommodation or in overcrowded conditions. or maybe living miles from work, where housing costs are lower. With incomes for ordinary working families not expected to be any higher in 2020 than they were in 1997-98, the affordability problems of Britain’s ordinary working families look set to persist.

The report highlights the growing affordability challenge for those in private rent, as falling wages fail to match even modest rent rises in some part of the country. Renting is now more expensive than owning with a mortgage in 44 per cent of all local authorities, many of which are in the north. In the north east, for example, renting is more expensive than owning with a mortgage in all local authorities in the region and in the north west, in more than eight out of ten local authorities. But for many low and middle income families, renting privately is the only option. Social housing, while affordable in all parts of the country, is in short supply and targeted at the most vulnerable and even a 10 per cent buyer’s deposit can be difficult to save for on a modest income. Of the 1.3 million low to middle income households who now face unaffordable housing costs, close to half are private renters.

The focus of the government’s response to this affordability crisis has been the Help to Buy scheme which provides government support to allow those who cannot afford to buy with a conventional mortgage access to a high-loan-to-value mortgage or an equity loan. This will no doubt help some people to get on the housing ladder but it will do little to meet the needs of the low to middle income families who currently face the biggest affordability problems. It has become almost trite to say that the solution to Britain’s housing problem is that we need to build more homes. But without more supply, schemes like Help to Buy simply risk inflating house prices as more people come onto the market in search of a home. Estimates suggest we need more than double the number of homes that we are currently building each year. But improving affordability has to be more than a simple numbers game. We need to build more homes in the right locations and of the right type- and at the right price - not just more homes for sale or prime central London rental developments - to meet the needs of households who currently have few options. 

"Schemes like Help to Buy simply risk inflating house prices as more people come onto the market". Photograph: Getty Images.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.