In 1974, my 22-year-old mam walked into a three-bedroom house in a new town in Scotland. She was a hairdresser, newly married and had no children at this point. She was over the moon at the space, the garden, the playground out the front that she could envisage her future children playing in. It was affordable and she got it with relative ease. She even told me that, if she did not like the layout, the council said she could choose another. It was a fresh estate for families, built on the presumption that working-class people deserved it.
My mam’s start on the housing ladder seems unbelievable in 2017. That we are experiencing a housing crisis is rarely far from our news feeds. You would expect that a crisis would be met with some sort of urgency, but since 2010 new housebuilding has been lower than under any governing political party in peacetime since the 1920s.
My best friend, who is 30, rents in Hackney. She pays £630 each month for a room in a shared house. Her shower is grim and her oven door does not shut, making it infuriatingly slow to cook dinner after a long day working in a school. She does not feel like she can complain to the landlord as he could find another tenant, willing to pay more, in the fiercely competitive market. She feels completely stuck, with no option but to spend her own wages on improving somebody else’s investment.
For all those 30-somethings outside of London renting privately is also increasingly normal. The north-east has seen the largest rise in the percentage of people privately renting – an increase of 212 per cent since 1996. I think it’s doubtful that this generation has ideologically opted to avoid the shackles of a mortgage in defiance of the capitalist system, especially not when we have been brought up on breakfasts of social mobility and home ownership equalling success. Instead, they are trapped in a high-rent, low-wage economy. Saving enough for a deposit is extremely difficult without family help, and for many this is not an option.
Affordable housing has become just a phrase. To illustrate the problem, you only need to look at how the percentage rise in wages has fallen far behind the percentage increase in house prices over the last two decades. The median price paid for a home leapt 259 per cent between 1997 and 2016 while earnings rose only 68 per cent.
There is also the dread of the mortgage providers’ credit check. It is frustrating that tenants may have been paying rent for 20 years, which is perhaps enough to pay off a mortgage. You may have made 240 regular payments, but this contributes not a jot to a lender’s assessment of your reliability as a debtor. Many people reading this will have secured 100 per cent mortgages. Those of you who have children aiming to buy you will know they are now few and far between. It seems that an ability to save, or borrow (away from the banks) is now a prerequisite of ownership.
And what about today’s socially rented sector? It’s a far cry from the 1970s’ fresh family home that my mam was offered. Council housing is severely underfunded, social housing grants have been cut and the pervasive dogma is that council housing is the last resort for those who believe they have other options – and the only option for those who have no choice. Having represented people in both council homes and now housing association accommodation, it is clear that they are often in a state of disrepair. I see tenants in my constituency struggling to maintain their properties, in protracted discussions about repairs.
Many look to individualise these conditions, to blame the people involved for being lazy, slovenly and lacking in good old-fashioned pride in their communities, rather than trying to understand the societal conditions that lead to dilapidation. When social housing is so scarce, it is often those with the least material wealth and the most complex lives who qualify for a house. Their needs are part of the qualification for the house. If you are long-term unemployed and have minimal income, it can have a severe impact on your ability and motivation to create an environment which is healthy and aesthetically pleasing. It is ridiculous to suggest that when many of my constituents are struggling to put gas and electricity on their meters, they might just pop to B&Q for a lawnmower.
The mass sell-off of council houses, (my mam’s first home is now a privately-owned), had an incredible impact on not only the availability of housing, but also on the way in which these community assets could be managed and maintained. Changes to the welfare system have seen many tenants fall into rent arrears for the first time. The Bedroom Tax was only the start. This problem is being made worse by the monthly payments central to the new Universal Credit system, which means that tenants will get their rent paid direct to them rather than through housing benefit to the housing provider. It is further exacerbated by a potential six-week wait for the first payment.
Dwindling rent revenues, taken alongside depleted stock and severe reduction in grants, mean that unless there is a different government, one which recognises that housing is a right rather than an investment opportunity, we will be accepting that it is OK for people to be homeless or in inadequate housing.
I know it is easy to point out the problems and so much harder to provide the solutions, but it is abundantly clear that the solutions do exist. They have been written about by experts for years. There have been valiant and creative efforts at a local level to create more housing but this has been despite, not because of, national government support. We need an urgent national and local authority-driven social home building programme, democratically controlled by residents; we need rents to be truly affordable and properties that are energy-efficient to help people out of fuel poverty. We should not be afraid to punish landlords if their properties fall below acceptable standards. We should cap rents and enforce more secure tenancies. For those who, with a little help, could buy, we should ensure that the length of time they have paid rent is counted towards their reliability as debtors. The state should provide loans for deposits with little or no interest to help those who do not have the bank of mam and dad to fall back onto. This could be regionally capped.
Between 1945-1953 there were 750,000 council homes built. From the ashes of war, it was brave political ideology that propelled people out of slum housing and homelessness. I want my constituents and those further afield to feel the excitement of a new home to call their own.