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A better future starts at home

The foundation of a good life is decent, secure housing.

By Geeta Nanda

“A house with a garden, for my little girl.” That was Jessica’s* hope when we asked her what she wanted her “housing future” to be.

Through a series of conversations with young people living in social housing, we heard time and time again about the importance of a secure, affordable, and decent home to people’s lives. We also heard about the consequences of young people not feeling like this future was attainable.

National polling, which we commissioned alongside these in-depth conversations, found that more than 60 per cent of young people said thinking about their future housing situation was affecting their mental health. Meanwhile, almost four in five young people said that the uncertainty surrounding their housing future was affecting life decisions now, such as whether to start a family or what jobs they will apply for.

With the number of first-time buyers falling by over 10 per cent in the last year, alongside a net loss of over 14,000 homes for social rent, young people can be forgiven for feeling the odds are being stacked against them when it comes to their homes of the future.

[See also: The end of the housing delusion]

Not-for-profit housing associations like the one I lead, MTVH, have been at the heart of supporting those who the housing market has failed for decades. In our case, MTVH was first established to provide homes for members of what would later become known as the Windrush generation in 1950s London. The offer of a safe and more affordable home then has the same intrinsic role as it does today: a chance of a foundation from which to build a life.

Home as a foundation is a compelling narrative, and one we need to draw on more often to give future generations the opportunities a good home can offer. Research by FrameWorks UK found that many people think of housing as a consumer product. Homes are being seen as a source of investment and wealth first and foremost. People also tend to think that inequalities in the current housing system are the result of “natural” forces, and not how government policy can create and affect the system. More problematic are perceptions that the reason the housing system isn’t working for everyone is due to individual responsibility or differences between certain groups.

Each of these troubling assumptions is encapsulated in the lazy cliché trotted out by, mostly, older homeowners when they suggest that younger people just need to cancel Netflix subscriptions, or stop buying avocado on toast, if they want to afford a home. As the parent of two children in their twenties, I can tell you that demands for deposits to buy a home and the spiralling cost of private renting will not be dealt with by a bit of belt tightening.

Instead of this negative characterisation, we need a new conversation, one that shows the true value and importance of home as a foundation for a good life. Crucially, the conversation must also not allow governments and decision-makers to devolve away responsibility for addressing the failures of the existing housing system.

Seeing a home as an essential foundation to a good life, and not just a commodity to be traded with little regard for the knock-on effects for future generations, is essential. The Right to Buy policy understood half this equation. It gave people a route to the security of home ownership, but has failed to replace the social homes lost as a consequence.

We need far more new homes for social rent. Of the more than 8 million who have some form of housing need, for 4.2 million of them, a social rent home would be the most appropriate tenure for them to help meet those needs, according to the National Housing Federation. The shortage of affordable housing is most severe in areas with the highest housing costs, with more than half of new affordable homes needing to be delivered in London and the South East to meet need.

However, even with a rise in new social housing being built, this alone will not be enough to give the next generation the foundation they need. It will take many years of boosting supply to reduce social housing waiting lists, or to bring down house prices. Therefore, we need both long-term policies and credible alternative options. Schemes like shared ownership, for example, which offer the benefits of far lower deposits, can be a route out of expensive and insecure private renting. Better housing and financial advice early on is also crucial, and this was something we heard as a clear demand in our own research with young people.

The benefits of starting to address the housing crisis would be widespread. Social housing in particular has a huge net benefit for society and the public purse. Analysis of MTVH’s activity has shown that our homes alone save the NHS at least £83m through fewer GP visits and reduced health inequalities. Each year, we are also contributing at least £287m to the economy through boosts from building new homes and maintaining existing homes, too.

There is also a clear electoral advantage for a political party bold enough to show its support for fixing the housing crisis. Polling has shown that two-thirds of young people agree they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who promises more new homes. For voters overall, while housing doesn’t rank as one of the top issues that would impact their vote, it is still found to be of more importance in swaying decisions than the environment, crime or transport.

When I think back to our conversations with Jessica and other young residents, I am struck by how inspiring their determination to get on was. I took from those conversations that we have a duty to listen and to hear what young people are telling us. When we do this, we make better decisions, we empower young people and show they matter. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to support young people to secure not only the housing futures they aspire to, but everything else that a decent, secure and affordable home can offer to their lives.

* Name changed

[See also: The great housing con: why the coming crash will rewrite the UK economy – Audio Long Reads]

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