The goal for most people is now to get on “the housing ladder”: buy a house or flat, and gradually move to a nicer area and bigger home as your profits increase. This wasn’t always the case. Back in the early 1980s, around half the population of the country owned their own home, and half rented – 30% in social housing, from their local council, and 20% from private landlords.
Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of right to buy meant that those who bought their council home saw the value of their subsidised purchase rise rapidly, meaning housing was seen less as a permanent home, more as an investment. At the same time, councils stopped building homes partly due to economic constraints, and partly due to the ideological shift away from renting and towards home ownership.
But now we’re in a crisis. Homes cost an awful lot in many places in the UK, and wages haven’t kept pace with inflation, or risen as much as house prices, post-recession. The young, in particular, find their earning potential and borrowing allowances have been harder hit than most. Meanwhile, the vast majority of new private-sector jobs are in the capital, where house prices are exorbitant.
The average house price for the UK was £282,000 in July according to the Office for National Statistics, which, if you live in London, sounds like nothing – the average house price there nudged £525,000 this month. But the average UK earner, who takes home £24,648 gross, including bonuses, can only afford a house worth around £110,000, if you imagine them taking out a mortgage worth 4.5 times their salary. To find a job paying that much and a house that costs that little isn’t easy – saving for a deposit while paying market rents is even harder.
Part of the problem is scarcity. Britain simply isn’t building enough housing to meet the demand for homes. Part of that is due to a brick shortage that began before the recession, and a skills shortage: British workers predominantly don’t want to be builders, and the rhetoric against hiring in skilled workers from the EU and beyond also stymies attempts to build more.
But many people profit from rising house prices: landbanking is a huge problem that exacerbates the housing crisis. In areas where homes are needed, it works in private companies’ interests to sit on land that could be developed, inflating its prices, and in turn inflating house prices.
Where housing expansion has happened is in private renting, the sector least likely to increase the home ownership rate in Britain. If you ask most people what is the biggest barrier to raising the capital necessary for a deposit, most will say that it’s high rents. It’s in landlords’ interests to keep people renting, rather than buying. An interest-only mortgage lets you cream off a considerable profit while buying more properties.
And once profits rise in houses, and people see property not as a home but as an investment opportunity, outside investors pour in. Concerns have been raised at the proportion of new-build properties in London being bought and treated as asset lockers in the capital – left empty, while appreciating in value at very little risk for the predominantly foreign buyers. Meanwhile, families flounder on the housing waiting lists, or are forced out to far-flung towns, away from their children’s schools or support networks.
Houses aren’t expensive simply because of supply and demand. As long as houses are expensive, people will work to keep them expensive – buy-to-let landlords with far more capital can buy up houses and rent them out at high costs, wealthy British and foreign investors can buy up land and new-build luxury property knowing that the likelihood of profit is a far better bet than with any other investment. Keeping families and individuals locked out of home ownership for a lifetime works as a financial racket, which is precisely what we’re dealing with.
There’s also the massive regional disparity – growing up, I remember working out exactly how much I’d need to earn to afford a mortgage on my own home. It seemed achievable, because I foolishly hadn’t assumed a global recession would cause stagnant wages while house prices continued rising unhindered. And to get a mortgage on a property where I grew up in Newport, at an average of £115,828 I’d need to earn around £29,000 per year. I’ll admit to earning far more. But to buy the average home where I currently live near Clapham, I’d need to earn £182,809. I earn far less. Why do I stay, rather than returning home and snapping up a four-bed house? The same reason anyone does – friends, work opportunities, and an emotional investment in the local surroundings.
But across England and Wales, the average home costs 8.8 times the average salary. In Westminster, it’s 24 times the local salary, compared to 12 times a decade earlier. Everywhere in England and Wales, the house price/local salary ratio has risen since 2002. Part of the reason so many people want to buy is because renting conditions can be so poor, while rent is so high. Those hoarding properties can hike up house prices as people become increasingly desperate to get on “the ladder”.
Scarcity causes a number of responses: firstly panic – watch any queue outside a house in Walthamstow, or try to rent a room in London or Oxford, and realise how many people are scrabbling for any opportunity to solve their personal housing crisis. But it also encourages hoarding: the financially solvent notice an asset’s sharp increase in value and hoard that asset, inflating the price and their profits at the same time. One in five homes in the UK is now owned by a private landlord, yet landlords only account for 2% cent of the adult population.
But crises reach a head: at the moment, house prices are so expensive, many people will be unable to afford to buy at all, which impacts on birth rates, encourages people to move abroad, and affects the economy, both because people are spending more on rent and less on goods that boost the economy, and because housing is a precarious market to rely on to prop up GDP. It’s because the market has been allowed to grow unchecked, and landlords and investors allowed to distort and inflate the market, that houses are expensive. But to bring prices down, some homeowners have to lose out and end up in negative equity. It depends on who politicians value most – homeowners, or Generation Rent. Or, we can all sit tight and wait for the bubble to burst.