What’s wrong with rising house prices?

The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme could raise house prices by 20% in the next couple of years, according to a report by Fathom Consultancy.

This is not being heralded as good news by everyone (although The Express has followed its time honoured tradition of solely reporting on speculation about house prices with a very positive story)

But why would it be a bad thing for house prices to go up? We don’t worry so much when share prices go up, why are house prices any different?

Three of the most important reasons for concern about booming house prices are;

  • It could be a bubble followed by a housing crash leaving people in ‘negative equity’

  • Rising house prices can make it harder for first time buyers to afford to buy (especially if they do not have help from the bank of mum and dad)

  • Less commented on, but still important, richer people might benefit disproportionately from rising house prices since they own more property wealth than the rest of us

So, as Lenin famously once said, what is to be done?

There is a healthy debate in think-tank land about so-called ‘de-coupling’, the idea that as the economy grows middle and low income people do not benefit because their wages do not keep up. This has lead to proposals such as living wage zones and representation of low paid workers on remuneration committees.

Perhaps we need a similar debate around how we can ensure that everyone benefits from rising house prices.

This could involve ways of re-distributing housing wealth including;

A land value tax

– A ‘mansion tax

– Or even more technical reforms of how we tax land and property which can be found in the Mirrelees Review

The money that these measures raise could then in turn be used to benefit those who do not have the good fortune of owning expensive properties that have gone up in value.

This could happen, for example, through;

– Funding a programme of housing associations or council built starter homes

– Funding part of the state pension as it becomes increasingly contributory

– Paying for part of a new universal adult social care system

Of course, as with so many questions of public policy, there is a possibility that any attempt to both take the heat out of the housing market and distribute gains more fairly, could be self defeating if they dampen the market too much.

However, this does not take away from the principle, that, currently, wealthy people disproportionately benefit from rising house prices and that we need to think about how we create a system in which more and more people, especially those on low and middle incomes, can benefit.

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Housing wealth

There has been lots of discussion recently about how much more the ‘1%’ earn than everyone else. There has been less attention paid to how much more they own.

In fact, wealth (what people own) is more unequally distributed than income.

Wealth vs income distribution

 

This chart gives you an idea of just how unequally distributed wealth is in the UK.

Wealth distribution

Wealth includes things like pensions and stocks. If we just concentrate on housing wealth (Total housing wealth in the UK stands at something like £3,375 billion) we see a similar picture. Here is how housing wealth is distributed.

Distribution of housing wealth

 

House prices have increased significantly, even adjusting for inflation, since the 1970s as this chart shows.

House prices adjusting for inflation

 

However, this has not uniformly benefited all homeowners.

Rises in house prices for mean and median

 

But has hugely benefitted those who own expensive houses.

Rise in value of prime accomidation

 

Many of whom are not born in the UK.

Country of origin of prime accommodation buyers

Public services in the community

The measles outbreaks taking place across the country tells us a lot about how public services, such as hospitals and schools, can be reformed so that they have a better relationship with the communities in which they operate.

Much has been written about how much the abuse and neglect that took place in Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust between 2005 and 2008 tells us about how the NHS should be reformed. Much less has been written about what the measles outbreaks tell us about reforming public services (since so much attention has been on the role the media played in causing the outbreaks).

Radio 4’s Today programme featured interviews with mothers in Manchester on why they had or had not got their children vaccinated against measles.

Strikingly, people did not mention media scare stories as the main reason for not getting their children vaccinated. Instead, they recounted stories about someone they knew being convinced that the vaccine had caused autism and said that this was the deciding factor.

What can an organisation like the NHS do in the face of these community pressures?

Clearly, simply doing traditional public information campaigns using leaflets and posters is insufficient. In addition, the NHS needs to be have a better understanding of how information flows through communities and a better ability to tap into these networks (more on this general argument here).

This leads to 1 of Tony Blair’s 7 questions that the Labour party needs to answer.

How do we take the health and education reforms of the last Labour government to a new level, given the huge improvement in results they brought about?

My answer would be that in general schools and hospitals should be reformed so that they have a better, more dynamic relationship with the communities in which they operate.

Education doesn’t only happen at school

Much of the energy around educational reforms is based on improving the performance of schools. This is an understandable but limited approach.

As we all know, a lot of education happens outside of schools. We learn from our friends and families and we do homework at home or in the library. There is an extensive amount of academic research which shows that the degree of ‘parental involvement‘ is one of the key factors determining a child’s level of educational achievement.

However, many schools and teachers have quite limited interaction with parents. There are parents evenings most terms and parents of poorly performing children are often brought into school for special meetings. In addition, there are often parents represented on governing boards and in PTAs.

This could be dramatically expanded. In America the Learning Dreams approach involves supporting the parents of children who are struggling at school, so that these parents develop a more positive attitude towards education. Closer to home, the Ocean Maths approach does a similar thing.

Health doesn’t only happen in hospitals

Talk to any doctor or nurse and they will tell you about their annoyance with patients. They don’t take their medicine, they miss appointments and they don’t do their exercises.

Behind these frustrations is the simple fact that patients have to put work in to get healthy.

Approaches like the Expert Patient Programme give patients the skills they need to manage their conditions. This is especially important given the rising cost of outpatient admissions for the NHS.

Cost of outpatient admissionsThe NHS could learn a lot from the “People Powered Health” movement on how you can work with patients to empower them to better deal with their illnesses and become more healthy.

For a practical example of how this works you can look at the “Connecting People” study. Here is the diagram that shows their approach.

What you can see is that the worker sees that their role is not just to use their skills to assist the individual being helped but also to support that person to develop their skills, connections and confidence.

Public services in the community

Many people involved with reforming public services rightly concentrate on improving the quality of these services. They are right to do so. But if we are to take the reforms of the last Labour government to the next level we need to do some from an understanding that education doesn’t just happen in schools and healing does not just happen in hospitals. Once we recognise that we can begin to think about how schools and hospitals can work with the communities in which they operate to make them better educated and healthier.

Towards a popular left wing housing policy

The death of Margret Thatcher reminds us that she was the last Prime Minister to have a popular housing policy.

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The famous right to buy policy is still seen by many people as her greatest achievement. I doubt even their biggest supporters would list the housing policies of Major or Blair as among their greatest achievements.

As I argued last week the Labour party has yet to fully detail a decent, popular housing policy. This post will attempt an initial outline of what such a policy might look like.

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Public Opinion

To design a decent, popular housing policy we need to understand the public’s views on housing.

The most obvious thing to say here is that the public, broadly, want to own a home.

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64% of people who rent privately want to own a home and 70% of people living with friends or relatives want to own a home. Fully a quarter of people who live in social housing also want to own a home.

Why do the public think it’s hard to buy a home?

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As you can see from this chart, many people say that houses are too expensive for them to buy, that it’s hard for them to get a mortgage or that mortgage repayments are too high.

Finally, what do the public think could or should be done to make it easier to buy a home?

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Lots of people are hoping for a windfall to help them buy a home. Short of that, or a pay rise, ideas around reducing house prices or making mortgages cheaper or more accessible are clearly popular.

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State of the industry

As well as understanding public opinion, to design a popular housing policy we need to understand the current state of the housing industry.

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Since the credit crunch there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of households getting mortgages. This number seems to have stablised but shows no sign of returning to the numbers we say before the recession.

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Similarly, the percentage of households that own their home has been steadily declining since before the recession.

So, fewer and fewer people own their home, fewer people are able to get mortgages and yet people would very much like to own their home.

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While that is the overall picture, the facts of the matter look very different depending on where you live. The map above shows the ratio between low wages and cheaper homes in different areas of England. You can see that there are many areas (such as the North East) where cheap homes are not expensive when compared to low wages, while there are other areas (obviously West London but also the South coast) where cheap homes are essentially out of the reach of people on low incomes.

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Principles of a popular left wing housing policy

Before we take the plunge and outline some specific ideas for a popular decent housing policy for the Labour party it is worth pausing and asking, what makes up popular decent Labour policies in general?

I would point to three characteristics (there is not much method here other than this excellent blog by Nick Pierce)

1. They build institutions

You only have to think about how much popular the NHS is than tax credits to understand that people can have much stronger positive feelings towards institutions than other types of public policy.

2. They pool or share risk

The NHS, unemployment benefit (actually a Liberal policy, but there you go) or, to a lesser extent, schools and even the BBC, are delivered by at such incredibly low costs because everyone pays in. This means we can all benefit from sharing the risk in a way that schemes that were offered to much fewer people could not provide.

3. They build a better economy

The modernisation of British industry after the Second World War, through nationalisation, or the introduction of the minimum wage, are both examples of popular Labour policies (at the time!) that not only improved the economy in a dry GDP type of sense but also built an economy that people felt more comfortable with

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Towards a popular left wing housing policy

All that is left for us to do then is to mix together what we have learned about public opinion, the state of the housing industry and the characteristics of popular Labour policies and we can come up with some decent popular policies. Easy, right? Perhaps not. 

Here are some initial thoughts though

– The People’s House

Labour could pledge to begin the construction of a selection of basic homes to buy at low cost. This could be done in a number of ways including allowing councils to set up their own house building companies, having a state owned house builder (as they do in, for example Korea) or, more simply, by giving more support to housing associations to develop homes for sale.

– A People’s Mortgage

Similarly, Labour could pledge to introduce a basic, low cost mortgage for people on low or middle incomes seeking to buy their first homes. This could be done in a number of ways including through the Post Office, credit unions or even the state owned banks.

– Local Homes

Labour should seek to ensure that these housing policies are delivered in a way that is sensitive to the specifics of each area. This could mean using processes like participative design where people get a say on what their future home will look like as well as giving a prominent role to local authorities and other agencies that operate closer to the ground.

– Reforming housing benefit

Housing benefit and local housing allowance currently cover renting. There are other types of government support for people having trouble paying their mortgage and other schemes to help people buy a new home (such as shared ownership homes).

An interesting policy area for Labour might be to look at reforming benefits that are currently given to people to help them pay for their rent so that these benefits could actually go towards buying a home. Countries such as South Africa have given people on low incomes one off grants to help them buy homes. At present, with our high house prices, this seems unthinkable, but perhaps could become a possibility if government was building low cost houses.

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These are some initial thoughts. I would be interested in comments on any aspect of this.

For those of who are interested in this kind of thing you might read IPPR’s recent(ish) housing report, the Labour Party’s policy document on renting or the Resolution Foundation’s work on housing

How to build popular support for social housing

What would a popular, left wing housing policy look like?

Three of the most pressing and controversial areas of government policy in the UK at present are; childcare, housing and adult social care (see for example Nick Pearce’s blog on the subject).

It was no surprise when in his recent budget, George Osborne included announcements of extra money in these three areas.

Briefly, he announced tax cuts to help families with childcare costs, government guarantees for people trying to get a mortgage and a cap on the maximum people can spend on care in later life (the cap will be £72,000).

The left in British politics has been developing strong counter arguments on these topics in recent years. However, I do not believe that the left has yet developed a strong idea that the public will back on how to reform the housing system on the UK.

The left has stronger arguments on adult social care and child care.

On adult social care, the government is doing far less than the Dilnot commission recommended (they recommended a cap of more like £35,000). More impressively, Andy Burnham has been floating the idea of a national care service that would be free at the point of use.

On childcare the government’s announcements seems to disproportionately benefit richer households. In contrast, the Resolution Foundation and others have been making the argument for more universal, high quality childcare services.

In both cases, the left has developed a case that a sizeable percentage of the public would support.

Despite a lot of work I do not think that the same could be said for housing.

For example, Jack Dromey’s response to the new housing policies announced in the budget rightly pointed out the government’s failure to stimulate the construction industry. However, it was weaker on what Labour’s alternative approach would look like.

For many on the left the default housing policy is to build more council houses. One of the major problems with this policy is that it is not popular with the public.

In general the public do not support the idea of building new homes of any type.

Do you support new house building?

By a massive majority the public far prefer the idea of owning than renting.

Would you prefer to rent or buy?

And, when asked to say which housing policies they most support they chose giving assistance to first time buyers and increasing access to mortgages more than they chose building more council housing.

The challenge for the left then is, can they develop housing policies that both address the major problems of housing need facing the country and are popular with the public.

Any thoughts from readers would be most appreciated.

Sharp elbows and controlled rents

The news that rents in London will soon be double what people pay in the rest of the country has led to a campaign to get the Mayor of London take action.

This comes at the same time as a highly commented on article in the American magazine The Atlantic on rent controls. The argument is a familiar one but is worth re-stating;

at best, rent control does little harm but probably not much good and, at worst, it has negative impacts on landlords and tenants.

 

I have already written here about the fact that too much discussion of rent controls does not consider the importance of public housing. In short, having rent controls and little to no public housing is very different to having rent controls and well funded public housing.

But it’s also worth noting that there are different varieties of rent controls. New York city, for example, is famous for having some apartments that are “rent controlled” and others that are not. What effect does this have?

This study found that tenants in rent controlled properties were not anymore likely to be on low incomes than tenants in other properties. The authors also looked at how much money different types of people saved by getting rent controlled properties. They found that middle class households  saved a lot more on rent by securing rent controlled units (when compared to other middle class households) than lower income households did.

This is an important aspect of partial or voluntary legislation. When there are no rules controlling access and when take up is voluntary or partial middle class households often disproportionally benefit.

Take the example of conservation areas. The idea behind conservation areas is that certain areas have distinct or special architecture and therefore additional restrictions apply when developing new houses or altering existing one.

An area is designated as a conservation area through a complex set of negotiations. Often middle class home owners are better at pressing for this designation. They are then rewarded by increased property prices. In fact, a recent report by English Heritage found that houses in conservation areas sell for 37% more than other houses.

Similarly, while it is still early days for ‘neighbourhood planning‘ based on my own experiences in Camden, I would hazard a guess that more middle class areas are further along with developing neighbourhood plans. I would also guess that in mixed income areas middle class views on what should be included in the plans is taking precedent over the views of working class residents.

What does this mean for rents in London?

I think it means that there is a risk that middle class households will disproportionally benefit from reforms which lead to some properties being rented out at controlled prices while others are not, if there is no control over who gets these tenancies.

 

Housing ideas for Local Authorities in tough times

Local Authorities wishing to tackle major problems relating to housing find themselves in a tough situation.

Grant for building new council housing is very limited. The ability of Councils to borrow money to build new housing is very limited. Large numbers of people are out of work, benefits are being cut and wages are stagnant so more and more people are finding it difficult to make rent or mortgage payments. The government seem complacent in the face of these challenges.

So what is a local authority to do? Well, there is only so much that they can do in the current circumstances. However, within the limits of our times, here are some ideas for what an ambitious local authority might do;

1. Stop all evictions for rent arrears from council housing

I have seen households evicted for rent arrears of less than a thousand pounds. Evicting people for rent arrears does not help anyone. It makes a household homeless, it means lots of money spend on legal fees and it gives up any chance of recovering the lost rent. Far better to have better benefit and debt advice services and, if necessary, to go to bailiffs to take and sell tenants’ possessions.

2. Use the pension fund to develop private rented housing for those on middle incomes

Local Authorities have been used to helping housing associations to build houses for people on very low incomes. Households on middle incomes were left to rent privately or to buy their own homes.

Increasingly, households on middle incomes are renting since the amount needed for a deposit is so high. Rather than propping up the already very high house prices by offering discounted mortgages and the like, local authorities could start building homes for these households to rent.

This would probably have to be done by a new company set up by the council. Part of the money needed to acquire land and so on could come from the council’s own pension funds (which already invest a lot in property).

3. Establish your own letting’s agency

Lots of landlords only own one or two properties. This means they often do not know the first thing about being a landlord. Instead, they trust a lettings agency. Some agents are good and others aren’t but the industry is not well regulated. This can mean shorter term tenancies are promoted and fees constantly increase.

Local authorities could establish their own letting agents to provide more impartial advice to tenants and landlords. This could go along with other initiatives such as requiring landlords to be licensed, as is happening in Newham.

4. Promote room sharing schemes

We hear a lot about how many spare rooms there are in council housing. Indeed, the government is introducing a new scheme (‘the bedroom tax’) which takes money off people’s housing benefit if they have spare rooms and live in council housing.

We hear less about how many spare rooms there are in properties which households own themselves.

A number of properties with empty rooms are owned by people with some kind of limiting long term health condition. These people will often get support from the local authority. There are already some schemes like Homeshare where;

someone who needs a small amount of help to live independently in their own home is matched with someone who has a housing need and can provide support or companionship

 

These schemes could be made central to the way a local authority supports someone with long term health conditions.