Crowded house

In the rush to condemn the so-called ‘Bedroom tax’ some commentators have been tempted to down play the problem of overcrowded housing in England.

Using the so-called ‘bedroom standard’ (more details on that measure here) there were, at the time of the last census, over a million households living in overcrowded accommodation.

This is a serious policy problem. Living in overcrowded accommodation is bad for your health and your wellbeing.

There are at least three things worth bearing in mind about overcrowding in England.

1. Overcrowding is a massive problem in London

This map (made from the census data here) shows overcrowding in different neighbourhoods of London. The darker the colour the more overcrowding there is.

London

In some areas of Newham nearly a third of households are overcrowded and the problem is not restricted to East London.

2. Overcrowding is a problem in many other cities of the UK

While people often claim that there is only a housing problem in London and the South East, this is not the case with overcrowding. This map shows overcrowding in England.

England

You can just about see that there are darker coloured sections in most towns.

For example, here is a map of overcrowding in areas of Birmingham.

Birmingham

And Sheffield

Sheffield

And even Stoke-on-Trent (which has quite affordable housing by English standards).

Stoke

As you can see from these maps, while cities outside of London do not have as systemic a problem with overcrowding as the capital, it is still a problem for a sizeable number of people in different neighbourhoods of our major cities.

Over 20% of households in Washwood Heath in Birmingham are overcrowded and 13% in Hanley Park in Stoke and Burngreave in Sheffield.

3. In most overcrowded areas there are a number of under used houses, although these are mostly privately owned

A large part of the solution to this problem, as to quite a few housing problems, would be to build more houses.

Having said that, there are a large number of under used houses, even in areas with a large number of overcrowded households.

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In Green Street East in Newham over 10% of houses have 2 or more spare bedrooms, while 35% are overcrowded.

In Washwood Heath in Birmingham 23% of households are overcrowded while 17% have 2 or more spare bedrooms.

In Hanley Park in Stoke and Burngreave in Sheffield there are more houses with spare bedrooms than there are overcrowded houses.

The problem for those who have proposed the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ as a solution to overcrowding is that most of the houses with spare bedrooms in are not social housing they are privately owned, as this chart from Savills makes clear.

underooccupancyIf we want to solve the problem of overcrowding without building new homes in inner cities but instead by making sure all the bedrooms in larger houses are used, we would need to think about how we can encourage home owners to use their spare bedrooms.

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Demand more than supply

In the UK discussion on housing policy is often on how to increase the number of houses built each year. There is very little discussion of whether the existing houses should be distributed in a different way.

Housing policy is usually about growing the pie, not how we share it

The fact is that not enough homes are being built in the UK. People are living longer, often in single person households. This means more homes will be needed. In response to this problem right-wing commentators tend to argue for a reduced role for the planning system, while left-wing commentators tend to call for more state funded house building.

This is a long term problem.

As of right now, there are more homes in England and Wales than there are households.

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There are more homes in London than there are households.

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There are more homes in the Borough of Camden than there are households.

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And yet, there are people homeless in England and Wales. Over 2000 people sleeping on the streets in one count last year. And 3% of households are overcrowded. A sizeable number of people are spending more than half of their income on housing.

The same is true in Washington DC.

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Why?

Mostly because there are lots of empty homes. They are empty for a number of reasons (including, but not mainly, households owning more than one home). There are just under a million vacant properties in England and Wales.

From this way of looking at things, many pressing problems with the UK housing market are a question of distribution of existing resources as much as they are a question of increasing supply

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What do policies to address these distributional questions look like?

Lets start with the easy ones.

1. Bringing vacant homes back to use

There are a number of people who do this and the current government have made it a bit of a priority. The latch project in Leeds is a good example of how you can do this is a way that buildings skills and community.

2. Taxes on empty and second homes

Camden is one of a number of areas introducing increased taxes on both empty and second homes. The idea being that these taxes will mean it makes less economic sense to leave properties empty.

3. Supportive approaches to ‘underoccupying’

Underoccupying (the term for when there are spare bedrooms in a property) is a very controversial topic. When people have been in a property for a long time it becomes far more than a housing unit. It becomes a home. If people feel like they are being forced out of their home they will of course be highly distressed. There are lots of schemes that offer people money to move out. More could be done with this.

More daringly, Government could pro-actively support approaches such as those used by Shared Lives, where people with adult social care needs are supported to live in communities of their choice, rather than in institutions.

Equally, the Government could dramatically build upon current policies aimed to encourage people to take in lodgers.

4. Regional development

Lots of empty houses are empty because no one wants to live in them. Perhaps there are no jobs nearby, or its a neighbourhood with lots of crime, or poor schools, the list of potential reasons goes on.

There are not easy solutions to these type of problems. Various governments have struggled, with various degrees of success, with the question of how to promote economic development, especially in areas that have been negatively impacted by the decline of manufacturing jobs.

But while there are no easy solutions the current UK government seems to have completely thrown in the towel. We have a tiny ‘Regional Growth Fund’ to give grants to businesses, we have business led partnerships with almost no money or power called ‘LEPs” and we have a lot of talk and little action about directly elected mayors.

For all their talk of ‘rebalancing’ the economy, their actions seem to suggest they are mostly going to trust the free market to sort everything out.

The problem with this approach is that the free market is not so hot at sorting out any problems which relate to the unfair distribution of goods.

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This brings us back to where we started. There is a lot of scope for policy makers and politicians to consider the ways in which the housing we currently have is distributed and not just focus on increasing the supply of new housing (as important as that is).