Housing Notes: Part 1 - Why There Isn't a Housing Crisis

Aug 31, 2015

If there's a housing crisis, why aren't we acting like it? Why is the green belt a sacred cow but affordable living not?

Going back to basics:  'crisis' is an old medical work – meaning the last time at which the patient can recover. Current meaning is closer to ‘decline that impairs ability to function’. This meaning can (and is) deployed more often but lacks the urgency associated with original meaning. Each year not building enough houses is creating more work for future people to build more houses than the currently demonstrated ability to do so. There is no date at which housing can be said to have succeeded/failed. Eternal little (or in reality large) failures – but we’ll do better next year. Never said – “this is a permanent failure that requires radical action.”

People are very bad as saying ‘this has failed’ with ongoing processes. We will produce less carbon in future than our current attitude and resources suggests is likely – we will build more houses in future than our current attitude and resources suggests is likely. Tomorrow is someone else’s problem. The poor sap.

I think there's a fundamental disconnect in how people perceive ‘housing crisis’. When I talk about a housing crisis I’m thinking of a situation where:

  • Too many people living in substandard housing – with no political will to improve situation.
  • Too many people living in insecure housing (short tenure, other people with physical access, risk of evictions) - with no political will to improve situation.
  • The prices of living in this undesirable situation is constantly rising – with no political will to improve situation.
  • At a more oblique level – a moral crisis. A rentier class extracts wealth from another group who live in bad circumstances without choice – making money from human misery. This class holds reasonable lobbying power and sometimes as individuals direct political power.

What makes a ‘bad thing’ a crisis is that it is clear it will not just recover on its own. Left to their own devices all the above will get worse.

I think for most people a ‘housing crisis’ is more fundamental than that:

  • You either have a roof over your head or you don’t.

Being on the street is a crisis, rent being expensive is not. This is young people whining about being young and poor people whining about being poor. Change the record. The situation is not bad enough to re-examine fundamental assumptions (individual resistance to new local building, cultural resistance to reducing green belts).

So where is the “real” housing crisis? There’s an idea in climate change that there are ‘carbon sinks’ that absorb carbon from atmosphere but at some point they will decline in effectiveness and rise in atmospheric CO2 proceeds much quicker.  This can be reduced to a metaphor – ‘a device that commutes effect of bad thing but will eventually stop’. What are housing’s carbon sinks? For a few:

  • Private landlords used to house people councils have legal duty towards. Families housed in B&Bs for extended periods, etc.
  • Children living with parents for longer.
  • Unsustainable high proportions of income being spent on rent. Many people on brink of affordability – in crisis will be unable to afford.

First is most obvious give point – there is only so much housing that can be used as emergency housing. To avoid the very bad thing of children on the streets councils are shipping people to less expensive areas. Headlines about people being taken away from their families and lives – but reader might enter fairness paradigm at this point: ‘Why should I pay so much to have a house in London and have the life I want and someone else get it for free? If you can’t afford it you should go somewhere cheaper’ (with even poorer job prospects, etc). So safety valve on housing crisis folds into "poor people want something for nothing" as opposed to “why is there nothing affordable?”

Second point is an obvious frustration to that generation and helps hide full scale of housing shortage but again has obstacles to seeing it as a real problem.

Fundamentally people want to believe in a just world and that people get what they deserve. Children these days are just more dependent on their parents, not like we were. A series of metaphors are deployed to mark this generation as especially unable to cope outside the nest (itself a metaphor for ‘maturity involves leaving home’). ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ is used as ‘kids will be financially irresponsible’ but also interestingly ‘too young to enter real financial world’. A requirement for inter-generational wealth transfers appears to replace the institutions and availability of capital that existed at an earlier time (and of course, family wealth is not available to everyone) – but metaphor is deployed as being between generations and reinforce idea of immaturity of youth – not a comment on the different societies different generations live in.

If a lot of people weren’t working hard to keep homelessness down (by finding enterprising ways to move people around to some form of shelter) or opting out of market (living longer with parents) there would be a far more obvious homelessness crisis. It is a good thing there isn’t! But we’re left with a perception gap.

People who need to believe there is a crisis (because they can stop construction of required housing in the right places) don’t. This is a large part of the problem.

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