A bed under the stairs: the housing crisis and generation strains

It is hard to ignore the increasing clamour to do something about housing. This year we recorded the highest level of national public concern about housing for 41 years,1https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3646/Level-of-concern-about-housing-is-highest-in-40-years-though-immigration-still-dominates.aspx and the National Housing Federation’s David Orr argues that, unless we build enough new homes and focus sufficiently on regeneration very quickly, “we will not be able to house our children”.2http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/27/david-orr-housing-association-crisis-tory-plans-right-to-buy

If Nigel Lawson’s assertion that the NHS is “the closest thing the English have to a religion” is true, then home ownership must surely come a very close second. Quite simply, Britons want to own: 84% say if they had a free choice, they would choose to buy their house rather than rent,3Ipsos MORI 2014 Housing Day survey http://www.slideshare.net/IpsosMORI/ipsos-mori-housing-day-survey a consistent view across all tenures, age groups and generations in Britain. But, rapidly rising house prices have made home ownership an increasingly unrealistic aspiration for younger people, and many now see housing as playing a significant role in the ever-widening ‘gap between the generations’.4http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/24/young-bear-burden-of-pensioner-prosperity

On this basis, you might have expected to see both parties court the swelling masses of Generation Rent more closely in the run-up to GE 2015, particularly given the increasing national salience of housing going into the election. But with owner-occupiers having two-and-a-half times the voting power of renters5http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/home-front-why-housing-will-be-key-general-election-battleground – being, as they are, more numerous and much more likely to vote – renters were not the obvious target for politicians.

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The future might be different, though, because Generation Rent is set to grow. PwC estimates that, by 2025, over half of adults aged 20-39 will be renting privately in the UK.6http://www.pwc.co.uk/assets/pdf/ukeo-section3-housing-market-july-2015.pdf This presents an interesting dilemma to politicians in future elections: do they continue to appeal to owner-occupiers (and try to meet aspirations of prospective homeowners) where voting power currently resides, or will renters become numerous and important enough to make rent controls, state investement in housing and greater consumer protection a more viable policy platform?

Whichever option they choose, politicians will do well to remember that Britons’ concerns are complex and changing. They increasingly recognise that supply is fundamental. In pre-election work conducted for the BBC, 69% agreed that unless we build many more new, affordable homes we will never be able to tackle the country’s housing problems.7BBC Uncut data https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Election%20Uncut_Issues%20and%20the%20election_FINAL_060515.pdf

Britons are also increasingly pro-building: the majority (56%) now say they support more homes being built in their local area compared with 2010 (28%).8British Social Attitudes Survey (2014) However, they are sensitive about the types of homes being built. Our poll for Create Streets suggests that support for building new homes on brownfield sites varies substantially depending on the potential design of homes.9https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3586/Design-influences-public-support-for-new-build-homes.aspx Tenure matters too: while most people aspire to own their own home, the public’s appetite more generally is for mixed tenure provision to meet diverse needs and situations.

These are important issues throughout Britain, but the housing crisis is felt most acutely in the capital. Local media stories about prices, supply, and rogue landlords offering “beds in sheds” are commonplace. In the autumn, a landlord in Clapham apparently asked a prospective tenant for £500 per month for what she described as a “bed under the stairs”.10http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-34404651 It is little wonder that our poll for London Councils this year found that housing is now the most mentioned issue for Londoners in 2015.11https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3634/Londoners-say-housing-is-now-the-number-one-issue-facing-the-capital.aspx

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The same poll found that 88% believe there is a housing crisis in London, up from 82% two years ago, and that most Londoners are pessimistic about their personal prospects about housing in the capital. Most renters (72%) don’t believe they will ever be able to afford to buy a home in London, and a further 44% claim they would consider leaving the capital if house prices and rents continue to rise. With the mayoral election in May 2016, are Londoners destined for a Harry Potter-esque future sleeping in beds under the stairs, or can the next mayor conjure up a solution to the worst excesses of the crisis?

Whether in London or elsewhere, the public are demanding action about housing. Politically, it seems unlikely that any party or candidate will bet the house on courting either price-sensitive renters, or (for different reasons) price-sensitive owners. The key question: how do you protect both aspirations and assets, and get away with it?

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