Our crisis of home ownership

According to an April 2015 report of the Office for National Statistics, the average UK house price last year was £267, 000 – the average salary was around £26, 500. The pursuit of ‘affordable housing’ has become a political football because an uncontrolled housing market is denying our generation the chance to become homeowners. Here in Oxford the problem is even worse, when last year Lloyds bank found the average cost of a house in the city to be £341,000.  We need to be aware that this is an issue on our very doorstep, in what has been described as the UK’s most expensive city. The asking price of homes has risen on average 28.3 per cent since the beginning of 2008 and it is us, the property-less, that have lost out.

Central to the Tories’ May electoral victory was the belief that a Conservative government could ease the affordable housing crisis and, this week, discussion of a Housing and Planning Bill has been its first step to achieving this aim. In an echo of Thatcherite policy, the Tories see the sale of housing association property at a discounted rate as a mechanism for transferring state resources into private capital- the status of home ownership into the hands of the individual. The government further plans to use the cash raised from these sales to extend programmes for the creation of 200, 000 supposedly affordable ‘starter homes.’

One of the major problems with the act is that in the short term it threatens to leave the most vulnerable exposed more than ever to the threat of homelessness. Since the 1980s a transition from the rhetoric of ‘social housing’ to the ‘affordable homes’ we are now promised has masked a transition in the state’s role in safeguarding the property interests of the least well-off. The move from state owned ‘social housing’ to a mixed patchwork of state subsidised and controlled ‘affordable housing’ masks a dramatic decrease in available support for council tenants. Whereas before, discounts of around 50 per cent on rates were not uncommon, moves towards the sale or rent of affordable housing at a discount of 20 per cent have significantly undermined the neediest. If the government seriously considers ‘starter homes’ in London at a price of £450,000 affordable, how will it relieve the housing problems of many low-waged Britons?

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The issue of where these new affordable home will be built raises more problems with the act. The Treasury’s July publication, Fixing the Foundation: creating a more prosperous nation, stressed the role of eased planning laws for the construction of affordable houses on often post-industrial brownfield sites. The sale of social housing in central locations will push poorer tenants out of our city centres. From nurses to firemen, as we threaten to drive key low wage workers out into affordable houses on the peripheral brownfield sites of our towns and cities, we threaten to dislocate vital public services. Indeed, a report published by the London Chamber of Commerce (LCC) last week mentioned explicitly that a lack of central affordable housing was threatening the city’s global economic competitiveness.

Most significantly, the proposed act goes little way to stemming the major structural issues with our property market. Only last week UBS published a report stating that London was the most overvalued property market in the world- government intervention in the release of more property onto the market is unlikely to stop this. In fact, the government’s previous Help to Buy scheme has been accused of only further fuelling the property bubble in London and the South. Rather than helping to make property more affordable, government plans to sell off existing stock without guarantee of more central affordable housing risk making the status of homeowner even less attainable.

The real victims of continued change in the property market are our communities. As much as the government may be helping those rich enough to afford participation in its schemes, lots of people our age are having to wake up to a new reality: a future without home ownership.

Whereas before housing associations helped to underpin property standards for society’s most vulnerable, the new age of ‘affordable housing’ looks to perpetuate the breakdown of socially mixed communities. At present, the property market shows no signs that it will accommodate the government’s model of change for the housing market. In cities like Oxford in particular it is becoming harder and harder for us students to imagine owning our own properties.  Within our communities, the day of the truly ‘affordable’ home seems to have passed.