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Everything that’s wrong with housing (and how to fix it)

On the first, second and even third viewing, a short promotional video by property developers Redrow looks to be a clumsy spoof. A voiceover narrates the inner monologue of a tired, grumpy looking man in his 30s, bemoaning the hardship of life in London. A Nokia 5510, a model discontinued in 2001, appears on his desk, his bedside table, in his hand as a sign of his sacrifices.

Eventually, having “earned” a Redrow flat through endurance of such horrors as commuting and sitting at a party, the protagonist is pictured staring from a glass box, next to a bookcase holding a lone book, looking out over the cradle of the UK’s housing crisis.

Redrow removed the video after it was shared and mocked extensively. The advert was derided not just because it appeared to be a stab at selling flats exclusively to Patrick Bateman, or a cautionary tale on the stresses of working in the finance industry: in a city where it feels as though every week a ridiculous property is put up for rent or sale, the country’s narrowest house, or a flat so small you have to clamber onto the kitchen counter to get into your bed - hundreds of thousands of people are feeling the pinch.

In the years following the 2008 financial crash, living standards have declined and pay has stagnated. Housing costs in the south east however, have rocketed as property has shifted in the public perception from a home to an asset. Housing charities and think tanks report that problems haven’t reached this level of crisis for decades, with evictions reaching over 100 a day last autumn, one in nine people worrying they won’t be able to pay their rent or mortgage in January, whilst 60 per cent of people are struggling to meet their housing costs.

So what’s the answer to a system that looks so simultaneously bloated and volatile, and looks to be on the precipice of collapse? There’s no quick fix cure, and Britain has stumbled along with sticking plaster solutions to sharply escalating housing problems, from the frankly idiotic help-to-buy scheme, to the barely enforced section 106 planning requirements to encourage developers to “give back” to the community through the inclusion of a handful of affordable flats, or funding a community or medical centre.

But a few things could help temper the crisis, and do so effectively. Ultimately, what few politicians are willing to admit is that bringing house prices down to an affordable level for the young, and the people who aren’t earning three or four times the national average salary will leave people who’ve benefited from the house price boom in negative equity. In towns in the north-east, this is already happening, while 41 per cent of homeowners in Northern Ireland are trapped in negative equity.

Considering the boom in renting, surprisingly few people are landlords - 2 per cent of people nationwide. At the same time, 3.84 million households, or 17.4 per cent of the population, are privately renting. If anyone can afford to take the financial hit to bring the cost of housing under control, it’s landlords - the number of landlords has barely increased in the past few decades, whilst the number of people living in the private rented sector has boomed, as property hoarding increases. Free market proponents always argue that if renting was so intolerable, no one would do it: half a second’s thought shows how ludicrous that strand of thought is. If you can’t afford to buy a house, you can’t sit out the need to be housed until you’ve saved up enough. You still need a roof over your head, and increasingly there’s little recourse to a roof that isn’t privately rented, while your standing order flies out of the bank monthly to pay off your landlord’s mortgage.

Not every country experiences the same cult of home ownership as the United Kingdom. In many countries across Europe, renting levels are higher, and renters are happy to accept a future that doesn’t envisage home ownership - for one crucial reason: they have rights. Giving renters more rights and controlling rent rates removes the stress and precarity of private renting and discourages the young from flinging exorbitant sums of money at massively overpriced shabby studio flats in an overheating market.

Council tax too, is a system that is decades overdue a rehaul: the band system in many cities is woefully small, with the poorest paying a far, far higher proportion of their income in council tax, and increasingly being summonsed for non-payment, because the bands are calculated on 1991 house values. Extending the number of bands, so the poorest are lifted out of council tax altogether, and the richest are actually paying their share is an easy exercise in redistribution, so the wealthy and well-housed divert some of their cash to making a more equitable housing system.

In Wales, the Assembly government have voted to charge empty homes double the usual rate of council tax, which deftly recoups some much needed money for councils in areas that have high poverty mere miles away from popular holiday home locations. A freedom of information request to Westminster council found that only 9 or the 62 flats sold in the luxury One Hyde Park development  were registered for council tax - the flats weren’t lived in, they were simply functioning as asset lockers for the ultra-rich, relying on a huge yield with next to no effort. Charging empty homes taxes proportional to the value of the home is also a straightforward way of recouping cash from the financially flush, whilst discouraging property hoarding.  

Ultimately, the need for housing won’t disappear until humans evolve to do without needing such inconveniences as sleep and shelter. Building alone won’t solve the housing crisis, so accepting that when markets are unregulated they are unfair, and working to reconfigure how we house ourselves without financially hurting those without safety nets is our only option.

Dawn Foster is a London-based freelance journalist, writing on politics, social affairs, education and economics. Dawn writes a monthly column for the Guardian