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For the First Time in a Generation, Housing Is at a Crisis Point

27/04/2015 17:38 | Updated 27 June 2015

Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing.

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For the past thirty years, parties fighting general elections have given about as much attention to housing as they have to frogspawn. Bricks and mortar do not traditionally set pulses racing. This year it's different. For the first time in a generation, housing is at a crisis point and has the potential to decide the next occupant of Number 10.

House prices have long been unaffordable for people on average incomes, and they are locked into a private rented sector that is not designed for long-term living. There are now 11million private renters in the UK - double what it was 10 years ago - and the vast majority would rather own their home. High rents in some parts of the country are stifling the wider economy, by curtailing renters' disposable income and adding extra costs for employers who are struggling to recruit.

We wouldn't be in this mess if property was treated as something you lived in. Instead, ever since the private rental market was deregulated, and landlords given tax breaks that put them at an advantage over owner-occupiers, buy-to-let has been accepted as an alternative to saving. Property is now expected to rise unstoppably in value despite just sitting there, and tenants are treated not as members of the community with the right to a home, but as surrogate mortgage holders who can be swiftly removed whenever you want to cash in your chips. People who want a home to raise a family in are getting outbid by investors who are seen as safer bets by the banks. And it's the same people who end up paying the mortgage.

The government has done nothing to resist a culture that is doing more than anything else to create a second class citizenry. All its policies to help the struggling first time buyer are merely loading her with unwieldy debt while avoiding a much-needed confrontation with property developers who refuse to build enough houses to meet demand. Help to Buy et al will do nothing for the 98% of renters who remain in the clutches of their landlord. It is now easier for pensioners to become landlords thanks to government reforms, and just before Parliament dissolved ministers made it more difficult for local councils to regulate landlords. No prizes for guessing whose side they're really on.

The Labour opposition could offer an alternative but they're pulling their punches. If done right, their long term tenancies and ban on letting fees will bring some stability and fairness to the market, but the average renter paying 40% of their wages to their landlord is still waiting for a policy that will bring down rents.

In the long run the answer is to build more homes. The Lib Dems' target is 300,000 per year, but they haven't told us how they'd achieve this, while Labour's strategy would leave us with a shortfall. None of the parties wants to spend any money, but the uncomfortable truth is that we need massive government intervention in housebuilding - to boost the number of new homes, to break the grip of the private developers over prices, and to start offering genuinely affordable homes to private renters who would qualify for social housing if we hadn't sold it all off.

There are several things Generation Rent has proposed that would create a housing market that is as much for the people who need homes as the people who own them. The government should create a secondary housing market that built new homes to be sold at cost - i.e. at a large discount - on the condition that the price it is resold for is limited. We should enable local authorities to set a rent cap - landlords could charge more than this but be required to pay a chunk of the excess in a levy to fund the building of local council housing. The government should recoup the £9billion they pay private landlords in housing benefit by imposing a 22% levy on the landlords' rental income. This would go into a national pot to fund new social homes. As more people move into social housing the housing benefit bill will go down and the less the government will need to take from landlords.

In February a Survation poll found 57% of voters said they or someone they knew was affected by the housing crisis and 38% said they would vote for a party that made housing one of their top three priorities. I'm still waiting for one of them to stick their neck out and offer something that really will help renters.

Alex Hilton is the director of Generation Rent

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