General Election 2015 Roundtable: Building An Alternative Housing Manifesto For Britain

Britain's Housing Crisis Is A Mess: Here's How We Sort It Out

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.

Daisy-May Hudson is not your stereotypical homeless person. Aged 23, she had just completed a first class honours degree in English literature and drama, was working as a trainee filmmaker – and living in a homeless shelter.

When her family was evicted from their privately rented house after 13 years, and couldn’t afford local rents, they were forced to spend ten uncertain, dislocated months in hostels, sometimes sharing a room between three of them, before moving into council housing.

Daisy-May Hudson felt she had "failed" when she lost her home

Hudson, who is now working on her second film on the housing crisis, Half Way, says she had to “come out” as homeless to her work colleagues as no-one knew the stress she was going through.

While it’s difficult to picture your life without your home, in Britain, access to affordable, stable housing is in crisis.

In an exclusive poll for The Huffington Post UK, 19% of people said they need help from friends or family to pay their rent. And it’s private renting that is taking the strain of this, growing at an exponential rate due to a shortage in social housing and many people being forever priced out of buying their own home.

Being evicted from private renting is now the number one cause of homelessness, and soaring rents mean that families who rent over a lifetime will be half a million pounds poorer than if they owned, according to Shelter.

And yet, this situation has become the status quo. “Crisis implies urgency.. and yet it’s been going on for 10 years” says Hudson.

Campaigners like Russell Brand are raising their voices against our housing problems, and the biggest housing rally in British history took place last month. Yet housing hasn’t been a major issue in the general election campaign, despite a flurry of last-minute announcements such as Labour's renewed commitment to rent caps. The HuffPost UK poll found that 69% of people couldn’t name a single housing policy from any political party.

Hudson, a producer at VICE, was one of four experts who sat down for a HuffPost UK 'Tenant Nation' roundtable to address the ticking timebomb of private renting, ahead of the General Election. She joined the National Housing Federation’s CEO David Orr, who rallies on behalf of housing associations; Richard Lambert, who heads the National Landlords Association, which works with nearly 40,000 landlords; and Martha Mackenzie from housing charity Shelter, who successfully campaigned to see the practice of revenge evictions made illegal this year.

Our discussion led to a set of clear areas for the next government to urgently address, from seven key discussion points:

  • The need to rapidly accelerate Britain’s house building – both for private renting and social housing
  • More funding for local councils to enforce regulations on landlords
  • Better awareness and education for people who become landlords
  • A strategy for the whole housing market – not just piecemeal offers
  • More stability for vulnerable people in the private rented sector

1) Our obsession with home ownership may be ugly, but it's logical

Home ownership is a British national fixation, which can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher’s announcement of her dream of a "property-owning democracy" in 1975, and the Right To Buy policy which the Tories now plan to extend.

“Yes, we are obsessed,” said David Orr of the National Housing Federation, “but not primarily as a means of securing a good, solid, secure place to live. We’ve become obsessed with ownership because of its investment potential. And that’s because we have created lack of supply [of homes], so that people who are owners see the apparent value of their houses going up.”

Right To Buy allowed council tenants to buy their homes, leading to a boost in purchases, but home ownership is in long-term decline and fell to its lowest rate in 25 years in 2012/2013, with 64% of the population owning their own home.

“I think it's right that people should aspire to [owning a home]” said Richard Lambert, of the National Landlords Association. But he conceded that aiming for everyone to own their own home would bring “a whole range of other complications”, citing Gordon Brown who was reportedly told by advisors that his plan to make 100% home ownership a policy for Labour “just wasn't feasible.”

“It's something that isn't really important to a lot of people: what's important is the security." Daisy-May Hudson, housing activist and filmmaker who became homeless

Lambert said we are certainly too obsessed with owning homes as a way of making money, when a house needs to be treated “as a consumer good, rather than as a capital asset investment.”

After losing her rented house, VICE's Hudson believes that having a home is “a right, a basic human right like water and food, and at the moment the government aren't providing that for everyone.”

But she dismissed ownership as “quite ideological” compared to the basic needs people want a home to fulfill: “It's something that isn't really important to a lot of people: what's important is the security. My mum could have rented for longer, she could have rented for her whole life, if that tenancy was secure and had longevity, but the fact that you never know when the landlord's going to sell up, that's what's really hard.”

But Shelter's Martha Mackenzie feels the obsession with ownership is logical, given the state of private renting. “You've got six-month tenancies, you've got the sector that's got the worst homes of any other tenure, so of course people want to own their home,” she said. A Shelter study found that families who rent with their children over a lifetime will be around half a million pounds worse off than people who own. “It's easy to say we should stop obsessing, but I think we should improve private renting before we do that,” Mackenzie said.

2) George Osborne’s ‘Help To Buy ISA’ really isn't that helpful

The coalition government has announced more than 200 different housing initiatives while it's been in power, said Orr. "And there have been well over 500 announcements about housing and planning, and we are still building fewer that half of the homes that we need, so they have made no difference."

The government announced it will help renters saving for a deposit for their first home, by topping up every £200 saved in new Help To Buy' ISAs with an extra £50, to a total of £3,000. But the measure was “extremely disappointing” said Shelter's Mackenzie who argued it would push up housing prices and divert money away from Britain’s desperate need to build more homes.

“That's a lot of government investment going into a scheme that isn't going to produce any more homes," she said. "You're just driving demand without increasing supply, we worked out that the amount of money that they are going to have to put into this would be enough to build around 65,000 affordable, genuinely social homes. If they were willing to commit these sums to investment in building, then we'd actually go some way to addressing the housing crisis.”

"It's a great piece of political grandstanding but actually as a practical policy it's useless," said Lambert, and Orr agreed that the government's funding for housing has been misplaced.

“We've had a government which for the last five years has said 'no money for housing',” he said. “The 2010 comprehensive spending review cut capital investment in new supply by two-thirds, the single biggest proportional cut anywhere in the entire review. And then suddenly, low and behold, a few weeks before a general election, ‘oh, we can find £2.1 billion to provide help to buy ISAs for a very, very small group of people.”

3) Private renters are plagued with issues

Rising rents are a difficulty for many people renting privately, as The HuffPost poll showed, and Orr called for rent caps based on inflation, which he said would attract investors who could be assured that rents could rise in line with inflation. But the National Landlords Association's Lambert strongly disagreed, saying that two thirds of landlords don’t increase rent during a tenancy. An annual rent rise cap would lead to higher rents, because landlords would increase prices by the maximum every year to ensure they didn’t miss out, “just like the rail companies and the energy companies.”

Hudson said that letting agents and management companies were “the devil on the shoulder of a lot of landlords, telling them you could get more money if you sell now”. Estate agents’ unregulated profits, she said, had “dehumanised the whole process which I think is really dangerous. There [should] definitely be conversations about rent control and forcing regulation on letting agents and management companies.”

Increasingly, the private rented sector is “doing a job that it wasn't set up to do”, by housing vulnerable people who would usually live in social or supported housing, but can’t be supported by the state, said Macknezie. They are exploited and at risk of losing their homes.

“These renters, on the whole, can't act as consumers at all. They are fearful of complaining, because they are very, very worried about losing their home. A lot of landlords discriminate against people who claim housing benefit and any form of local housing allowance.”

She called for longer-term tenancies – of three years rather than the standard six months – to improve stability.

Lambert said there was too much poor quality housing offered to renters, and this could be solved by more homes being made available for private renting, to create greater competition in the market. “If there are three greengrocers on a high street, and you know that one is selling rotten fruit, you don't go to that one, you go to the other two.”

"We do need to see a whole lot of new homes being built specifically for market rent" David Orr, CEO of the National Housing Federation

But Hudson replied: “You're saying we need to build more homes to make landlords treat their tenants better, that doesn't really sit well with me, because I think there should just be a responsibility with landlords to look after the people that live there.”

Once again, building more homes emerged as a key solution, as Orr said: “I do think that we do need to see a whole lot of new homes being built specifically for market rent, and I think this is a job that housing associations will increasingly do… then, it would be much easier to put in place the three year tenancy agreements, and they would be much more likely to take people who are on housing benefit.”

Orr added that the private rented sector was made up of “850,000 tiny businesses, rather than a relatively small number of large suppliers” and this was dissuading investors from putting money into a system made up of landlords who own a few properties, rather than institutions.

4) We need action, not laws, for bad landlords

New laws would have no effect on so-called “rogue” landlords, said Lambert, whose National Landlords Association surveys show that around 13 per cent of people think they have dealt with a landlord who is acting in a criminal manner. “I don't want to underplay that,” said Lambert, “because that is still one eighth of the renting population so that's probably half a million people. It's far too many but it does show that it's a minority.”

The idea that there are no laws to control landlords is a misconception, he added: “People say it's an unregulated sector. I don't understand how something that is subject to 70 acts of parliament and more than 100 dedicated pieces of legislation is unregulated.”

The problem is that the legislation isn’t enforced, the panel agreed, due to local councils not having the resources to put it into practice. “[Councils] are losing funding at an alarming rate,” said Mackenzie, “and will continue to in the next parliament. There are a range of solutions that we can think about in the interim, because this isn't going to change overnight.”

She suggested the risk of bad landlords could be improved in the short-term by setting up ‘social lettings agencies’, where an investor, housing association or local authority would rent from a group of small-scale individual landlords and take responsibility.

"The number of times I've said to people, ‘So when you start your small business’ and they say, ‘Oh no, I'm not doing that..'" Richard Lambert, CEO of the National Landlords Association

Lambert said that in many cases, “criminal” landlords are not criminal at all, but guilty of “low level management issues” like not painting a ceiling or not getting a boiler engineer to a property quickly. The boom in buy-to-let mortgages has led to inexperienced landlords, said Mackenzie. “It’s not always a great investment and we need to stop people just using buy-to-let as a way to make money quickly.”

Many landlords just don’t understand what they are getting into, so the National Landlords Association is focusing on education and accreditation in what is a “young sector” Lambert said. “The number of times I've said to people, ‘So when you start your small business’ and they say, ‘Oh no, I'm not doing that, I'm just buying a few flats to rent out..’”

He was against the proposal for a national register for landlords, to help manage the unwieldy number of some 800,000 small landlords: “In the end, you're talking about people's individual private investment activity, and we don't have a register in that sense of all private businesses, and all sole traders.”

“I would really disagree with Richard about a national register,” Mackenzie later said. “We don't know a lot of the time where private rented properties are, that makes it very, very difficult for local authorities to enforce and makes it very difficult to set renting policy… so data capture is extremely valuable.”

The panel ultimately agreed that “rogue landlords” are a relatively small problem and a byproduct of bigger failures in social housing and housebuying which have forced people into private renting, “We've created the circumstance that makes it easy to get away with being a bad landlord,” said Orr.

5) We don't need to look to other countries to find solutions

Countries like France are sometimes held up as beacons of a successful “renting culture” – but in fact this isn’t the case. Mackenzie said: “There are a couple of fallacies there, one is that compared to the rest of Europe, we don't have dramatic levels of home ownership, we actually have quite mid to low levels of home ownership. The other side of things is, that where you have European countries where a lot of people do rent, renting is extremely different.” Cities like Paris have their own housing crises and the UK’s home ownership lever is set to drop below France this year.

“Why look to another country?” asked Lambert. “Look to post-war Britain. We had a housing crisis then because so many houses had been destroyed during the war. What did we do to resolve it? We built. We built and built. A minimum of 300,000 homes a year, every year, for a whole parliament, and they achieved it. But you've got to have that level of government commitment, because it's the only way we are going to solve the housing crisis across the board.”

6) Politicians just don't get it

Politicians simply don’t grasp the complicated housing system in the UK, the group concluded. “Very few people actually understand how individual sectors impact on each other. Almost nobody, I've found, really understands the supply of housing, the economics, and that's the biggest issue,” Lambert said.

And the bulk of voters are homeowners, rather than renters, anything that government does which might have an impact on house prices would have massive electoral consequences. “[It] hands your opponents not only a stick to beat you with but a way to push against you by reversing the policy,” said Orr, “which means it very difficult in the long-term to get a consistent commitment.” Only 58% of renters are registered to vote, so what political voice they have is already reduced.

An even more bleak possibility was raised by Hudson – perhaps politicians don’t really care about the crisis in private renting, at all. “I truly think that unless you've lost your home or you've been in that position of eviction, you don't understand the urgency. If you're speaking to politicians and you get them on their passion point, suddenly they've got fire in their belly. You talk about housing, [and] people are kind of bored of it.”

"What we've got at the moment is just not sustainable" David Orr,CEO of the National Housing Federation

The panel agreed that all aspects of the housing crisis could be improved by a mass home-building programme – but Mackenzie, from Shelter, thinks there aren’t yet votes to be won on a house-building agenda.

“There are votes now in cash-strapped first-time buyers, so we see a lot of demand-side policies, and we see the help-to-buy ISA,” she said, “but we're not seeing those solutions at the ground [for social and affordable housing].”

But Orr insisted that a mass homebuilding programme would be a popular policy across the board: “I think that there are enough people who are worried about where their children are going to live, who are worried about where their parents are going to live, who can see that what we've got at the moment is just not sustainable.”

7) But this could be the beginning of a revolution

Lambert said that housing is certainly on the general election agenda, but “not as much as it should be.”

“Do I have high hopes? No,” he said, “With our polling of both landlords and of tenants, we find that the majority of people are not convinced by any of the parties’ policies.”

But Mackenzie said this very scepticism could be an opportunity for a party to take genuine action: “If the next government can come in, and actually do something, there is a whole electorate out there up for grabs that want to see big bold action on housing.”

Momentum is building, through increasing protests and vocal housing industry campaigns like Homes For Britain, a group of over 100 organisations demanding more house-building – although some critics say it has failed to engage voters.

“We've all been so timid and keeping our heads down and not wanting to offend the politicians, and as a result we've not been effective advocates ourselves for the work that we do,” says Orr, whose National Housing Federation spearheads the Homes For Britain campaign: “[But] Everyone who is involved in this is saying…‘You're not going to shut us up any longer.’”

Mackenzie said her successful campaign to make revenge evictions illegal was partially driven by local action, which can filter upwards to politicians. “the reason MPs turned up to vote… and the reason MPs made a noise about that and then the government felt they had to make a noise around that was there was a renter vote, calling for it locally.”

"We've got this idea that we can't do big long complex projects - what is HS2 if it's not a big complex long-term project?" David Orr, CEO of the National Housing Federation

Hudson felt that the grassroots nature of protestors reflects the desperation of the situation. “They're not activists, they are human beings that are defending their right to a home.”

And the housing emergency has, finally, reached everyone’s doorstep. For some time, a round 80% people have agreed there is a housing crisis, in polls from the National Housing Federation, but up until recently, most said there wasn’t one in their area. But now, in a significant change, 56% of people say new homes need to be built in their community,” Orr said.

What we need to communicate to government, Orr continued, is that a large-scale house building project would be no different from the many other initiatives that its currently funds. “We've got this idea that we can't do big long complex projects - what is HS2 if it's not a big complex long-term project? Or the Hinkley power station, or Crossrail, or building the bridge that they're currently building across the River Forth? Housing is structural infrastructure which is economically vital, and we need to adopt that kind of thinking: big, structural, long term projects.”

But ultimately, it is the personal stories that could bring home the urgency of the situation to politicians. Hudson, who became homeless after being evicted, told the group that losing your home can take a series toll on mental health as you feel you have “failed.”

Orr said to her: “We've created this idea that if you are evicted it's a personal failure, even though it may have absolutely nothing to do with you.”

“The truth is that our collective failure to have the kind of housing offer that we need to sustain the nation is a huge political, economic, structural failure. And I think we need to hold our politicians to account.”

As part of The Huffington Post UK's Beyond The Ballot series we want to know what issues you think aren't getting enough attention in the election campaign. Tweet using the hashtag #BeyondTheBallot to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions


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