There is a housing crisis in Britain, and it has its roots in the state of land ownership in this country. Half of all land in England is owned by 25,000 people, with land ownership having changed little for centuries, and the full picture of who owns what is still clouded by a lack of transparency.
The price of housing relative to earnings continues to increase. In England in 2020, full-time employees could typically expect to spend 8 times their annual earnings on purchasing a home, although the median house in London now costs around 11 times the median London salary. On average there were 325,000 housing completions per year between 1950 and 1970, but this fell to just over 180,000 between 1990 and 2019.
The proportion of people in England aged 35-44 in private rentals increased from 9 to 28 per cent between 1997 and 2017. The private rented sector has more than doubled in size over the last 20 years; there are now 11 million people living in it, including 1.5 million families, spending an average of 38% of their income on rent (compared to 31% for social renters and 19% for owner-occupiers). The average private rent has increased by 29% in the decade since 2009/10, compared to an increase of 18% in average earnings. Meanwhile for many people who are not in regular employment - including the million workers on zero-hours contracts, and many elderly people, students and refugees - the lack of a guaranteed income means that private landlords will not rent to them.
8 million people in England live in overcrowded, unaffordable or unsuitable homes. Recent research by Shelter found that 17.5 million people are trapped by the housing emergency, with 14% of respondents saying that they regularly have to cut spending on food or heating to pay their rent or mortgage payments, and 23% living in homes with significant damp, mould or condensation.
Homelessness is very difficult to quantify. Crisis estimates that around 200,000 people were experiencing ‘core’ (severe) homelessness in England in 2020. The ‘Everyone In’ scheme that started in the early months of the COVID pandemic moved many people off the street into temporary accommodation, with 95,370 homeless households in temporary accommodation at the end of 2020. The numbers sleeping rough are lower; government figures suggest that 2,688 people were sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020 in England, down 37 per cent on the 4,266 people recorded in 2019, but this is much higher than it was in 2010, and the official rough sleeping figures are thought to be a considerable underestimate as they rely on single night counts and estimates by local authorities (Crisis estimates the true number at 10,500). 94% of local authorities expect to see an increase in people made homeless in the coming months after being evicted from the private rented sector, and because of an increase in newly unemployed people made homeless by the pandemic.
Homelessness disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, lone parents, young care leavers, young offenders, LGBT young people, transgender people, people with mental health conditions, women at risk of domestic abuse, ex-services personnel, and those living in material deprivation. People from ethnic minorities are still much more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation compared with white people, and disabled people face a shortage of accessible and adaptable homes and long delays in making existing homes accessible.
An article published last summer argues that racial discrimination has existed in the housing market for over a century, limiting the choices available to Commonwealth immigrants after the second world war, overlooking their needs when clearing slums and prioritising home ownership over the needs of private tenants. From the 1970s to the 1990s, citizenship was made both harder to acquire and a condition for housing. The introduction of right to buy in 1980 and the removal of rent controls and reduction of tenancy protections in 1988, further disadvantaged ethnic minority communities, leading to a situation where many are living in over-priced, poor-quality private rented housing.
Public attitudes to social housing are generally negative; many people who are struggling in overpriced and poor quality private rented accommodation resent those who they perceive to have ‘jumped the queue’ in accessing cheaper social housing. This points to a problem with the policy itself, in that scarce social housing allocations have been focused on the very vulnerable. While there is broad support for the principle that social housing is necessary, most people see it as something that is only for those who are vulnerable, down on their luck, or underserving (‘welfare scroungers’). There is also broad support for more homes being built in the local area (57% in favour and 23% opposed in 2018), although some groups, such as owners, older people, and those living in rural areas, are more likely to oppose homes being built in the local area than others; for those groups, their support would be increased if they saw more local investment in healthcare infrastructure.