A Little Goes A Long Way

As UKHousingFast approaches, it is time for all of us to reflect and consider the world from a different point of view. And maybe, just maybe, start to change the world for the better.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with UKHousingFast for a number of years, it is such a simple, yet rewarding, concept. For one day fast, skip lunch or breakfast, the same way that millions of others do. Some for their religious beliefs, some to lose weight, some because they have no choice but to go hungry. You can take from it what you want, and more importantly give to it what you feel you can give. It is in many ways a personal, but also very connected, form of introspection. One, despite my love of food, I’m happy to take part in. And in supporting the Trussell Trust this year’s event will be helping out a charity that is doing vital work for those at the sharp end.

A Little Story 

I’m one of 4 lads, lads that can eat a lot. We were lucky to grow up in a household where love and, fortunately, food was plentiful. I’ve never had to skip a meal or worry about the electricity getting cut off. Yes hand-me-downs were de-rigour but the only word I would use to describe my upbringing is comfortable. So it was a bit of a shock when shortly after move number 2 (of 4 in a 24 month period) me and the lady-friend came up against the reality of in-work poverty.

Don’t get me wrong, bills were paid, food was eaten but we only had pounds left over at the end of every month (better than some, but not a great state of affairs). For a 6 month period the word most often said to friends was ‘No’ because saying ‘Yes’ meant doing stuff we simply couldn’t afford. At one point, to try to help us budget even more tightly I devised a spreadsheet to cost up all our outgoing and incoming cash. I used to look at that spreadsheet so often the lady-friend would joke that our money problems wouldn’t magically improve simply by looking at it.

A little goes a long way

Despite how tough it was, I remember the kindness of family and friends. My brothers clubbed together to pay for my gym membership for 3 months. For my birthday all my mates surprised me at my home with a party (organised by the lady-friend), the very mates I hadn’t been able to visit for ages. It’s those things that stick with you. That period in our lives serves as a constant reminder for how close things can get to going side-ways out of no fault of one’s own. It is a large part of why I’m more than happy to get involved in UKHousingFast. We were lucky, our problems were temporary, for many they aren’t.

Whatever your own particular reasons for getting involved I hope you get as much out of it as I have. Whether you fast, donate, or simply raise awareness, it all goes to supporting a great charity. Don’t forget to tweet, blog and generally promote the day as much as possible – it’s 14th June 2017. Looking forward to my end of fast meal already.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here. You can find UKHousingFast here and follow them on Twitter here.

 

 

Arguing With Thermometers

Fact, fiction or managing the narrative? Housing has long had an image problem, one that has been embedded by failure to counter powerful narratives to pervade public discourse and, to a large extent, public policy initiatives. Is it time for the sector to get down and dirty?

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

A recent train of thought I’ve come across is the (statistically backed) claim that we need to stop pretending that everyone is a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. This is largely because there are real and significant differences in the chances of someone becoming homeless. These heavily (but not exclusively) depend on one’s age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. My only problem with above argument is that despite being technically correct, such approaches miss the point.

The dominant narrative around homelessness has been that individual pathology i.e. our own choices and behaviours are by far and away the main driver for one’s housing situation. This message has been picked up and rammed home to such an extent that it largely goes unchallenged. This has problematic consequences for housing policy because it impedes the ability of people to back ‘progressive’ policy changes i.e. it makes our job a lot harder than it should be. Something Campbell Robb nailed in this post whilst still at Shelter.

Hypocrite

Simply stating technical arguments isn’t going to reverse this wet dream of the centre right. Because it assumes that evidence based arguments have got us to where we are. Quite bluntly they haven’t. Emotive, ideologically driven bullshit has. We’re not really living in a post facts age. People have just refined ways of finding what they perceive to be evidence based support for the way they view the world. However, what has been interesting about the gradual change in the tide of public opinion in housing (both here and over in the US) is that it’s become less of an ethereal problem that effects others. Everyone has family, colleagues, and friends who have been affected or know someone affected by housing affordability problems. It brings home a policy issue that previously been on one’s periphery. This offers a way in for those looking to influence public opinion.

Homelessness is more of a tricky beast. Those working in the sector have long been alarmed at the rising rates of homelessness. But this doesn’t engage with the public. Don’t believe me, casually observe people’s behaviour when they see street homeless. Better still, observe your own. There is a real detachment here, from empathy and acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

Whilst people don’t care about technical arguments, they do care about what affects them, their friends, their families. They also like to believe negative life events happen to other people, preferably due to their own poor choices rather than an ingrained unjust system in which they play a part. It’s more of a convenience to blame other individuals rather than structural problems associated with our drug like dependency on the housing market. Whilst many of us have friends struggling with their housing situation. Few know a homeless person.

It Ain’t What You Do It’s the Way that You Do it

I’ve long argued for the UKHousing sector to own the narrative, to control the image relating to it. It has routinely failed to do so. But more recently progress has been made as better lobbying and a different Government, with its head at least partially out of the clouds, providing a tweak in housing policy. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has also shown signs of change. Albeit one that will be utterly insignificant if we do not build more social housing. Honestly kids, that part of the housing crisis is the easy bit.

As ever it’s the PR and Marketing side of things that has let both the housing and homelessness sectors down on occasion. Too much facts, not enough empathy. Particularly at a time where one can easily twist publicly available information to meet their own desired view of the world. Our message needs to be clearer, simpler and more accessible. That doesn’t mean diluting the truth, but it does mean refining the message.

A massive thanks to Beth Watts for both initial discussions and some very useful reading material. Also to Burcu Borysik for tweets from #CrisisConf which helped to frame this blog. As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Birgit Kulbe (2012) Homeless

Music References

Arguing With Thermometers – Enter Shikari (2012)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip (2007)

Hypocrite – Midasuno (2002)

It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do it) – Bananarama (1982)

 

Generation Snowflake

So the joke goes, this generation never had it so good. Millennials have Xbox’s, PlayStations, PacMan video games and iPads. Their predecessors simply had the ability to buy their first home before they were 30. These days it seems, those looking to get on the mythical ladder to The Faraway Tree home ownership have everything but a home to call their own. The picture is often more complex than that, below is my thoughts on the current situation. Warning, whinging millennial mode engaged.

Trust me it’s not the negative press or a lack of rolling up one’s sleeves that’s stopping me from buying a house, it’s the money involved.

Nice One Grandma, Cheers Dad

The recently released Resolution Foundation report has caught the attention of the press. The piece notes that Millennials (i.e. me and my mates) will potentially be the first ever generation to record lower lifetime earning than their predecessors. That our inability to buy a home will have implications on lifetime standards and that redistribution of taxes via the welfare state are tilted in the favour of the Baby Boomers and their elders, and how this impacts on inter-generational ties. Yea, it’s a real chirpy read*.

Decreasing numbers of younger homeowners

home-ownership

ONS Digital (2015) Housing and Home Ownership in the UK

In his blog that preceded the Resolution Foundation’s report (via an article in The Times) David Willetts argued that whilst a proportion of the population is reaping the benefits of being the baby boomers. It needs to do more to help the younger generations†. It’s an interesting, well thought out article with a helpful analogy (or is it a metaphor, always shit at these) of big birth cohorts like baby boomers being akin to a pig that’s been swallowed by a Python. Something that creates enormous strains, but also opportunities (well, not for the pig, he’s fucked).

However, as I’ve blogged before recently policies have either largely ignored those struggling to sort their housing situation or have been distorted by ideology, with interventions such as help to buy having the very opposite of their intended effect. And whilst I concur with Mr Willetts deliberations, there is concern his view, and that of the Resolution Foundation might not be heard.

It’s all so simple

If you believe parts of the press (step forward Daily Telegraph) we’re all a bunch of whinging areses who’ve never had it so good. Because despite trebled tuition fees, greater levels of insecure working, greater levels of household debt, Brexit and spiralling housing costs as rents and house prices outstrip wage increases, we need to pull our fingers out. Why? Because it turns out that despite masses of evidence to the contrary, we can buy a house. This is apparently the case due to affordability factors getting  back to their long-term average and deposits no longer being an issue due to the fact we can simply get a 100pc mortgage with a parental guarantee. Trust me it’s not the negative press or  me being a whinge-bag and not rolling up my sleeves that’s stopping me from buying a house. 100pc mortgage or not, it’s the money involved that’s the problem, period.

Declining Number of First Time Buyers (Number of mortgage loans for first time buyers, UK, 1980 to 2013)

first-time-buyers-mortgages

ONS Digital (2015) Housing and Home Ownership in the UK

Moving Forward

There has been a number of suggested solutions ranging from the genuinely innovative to the downright odd. Including, but not limited to, live in converted shipping containers, rely on your rich relatives to die/give you money, live in houses that don’t meet space standards to make them cheaper, fuck off to Europe, increase shared ownership. Some of the above may help, others not so much. But they need to be pulled together into a coherent strategy, where the state, the private sector and social housing sector play complementary roles.

Teresa May is increasingly putting forward a case for the state to be involved in improving the lives of those struggling in society. That our society is not a just a big one, but a shared one. And whilst John Rentoul is right to note she is very good at saying a lot without actually saying anything, the rhetoric is welcome. Hopefully it will be backed with policy and cash. Otherwise the inter-generational gap will only widen and with it the life chances of future generations will undoubtedly decrease.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit: herefordcat (2008): Georgian Terrace

+Updated 11/01/2017 to include graphs

*For a legitimately amusing aside, check out these millennial v baby bloomer tweets.
†An argument that is slightly undermined by the fact that Mr Willetts was the Minister of State for Universities and Science who trebled tuition fees, thus negatively impacting on the life chances of younger generations via increasing their debt burden. Cheers Dave.

 

 

Are We Nearly There Yet?

Whilst significant inroads have been made at Government level, popular support for state provision of housing, and the welfare state more generally, is still an issue that needs addressing. And as the regulator is busy ruffling feathers by making history repeat, as a sector we need to avoid the same old mistakes and convince the public of our worth, and the cost of decades of policy failure.

Different Year, Same Story, Pretty Much the Same Blog

A few months down the line since the madness of the post Post Brexit vote the Government of the day may be listening more, but public support is scattergun at best. And with backing for welfare spending in continuing decline, particularly when looking at out of work benefits such as unemployment benefit, we need to look at how we sell ourselves. Because, like it or not, we as a sector are inexorably tied to welfare spending and the welfare state more generally. Probably doesn’t help that for the taxpayer our core business model always has been, and most likely always will be, give us loads of your money and we will build houses for people other than you to live in. At a price cheaper than you pay for yours. That’s about as tough a job as an ice cube seller in the Arctic i.e. damned difficult, and we need to get better at it.

Pay Your Money, We’ll Have to Take Your Choice

Given what has been mentioned above, numerous Governments have sought to withdraw state intervention in the housing market. But as David Bentley over at Civitas has noted, just as Governments have sought to reduce their role. More and more they’ve actually had to prop up the private market. Largely due to policies that have focused on demand side fixes.  Thus perpetuating a cycle where the very measures sought to increase the ability of consumers to purchase housing ends up pushing houses further out of their reach.

A number have sought to highlight the utter absurdities of demand side policies and house prices. Seriously, the more you dip into George Osborne’s housing policies, the more idiotic they appear. Others have noted the positive financial impact genuinely social housing can provide. But it’s tying it altogether that has been the difficult part. Namely because it involves pointing the finger at those who’ve been making batshit mental policy decisions in recent years and going – these fuckers don’t have a bloody clue what they are doing – and then trying to work with them.

Is there a Point to All this?

Kind of. As a sector we may have a more benign Government in power, but we have failed to convince the general public that we are providing value for money. In the long-term that will be a killer. For all the KPIs we produce about performance, for all the smoke and mirrors about being upfront about our costs and what we deliver. We need to drive home the value of what we do. For whilst there is a groundswell politically for investment and support in what we do. In the mind of the General Public the battle is far from won.

As the incumbents in power realise they need to do more than simply cut corporation tax to help JAMs, Marmalades and other food groups. We need to take advantage and reach out beyond our usual audience. Because unless we state in plain and simple terms, very clearly and very loudly what we do, why we do it and how well we do it. And repeat Ad Nauseum (I call this the Farage method of mass communication). We’ll be left in vacuum of rumour, misinformation and gossip. That helps no-one, least of all us.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/

Why Spend More?

Government cuts merely shift the burden, and associated costs, from one department budget to another. Often providing poorer value to the taxpayer as a result. If there is to be a change in policy direction highlighting the absurdities of arbitrary cost cutting in the Welfare State, and capital funding in infrastructure more generally, is needed.

Working in housing you can get caught up in a couple of broken records, repeating time and time again that social housing is needed; and that please, won’t someone think of the poor people. It can all sound a bit noblesse oblige but often you’re one a very few voices pushing those messages. Changing tack, if only for the sake of your sanity, is therefore occasionally necessary.

Show Me the Money

What is often left out in arguing the need for a more progressive approach to policy making in this country is that being a tight arse as a Government often ends up costing the taxpayer (directly and indirectly) more than is saved.  If you have time to read his works, the University of Cambridge based economist Ha-Joon Chang is worth a visit. Whilst the forever left (behind) Owen Jones interviewed him the other week, he has been vocally critical of trickle down economics and Austerity for some time. Notably because the former is bollocks as a theory and the latter more costly for economic growth than expected.

Post-Brexit is seems ‘experts’ (i.e. people who’ve spent years learning about a particular subject) are old hat, who needs them when you’ve got a former Investment Banker (but not part of the establishment) and a former journalist with a penchant for Shakespearean-esk melodrama to tell you the truth+. But it is perhaps worth listening to the various research pieces/staff notes coming out of the world-renowned hotbed of Marxist thinking, the IMF. It has released a number of critical pieces on more recent macro-economic policy approaches and how they’ve failed to solve inequality and provide sustained growth.

It should be noted that the contents of such works represent the views of the authors and not necessarily the IMF itself. Bloody economists, they’re always particularly anal about caveats and detail. Almost as bad as accountants. To ram home the point reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine highlights how the IMF, amongst others, has been fundamental in pushing many of the policies that have actually caused greater economic damage than progression.

What Does this Mean for Housing?

Well, being selfish, it means that it is probably worth setting aside more capital funding for infrastructure projects (like building social and affordable housing). It would also be worth re-visiting plans to strip back the welfare state to the point where all that’s available is a couple of turnips* and stale corn flakes. Both of these pipe-dreams are unlikely to happen any time soon. But redirecting the narrative is desperately needed where Central Government and the Welfare State is concerned (a bit like Own Our Future, but without the OOF acronym). Thanks to excellent research from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the negative impact of inequality on households is well-known. However, the more recent admission from the IMF that inequality negatively impacts growth should provide the ammunition to make the case for investment over cuts. Or as Olivier Blanchard put it:

what is needed in many advanced economies is a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation, not a fiscal noose today

So change-up the language and change the focus of dialogue. The old adage of needing to spend money to make money (or in this case, save money) is useful here. By highlighting that through investing in secure, good quality, affordable housing the state, and by extension the taxpayer, gets far more bang for its buck (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?). When you can show the cost effectiveness of preventing individuals and households from hitting crisis point (and therefore requiring acute, high cost interventions) you’ve won half the battle.

Not Convinced?

Just count the cost of housing those accepted as being statutory homeless, count the cost of those sleep rough on the streets. Count the cost of those relying on friends and family for a sofa to sleep on. Count the cost of the severe damage to job prospects, education and even health that is caused by insecure, poor quality housing. Add that up and investing in social housing and a Welfare Sate is frankly a snip at the price.

Because, why spend more?

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

+Is this a dagger I see before me? No Michael Gove, it’s your political ambitions going up in smoke.

*In fairness, in Worcester (my home town) this would probably make you King…

Why I’m rejecting Help to Buy

I’m rejecting Help to Buy, here’s why you should too.

Firstly, apologies, the title is a bit of a necessary white lie. I’m actually rejecting all forms of state assistance to buy a home currently on offer. But frankly a title that says “Why I’m rejecting, Help to Buy, Rent to Buy, the expanded shared ownership programme plus other miscellanea relating to Government schemes to purchase a home” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. But you get the point.

As someone who has worked ‘professionally’ since graduating, who has had to move homes on an above average basis, who has experienced in-work poverty (that sucks kids, don’t try it) and who has been unable to save for a house because you know, life. It might be a bit odd to some to reject the assistance available. Particularly given the breadth of schemes on offer.

List of Schemes Currently in Play

  • Help to buy – Equity Scheme
  • Help to buy – mortgage guarantee
  • Starter Homes
  • Shared Ownership
  • Rent to Buy
  • Right to Buy v2.0 for LA tenants
  • (Voluntary) Right to Buy for HA tenants
  • ISAs to save

Why the hissy fit?

Fundamentally money that was going to be spent on housing the most in need in this country will now be spent elsewhere. Yet many of those who on the face of it would be set to be helped by Starter Homes (those unable without the cash and/or credit to buy, but ineligible for social housing) probably won’t be able to afford it. Had to rely on figures from Shelter here, because the Government appears to have lost the fag packet on which they did their sums.

As someone who puts a great emphasis on social justice the latest set of proposals from Government are incredibly nauseating to take. As someone who works in Performance, where methodology and reasoned decision making is important this blasé approach is deeply concerning. But it as a taxpayer that I’m fucking fuming. Money is being thrown around in the wrong way, often at the wrong people. In attempting to make it rain for the middle and lower middle class this Government has decided to stretch the definition of a affordability to its very limits. In doing so it is continuing the creeping death of social housing and the distortion of a highly dysfunctional housing market. That doesn’t end well, for anyone.

Right to Bollocks

The political bung that is the Right to Buy extension to Housing Association tenants, albeit in a voluntary form and with some tweaks after an agreement between Government and the sector (well, most of it), highlights the absurdity of thinking going on. Much needed council housing will be sold off to pay for other people to buy much needed social housing. Even with a like for like replacement (even 2 for 1 in London) it is unlikely that a net loss of social housing will be avoided. But that’s not the point. Replacements have never matched the numbers being sold, and despite some debatable sums being thrown about, the jury is very much still out. Often once sold the same property is then let at market rent. In many instances the person renting the RTB property is then claiming housing benefit. Meaning that the lucky owner profits twice at the expense of the general public. That is utter madness and piss poor value for money.

At a time of increasing homelessness and at best stagnated progress on inequality it is a disgrace that these policies are being pushed through without a social housing element. This country needs more of all kinds of housing. Not just the type that hopes to win votes. In the end this is what matters. Cameron et al. have decided to abandon those at the bottom of the pile to help those higher up. I want no part of that. Period.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

A Matter of Perspective

Often when talking about ‘the housing crisis’ people actually gloss over the fact that there are probably about 3 interlocking crises.  Lack of joined up policy making, particularly where the welfare state, local authority budgets and the provision of social housing are concerned, has helped to make a bad situation significantly worse. Even more so when political dogma and vote winning have interfered with policy decisions.

1 – Every Single Measure of Homelessness is on the Increase

The 2000s saw a remarkable drop in households being accepted as homeless. However, this situation is reversing, rapidly. largely it must be said as a direct and indirect result of austerity measures and cuts to welfare assistance. Whether ‘official’ homelessness, the rough sleeper count or hidden homelessness, the trends are deeply worrying. The below graph, shamelessly nicked from the Homelessness Monitor Report from Crisis (Jan 2016), shows the recent up-trend, and broader context. We are in a much better position than previously, but we’re heading in the wrong direction.

Crisis - Homelessness Monitor

It is not just in homelessness where there is any issue. Those living in temporary accommodation are also on the increase, as councils struggle to meet legal requirements around homelessness thanks (again) to the reduction in social housing available, especially in the capital.

chart2 – The Middle Class Malaise

The broadening of Affordable Housing (coinciding with the death of the term social) to a point where a £450,000 home can be seen as affordable is frankly bollocks. But it fits if your focus is on the middle class voters that got (and will keep) you in power. Whilst a renewed interest in Shared Ownership (with the severe kinks in this product hopefully to be ironed out) is very welcome as it might actually help the lower income quartile; the overwhelming focus is straight home ownership.Why? Because even the middle class are feeling the pinch and their voices are better organised and more readily heard than those at the bottom of the pile. Aside from winning the next election. The below chart from Savills’ analysis of the ‘crisis of home ownership‘ highlights quite neatly the long term state of play in housing tenure and de facto why the Government is so keen to reverse declining trends of home ownership.

housing-tenure(3)

The volume (and cash set aside) of the schemes available to help is quite remarkable. Especially at a time when funding for social housing is being slashed and austerity is still the medicine of the day. The problem with the initiatives being put in place is that not one of them is a supply side measure. Great if you want to look busy doing something whilst actually achieving fuck all. Bad if you actually what to solve systemic issues with housing in this country. Sadly this is not new in housing policy  and the failure to tackle the UK’s housing market shortcomings is 3 decades in the making. And whether you are red, blue or yellow, none of the main political parties come up smelling of roses here.

3 – Loads of People Now Rely on the Private Rented Sector

The push towards private renting has a number of influences. Changes in lifestyles, the amount of money required for a deposit, house price to earning ratios, the overall cost of buying & then maintaining a mortgage and greater restrictions (post 2008) on accessibility of finance to purchase have all played their part. Let’s be clear, private renting isn’t bad in and of itself (they fecking love it on the continent), though long term there are some potential drawbacks. But the growth of buy to let landlords, of amateur hour landlords is an issue. As are increasing rents, and the horrific standards of some rented properties.

Whilst this Government has steadfast ignored Generation Rent (I’m sure this has nothing to do with how many MPs are landlords) there are serious concerns about how to regulate a sector that does not always work efficiently and effectively. FYI simply because something is private enterprise, doesn’t mean that it is a bastion of efficient working (just ask a train provider in this country). Throwing schemes at people to help them buy, particularly ones that aren’t affordable for a lot of private renters, doesn’t solve the problem, it merely gives political cover to ignore it. The silence on this issue in Parliament is deafening and real, fundamental change, is required to make the private sector meet the needs of those who use it.

Rounding it up

Like or lump it a thriving economy needs a stable housing market. You will only get that with a greater amount of regulation in private sector, a social housing sector big enough to meet the demand and needs of those on the margins. Because for a significant proportion of households simply keeping a stable roof over their head is day to day struggle.  And whilst intervention is welcome for those aspiring to buy, any approach to housing policy must look to assist those at all points of their housing journey. Not just those who can shout the loudest. We can start to do that by recognising the separate, but interlinked, elements of our housing crises.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.