Can Housing Work for the Workers? Britain’s vulnerable owner-occupiers
This week Grant Shapps has hosted a ‘first-time buyer summit’ to think of imaginative ways of getting more households onto the first rung of the property ladder. The name of the game is the same as it was under the last Labour administration. Political success apparently relies on serving the aspiration to own.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, very few politicians would consider home ownership to be a ‘problem-tenure’ in itself; the only ‘problem’ is how to provide more of it. Except in times of recession and acute financial crisis, it is typically assumed that homeowners have taken a positive and one-way step on the path to independence and self-sufficiency. This apparent independence, of course, is typically contrasted with the alleged ‘dependence’ of social housing tenants and a range of social problems associated with the tenure.
This is a mistake, both politically and in terms of public policy. As we argue in a new TUC Touchstone paper to be published next Wednesday – ‘Can Housing Work for the Workers?’ – the sharp distinctions that we draw between owners and renters makes for bad policy.
It makes for bad policy because it excludes many vulnerable owner-occupiers from the support of the state. We have known for at least a decade that half of all individuals living in poverty live in owner-occupied households. When we take out pensioners, this leaves us, after housing costs, with roughly two million working age adults living below the poverty line in owner-occupied accommodation. Yet these households are not entitled to housing benefit or other forms of housing support – except at the point of crisis when they become unemployed and are struggling with their mortgages.
Nor has the place of owner-occupied households been recognised in recent, belated, moves to ‘join up’ housing provision together and employment policy. In the last five years a number of local authorities and housing associations have offered debt and employment advice to their tenants as part of a more holistic approach to housing management. But owner-occupiers experiencing (or at risk of) poverty very rarely receive such help.
This matters all the more because of the increased vulnerability of such households over the last two decades. As we have moved more and more to ‘flexible’ markets, we have seen low-income workers, and many owners, face ever greater financial uncertainty. Short-term contracts and uncertain hours have become the norm for many, yet this is a group that has been explicitly encouraged by successive governments to pursue the dream of ownership.
In the long-term, this is bad politics as well as bad policy. It ultimately does little for the well being and aspirations of the two million working age voters who are cut off from the supportive structures of the state simply because of their tenure. And it continues a narrative in which owners are encouraged to think of their needs and aspirations as radically different from those in social or private rental housing. If we want to build a broad, progressive coalition around housing this is a crucial, strategic mistake.