Cities and Housing Issues – a bit of an exploration

In various European and North American cities visited in the last decade, housing has been a recurring theme, both as an everyday lived concern of residents and as a policy concern for city decision-makers.

Whilst there seem to be universal issues, generic across all such cities, each city has its own particular set of housing concerns shaped by that city’s culture, history and the interplay between local and national legislation. Although many of the observations are at city level, it is recognised that none of the cities mentioned are homogenous entities. Each city has its variety of neighbourhoods and its diversity of residents: its physical and social nooks and crannies.

This exploration has been based on looking at newspaper articles, journal articles and policy documents, as well as a degree of wandering and observing the day-to-day facets of a select number of similar cities. It is, therefore, by its nature only a partial view of the complexity of things. It certainly does not set itself out as a well-referenced academic study, nor try to represent every aspect or every city. Any errors, omissions or assertions are personal ones.

The housing concerns of cities looked at tended to centre around the same issues: affordability, renting, house-building rates, local renovations and redevelopments, levels of public/private investment, land ownership and land use, homelessness, who gets to make which decisions, how we define ‘home’, and local/national interplays.

Housing is seen as a key social and political issue for those cities. Declarations and proposals are made at various levels of city/regional/national government, with various ways forward being proposed. At the same time, despite strong commitments to change, the difficulties do not seem to go away in other than piecemeal ways.

What follows is a summary of some of the key points in those observations – not from the viewpoint of a housing expert but from the perspective of an interested bystander who puzzles why the same key issues continue to be revisited with, in many cases, few real permanent inroads being made to fix the problems

Affordability

The need for affordable housing is a strongly recurring theme. This immediately raises the question of what is affordable, and by whom?

An affordable rent is often defined as one equivalent to 80% of the market rent.

By extension, therefore, would an affordable house to buy be one whose cost is at or below 80% of the local market house price? Or one that can be afforded by someone on an average wage?  Or one just branded with some vaguely undefined ‘affordability’? Affordability is sometimes a precise label and sometimes is used quite loosely.

London average house prices rose by a third in the period 2007-2015. House prices similarly rose in other parts of the UK, and in other cities in the US and Canada, often whilst many people’s incomes stayed the same or went down in real terms. On this basis, housing in general has become less affordable over recent years.

The increased proportions of low pay part-time jobs mean that getting a job no longer secures getting out of poverty. Certainly, being in work does not necessarily mean being able to save and afford a home of one’s own or being able to rent a decent home in a decent neighbourhood.

The UK average ratio of house price to earnings, some years ago, was 4. Now it is around 5.6. With low interest rates and high loan: value mortgages, there is a requirement for potential buyers to find higher deposits than previously. Those most able to buy are those with ready access to cash.

Twenty years ago, an average working family could save a deposit on a house in around three years. This now takes 19 years. Housing costs swallow a larger and larger proportion of average household incomes; for those renting this becomes even more acute. Housing is certainly affordable by some, and clearly unaffordable by others.

Working people on a low or average wage may once have been able to rent or buy a decent home near the city centre (where work often was) but, despite talk of revitalising city-centre living, this is often not now the case.

As affordable housing gets squeezed out of central areas, this creates pressures on outer areas in the form of higher rents and higher house prices. Those on low wages move further and further from the city areas where low-pay jobs might exist and pay a larger proportion of their income on commuting. The alternative may be for the poor to pay high rents for substandard places as the only way to stay near to their job.

Such housing pressures do not only apply to the poorest sector of society. The sharpest fall in UK first-time buyers has been amongst those on middle incomes (earning £20,000-£30,000/year).

Even well-intentioned government schemes to help first-time buyers have ended up benefitting richer households rather than poorer ones, making higher cost housing more affordable to some. Although one scheme only required a 5% deposit, this was out of reach for many low-income families. It has done little for those in rented accommodation looking to secure a stable home. Fewer than 0.2% of privately renting families made use of the scheme in 2018-2019.

Where houses have been bought to let, at times of rising costs, landlords may have felt justified in charging increased rents to cover their higher outgoings. Non-affordable purchase prices can thus link on into non-affordable rents.

Even though the overall trend is towards exclusion of many from the housing market, whether as purchasers or as renters, the processes pushing housing out of affordability are not happening at the same scale and pace everywhere. Within the same countries, different cities have different house price to resident income ratios: Calgary = 3.9; Montreal = 4.1; Toronto = 8.9; MetroVancouver = 11.4 (within which West Vancouver = 25 and Vancouver City = over 30).

Affordability has often been rather simplistically linked to availability: Build more homes and the costs will fall, making the average house affordable again and, as house prices fall, rents will reduce accordingly.

Housing supply and demand does not operate in these simple textbook ways. At one level, homes are being built, but if much of this build is in the most expensive areas of the city, it will remain way above ordinary affordability.

Despite the need being for affordable homes for large numbers of ‘average’ people, a sizeable amount of recent city-centre build has been luxury apartments, driven by investment trends as global capital seeks opportunities in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, Sydney, Singapore and London.

In London, 80% of recent building proposals were for luxury flats with little to show in actual builds of houses with real affordability and (in 2015) for every one new affordable home that was built, five were sold in the social housing sector. In the UK generally, only 1 in 6 builds are affordable homes for rent, even though this is a key category of housing need.

Spending on new residential construction in New York in 2014 grew by 73%, but that only generated 11% more homes. Compared with any declared push for more housing, more affordability and a wider range of housing, the city was in reality getting fewer units with each costing more money.

So, even where concerted efforts are made to build more homes, there is no guarantee that this will create more affordability. The 100% rise in UK house prices since the late 1990s was driven as much by low interest rates as by lack of availability. Low global interest rates made it easier for homeowners and property investors to take on more debt, opening the potential for prices to be pushed higher.

There is often a logic chain behind increasing prices: As demand grows (and interest rates make purchases easier), land prices go higher; so it becomes harder to fund ‘affordable’ projects, which are thus unattractive to private developers; who then build for those who can pay; who are increasingly those with wealth who want a luxury home in a high-cost central area close to key amenities.

Another chain of events that is all too common is: The developer submits a plan that commits to a required proportion of affordable housing; this moves through the planning approvals of the local council; developers then produce detailed documents making an economic case why the affordable proportion should be reduced on the grounds of economic feasibility ie the whole scheme may not go ahead with that scale of affordable builds; the local authority has had its in-house teams of staff (who would at one time have been available to work through such documents in fine detail) depleted by budget cuts; the developer’s case, for reduced numbers of planned affordable homes, gets accepted relatively unchallenged; delays and revisions at the construction stage mean that things may end up with not even these planned numbers being actually built.  

What starts out as a proposal accepted on the basis of 30% affordability easily ends up as a reality of less than 10% of actual builds being affordable (still leaving the question ‘Affordable to whom?’).

Successive leaders and mayors of cities have set ambitious targets in their election promises eg ‘50% of homes built will be affordable’ – only to set reduced targets once elected: ‘I have set private builders a target of 35% affordable homes’ – and then struggle to get more than a quarter of developments to attain this level in practice.

Looking at one city in particular: Affordability is a key factor in Birmingham, both in terms of purchase and rental properties, even though the city has avoided the excesses of high-cost development seen elsewhere. Those seeking to buy a home in the city typically face prices that are around 7 times the average income for the city. Average incomes in the city are relatively low, whilst market rents are rising. Social housing providers manage a quarter of the total homes in the city, down from a peak but still higher than the national average. Even when rents in this sector are set at 80% of market rates, large numbers of families are still not able to afford this rent level. 95% of privately rented properties have rents that would not be fully covered by the local housing allowance.

Some of the positive sides of Birmingham can have impacts on housing issues in the city. Living costs are estimated to be up to 60% lower than in London. Partly because of this, Birmingham has benefitted from the relocation, into the city, of around 25,000 professionals between 2013-2016, adding more pressure on housing.

The city has 3 major universities, with a total of more than 90,000 students to be accommodated. Birmingham is, additionally, a young city, with around 40% of the population being under-25. If they stay in the city as adults, and add to its future, this is likely to mean more families needing more homes. Even if there were sufficient homes for the young population these are often not affordable to those who are on low income, unemployed or subject to welfare benefit restrictions. The affordable housing needs of young people and young families is a key feature of the housing calculations of a number of cities, for example if young people continue to live with their family for longer, sustaining a strong need for larger homes.

Although housing is a key political issue, none of the above solely relies on which party is in power nationally or locally. Similar processes are in place under various administrations. City leaders do the best they can but seem to have been unable to get much leverage on those things that keep houses in the ‘affordable’ range.

Renting a home

Rental costs in cities have been on a recent upward trend. In UK cities, private renting used to be cheaper than owning a house, giving some families the chance to save for a deposit. Since the financial crisis of 2008, mortgage interest rates have remained very low but rents have increased, making renting a comparatively expensive form of housing. Despite this, renting doubled over the 2005-2015 period.

Greater London rents rose by 22% over the five years 2010-2015. Economists suggest that, if the city is to become more competitive and to remain viable as a way of living for the majority, Londoners should only be paying around 30% of their salary on housing compared with the 50-60% that they currently pay.

There are some predictions that the rate of rent rises may be slowing down. Still in the next decade to 2026, within current trends, 90% of Britons under 35 on modest incomes are likely to be frozen out of the possibility of home ownership. Responding to surveys, this is a proportion who say that they see no hope of owning a home unless a house, or a deposit on a home, gets handed on to them from parents. They anticipate living back with their parents for a while and then being renters for a good number of years.

There is the belief that continual rent rises are not a feasible way forward for any city if it is to have a mixed, engaged population. A Joseph Rowntree Fund report ‘Living Rents’ suggested that, to make renting more affordable, rents should be linked to a proportion of local earnings rather than to property values.

Social housing at low rents has been the protection against housing costs pushing people into poverty, but increasingly rents for new lets are linked to a dysfunctional private market so that, even in the social sector, rents have risen by around 20% (2010-2015).

Rents have been rising whilst incomes remain relatively stable and whilst those needing to rely on social housing are having their ability to pay reduced as welfare caps have been lowered and welfare incomes squeezed. Ever-increasing rents require more and more people to rely on housing benefit support to be able to meet those rents. A system that was designed for a time of more stable rents is now a major component of the welfare budget, as landlord incomes are protected. Previous regimes of state-provided housing may have been a normal part of social support but increasing numbers reliant on housing welfare payments bring their own range of political and social reactions.

Can social rents simply be reduced, to make them more affordable and to reduce the reliance on housing support? Based on predictions of rent/incomes ratios to 2040, affordability might be maintained if social rents were to be cut by a small percentage each year over the next several years. However, this would probably mean building fewer affordable homes over that period since housing associations would have calculated the costs of such future builds as being offset by increased rents.

The level of rent paid is important, but renter experience also relies heavily on the quality and experience of their landlord. There are estimates that a third of UK private landlords are well-meaning and do a good job; a third are well-meaning but don’t do a good job; and a third are unscrupulous/do bad job.

In this last category are those situations where sub-standard properties are increasingly becoming normal for some families. In some cities, up to a third of private lets do not meet basic standards. There has been a rapid growth in illegal structures in back gardens (‘beds in sheds’), sub-divided rooms, and the renting out of unsafe or unhealthy premises. Adverts can be for rental of rooms with space for 4 people (at £200/month each). Places can be let to one person who sublets to others, who further sublet, resulting in shared premises with 15-20 people there. In some cases, a person may rent a place then re-let it at 25% higher. There may, sometimes, be links to trafficking and extortionate home+work arrangements. Some rooms are offered in return for ‘benefits’.

There have been demands for more regular and robust schemes of landlord registration and inspection. There are calls to take even the simplest steps eg changing the language from ‘rogue’ landlord to ‘criminal’ landlord. Anomalies are pointed out (eg Are there really more regulations to run a cattery in the UK than to rent out homes?). City officers do what they can, within reducing staffing and budgets, to visit and issue enforcement notices. Many landlords simply comply whilst the pressure is on, then ignore when things quieten down. Central government has often been opposed to legislating for area-wide registration schemes, leaving the establishment of these to localised initiatives.

Even in well-run properties, there are often constraints and restrictions on what decorating can be done, whether pets are allowed, how many pictures can be hung on walls etc. Agreements can be terminated or not renewed. Financial guarantees and deposits can be asked for a range of things.

Some cities are taking steps to make life easier for renters. New York has its version of rent stabilisation ie restrictions on in-contract rent increases, length of contracts etc. Berlin is attempting forms of rent control that include better enforcing of existing controls, no rent above 10% more than the average rent in each micro-neighbourhood, plus a 5-year halt on any private rent increases.

Vancouver has piloted a housing programme of purpose-built rental buildings with at least 20% set aside at below-market rents for those earning middle-incomes ($30-80k/year). An agreement is struck that rents can’t be pushed up when tenants move and tenants can easily move to a different home within the building. This is offset by allowing developers to construct taller buildings, with smaller units and reduced parking requirements.

Without strong effective control over landlord/tenant relationships, cities could find themselves with more insecure young adults moving more often to areas that are cheaper and less well connected – areas of substandard, unsafe, insecure spaces for rent at just-affordable levels, with the build-up of a range of social issues: None of which contribute to cities being the flourishing, productive, liveable places they often aspire to be.

At a more extreme level, proposals have been suggested for tenants to have a right to buy the privately rented flat they live in, at below market value. This is likely to have a set of consequences other than those simply intended and, if it involves any form of compulsory purchase or compulsory sale, is unlikely to gain broad public support. At the other end of the scale, it has to be remembered that a number of effective landlords can become the victims of antisocial, or simply inconsiderate tenants. Tenant rights and tenant responsibilities need both to be addressed if there is to be a thriving, adequate private rental system across a city.

These are some of the immediate issues, but there are also longer-term considerations. If people are currently paying 40% of their income on rent, and if many people’s incomes typically halve after retirement, then (even if rent rises are held at the same rate as increases in wages) those people face the prospect of having to use 80% of their retirement income on rent.

This could make more demands on state top-up support, or mean moving into unfit, cheaper privately rented accommodation, which may be costly to provide the levels of heating necessary. Even if the state provides or subsidises homes for those less independent, the increasing numbers of older people will, of itself, require the equivalent of at least an additional 21,000 extra suitable social housing homes in the UK stock. Pensioner poverty has steadily reduced in many cities, but the rental ‘market’ may start to unravel this over time.

For those not yet retiring, straightforward renting remains a major form of tenure and probably will remain so for some time, even if it is not the only option.

There may be more of a role to be played by institutional investors, such as pension funds, who can focus on long-term stability over generations. The financial reserves and social intentions of these organisations might enable them to build at scale for lower costs, which could mean lower rents. This, in turn, might make renting a more accepted part of the housing structure rather than, in some cases, being portrayed as ‘for those who cannot buy’.

Other tenure formats are based on variants of residents’ management companies, community trusts, or housing cooperatives where homes are owned by the community of residents who are able to exert some control over their own situations. Shared ownership schemes allow tenants to incrementally purchase larger shares of the home they live in. In the UK, this equity is bought in blocks of 10%, although there are proposals to make this easier by reducing this so that smaller steps can be taken towards home ownership. This can, at the same time, make things more costly since at each stage residents pay for valuations, conveyancing and mortgage adjustment.

Cohousing encourages individuals to get together and buy urban sites to build housing with communal aspects. The structure is often around a Community Land Trust, which purchases the land upon which mutual housing associations put up the buildings, that are then sold or rented at affordable rates. In housing cooperatives people take responsibility for where they live as the onus for upkeep is shifted onto the user, freeing them from the vagaries of a poor landlord.

These alternatives provide for some stability so long as rent is paid and rules are followed. They can also bring some increases in diversity eg young savers + low-income seniors. Where they exist, these arrangements can be in demand. In Toronto, a newly completed set of cooperative builds had 1200 applicants for 12 available units.

Wrapped around all of this, other trends seem likely. Demographics look set to change; ratios of owners/renters look set to change; current financial models may make private renting of a decent home an option for only a more affluent section of people. Growing social pressures and social change concerning renting seem inevitable. Renting issues are a consequence of city changes, but, themselves, also act as wider drives for change in cities.

Numbers

What follows are different figures, taken from different (mainly UK) sources, and relate to different aspects of housing contexts. Taken together, however, they may give a surface sense of the concerns around the pace and scale of housing.

There are 22.6 million households in England. 17% (3.8m) of these rent via social housing, involving around 5 million people. UK projected population growth is around 200,000 households/year. There were 171,000 net new additions to the nation’s housing stock in 2014/15, up 25% on previous year, but this trend didn’t continue. The figure for 2018-19 was 169,770.

Of the total population of adults with homes, around 2.5 million cannot afford where they live; more than 1.5 million live in substandard homes; and more than 3.5 million live in overcrowded conditions. Even allowing for overlaps between these groups, this is still somewhere near 10% of people. It is a political decision whether such a figure is acceptable or needs urgent remedial action.

These are the kinds of headline figures used to make a point. They rarely delve into the subtleties behind the numbers, and rarely represent any reality on the ground.

The most recurring political commitment is to the number of homes that will get built. David Cameron’s government (in 2017) pledged 200,000/year, but the number of starts actually fell. Theresa May’s government wanted to build 300,000 houses/year from 2020 but said that it was also vital to assess any likely impact on local communities (a process likely to slow building down) and, as it turns out, her government didn’t last until that date.

The headline figures usually seek to maximise themselves by referring to builds of all types. The number of new builds that can be defined as affordable to low-income families is less than 10% of the total figure, and has been at this low proportion since responsibility for the provision of social housing was given to private developers (as a negotiated percentage of their total new builds) and to social housing associations (working on reduced or limited budgets).

In 2010, with more than 1 million UK households waiting for social housing, there were 30,000 fewer social homes being built. Over 7 years (2010-2017) there was a massive drop in the number of UK government-funded socially rented homes being built each year as the money housing associations got from government for each new home reduced from 50% to 20%. Instead of the 100,000 or so that might have been built, the figure in 2018 had reduced to 6,000. To get to a figure that would have some relation to need, the amount of government funding required would be ten times the amount invested in that year.

This reduced the overall stock of social/affordable homes and left the responsibility for making up any shortfall with private developers. As we have seen, private developers have often found reasons to not deliver on this responsibility.

Statistics can get used in different ways. Defining the relevant numbers is not straightforward; nor is the concept of ‘need’.

A major UK housing charity has put the number of additional social homes needed at 3 million.  From a different perspective, there is a need for 340,000 new homes/year, year on year well into the future – a figure not attained since the end of the 1960s. On other criteria, there is only an absolute ‘need’ for 60,000 homes (to house people in temporary accommodation), or 90,000/year for the next 10 years (to start to clear the waiting lists for social housing – even though those lists are only around 50% of those needing homes ie do not include those unwillingly back home in the parental home, or those reluctantly sharing a home even though a relationship has broken down). The rest is ‘demand’. In whatever way statistics get presented and played around with, there is a generally agreed lack of sufficient good homes for the people who need them.

The absolute number of new homes built is itself only part of the consideration. Numbers are important but (in addition to affordability) we also need to think about quality, location and infrastructure. Yes, it is about homes for how many people and whether any groups of people are a priority, but it is also about what gets built at what levels of density; designed to what standards; the extent to which children have space to grow or older/infirm adults can easily move around; and whether they are being built in the right places and at the right speed.

Beyond that, there are the ideas that a home is not just a physical box for living in or a dormitory to sleep in. Houses can be emotional spaces, allowing people to experience a sense of place and their role within it: a contributor to some feelings of belonging and togetherness.

In 2018, only 1 in 10 people in private sector built homes felt that they were adequate for modern living. Some of this was to do with quality and some with design. Overall, only 7% of housing stock was determined as having basic accessibility features – nowhere near the level needed for the number of frail older people or people with disabilities that need a range of accessibilities built-in, and certainly not a good base for any increase in those numbers. For too many people, there may be a house but not an appropriate home.

Unfortunately, successive governments have tended to be judged solely against their headline target number of starts. This can be different from the numbers completed in a reasonable timescale and doesn’t always mean that these buildings comply with accepted housing standards, or are affordable, or are best placed in relation to transport and green open spaces as well as to jobs and services.

The rate of completion is arguably more important than the number of starts. In one example, planning permissions increased by 60% (2010-15) but there was only a 48% increase in numbers of new homes built. Over the same period, the length of time to build a house jumped from 24 to 32 weeks.

Builders blame the planning systems of local authorities for delays and shortfalls in housing builds. Planning decisions can take too long; or be too restrictive. Delays in starting to build can create pressures at the other end of a contract, with a rush to complete against schedule.

One of the UK’s largest housebuilding companies has made huge profits from public ‘help to buy’ initiatives with much of this going out as disproportionately large bonuses for top executives. However, to meet contractual commitments, the company worked at such a pace on numbers that houses were handed over to purchasers with leaks, cracked windows, and dozens of other faults.

Delivery of new homes may get restricted by a range of locational factors There is no endless supply of open tracts of build-ready land just waiting for contractors to put spade to soil. Sometimes contractors have to wait too long for the ‘right’ land to become available. There can be green belt regulations, land hoarding etc.

To counter some of the blockages that prevent houses being built at the scale and pace needed, ministers have contemplated pushing developers to buy publicly-owned land; to commit to rapid construction; promoting the use of ready-made homes built off-site; and splitting developments across a number of developers via local plans that allocate enough sites of different sizes to be attractive to a range of building companies.

Public consultations can affect building rates, or whether anything gets built at all. London wanted to build hundreds of homes on outer-area tube station car parks: a proposal resisted as removing a key facility for commuters. In Vancouver, objections were raised to houses being built close to a hospice facility. These issues can be resolved through planning engagement processes. Such processes are valid and necessary but need to be taken into account when predicting realistic numbers of actual builds to completion within a particular timescale.

This is all to meet some projected housing demand. Housing demand, however, is not a fixed entity. It is pushed by a generous tax system for property-owners; net immigration and demographic changes; local property tax levels; a perceived need to get an early foot on the housing ladder; housing seen as assets to trade not homes to live in etc. Dealing with such issues will antagonise whole sets of vested interests – but not dealing with them may itself create increasing social pressures.

Responding to ‘need’ or ‘demand’ is only partly about building totally new constructions from scratch. A significant part of housing activity is the conversion of old industrial and commercial premises. New possibilities open up as contexts change. There is a current focus on the decline of UK local High Streets. Change of planning use means that former retail and commercial premises can be repurposed for housing use.

As local council care homes get to the end of their viability, in terms of needing costly repair, they are being sold off to developers, sometimes for conversion into housing blocks. The care system itself, in a number of cities, is being contracted to large for-profit organisations. It is easy to lose sight that the new premises built by those organisations as modern care facilities are still home for those who live there and not merely spaces to be let at high rents.

Whilst, there has been a recent increase in traditional new builds (up by 8,860/year to 163,940), property conversions increased the UK housing stock by 11% (30,600 units). Part of this change of use was 12,824 office-to-flats conversions. Some of these office blocks were bleak towers in suburban locations. In one London borough, a few years ago, 50% of available office space was empty. Much of this was 1960s blocks no longer suitable for office use but deemed OK for conversion into homes under new planning permissions. In many cases, these permitted conversions have produced ‘units’ that fail to meet accepted minimum space standards. Reduced space in homes has its own impacts on mental health, on children’s developments, and so on.

New builds plus conversions added an equivalent of 190,000 new dwellings to the housing stock in England in 2015-16. This total was still short of the 200,000/year government target – which was itself below the government review estimate of 250,000/year required to increase the flow of new stock and to replace out-dated stock and, as we have seen, fell in subsequent years.

In terms of house purchasing, buying new properties (whether new builds or conversions) accounts for only around 10% of home transactions. The other 90%, the exchange of existing property, whilst not impacting on growth of the housing stock, has its own impact on house prices.

Further complications in the numbers game include the extent to which properties are left lying unused, the proportion purchased as houses-for-rent and the uneven geographical distribution of available properties.

There are various reasons why properties are left empty. Some are unfit properties awaiting demolition. Some is social housing earmarked for renovation. Some are rental properties lying empty between tenancies. Some are short-term vacancies linked to student accommodation and university dates.

Students can constitute one substantial group of residents that needs accommodation. In some cases, cities and universities work together to ensure a concerted build of modern accommodation for students, releasing whole areas of relatively cheap housing for sale or for rent by others. There are benefits to the youthful buzz students can bring to a city, and the fact that some stay on after graduating and add to the creative base of the city. In terms of housing, however, there are downsides in the large numbers of properties in the same streets that are used by students for only part of the year and on a high-turnover; and a hollowing out of the character of an area where there are a proliferation of take-aways, little demand for school places, or few community networks.

At other times, properties can be left empty for long periods by an absent owner who retains it as an occasional base to stay at whilst in that city. In other cases, the property is deliberately left empty, with no intention of occupying it, as an investment in the land on which the building stands. In both cases, small areas can become almost ghostly in their lack of resident activity.

The scale of homes not-in-use can be very large. There are an estimated 216,000 long-term empty homes in England alone, up by 11,000 (5%) on the previous year. If these can be brought back into use as adequate homes, this will meet over 70% of the government’s annual target for delivering additional homes in that year.

Other cities have their own issues with levels of empty properties and cities are generally aware of the political difficulties resulting from any substantial mismatch between housing need and the obvious existence of large numbers of empty properties.

Sometimes a major event can bring the issue to the fore. At the time of the Grenfell Tower fire in London there was a need to rapidly rehouse those affected. Local surveys quickly identified a large number of unoccupied properties in the same area but matching these vacancies with the acute need was far from simple because of issues of ownership.

Nor is it just whole houses that are empty. It is calculated that London has 92,000 more bedrooms than people. There are more than 2 million empty bedrooms in Toronto and hundreds of thousands of empty bedrooms in Vancouver.  

In Birmingham (UK) there are pockets of overcrowding in the city. In a third of the city there is a shortage of at least one bedroom in 10%-20% of homes.  At the same time, in three-quarters of the city, half of homes (across all tenures) have at least one spare bedroom. There is a particular shortage of larger homes. Birmingham has had considerable success in bringing empty properties back into use, based on identification of empty properties and encouraging (or requiring where necessary) owners to unlock the potential of this wasted resource to create more good quality, affordable housing in the city.

In various cities there have been calls for more to be done to support home-sharing between different generations, providing affordable housing for younger people and countering the loneliness or isolation experienced by some older people. It can sometimes be practicable to split larger homes to create separate units and thus free up the space to those looking for housing.

The UK government encourages the renting out of spare rooms via tax breaks for homeowners but takes a more punitive approach in any home that receives welfare by imposing an income cut for ‘spare’ bedrooms. Initially, this had some surface logic to it as a way of getting people to move to smaller properties and free up unused space, but ignored the practicalities of rooms being used for disability equipment, rooms being kept for children away at university or in the army etc.

Even without issues of non-occupancy, the distribution of need and availability is not evenly spread across a country. In the UK there is an acute housing shortage in London/the South-East and cheap homes available in some Northern areas.

In cities such as Stoke it is possible to buy houses for as little as £1. Purchasers need to take out a low-interest £30,000 renovation loan; commit to staying in the house for at least 5 years before they can sell; have to be a first-time buyer, in paid work and have a good credit rating or savings. These actions have brought back into use properties that were built more than a century ago, but which are structurally sound.

In Leeds, Liverpool and other cities, models have seen the local council working with other organisations and groups of potential residents to bring dilapidated houses, that have been empty for years, awaiting demolition, back into use as modern warm serviceable homes. The people moving in have been supported in learning the skills necessary to improve their adopted houses.

Even in the case of more standard construction models, the number of more recently built homes available in different neighbourhoods can be heavily reliant on local planning regulations and assumptions, such as zonings and the density at which housing can be built. Density in New York, Madrid, Moscow etc has traditionally been linked to the norm of 8-12 storey buildings, whereas London’s Victorian/Edwardian homes were more usually constructed over only 3-6 storeys. The current city trend is for high-tower builds. Cities need an appropriate mix of density done well, often using new construction methods, enabled by sound planning assumptions that can be adapted to new possibilities.

There are relentless debates about numbers. These range across a number of aspects: need vs demand; starts vs completions; new builds vs existing properties; affordability vs exclusivity; location and density; fully-occupied vs partial-vacancy – all contributing to the scale of the housing issue and the pace with which it gets addressed. Within all of this, focusing on the numbers themselves can be a distraction from exploring the underlying structures and processes that led to those numbers.

Gentrifications, renovations and redevelopments
Gentrification, initially, referred to the gradual upgrading of individual houses to the extent that the nature of the streets gets changed. Eventually, there is a transformation of working class areas into middle class ones as more and more houses are bought cheaply and renovated to add value.

Such upgrading of an area is not necessarily, in itself, a bad thing. There are poor neighbourhoods where finance is hard to borrow, housing improvement is beyond the reach of most people, landlords are reluctant to renovate, and modern enterprises are absent ie they remain places that, even at the basic level, don’t flourish. Where there are issues are when a perfectly adequate area’s existing community gets progressively displaced by the process and its networks get broken apart.

More recently, the term has been applied not to such piecemeal change but to the wholesale reconstruction of an entire neighbourhood. Large-scale redevelopments, if done well, can improve the existing community. New money coming in can, however, be both an answer and a problem. It depends on intent. The focus can be one of simple financial investment for profit by clearing space for high-cost homes unaffordable to existing residents, or the focus can be on how any incoming investment balances improvements for existing residents and for new ones moving into the rejuvenated area. There is a big difference between opening high-end shops and wine bars and opening low-end supermarkets and extra social facilities.

There has been a recent surge in estate renovations with residents being promised like-for-like replacement of their homes, then half as many homes being let at ‘social rent’ as were there before redevelopment, or even no social housing built at all. Private rents get set at higher levels and previous tenants find themselves priced out.

Even smaller-scale developments can follow the same trend. A single house on a large plot can be purchased by a developer at a price above that able to be paid by a regular buyer, the building demolished, and denser multi-storey building erected in its place.

Whether at the whole-community redevelopment level or at the level of individual landlord renovation of a single set of apartments, where rents get hiked up and there are no available alternative properties in the locality, displaced renters have no choice but to leave their community. This has knock-on effects: children change schools; travel to work costs go up; there can be longer hours away from home, pushing up other costs such as childcare.

The more these kinds of displacements happen the more renewals create tenant and activist reactions. Campaign slogans emerge around social housing not social cleansing; housing becoming playgrounds for the rich; rich putting money into bank vaults in the sky; loss of neighbourhood diversity and vitality; housing policies tearing communities apart; and so on.

Cities are all too aware of these effects but there are variations in how they respond.

In some cities, individual landlord renovation plans are scrutinised by officers to ensure that the proposed changes are really needed ie are not simply artificial opportunities to push up rents.

Vancouver councillors recently proposed significantly increasing the compensation to renters evicted so that buildings can be redeveloped. The proposal only applies to new development permits and not to where an owner is simply renovating. Landlord organisations argue that this could prevent much-needed developments from happening.

Toronto has had a high level of investment in its inner-city areas, often involving the high-rise condominium towers preferred by private developers. The approach was the planned re-urbanisation of the city centre to attract more creative-class workers, by refurbishing brownfield sites. This has had some success in bringing in new populations but also seems to be fostering an increasing separation of the city into neighbourhoods based on wealth.

In UK cities, most recent large-scale city redevelopments have relied on the same large private developers. Where councils themselves, rather than private developers, take responsibilities for large-scale redevelopments then there can be a different focus – one on placemaking for citizens. Some time ago, however, the Thatcher government removed such local government right to build. Although this was restored to some extent, it has constantly been under threat, local authority finance restricted, and expectations established that large-scale work is best left to the private sector or is only feasible if taken forward via public/private partnerships.

Some local authorities have taken advantage of the removal of restrictions on their being allowed to build. One third of London boroughs have set up their own local development companies. Other cities have done the same, with their own in-house architects. This brings back the local aspiration to create a long-lasting stock of homes, and to create flourishing and sustainable neighbourhoods.

Older or unsuitable housing will still need demolition or rebuilding, but it can be done far more carefully if under some form of local control eg by the sequential refurbishing of one block then another, enabling residents who wish to remain to still be rehoused in the locality whilst work is underway.

There have been calls for an acceptance that gentrification can bring benefits to a neighbourhood and a recognition that this is likely to raise the locational value of properties making them more attractive to buy-to-let investors and land speculators. Rather than taxing property, the proposal is that the process gets based on a tax on the value of the land. In that way the added value that comes from local improvements has a chance of being reinvested back into local communities rather than flowing out to investors.

Sitting behind some of this lies the issue of who decides what gets done. When change is proposed for an area, to what extent is that taken forward behind closed doors, or with some structured form of consultation, or could it be resident-informed? Some cities are looking at formal structures to look at, and make decisions about, a range of housing issues. In some cases, this takes the form of representatives, along the lines of a selected panel or a citizen-jury, who review city proposals and priorities.

Regeneration is just one more facet in the complexity of housing issues where city officers and politicians find themselves caught between the interests of local citizens and the reliance on development companies to improve the localities.

External investment and ownership

Housing a city’s residents may seem, at first, to be a purely local issue but we have already seen the reliance not just on local decision-making but also on national government decisions. An influence from further afield is the flow of international/global finance.

New developments are not necessarily promoted locally but are sometimes initially launched on overseas markets. It has been suggested that the proportion of new inner London developments that never get advertised in the UK may be as high as 75%. Certainly, foreign purchasers were (in 2015) buying 80% of properties in a series of riverside developments in London.

In the case of one 50-storey apartment complex in London the building is 62% foreign owned. The 5-storey penthouse is owned by the family of a Russian oligarch; 25% is owned by off-shore companies; the rest is distributed across various nationalities.

There are varying reasons why London property is attractive to overseas purchasers. Some is bought as dwellings that are then left empty for part of the year as people move between countries (so are more like private hotels rather than homes). Some is to provide a base in a city where their children may go to study. There is also the simple prestige of having physical ties with particular global cities. A small proportion is simply investment with no intention of anyone living there as the property slowly dilapidates and the land increases in value.

In the 1970s/80s, there was a noted increase in land and building acquisition by individuals, corporations and wealth funds from oil-rich countries in the Middle East. Two decades later, money was coming from Russia and the post-soviet states. China has been one recent strong source of overseas property purchasing in key cities. This has partly been due to an outflow of finance from China driven by fear of devaluation of the yuan. Partly it is a result of a resurgence of the Chinese economy with a rise in middle incomes accompanied by people seeking an investment portfolio, with property-management seen as a relatively easy option. There are indications that the rate is starting to decline for various reasons associated with falling currency rates, increased checks on the sources of money, falling house prices as Brexit uncertainty looms etc.

In a number of cities, there are signs of nervousness about the scale of these investments from abroad, even if it still only adds up to 5-10% of the total in the city. One concern is that a proportion of the activity relies on dodgy or dirty money, and this may foster a reputation of the city as a base for money-laundering.

The more investment there is, the more likely that measures may be introduced to protect local buyers. Many cities (Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, etc) limit overseas non-resident acquisition of property. Vancouver and other cities impose an overseas-purchase tax. Where a city is determined to act, the situation can be substantially influenced.

Land

Control of large tracts of land rests with a tiny number of people. Some landowners are private corporations, some are the established aristocratic families. Land ownership and land use is a relatively neglected issue in British politics. Land has key connections to many of the sections above but relatively little appeared in the articles, news reports, and conversations.

Since 1995, land values in the UK have risen by 412%. Homes have become so expensive not because costs of bricks and mortar (or construction wages) are higher but because the land that they sit on now accounts for 70% of their price.

There have been dramatic surges in wealth over the last couple of decades since deregulation, particularly recently as asset-rich groups have made use of cheaper debts and mortgages to acquire further assets such as agricultural land. When planning permission is then granted on this agricultural land, its value can rise 250-fold.

Land assets can further benefit from various tax exemptions and regulations. In the UK, the profit from land-trading is taxed as capital gains at a lower rate than the tax on earned income. The power of landowners and construction companies, and the tax benefits they accrue, can largely shape what gets built, where, at what speed and in what volumes.

City authorities can themselves be significant landowners. Over recent years, where there have been pressures on city budgets, disposing of land assets has been seen as a way of solving immediate budget issues. Further down the line, cities have found themselves needing land and even having to pay more to repurchase land already sold.

Housebuilders prefer to build on open land rather than converting brownfield sites. Countering the desire of some landowners to sell greenfield sites for building on, there are areas that are protected as Green Belt, areas of natural beauty or areas of scientific interest. Encroaching on these public assets usually generates some strong reaction. In the drive to increase housebuilding some of these sites, on the outer edges of cities, are declassified. The justification for this is often based on projections of city population growth. Some argue, however, that such projections are based on old or unreliable predictions that are higher than more recent statistics would suggest. Houses then get planned for people who are unlikely to materialise, and this results in sites being released but only half the number of homes being built.

Pending any overhaul of land ownership, planners and developers have to use what land is most readily available at a price that is affordable. Inside London’s green belt, on post-industrial land, there is space for more than 400,000 new homes and thousands of unimplemented planning permissions for this land. In New York, 75% of empty lots have been unused for 30 years or more – and half of these can be built on. There is land. It simply needs builders to get on and build. Or maybe things are never that simple.

To expect private builders to build at speed is, however, to expect them to use up land when price might be rising and to have to account to shareholders for this use of their assets. To offset any loss of valuable land-asset, a solution is to build more homes, smaller homes, more cheaply on any single piece of land. Profits can then be maintained and houses can be somewhat affordable – but at some social costs to individuals and to society as a whole.

Small actions can be taken by cities. In Vancouver, for example, where a lot is empty because it is awaiting planning permission, a developer can get reduced city business rates if they allow the space to be used, in the interim, as a community garden or an urban dog-exercise space.

In Birmingham, the City Council is the single largest landowner in the city, holding the largest land estate of any UK local authority. The population is estimated to grow by 150,000 over the next 15 years. This steadily increasing population will place a high demand on the existing housing stock and on the need for new sites to be brought forward for building on.

The city has millions of square feet of industrial and commercial floor space. The city can also identify day centres, sheltered housing schemes, and other such properties, which are no longer fit for purpose and can be redirected for housing development.

Given the priority demand for housing in Birmingham, sites can be accelerated to provide affordable homes by early granting of outline planning permissions, allocation of the site for custom/self-build; and ensuring early development by using Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust as the leading deliverer of housing in the city.

Homelessness

Homelessness figures are rising in many cities. In England, homelessness is at its highest level in more than a decade. As a result of years of austerity, changes to welfare regulations and rising rents, one family becomes homeless every 4 minutes. The overall numbers are unacceptably large. UK figures released in 2019 showed more than 260,000 households facing a crisis of homelessness of one kind or another. This headline figure can hide a variety of things.

In addition to the 126,000 children in officially homeless families, and the 90,000 placed in temporary accommodation or ‘sofa-surfing’ with families, there are an estimated 375,000 children in households that are behind with rent or mortgage payments and thus at risk of homelessness.

Discussions around homelessness can be clouded by varying definitions. There are categories of homelessness within homelessness within homelessness. At the same time, each homeless person is a unique individual in their own right.

The 2016 estimated (England) figures was that 3369 people slept rough on any one night in 2015. This was up a third on 2014 and double since 2010. This was, however, only a proportion of the 54,000 assisted-homeless; itself part of the 112,000 people making a homeless application for help. So, homelessness isn’t simply a matter of people sleeping on the streets in dangerous conditions. This exists, obviously, and at relatively stable numbers but for every 2 rough sleepers there are 98 homeless hidden from view. Homelessness in cities, it seems, needs a different narrative than the simple focus on one visible particular group.

Who are a city’s homeless people? There are some groups considered to be priority categories:  families, pregnant people, vulnerable individuals, and care-leavers.

The biggest group receiving help are families evicted from private rental accommodation and unable to find any local alternative, or whose tenancy ends with no affordable alternative to go to. A similarly large group are those where families and friends are no longer willing to offer temporary accommodation. Around half of those a local authority is obliged to assist are single parents (cf these being 9.2% of households) often in low-paid work with childcare costs to meet. A strong complicating factor, particularly in the UK today, is where personal finances are thrown into disarray by delays and errors in welfare system payments.

A large recurring group is single young men moving to cities to seek work. After a while a proportion return home or move on elsewhere. Some stay, as a trade-off for the social benefits of the city lifestyle. For some of these it is OK to sofa-surf when single, but everything changes when they have a family. For a remaining few the future is one of drifting from one homeless hostel to another or spending time sleeping rough – in street doorways, in parks, increasingly clustered together for safety, with a growth in unofficial tent-based developments.

25% of families at risk of homelessness, in the UK, have at least one adult in work. This ranges from almost 50% in a few areas to nearer 15% in areas where housing costs are cheaper. So, whilst unemployment is a strong determinant of homelessness for many people, being in work is certainly no protector against homelessness.

There are sometimes, in addition, a range of drugs/ drink/ mental health/ relationship issues where homelessness is a symptom not a cause. From that point on, though, homelessness becomes a contributing factor to the continuation of an individual’s social problems. What such individuals really need is housing with support; with interactions; with links to services, if their lives are to get out of any downward spiral into some hope of getting back on a better track.

The 2018 UK Homeless Reduction Act puts specific duties on local councils, who do what they can in difficult circumstances. They are leasing privately rented houses, renovating disused sheltered housing, buying and assembling modular homes for erection on council-owned parcels of land, and using static caravan-style accommodation. Where not enough houses are available, the temporary response is to house families in Bed and Breakfast accommodation. Where there are large increases in demand, this can mean councils breaking the law and putting families in temporary accommodation for longer than 6 weeks.

London councils end up paying private landlords more than £14 million/year in incentives to house homeless people at a time when grants for support services are being cut. £8,300 ‘sweeteners’ are given away in addition to rent, when the better solution is to build more social housing.

City councils are expected to deal with spikes in housing need. When council budgets and staffing are not sufficient to adequately meet the needs of an increase in numbers coming forward for help, there can be huge pressures on frontline staff. In these contexts, it is easier to focus on short-term fixes than on the longer-term social restructuring. This can easily become a tightening in definitions of ‘need’ and a hardening culture around ‘take our first housing offer (wherever/whatever/ however suitable or unreasonable) or we no longer have any responsibility for you’.

There have been examples of cities giving homeless people one-way tickets to other places. This may help to meet some local target reduction in numbers but doesn’t change any overall situation, and certainly (in itself) does nothing to improve the lives of those moved on.

Successive national and local governments commit themselves to tackling homelessness. Any efforts to change things are against the backdrop of the same structural issues still being there: housing instability; soaring rents; declining social stock; cuts to housing benefit rates; cuts to tenant support services; and loss of legal aid.  Any attempt to tackle homelessness has also to tackle these other issues. Additionally, there will need to be linked work within the care systems, the health system, the welfare system and the justice system – recognising the impacts these can have on the likelihood of people being made homeless.

Things are being done in various places. Four city examples follow: Manchester, Birmingham, Helsinki and Vancouver.

Manchester, in the years after 2010, had a steeper than normal rise in those sleeping on its streets. In 2017, the mayor was elected partly on a pledge to end rough sleeping by 2020. Instead of opening homeless shelters only when temperatures plummet, the city offers every homeless person emergency shelter for the night then helps them find stable accommodation – funded by government grant plus a payment-by-results social impact bond (private investors get paid if people worked with stay off the streets). Opening up shelters means people can return to the same bed each night and thus get engaged more by volunteers. Beyond this, finding longer-term solutions, still relies on engaging with the negative impacts of central government actions: stopping landlords evicting tenants at short notice (biggest cause of homelessness locally); giving local staff more discretion to sort out problems with Universal Credit; and so on. The city of Manchester, together with a number of Greater Manchester nearby towns was one of 3 pilot areas funded by the government to bring in some form of Housing First approach to give people a stable home from which to tackle other issues and thus to help counter the revolving-door nature of some people’s homelessness experiences. The greater Liverpool area and the West Midlands area with Birmingham at its centre were the other two areas.

Birmingham is a city with 3 times the level of priority homeless as the national average; and double the rate for comparable cities. The number of street-sleepers has increased by 53% in the last year and by 588% since 2012. Around 20,000 households are supported each year by preventing homelessness or responding to homelessness once it has happened.

A new 5-year strategy, from 2017 onwards, focuses on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place and supporting those who are already homeless to build a more positive future in good health, sustainable accommodation and long-lasting employment.

The city’s approach to homelessness recognises different categories of homelessness and that, since the journey into and through homelessness is different for everyone, the responses have to be differentiated, flexible and efficient. Previous approaches have focused too much on securing accommodation and not enough on assisting people to avoid (or move on from) homelessness.

Waiting until people’s lives are in crisis is complex, expensive and often unnecessary. The city has a stepped approach which ensures a positive pathway whereby most people have reliable information and are supported to make good choices; there are early interventions to head off preventable problems; there are actions, and sufficient appropriate accommodations, to limit the impact of homelessness once it has happened; and people are helped to recover and move on into more stable lives in homes they can afford.

Where information, guidance and early interventions have not worked, and there is an immediate crisis in people’s housing, outreach services make contact with the city’s street homeless population; specialist refuges are available; there is immediate access to hostel provision; temporary accommodation is found (minimising its use by families, having zero use by 16-17 year olds, and ensuring any use really is only temporary); and there is effort put into rapid rehousing into decent-standard homes via Housing First initiatives. The work to move people on into sustainable housing options is exacerbated by a lack of continuing supply of suitable, settled accommodation. Solving this is a key structural action to reducing ongoing homelessness with people trapped in supported accommodation, blocking others from moving on.

In Birmingham there are also around 12,000 people who require support in accessing and retaining accommodation. This includes people with learning difficulties, those with mental health issues, refugees and other recent arrivals, those having spent recent time in prison/institutions or the armed forces, vulnerable children and young people (including those leaving the care system), people with multiple/complex needs, and people experiencing family breakdown or at risk of domestic abuse. Finance for programmes dedicated to supporting these people has been reduced lately and support models are changing. Unless Supporting People activities are securely in place, there will always be chances that people in these groups face homelessness.

Birmingham’s approach recognises the interactions between the risk of homelessness and other social aspects such as adverse childhood experiences, being a care-leaver, teenage pregnancy, lack of access to employment, poverty and low incomes, health issues of various kinds, and so on. Having a comprehensive approach is commendable. The test of any city’s approach is the extent to which it leads to all forms of homelessness being reduced.

Operating consistent approaches takes money. Other countries spend more than the UK, more strategically, and create less homelessness through their central government actions re housing and welfare.

Finland has not entirely eliminated homelessness – 5500 are still classified as homeless, nationally, but levels have fallen 35% over 10 years.

The approach there is based on the Housing First principle – a model devised a decade ago. It is an approach that costs money. Finland has spent large sums creating new homes and hiring 300 extra support workers but has made savings in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system (such savings can add up to as much as 15,000 euro per homeless person in properly supported housing).

Their previous model was a staircase one: people moving through different stages of temporary accommodation as life got back on track, with an apartment as the final step. Helsinki made housing unconditional, as a secure foundation for solving other issues – the addictions, mental health issues, medical conditions that need continuing care. The city got rid of night shelters and short-term hostels, as these were not getting people out of homelessness, and converted them into 3500 permanent homes.

Tenants have contracts and pay rent. There is a communal living/dining area, a kitchen and an activity area. Staff offer basic life skills of cleaning and cooking, and support the residents to navigate work, education and training systems. The challenge is to offer this level of support in all cases.

As in Manchester, city mayors can be looked to as a major force for taking things forward.

In Vancouver: a series of mayors have campaigned to reduce/eliminate homelessness (at some level) – eg end street homelessness by 2015 – but the issue is still there. The Liberals spent millions building supported housing sites, bought and renovated more than 20 single-room-occupancy hotels, leased other former hotels for temporary housing, provided rent supplements, and so on. The National Democratic Party later spent $66m to provide 606 relocatable temporary modular housing units for more than 500 previously homeless people in the city. 25 housing projects (for 2498 homes) are in development in Vancouver.

Still, the city’s homelessness figures have continued to rise and the most recent count put the numbers at 2223 on one night – an all-time high. This is not simply a matter of population growth (which runs at 1% – compared with the growth in homeless of 2%). The federal government promised $40bn on a 10-year national housing strategy that would cut chronic homelessness by 50% – but little money has yet trickled into the city.

City homelessness is rarely regarded as some lifestyle choice but can still be seen as an unfortunate consequence of the way society is today. Although it is heavily reliant on national issues around welfare systems and funding for support services in general, there is further to go in viewing it as a local social safeguarding issue where various services can work better together and where the death of a homeless person could trigger a serious case review into what went wrong in that person’s life.

There are, in most cities, concerns about homeless people. Politicians make pledges; there are projects; models are committed to; money is made available. Yet homelessness is still there in most cities.

Some partial solutions

There thus appear to be a number of recurring issues, manifested in different ways, to some degree across various cities. Are there, similarly, a range of recurring solutions to these issues?

There is unlikely to be a single, comprehensive solution that meets the needs in all cities. What might take things forward in a better way is an acknowledgement of a framework of fragments that can be aggregated in appropriate ways to make best progress within each particular context. These fragments are a number of intertwined responses to the issues of affordability; supply/demand numbers; security and decency for renters; protection and engagement around community redevelopments; the availability and use of land; who invests in housing and why; the determination of local and national policies; the prevention of homelessness; and so on.

Various initiatives have been put forward, from time to time, as proposed housing exemplars. Often such solutions are at the level of individual projects in a single city, rather than contributing to this coherent framework of actions within which any city can customise the solutions to its own versions of the problems.

Some of these disconnected initiatives have been noted earlier. Others are listed below, in a way that may read rather disjointedly since that is the nature of the initiatives.

A district of London wished to rehouse those in Bed and Breakfast emergency accommodation. The proposal was to house them in a pop-up village, on a vacant brownfield site, until the longer planning procedures (for social/private build on that site) got completed. Factory built flats, assembled on site could later be quickly removed and used elsewhere. These units have a lifespan of 60 years; are well-designed and well-insulated. They have adequate space and can be easily reconfigured by moving internal walls so a 2-bedder can immediately become an accessible 1-bedder. Lightweight timber construction keeps costs down because foundations only need be half the depth of those for a traditional brick-build.

Vienna has a strong low-cost housing policy. The city’s ambition is that residents have an affordable place to live + green spaces + cheap public transport. 80% of people rent; two-thirds live in municipal/publicly subsidised housing; 80% of flats being built have some city subsidy (via city spend on subsidising construction). This generates an adequate range and quality of homes, with rents held down at levels that low-paid citizens can afford. Rents can be around 20% of take-home pay. Often centrally located, tenants enjoy the amenities of the city, with short commutes to jobs.

In Vancouver it is recognised that City officers and private sector developers need to find common ground re the redevelopment of areas of the city. The aim is to work with the market, bending it a little. Developers can make different levels of profit on different types of build, but the most profitable ones may not be what is needed. Conversations are held around how to incentivise developers to build at scale, at pace and to take less profit eg to shift from 15% profit condominiums to building 5% profit rental homes. One focus is on reducing commutes to minimum income jobs. Another focus is on how to get 100% of all housing aimed at earners on the living wage ($30k-50k/year) to be funded solely by government at one level or another; and maybe to ensure that  a third of housing is  aimed at middle earners ($50k-80k/year) and maybe a third aimed at low-income residents.

The largest local authority in the UK, Birmingham has an ambitious agenda. Its vision is to create a city of inclusive growth where every child, citizen and place matters. To make the best use of the existing housing stock, the City works in partnership to promote mutual exchanges to homes of a more appropriate size; minimise the time properties are vacant; give priority to those able to release a large home; match length of tenancy to tenant need; promote shared housing and live/work schemes for young people; check on the quality of rented homes; and promote self-regulation of landlords with the option of using enforcement actions with the worst landlords.

Many housing initiatives are determined at the level of city officer/politician decision-making. In a different, more community-based approach, the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities visited communities and talked to 8000 people about what they want from housing. People do not want their area to lose a sense of identity; do not want green space to become urban sprawl; do not want too many big/tall buildings; do not want change to be too rapid/overwhelming, They want: employment opportunities; want green spaces; want developments to have some sense of place/ quirkiness; and want traditional homes that look like houses.

Housing providers can gain by working collaboratively with organisations that have housing concerns of their own. In the UK, housing associations have teamed up with the local National Health Service Trust to develop single occupancy rooms or one-bedroom flats housing key-worker staff. These rental homes are subsidised by building other homes for sale.

Another example of homes being linked to the NHS is in the building of a residential home for those with mental illnesses, with NHS staff on site. This is not just about building houses; it is about improving people’s lives. Fewer get admitted to hospital and any stays are substantially shorter. There are savings for the Health Service. One place in London resulted in1300 fewer hospital bed-days; generating just under half a million pounds in savings.

A further example is the 10-bed housing accommodation purpose-built for older people with dementia. On discharge from hospital they have immediate access to a secure home with on-site support, often also releasing larger personal properties for others to use.

In various cities, there has been some sense that housing associations have drifted away from their original purposes: amalgamating to save on basic costs, getting too large to retain local sensitivities, over-reliant on computer-based management of people, contracting responsibilities out to service companies with a tendency to inflate costs, and becoming too commercially driven. Whilst national finance structures may have pushed them in those directions, many housing organisations are refocusing (or strengthening a retained focus) on support for their tenants eg through specialist welfare and employability teams; or having staff who will do walkabouts with residents highlighting which communal areas feel unsafe, which door locks don’t work properly, which grounds need more maintenance, and so on. Because of their already established close relationships with tenants, locally-based housing organisations can do this work at relatively little cost.

In the past, most initiatives to address housing numbers were based on mass-build of properties to some limited range of standard designs. Whether built for purchase or for rent, there is an increased demand for housing to be more than uninteresting, disconnected boxes for living in.  The aim is for ‘homes’ not ‘units’; and for neighbourhoods not locations.

Design quality is crucial. City planners currently struggle to process the large volume of applications that come before them, so decisions can be more the result of market-led pressures with less focus on architectural quality and urban design. The outcome can be the standardised delivery of areas of simple houses of reduced size, built with costs in mind.

Some cities push for examples of better architecture, on the logic that 70% of the city is made up of dwellings, so one should try to make them interesting. A London district wanted 26 dwellings built. Normally this would have been a block of flats, but the architect in this case went for low-rise around a communal courtyard. Other cities are varying the housing stock by having a variety of floating buildings, self-builds, quality conversions, prefabrication of flexible constructions, and so on.

An increased feature of design principles is the involvement of people – looking at the social needs of the locality before setting out the construction plans; protecting existing infrastructure; going for integration rather than displacement. None of this needs to be costly, nor does it need long drawn-out procedures. There are recurring messages from people-consultations across numerous cities as varied as Cambridge and Salford listing those things that people see as contributing to wellbeing: Access to local shops, transport and other services; a sense of shared belonging without feeling on top of each other; a social sense of home or belonging; good natural light; well-proportioned spaces; access to green areas; effective insulation and ventilation; efficient use of fuel; mixed housing, well laid out, that has visual interest; common entrances that are welcoming yet secure; play areas and quiet seating areas; ready access to repairs, support, warden-type arrangements where necessary; and so on. None of these need to be expensive enough to push costs into the unaffordable ranges.

There are current initiatives that seek to move beyond the usual use of concrete and plastic. Concrete is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases in production: 8% of world total; of which UK 1%; US 14%; China 29%. Alternative builds are looking to wood as a material that can withstand large seasonal changes in temperature. The challenge is going beyond that traditional for small wooden constructions and designing for high-rise in wood. These ‘plyscrapers’ are being tested in several cities. Similarly, the construction industry uses almost a quarter of all plastic produced in the UK. Each house built contributes to the skipfuls of polystyrene and other plastic packaging. Making construction plastic-free may not be the best goal – plastic has its uses – but designing out waste is in most people’s interest.

Design is one driver. Getting more units on a plot of land is another.

Micro-housing formats are being built in many cities. These can have an average rent well within the reach of those on average wages. Some have wifi, communal rooms, gardens, or a gym built into the complex of homes. The modules are constructed in partnership with private developers, can be contemporary and constructed at relatively low cost without compromising on quality.

There are explorations putting modular apartments inside disused industrial building shells. Apartments of varying size, complete with modern kitchen and bathroom, can be lowered into place and connected to existing services. There is less delay and disruption as most of the construction work takes place offsite, in weatherproof facilities. There is less reliance on securing the in-demand traditional construction skills.

To get more decent houses of these kinds a city will need a bold, properly funded, modular housing industry; with more medium-rise or courtyard housing; well-designed and pleasant to live in. At the moment too large a focus is on developing modular units as a quick-fix solution to a city’s homeless problems. The aim is that these provide some stop-gap solution until more affordable homes can be built locally. Once delays to housebuilding set in, these temporary solutions have a habit of becoming more permanent than intended.

At the more contentious end of these developments is the use of repurposed metal shipping containers stacked on top of each other. A block of homes for more than 60 families can be assembled on disused council land in less than 25 weeks. These are an improvement on much of the existing temporary accommodations. Tenants have their own bathroom and kitchen. There are disadvantages. They are small with little storage space. There is no wifi, restricting children’s study and adults’ access to online services. They can be hot in summer. Conceptually there are difficulties accepting the idea that families can be housed in metal boxes – ‘families in tin cans’.

Cities are also creating more housing, in short timescales, by reclassifying the use of empty space above shops, or the redesignation of office space or redundant official buildings as suitable for housing.

Initiatives of the above kinds are likely to be only partial solutions if there is not, at the same time, some robust connectivity with policies around wage levels, welfare systems etc. This then leads into the contested territories of access to reliable information; to advice re money/employment; to levels of welfare support, welfare regulations and tenant support; and to opportunities to challenge decisions of developers or government agencies

A city needs leaders who will make a difference, who can reassure residents that things are being done to make lives better, who can go beyond headline promises. This leads on to the need for comprehensive, feasible, fundable housing policies without relying on predetermined plans that may not deliver with the flexibilities that changing city contexts require.

Policy: providing effective leadership

There is nothing new about concerns around housing, density, living conditions, homelessness and the role of the state in relation to the provision of housing. There have been shifting policies designed to fix the issues, with a history to all of it.

In the UK, we can go back to feudal arrangements around tied cottages; or to Dickensian inequalities in living conditions at the core of cities; or to a company providing homes close to work for its employees, including the early planned community models; or back to the era of slum housing needing massive clearance programmes so that cities could modernise; on to the building of large peripheral estates, often of high-rise blocks; and so on.

There was a slow start to the practice of house building by local authorities. Around 1914, only 24,000 council houses were in existence. There were then boosts and declines in the rate of building.

Post 1945, in the UK, one immediate housing approach was the rapid erection of prefabricated bungalows to replace some of the 200,000 homes that had been war-destroyed. In15 days, a team of up to 16 men erected 65 modern aluminium houses in Birmingham. Similar construction was commissioned across other areas of that, and other cities, as part of a national policy drive.

Other housing policy solutions were seen as slum clearances, new estates, New Towns and new Garden Cities. The original New Towns had land assets, purchased at agricultural-use levels. As land values rose any money generated was reinvested in local facilities. From the beginning, therefore, they were designed as always more than suburban/dormitory housing. They were ‘decent homes for everyone’; ‘an essay in civilisation’ (Lord Reith).

One new town, Stevenage, was built to these principles. Since then homes have been sold fairly cheaply (with subsidies), resold, become buy-to-let properties, rented out at 3-4 times the council rents, such that the children of the original families can’t afford to live there. There are social housing pressures, with long waiting lists for an affordable home. To address this need, some properties have been leased back by the council that owned them originally.

In the second half of the 20th century, memories of post-war slums started to fade and, for a while, it was more taken for granted that people had the right to a decent home – whether owned or rented, whether publicly-provided or privately-provided.

The former local authority council systems that had managed housing until then were not beyond fault. By the mid-60s they were becoming characterised as overly bureaucratic and open to corrupt practices, but people were unprepared for the rapid change of policy direction.

From the 1940s until 1980s, public housing was the bulk of UK accommodation.  In London, the peak year for council/social housing was 1976, with 60% of existing homes owned or managed by the local authorities.  The comparable figure now stands at 10-15%. One key driver in this reduction was the Thatcher government declaration that council tenants could, after a few years’ occupancy, have the right to buy their rented property at a discounted price. This, in itself, was not the problem. The difficulties arose when the money from the council house sales did not go back to the local authorities in order to build replacement housing but went to central government with only a fraction finding its way to support local housebuilding.

During the 1980s national policy was established as: Cut back on social building; lift restrictions on mortgages and landlords; don’t build more council homes; sell off existing stock by expanding tenants’ Right to Buy; let Housing Benefit take the strain (was never envisaged that rents would rise so much). Home ownership became the ideal even if there was some abandonment of the Parker Morris standards (minimum sizes for council homes adopted in 1969) so that housing in the UK became smaller.

For the last 50 years, housing associations have taken on the role of providing affordable housing for poor and vulnerable people. At times of welfare cuts and changes and in the face of shrinking government subsidies they face new struggles.

It can be argued that recent housing policy has made worse the balance between supply and demand. Governments have pursued policies where the focus is on the demand side. There is little comparative activity on supply side issues such as pressures on developers sitting on land etc.

The other long-term strand to policy has been the push (in the US, UK and elsewhere) towards promoting deregulation. Reducing bureaucracy became a popular rallying cry with little acknowledgement of why regulation was needed in the first place. One outcome of 30 years of this trend, alongside broad financial pressures and some acceptance of shady practices has been safety deregulation and safety avoidance as contracts focus on value-for-money, but in reality, focus only on the money.

Where later, 1960s-70s, estates were being built around the periphery of cities, these were originally decent homes in desirable communities but all too soon construction faults showed through and estates became defined as problem areas.

The idea of Garden Villages has been revisited recently – as localist solutions preventing top-down impositions and bolted-on estates. If placed well these can ensure that an area can gain in various ways eg increasing the number of young families.

More recently, the city trend has been for brownfield sites to be developed; for previously neglected areas to get artisan bakeries and craft breweries. The trend is towards an integration of leisure, work and housing. The end result has often been a trend to luxury just beyond the reach of the average renter. As rents get pushed up in the area there is a progressive displacement of those early settlers – the art studios, cooperatives, independent bookshops, and so on: those very things that made the area attractive to developers and residents in the first place.

As practices change, cities need to adjust their thinking. The growth of property platforms, such as Air BnB lettings, has led to high volumes of city accommodation being taken out of the long-term rental market for higher gains from short lets. The effect this is having on removing potential accommodation from a city’s resident population is creating reactions in Barcelona, Berlin, New York and some tourism-heavy Italian cities. It brings income to city residents, or prompts renovation by landlords but also drives up local rents and takes properties out of the reach of those seeking a secure home.

Housing policy formulation and implementation operate at a number of levels (differently in different countries). National policy gets intertwined with, or over-rides, regional or city policies.

National or city housing policies should be concerned with things like:  % of social/private; rate of house building; mix of housing tenures within localities; tax regimes that shape housing practices; ratios of costs to incomes in different localities; what to do with underused/overused buildings; size/safety/decency/appropriateness of housing; the protection and balancing of various interests; the sufficiency of the housing stock and flow; supported routes to adequate housing for all; etc.

This suggests a degree of long-term thinking. The reality is more often short-term proposals, media soundbites, and a preoccupation with getting one’s party elected.

At election times, there are declarations re numbers of houses to be built. These can come across as some fictional bidding war, with each party seeking to out-number the others. The latest UK bid, as a proposed pre-election policy, is a commitment to build a million affordable homes. Less gets said about building communities ie places that work for those who live there … and less on what might be done for struggling existing communities.

With housing, as with other things, policy can get shaped by perceptions of what will capture voters’ attentions. Current housing policy is biased towards the ‘already haves’ – the asset rich; the older generation. As more people are pushed into renting, their votes may become more significant than the votes of homeowners. There are signs that the demands of young people are getting more traction into policy.

UK policy has often been said to be informed by snobbery, lack of respect and denigration; within a wider national culture based on blame, suspicion and punishment. There are easy slippages of language: Affordable – social – welfare – inadequate – not deserving of much. Even recently, the then Prime Minister could openly admit that too many people, including too many politicians, continue to look down on social housing and its tenants, as they formulated social housing policy.

Once in power, promises have to be delivered on or explained away. Progressing policies into practice hinges on legislation, on public attitudes to housing, and to the extent to which there is deemed to be a civic right to decent housing. Parties have their stances on the extent to which housing is to be viewed, in policy terms, as a commodity; an investment; an individual home; or part of the essential fabric of a society. Where housing is in short supply, people are more likely to feel in conflict with other groups over these scarce resources. This can too easily feed into wider political discourses.

Housing policy itself gets steered by wider social policy eg If gains on selling principal home are tax-free, this steers people to buying real estate as an investment that can be easily bought and sold on. Related to this, there has been a push by financial institutions and by the media to promote particular views of housing. These can be ambiguous, arguing both sides of a situation – decrying bankers and directors’ bonuses whilst pushing the perception of houses as an asset not a home, even though a good proportion of those bonuses went into purchasing but-to-let properties. Property became equated with wealth generation. Certainly, a number of TV programmes (1990/2000) dwelt on how to maximise profit from housing and the need to get on the housing ladder as a way of securing one’s financial future.

Coherent approaches to policy are aided by having stability coupled with competence and a sense of social purpose. This is not helped where a country (or a city) has political turmoil, where there have been 4 UK Housing ministers in just over 2 years, or where city responsibilities get changed with every election.

The current housing situations in a number of cities get referred to as crises, with various figures and estimates used to substantiate this. The scale of housing crises in cities is possibly worse than official estimates indicate, but that is even more motivation to do something about it. On a number of counts housing situations are unacceptable if cities want to continue portraying themselves as modern, progressive, liveable and enterprising. There may, or may not, be some set of housing panaceas –able to be expressed as policy – some framework that enables local changes to be made for the better. To do anything significant, major cities will need clear and actionable measures.

Get policy right and cities, and the lives of their residents, flourish. Get it wrong and people’s lives can be brought to ruin by forces over which they have no control.

A socially productive framework for city housing is likely to include interconnected elements such as:

  • Commitment to the promotion of certain attitudes and approaches to housing: Homes not Assets or Units; Decent homes as a human right; Balancing conflicts of interest to get the best outcomes for the city and its residents.
  • Realistic assessment of who currently lives where and who needs what kind of housing, including accurate estimates of likely population shifts. Assessment of capacities (and desire) to buy, to rent, to share. Using such assessments as the basis for determining the scale and pace of house building, conversions, exchanges, renovations, area redevelopments – over a 2,5,10 and 20-year period – with determined proportions of low-cost, mid-cost and higher-cost homes.
  • Estimating of levels of over-occupancy and under-occupancy; of shortages of bedrooms and existence of unused bedrooms. Comparison with demand/need for larger, mid-size and smaller homes. Estimates of homes needed for young people, older people, couples etc.
  • Looking at the potential for new forms of construction; new materials; new forms of conversions; building to different densities, in new ways; the distribution of housing across neighbourhoods; new forms of renting, ownership and sharing.
  • A calculation of likely future costs and affordabilities, allowing for realism, impact of land values, impact of planning regulations. Judgements about what might be considered as reasonable levels of return/profit. Securing financial support for sufficient low-cost housing.
  • Identification of various parcels of land available, its suitability for housing, and the speed with which it can be brought into use.
  • Identification of empty houses and working to bring as many as possible of these into use by residents.
  • Assessment of various forms of investment in housing developments – aligning sources of finance with intended housing outcomes.
  • Projected builds based on categories of need/demand and on estimates of likely affordability. Numbers commissioned based on actual completions, within realistic timescales, to agreed standards and with few/no faults. Builders expected to compete on quality rather than simply on costs.
  • Local Authorities become lead developers/co-developers of social/affordable housing – reducing the public finance going to private sector profits. Cross-party commitments to delivery of adequate numbers of affordable homes. Commissioning building low-profit as well as medium-profit homes (for rent, for purchase and social uses). Parcels of land used to encourage smaller as well as larger construction firms. Municipal construction teams, and social enterprises, used to take on needed work where private sector refuses to do so.
  • Creating public development corporations. Local authorities assemble land needed for affordable homes and new communities. Land purchase, collection and organisation can be via compulsory purchases, negotiated purchases, as part of revenue/tax settlements. Public corporations could compulsorily purchase land at base prices to reduce the cost of affordable homes. These mechanisms used to force onto the market vacant land and derelict land that is deliberately left unused and seen as a speculative asset. There could be more media focus on land hoarding as a negative social practice and changes to tax-breaks so that land use gets directed to socially useful outcomes. Establishing and encouraging city land trusts and community land trusts which are then supported to own land, pay planning costs, and build homes to be let at affordable rents.
  • Focused use of brownfield sites. Realistic assessment of use of empty industrial premises and unused retail/commercial buildings. Chasing down options to bring them back into use.
  • Efficient planning processes – speedy but with sufficient expertise and time to undertake enough scrutiny. Focus kept on contribution to city; retaining the character and heritage of neighbourhood; design elements; quality and deliverability – taking a strong line in relation to placemaking and placeshaping.
  • Using appropriate means for local resident and officer engagement to give detail to development plans, rather than a simple reliance on developer proposals. Desinging-in those features that are regularly identified as contributing to good housing and good neighbourhoods.
  • Ensuring that housing decisions get linked to decisions re transport, retail facilities, community facilities, education provision and employment opportunities.
  • Recognising the various forms of homelessness and implementing realistic measures for each group along a pathway of prevention/ rapid response/ supported recovery. A proportion of builds designed to adequately meet the needs of those unable to rent/own a home. Some flexibility planned in to meet spikes in demand. Welfare support available onsite for those who need help to realistically live more independently. Housing stability seen as key to long-term solutions.
  • Social agencies operate closely to fix the issues that create homelessness, and review inadequacies in response when things go seriously wrong.
  • Any help to buy, and help to renovate, schemes focused on low-income households and those willing to bring a property back into proper use. Putting these in context so that wider implications are foreseen.
  • Replacing regressive property taxes with progressive wealth taxes. Empty homes taxed at a higher rate. Tax levied on purchases of homes by people living abroad. Larger proportions of local taxes and business rates could be retained locally rather than going to national treasury for spend on other things.
  • Determination of what is expected/required of landlords, tenants and homeowners re repairs, lengths of tenancies, what happens during renovations, properties being left empty, foreign ownership, safety maintenance, antisocial behaviour etc.
  • Implementing landlord registration and inspection schemes. Striking off and prosecuting landlords involved in criminal activities, with the potential to seize properties (as proceeds of crime).
  • Setting rent differentials according to income locally. Put in place rent stabilisation measures, if not the bolder rent control. Specification of allowable annual rent increases, allowable jumps in rent between tenants; length of tenure; security of tenure after renovation etc.
  • Building in appropriate systems of support for tenants and new/potential owners (around financial issues, employability issues, home building/maintenance skills etc).
  • Universities and cities working together on planned developments to house students in decent accommodation at affordable rents and repurpose existing student lettings as affordable homes for low-income families. Working with other organisations (eg hospitals) around common housing issues. Retrofitting of older properties to make them fuel efficient, healthier and safer.
  • At the wider level, increasing publicly directed salaries to a Living Wage level and work with other public sector partners to do the same, to reduce the affordability gaps.
  • Implementing sustained work to hold down house prices to realistic levels, in acceptable ratio to local incomes. Calling for changes in national/local government tax and revenue relationships, in order to benefit those in low-paid work or reliant on welfare systems.

Housing policy objectives such as the above are easy to list. However, housing is not an isolated policy fragment. It has to be seen in the light of other decision-making processes around jobs, transport, education, childcare, welfare etc. Policy, in the field of housing, has to range well beyond numbers, density, architecture and planning regulations.

Similarly, housing policy is heavily reliant on national fiscal approaches – the willingness or otherwise of governments to tax income from land at the same level as earned income; the tax systems around second homes; the levels of chief executive pay and bonuses relative to average wages; and so on.

At one level it soon begins to be seen as too complex, too difficult: Simpler to focus on some headline house-building targets without political commitments to make them feasible; simpler to dwell on a few isolated initiatives, to set up working groups, to write generalised statements of intent.

UK housing has been described as an ongoing national public policy failing. In 1951 the then housing minister said that he really didn’t have a clue how to set about putting any proper housing policy in place. There is little evidence that things have leapt forward in the 70 years since then.

Countries and cities don’t need any more policy papers. They need leaders who will guarantee the delivery of better outcomes by doing all that is necessary to ensure that citizens have the right to decent affordable housing, with sufficient support to secure and maintain that housing.

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