In this blog, Julia Heslop (Department of Architecture, Newcastle University) and Emma Ormerod (Department of Geography, Durham University), question what we mean when we talk about a ‘housing crisis’.
The UK housing crisis seems to be ubiquitous and pervasive. Across the manifesto pages of all the mainstream political parties and throughout the media, whether Right or Left, there seems to be a broad recognition that we are amidst a housing crisis. Yet what do we mean when we use the term ‘crisis’? For whom is it a crisis? How is it manifest? What actions are taken in its name? Certainly, the housing crisis experienced by those living on the streets in winter is vastly different from that experienced by middle class millennials in the south of England, who can’t get on the ‘housing ladder’ because of wildly inflated house prices. As a result, when we talk about housing crisis we are often talking about radically different contexts and experiences. For this reason, it is important to critically assess this term and how it is used.
Whilst recognising that there is a real, felt and lived housing crisis for those experiencing housing precarity, in this blog post we seek to critically engage with how a crisis of housing has been socially and ideologically constructed since the 2008 banking crisis. This crisis of housing is said to involve a wider section of society than those in real housing precarity. We highlight how this has distorted its meaning, as well as shaped the policy actions taken. In so doing, we argue that there is a real need to challenge the current, mainstream discourse of housing crisis, and open up a conceptual space to critically analyse the use and meaning of the term.
Housing crisis is posited by the government as a crisis of affordability due to a crisis of supply. It is therefore constructed as a numbers game. But it is also envisioned as a temporary housing crisis, a technical problem, which can be resolved through technocratic, targeted and isolated measures (for example more homeownership, more responsive planning procedures and policy and better construction technology). Further to this, as Madden and Marcuse state, “the crisis frame is invoked” (2016: 10), it is ‘labelled’ in order to create a political climate of ‘emergency’ which allows new policy measures to be mobilised. This is an “ideological distortion” (Madden and Marcuse, 2016) of the housing crisis, presented as affecting new sections of society (such as the middle class), and put to use in order to open up new avenues for housing privatisation, deregulation, capital accumulation and commodification. Creating a climate of ‘emergency’, of ‘exception’, is done through many channels, not just through the government, but also through the media and the housing industry. The narratives that these actors mobilise work to cement the concept of housing crisis in everyday discourse and thus in the public consciousness, creating an amiable political environment for the government to take policy steps to ‘prop up’ the housing market and its producers and consumers.
And so, in the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis, as economic growth fell, leading to a decline in employment, productivity, real wages and living standards, we have seen a concerted effort to reduce housing and building regulations in order to grow the economy, as well as providing economic incentives for the producers and consumers of housing. Notably the UK Government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ Programme which sought to “scrap or amend over 3,000 regulations” (Cabinet Office, 2011) to deregulate areas such as health and safety and house building in order to free markets. Deregulation of house building, alongside a swathe of financial incentives through the Homes and Communities Agency (for example, Get Britain Building (2011), Affordable Homes Programme (2011-2015), Empty Homes Programme (2012), Help to buy (2013), The Builders Finance Fund (2013), Build to Rent (2014), Housing Zones (2014), Estate Regeneration Programme (2014) positioned housing as the solution to the economic crisis. Despite deregulation of housing-related finance having sparked the financial crisis, it is ironic that it is also posited as the antidote to it. As a result, cause and mitigation irrationally merge. Yet further to this, in propping up a so-called ‘failing’ housing market, the government is often fuelling unsustainable house prices and putting cash into the hands of developers and private individuals (a 2017 report by Morgan Stanley (which is now, interestingly, unavailable) suggests that Help To Buy has artificially inflated house prices (Collinson, 2017) and official DCLG (2016) data indicates that the median income of those benefiting is £42,000 – only one in five of these households having incomes less than the national median). Therefore new policy paradigms are often sticking plasters at best, whilst at worst they actively fuel the housing crisis, with remedies that recreate the crisis anew, instead of getting to the real heart of it.
But what is the heart of the housing crisis? It is useful to remember that Engels’ (1872 ) long established ‘housing question’ was concurrent with the ongoing crisis of capitalism which is physically manifest in our cities through the cyclic process of decay and renewal, boom and bust – the exhausting of old sources of capital and the exploitation of new ones. For Engels crisis is thus a predictable, consistent characteristic of capitalist spatial development – meaning that without dealing with the real cause of the crisis, it will merely be reproduced anew, as we can see today. Yet there is something altogether more critical about the condition and time we are currently in, whereby housing plays such a central role in both the micro (household) and macro (international market) economies – a role which places housing beyond the boundaries of Engels’ ‘housing question’, and allows (or enables) the construction of a more suspended state of crisis.
Therefore there is a real need to critically engage with the term ‘housing crisis’ – to assess how crisis is differently manifest, economically and spatially, and how its definition, use and the narrative it mobilises plays out in policy. In breaking down and challenging the term, there is also a chance to mobilise a counter narrative which could confront the normalisation of crisis and the prevailing policy paradigms and ‘solutions’ that are activated through this.
Cabinet Office (2011) ‘Prime Minister announces government exceeds its target to identify 3,000 regulations to be amended or scrapped’, The National Archives, http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20150319091615/http://www.redtapechallenge.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/themehome/pm-speech-2/ [Accessed 14.12.17]
Collinson, P. (2017) ‘Help to buy has mostly helped housebuilders boost profits’, The Guardian, 21st October 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/money/blog/2017/oct/21/help-to-buy-property-new-build-price-rise [Accessed 14.12.17]
Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) (2016) Evaluation of the Help to Buy Equity Loan Scheme, London: DCLG
Engels, F. (1872 ) The Housing Question, Moscow: Progress Publishers
Madden, D. and Marcuse, P. (2016) In Defense of Housing, London: Verso