Strong political leadership and innovative policies are needed to solve our housing challenges, argues James Gregory
It would be hard to deny that these are interesting times for housing. No matter how deeply we may object to many of the reforms, there is a sense that housing is finally getting the political attention that it deserves.
Yet we also face a conundrum. Despite a range of polls regularly telling us that housing costs are a source of deep anxiety for roughly a quarter of all adults surveyed, there is little evidence that this has created a political agenda that resonates with the voting public. A quick glance at Ipsos Mori’s social trends survey seems to confirm this: consistently over the last three decades housing has been the top political priority of around only 4 per cent of respondents.
For those of us who want a fair and progressive housing system this presents a serious challenge of political mobilisation. If we meet the challenge it will be not just because of clever policy, but because we have created the sense that housing need is a common issue, affecting a wide range of households across all tenures.
The authors of Homes for Citizens – a collection of Fabian Society essays on progressive housing reform – seek to meet that challenge, arguing for a range of housing policies that convey a strong and popular political vision.
Key proposals include flexible rent in the social sector, stronger consumer rights for private renters, and encouraging housing associations to rethink the range of products they offer to their residents – including a wider range of shared ownership options.
But what brings all these proposals together into a coherent progressive agenda is the way in which they all seek to break down the stark tenure distinctions that have dogged housing politics and policy for the last three decades. Instead of the traditional housing hierarchy – with social housing at the bottom, ownership at the top, and private rental a kind of limbo between the two – we need to concentrate on meeting needs and aspirations across the full range of housing options, with greater opportunities to move from one type of tenure as personal circumstances change.
And this kind of policy framework should be based on a powerful political message. When it comes to housing, we are all in it together. Active policy interventions should be aimed not just at social tenants, but also at the great number of other types of households – the quarter of all households – for whom housing is a source of stress and anxiety. That, rather than the single aspiration of ownership for all, should be the basis of progressive housing policy and politics.
James Gregory is senior research fellow at the Fabian Society and editor of a book on the future of housing published today