So What Actually Caused The Housing Crisis? We Ask Shadow Housing Minister Emma Reynolds
The Debrief: Last year Daisy-May Hudson was made homeless when her landlord tried to sell the flat she shared with her mum and her sister. Now she's trying to unpick the housing crisis...
What actually started the housing crisis?
‘That’s a really good question; I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that before…’
So here was I, speaking to Emma Reynolds, Labour MP and shadow housing minister and I couldn’t understand how she’d done her job for five years, in the midst of a housing crisis, without anyone actually asking her how it all began.
If we don’t know how the problem started, how are we ever supposed to find a solution? A solution that’s needed right now.
After being made homeless in 2013, I really started to care about this stuff. When I was 22, my mother, my sister and I got a letter telling us that we were being evicted from the flat we had lived in for 13 years. The landlord – whom we’d never met – was selling his assets and we were being evicted.
But our home wasn’t an asset – like a block of gold or shares in a blue chip – it was our home. Now somebody was monetising it, kicking us out because the price was right.
We quickly discovered that in the intervening years, the cost of private renting had sky rocketed and we had been completely priced out of the market. We had no option but to go to our local council and declare ourselves homeless. We packed our lives into cardboard boxes and put them into storage and were given two rooms at a local homeless hostel. We lived in that temporary accommodation for a whole year while we waited to be re-housed.
Crisis means crisis
Losing my home made me see everything with such clarity. I don’t need to understand economics or investment, or to understand the complications of planning law – the bottom line is that every person deserves a home to live in.
With 4,000 households at risk of losing their home every week, it’s too late for small gestures. If food prices had risen at the same rate as house prices, a chicken would now cost £51.33.
Can you imagine the uproar, the questions in parliament, the headlines if the cost of a roast dinner skyrocketed like the housing market has? Yet in the face of people losing their homes, politicians are paralysed in inaction. We need to take drastic measures.
After all, the word ‘crisis’ assumes some kind of urgency, so why wasn’t anything done about it? Surely the shadow housing minister, of all people, should know how the housing crisis started?
She admits you can ‘soon get lost in the jargon,’ but I’m still no closer to getting to the bottom of a paralysing system of bureaucracy and profiteering
Emma does attempt to tackle the question: ‘Lots of things have gone wrong. The market’s not delivering, the complicated interaction between what the government does, there have been a lot of changes in planning over the last three decades… The market is a bit up and down as well, so the market, sometimes we go through years of housing expansion and sometimes we go through a great contraction because of the housing crash…’
That’s not all she said, but her answer left me no clearer as to why it’s happened. She admits you can ‘soon get lost in the jargon,’ but I’m still no closer to getting to the bottom of a paralysing system of bureaucracy and profiteering.
On the day I meet Emma, the Conservatives had announced that they plan to build 200,000 starter homes if they win the next election. Starter homes to allow young professionals without the requisite £100,000 in savings to get on the housing ladder.
This doesn’t feel massively relevant to me, as I’ve never really entertained the idea of being able to buy a house, but Emma tells me first-time buyers are ‘suffering from the housing crisis more than anyone else – priced out of home ownership, renting privately, and usually expensively. It’s more expensive to rent than pay a mortgage.’
Unlike the Tories promise to make starter homes available at 20% less than their market value, which seems entirely unsustainable (and is something they’ve already promised three times to no avail), Emma spoke about Labour’s proposal to ensure local councils preserve 40/50 % of big sites for first-time buyers.
Help for first-time buyers in theory sounds like a great thing – but when I asked how much those houses were going to be costing us, she seemed unwilling to give me an exact figure.
‘Look this is a private market – it would depend – I live in Wolverhampton, I don’t know where you live but it’s very different. You can come and live in my constituency if you like – you can get a decent home at an affordable price on a decent salary.’
But what about London? I ask. ‘Look, we’re not communists, we’re not going to go in and say this is the price that you should be building things at.’
But isn’t that exactly what we should be seeing from central government? I don’t want help to buy a £400,000+ home and be glued to a mortgage that I’ll never pay off in my lifetime. I want a fair and secure opportunity to buy a home for a price that is affordable and realistic because the prices shouldn’t be that high In the first place.
Or at the very least, I’d like to be able to rent somewhere affordable and regulated on a long-term basis where I won’t be evicted for profit.
At the very least, I’d like to be able to rent somewhere affordable and regulated on a long-term basis where I won’t be evicted for profit
Emma does acknowledge that anyone renting (ie most people reading this) are in a pretty perilous position.
‘As consumers, in a lot of other markets you’re quite powerful, but when you’re privately renting you’re not powerful at all – the odds are stacked against you. So we’re going to legislate three-year tenancies. But if you’re a young person or a student – or if you’re working here, there and everywhere you could ask for a short-term tenancy. There are lots of people settling in the private sector because they can’t buy so they need to get a better deal.’
Politicians can’t relate
The problem seems to be that while the housing crisis has been completely catastrophic for so many, others have made a huge profit as a result of it – and we’re not just talking about businesses and individuals who own great swathes of land, but homeowners who bought their house before the soaring prices and are now enjoying the fruits of the climb. That’s a lot of wealthy voting power to piss off and no politician is prepared to put their neck on the line to do that.
I’m also starting to suspect this is because for almost all politicians, the housing crisis doesn’t affect them personally, like it did me. So how can they possibly get it, or feel aggrieved enough to make the radical changes needed to fix things?
As MPs go, I like Emma a lot – she has a vitality and openness that I hadn’t experienced before. But when we were discussing the housing crisis, her answers were sympathetic but not empathetic and often convoluted – and every response was a grey area or an excuse.
Later, when we started to speak about female inequality there were no blurred boundaries, or middle grounds – ‘It’s not good enough. Yes, we’ve made progress but it’s not been quick enough.’
It’s something that Emma can speak about from personal experience and that seems to give her fire in her belly. For every woman in parliament there are four men – and as soon as I walked through the doors it was evident what a white, male place it is. So she knows first-hand what it feels like to be on the wrong side of that particular injustice.
But how many politicians know what it’s like to struggle with rent or be threatened with eviction or be displaced from their home or be made homeless? They might receive letters from constituents who are facing a night in a hostel, or on the streets, but from personal experience, I can tell you it’s very easy to ignore those.
We can solve the housing crisis, but it will require a massive change in thinking – and whoever’s brave enough to do it would lose no shortage of votes in the process. So where’s the incentive? Until a national crisis becomes a personal crisis, I can’t see how that change is going to happen.
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