Friday, February 25, 2011

5 big housing lies and why the public doesn't buy the housing crisis

Earlier this month I was honoured to be a guest of the CIH president at his annual dinner. This huge annual event takes place in the Natural History Museum in London. Tables of the great and good of the housing industry were assembled around the Brontosaurus skeleton and under the gaze of Charles Darwin’s statue. This is always a helpful prompt to speakers enabling them to make self-deprecating jokes about how old they are how their views have had to evolve.

This year the speakers were in fiery form. There was a general theme that public and the media were not taking the housing crisis seriously enough. “Wake up and listen to the profession about the country’s housing crisis” We were told. The messages followed the common orthodoxy of our profession. You’ve no doubt heard them too There are record levels of housing need, record levels of homelessness, a record under-supply of housing,  the backlog in supply is increasing every year. The system is creaking at its seems, This is a time bomb set to explode, we must argue passionately for our industry. It was entirely honourable, but to me, strangely unmoving.

Last year I, along with 5 million others read the entertaining economics book Superfreakanomics. In it the authors; Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner take a deliberately mischievous look at how things really work. They take the cold facts and come up with unorthodox conclusions. One example considers how the law affects prostitution. They argue that the greater the law cracks down, the more profitable and the more widespread prostitution become. The argument works like this. If the police arrest prostitutes they reduce the supply. The remaining prostitutes can therefore raise their price, making it more lucrative attracting more women to become prostitutes. In other words the orthodoxy of how to deal with prostitution is not only incorrect it's counter productive.

Now I don’t for one moment doubt the genuine belief and commitment of people in the housing industry expressed with such zeal by the CIH president and other speakers at the dinner, but I did wonder what Levitt and Dubner might make of it all. In the absence of persuading them to take a look I decided to try myself. I looked up the data and was slightly surprised to see that almost all of the facts and truths expressed by our industry on a daily basis turn out to be … well untrue. Here they are with references:

Truth 1: There is an undersupply of housing: Untrue, in 2008 there were 22,398,000 dwellings and 21,731,000 households in England a surplus of 667,000 dwellings

Truth 2: There is a growing shortfall in housing; Untrue, the growth in the number of dwellings in the UK has outpaced the growth in households every year since 1971

Truth 3: There are 5 million people in housing need waiting for social housing; Untrue, there are 1.76 million households on council housing registers in England which equates to about 5 million people. But these aren’t waiting lists, many of the households that are on them are in housing need, but others are not, anybody can register and some register in several council areas. Housing registers are a measure of demand for social housing. They are not a measure of housing need.

Truth 4: Homelessness is increasing: Untrue. Last year 40,000 households were accepted as being homeless by local authorities, 25% down on the previous year and a third of the number in 2003/4

Truth 5: Social housing is in decline: Untrue- there has not only been an increase in social housing every year, but since 2003/4 the rate of increase has gone up every year. Last year 33,120 new socially rented homes were added to the stock.

Is this the reason that the country hasn’t woken up to the housing crisis?

This is not to say there isn't a housing crisis. Many people in this country live in completely unsatisfactory housing conditions. The housing system doesn’t work on all sorts of levels for people. I also acknowledge that although the indicators I have discussed show positive progress, it doesn't mean that progress can be sustained into the future with less public money. But surely what this says is that the housing industry is a success, it's making things better for people. Yes there's a lot more that needs to be done, but if we are going to get people at large to see housing as an issue of national importance we need to break out of the cosy consensus and stop pretending things are worse than they really are. What the industry is saying may not just be incorrect, it might also be counter productive. We shouldn't expect people to believe us if what we say isn't true.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Earning money the right way - a suggestion for councils

” We want to make money out of it” ,  “We should have the money not them” , “We can’t afford to make loans”  this was Councillor Mark Howell of South Cambridgeshire District council on the radio this morning. He and I were both guests on the very glamorous  BBC radio Cambridgeshire breakfast show. Howell was there to talk about his council’s plan to get rid of the council tax discount it currently offers to owners of empty homes. An idea I fully support; the discount is a nonsense and does nothing to encourage landlords to make good use of their property. But Howell’s tone was dispiriting; apparently fixated on the money but seemingly uninterested in what the money could help the council achieve. I know councils are in really difficult times now. As a director of a small charity, believe me I know what it’s like to not know where the money is going to come from. But really!  Howell and many others in local government, who I have heard make similar points over the last couple of weeks could do better than this. The purpose of councils lies in what they can do for their communities not how much money they can make.

Empty homes is in fact an area where the government is actually investing more money. £100 million new targeted funding, and rewards for homes returned to use through the New Homes Bonus. Councils need to be thinking about how they can use these funds creatively to really make a difference.

Here are three ideas. Bear in mind that properties returned to use will earn the council between £7,000 and £11,000 in New Homes Bonus rewards over a six year period. In addition the council would also start receiving council tax from the reoccupied property. 

Kent County council operate a loan scheme for owners of empty property. It costs Kent about £2,700 in lost interest and administration for each home returned to use through the scheme.  Other councils from around the country could set up a similar scheme or even ask to join Kent's.

There are homes that are currently not economically viable to bring back to use, even though there are lots of low income people who want to live in them. The council could make a small grant of say £5,000 available to the owner on condition that the property were let to somebody in housing need.

There are 40,000 odd empty council owned houses in England. The council could sell these at discount on condition that the purchaser lived in it as their sole home and renovated it to an agreed condition. 

Of course all three of these ideas cost money, but crucially they all earn more than they cost. The more things like this the council does,  the more it will earn and the more homes will be created for its community. If councils want to make money surely this is a better way to do it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

New Homes Bonus - it might just work

There had been speculation that when the figures came out they would show that less than 100,000 new homes were built in England last year, but when it happened last Friday the government was spared that particular humiliation. 102,570 houses were built in 2010. It’s still the lowest number since 1923. Of course housebuilding reacts slowly to changes of policy, and the government is still safely in the territory of being able to blame it all on their predecessors. Last week they announced details of their New Homes Bonus scheme. This looks like it’s going to be the centrepiece of their housing supply policy, and if there are not more homes as a result of this; the government will have nobody else to blame.

The idea is simple, for each new home the council gets paid a reward equivalent to the council tax paid on the homes for six years, they get another bonus of £350 a year as well if the house is affordable. Not everybody is happy with this, Sean Spiers, director of CPRE said it’s bribery and it's possibly illegal. But legal or not, bribing councils is a well-proven way for governments to get what they want.

When the idea for New Homes Bonus first emerged early last year I must admit I had my reservations too.  Governments have been struggling for years with how to deal with the poor supply of housing in the UK. They’ve have generally concluded that way to resolve it is to try and persuade housebuilders to build more houses. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out largely because the diagnosis was wrong. It’s not more new houses the country needs, it’s more low cost houses and they aren’t very profitable for the housebuilders to build. Instead incentives and pressure to build resulted in more houses but houses that people didn’t need or want.

But may be, just may be, New Homes Bonus might work. The reason for my optimism is it seems to be genuinely focussed on the problem, not just trying to push a chosen solution. Here’s how it works:
The council gets a bonus each year calculated on the net increase in homes. Homes can mean newly built houses, or empty properties returned to use. But if there isn’t really a demand or need for homes or the homes that get built are rubbish and nobody wants to live in them, the benefit is pretty short lived. If there is an increase in vacancy levels the number of newly emptied homes are discounted off the total of new homes. So for example a borough sees 1,000 new homes built during the year, but vacancy levels go up by 800, will only get rewarded for 200 new homes.

The long-term impact of this should be to change local authorities' view of housing supply. Hopefully the'll concluded that it'll be no use getting homes built if nobody lives in them. And hopefully they'll see it’ll be doubly beneficial to get empty homes into use (they’ll get a reward for each one and won’t loose potential reward on new build homes). And also it won’t matter who brings empty homes into use. This system doesn’t reward council activity; it rewards the outcome. Hopefully this will mean that councils will start to encourage people to do up empty properties rather than thinking that it only counts if they do it all themselves.
In other words the outcome of the New Homes Bonus should be to encourage inhabited homes, not simply housebuilding. So when this system is judged in a few years time, how will we know whether it has worked? One sign of success would be that it doesn’t matter anymore what the housebuilding rate is. It’s how many homes get occupied.