A common lament among Millennials and Gen Z is that buying a house is more difficult for them than it was for their parents. Though the fact is contended by some (i.e. those who reckon trouble getting on the property ladder stems from a collective avocado on toast addiction) the figures show an explosion in house prices. Take the UK, where I write this from, as an example. Housing prices have leapt up from an average of £167,500 to £264,000 since the beginning of 2010.
We can see this all across the developed world. Cities like San Francisco are symbols of gentrification and homelessness; home to both ends of the wealth inequality spectrum. Last year in the Netherlands, protests against rising house prices, rent, and scarce social housing took place— and are expected to continue. Meanwhile, in the UK there was outrage as the rich were pictured enjoying a ‘sky pool’ that poorer residents could see but not access while locked in their apartments at the height of summer and COVID lockdown.
Gentrification is a strong driver of the housing crisis, as long standing neighbourhood residents get priced out by developers and high earning professionals. But there’s another housing elephant in the room: the scarcity in affordable housing is caused by a steady decline in state funding.
Developers will always seek to build with profit in mind, which creates a clear preference for more expensive property. This is why we find ourselves with a gentrification problem and an abundance of luxury residences on streets where people sleep in doorways. Houses bought for investment lie empty, while record numbers of homeless are left to their fate. As with the inequality trends of past decades, it is the marginalised and vulnerable that are the most affected.
Young people are also impacted, as it’s increasingly difficult to get a foot on the property ladder. This is as our homes also become our places of work and act as a personal prison for many. Not to mention that opportunities are also taken away by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When researching the causes of rising house prices, the facts aren’t always obvious — the situation varies according to place. One thing is clear though: there isn’t enough accommodation to meet demand.
The general trend towards privatisation started in the Thatcher/Reagan era. Thatcher’s policy of selling off British council houses continues to shape the housing market today; since it was first introduced, social housing rents have risen significantly. Construction of new social housing since the 1980’s, when the policy was introduced, has gone down year by year. By 1991, rents had already increased 55% relative to average incomes.
As a child, I experienced the cheap housing shortage first-hand — as my mum, brother, and I were buffeted around rental properties as landlords began selling up. In the year that I started my GCSE’s at 15, we were evicted twice, after just 6 months in each house.
A few years before, we had moved from a homeless hostel into a privately rented two-bedroom house. But as my brother and I grew into teenagers, pressure grew on my mum to find a place with three bedrooms, so we wouldn’t have to share. The first house we moved into had seemed too good to be true — it had three bedrooms and a big garden. I loved it there and was excited to have my own room. As it turned out however, it was too good to be true: 5 months later we got our marching orders.
The next house was an old council house turned private rental. The carpet smelled like dogs, but I was still happy to have my own room again. Plus the house had central heating, the luxury of which I hadn’t known before. But again, we were moved along. We eventually ended up in another two-bed without the plumbing infrastructure for a washing machine and severe damp problems causing black mould. My mum gave us our own rooms and slept downstairs on the sofa; and that’s where we settled until I finished my A-levels and moved away to University.
That I was able to leave and seek a more comfortable life is something I attribute to my education, which I received because of my relative privilege of being born in the UK. This is because at some point, the UK government made the decision that everyone should be given the right to an education and healthcare — but somehow safe and affordable housing wasn’t given the same importance.
Elsewhere in the EU, much like in the UK, we can see that there has been a decline in traditional state-provided social housing. A study commissioned by shelter reveals that housing is increasingly left to the market — with state funding seen as a last resort. The EU is generally better when it comes to affordable social housing. For example, Denmark and the Netherlands provide above-average levels of social housing. But this service is under attack in many places. In the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, the fact that affordable housing is being slowly removed before our eyes should be ringing alarm bells everywhere.