Let’s face it: we, as a country, have royally screwed up on housing. Decades of bad policy, bad ideas, and sometimes even bad faith, have led us to one of the worst housing crises in Europe.
We’ve finally reached a stage where almost everyone accepts that there is a problem and that the cost of housing is simply too high. Unlike almost every other type of product or service money can buy, the price of housing to buy or rent has gone up in real terms. Young people are spending tens of thousands of pounds more in rent throughout their twenties than earlier generations did, and their likelihood of becoming homeowners has plummeted.
It has also become more widely accepted that one of the key causes of this is that we have, for decades, failed to build enough homes. Study after study after study after study has demonstrated that supply is a key determinant of housing affordability. Social housing has particularly strong and well-targeted affordability benefits, but it extends to all types.
Enter PricedOut, which is England’s national campaign for more affordable housing. We push for more housing, more affordable housing, a better private rented sector, and a more effective and equitable system of property taxation. Our focus on building more homes places us squarely within the pro-development YIMBY (“yes in my back yard”) movement.
One of the things that has amazed me since getting involved in the YIMBY movement is the broad political spectrum of the people it attracts. PricedOut enjoys the support of committed socialists, steadfast centrists, and outspoken neoliberals. More or less anybody who looks in detail at the housing crisis will eventually conclude that there simply isn’t enough housing. I’m not sure many other ideas have such widespread backing.
We must be very careful to keep it that way. Although they might make different arguments, anti-development NIMBYs (“not in my back yard”) can be left- or right-wing. NIMBY talking points run the gamut: the simple self-interest of preserving high property values, heritage preservation, a somewhat misguided understanding of environmentalism, or even the old classic “we don’t want people like that moving here.”
I’ve sometimes been surprised to meet people who see themselves as progressives lobbying against new development. This is often couched in anti-gentrification terminology and focuses on the fact that the new homes are too expensive. It is absolutely true that new homes are too expensive. That is because all homes are too expensive, because they are in short supply, and land values are accordingly high. New homes are built to more modern standards than our shockingly aged housing stock. They are also inflated by government policies like Help to Buy and therefore attract a premium.
Imagine you had a village of 100 homes, and 100 households. People move around between these homes periodically. The child of one of those households, a high-earner, grows up and is ready to move to her own place. If there isn’t a 101st home, she will simply outbid a poorer household on a home that becomes available. That poorer household will be forced to leave the area, or share with another. Pretty soon the area becomes “gentrified”: having higher rents, relatively more high-earning households, and any low-earning households will live cramped together. If that sounds familiar, you may live in London. The conclusion is of course that you don’t stop gentrification by not building the homes, you stop it by building them.
This is especially the case given that the supply of social housing is largely dependent on supply of private housing. About half of new affordable housing in England is delivered as part of a planning obligation. These are agreements, as part of a planning permission, between councils and developers that a certain proportion of new homes will be affordable. Additionally, affordable housing developers will generally cross-subsidise new social homes through profits generated from private sale homes. It’s unfortunate that this process is sometimes accompanied by hand-wringing and portrayed as a necessary evil, or outright attacked as a “loss of social purpose”.
For the reasons discussed above, developing private homes is agood thing. That is not to say that we don’t need drastically more government funding for social housing, because we absolutely do. But you can get more bang for your buck by cross-subsidy, and we need more of all types and tenures of housing. Having varied types of housing on one scheme also gives developers a real incentive to build the homes faster, because they don’t have to worry about loads of one type of home flooding the market at once.
It is fortunate, then, that market and social housing are not at odds in the UK. I suspect this is part of the reason we can attract such a broad spectrum of support for PricedOut. It also helps to explain one of the things our planning system is really good at: avoiding massive mono-tenure estates. I met a housing campaigner from San Francisco last year who was amazed to find beautiful social housing estates right in the middle of central London, opposite swanky executive pads.
To him it was unthinkable that poor and rich neighbourhoods weren’t totally separated. It’s widely observed that poor people get poor services: worse access to healthcare, fewer free services, and sometimes few amenities at all. But it’s much harder for this to be the case when poor people live in the same neighbourhoods as richer people, which I think tends to be ignored in the gentrification debate (poor people like nice things too!).
My surprised San Franciscan friend was even more surprised to learn that UK Yimbys tend to support the development of social and market housing, and that they were not opposing goals under our planning system. In California, it seems that the more market-orientated Yimbys find themselves opposed to “Phimbys”: proponents of “public housing in my back yard”, who lobby against private developments in favour of affordable housing. The resultant gridlock probably helps in part to explain why San Francisco is one of the few places with a worse housing crisis than we have.
It is to our benefit that we don’t have this problem, at least to that extent. But as I’ve mentioned, it’s not unusual to see apparently progressive people baulk at the notion of increasing housing supply. Sometimes this counterproductively leads them to oppose developments. Sometimes, to my shock, it even leads them to oppose majority social housing developments such as the Old Tidemill Garden in Deptford, which has fortunately gone ahead despite some aggressive opposition.
Yimbyism’s strength lies in its strong evidence base , which allows it to attract support from across the political spectrum. At PricedOut, we want to preserve this. It’s essential that we don’t allow Yimbyism to become too heavily associated with either end of the spectrum, lest it become captured by that movement and anathema to the rest. This means we need to be very clear that opposing the development of new homes, private or otherwise, is not progressive.
PricedOut is England’s national campaign for affordable house prices. We call for action from government to build more homes and reduce the cost of decent housing. We fight for everyone who wants to be a homeowner but can’t afford to, and everyone who wants to move closer to work or amenities but can’t afford to.
 Perhaps aside from drug liberalisation!