Crisis, whose crisis? Re-inserting class into the housing narrative

by Brian Lund


The current UK housing crisis has been portrayed mainly as a generational issue with more new houses needed to enable ‘generation rent’ to become homeowners. However, it is an amalgam of different crises, with ethnicity, gender, location and class dimensions running alongside the age variable. The class factor – often reflected in location – has been underplayed in narratives of the housing crisis, even though it has played a major role in recent elections and referendums.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, researchers could draw on a strong body of data linking class to housing outcomes, but by the turn of the millennium class had almost disappeared from housing analysis. ‘Within the contemporary university’, Simon Charlesworth argued in 2000, ‘it is seen as a sign of backwardness to have any concern about class and one is met with a mixture of disbelief, ridicule and derision’ (p.14).

New Labour’s 2010 Equality Act set out nine ‘protected characteristics’ in anti-discrimination law: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, pregnancy and maternity, sex, and sexual orientation. Class was not included, although Part 1 of the Act required public authorities to make strategic decisions with due regard to the desirability of reducing ‘the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage’.

Although access to homeownership has become more difficult for all social groups since the early 2000s, the property ladder is increasingly class-stratified. The English Housing Survey’s income/tenure analysis for 2015/16 shows that only 13% of mortgage holders lay in the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution, compared with 39% in the top quintile. This is hardly surprising given that, in becoming owner-occupiers, 56% of the lowest income quintile had to spend 30% or more of their household income on mortgage outgoings.

Green has shown that, in 2001, young people with professional parents were 1.5 times more likely to own a home than young people whose parents had unskilled and semi-skilled jobs; by 2013, the ratio had risen to 2.39. Help from the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’ – now the UK’s ninth-most important mortgage financier – has exacerbated this growing class divide.

Access to social housing has also become harder, as the number of lettings to new tenants has declined – from 316,000 in 2000/01 to 190,000 in 2015/16 – and there has been a trend towards social housing accommodating the ‘precariat’, with lower incomes from intermittent work (Daly and Gulliver, 2016). In 2015/16, only 42% of working-age social housing residents held full-time jobs, with 18% in part-time employment, 10% unemployed, and  30% (presumably long-term disabled people) classified as ‘other’ by the English Housing Survey.

At the same time, social renting costs have grown due to above-inflation rent hikes and housing benefit cuts. Department for Communities and Local Government figures show that local authority tenants spent an average of 30% of their household income on rent in 2014/15, even after taking account of housing benefit.

The decline in owner-occupation and accessing social housing has pushed more low-income households into the private rented sector. In 2006/07 there were 2.6 million people below the poverty line (with less than 60 per cent of the median household income, after housing costs) living in the private rented sector; by 2015/16, this figure had risen to 4.8 million. The number of households with children renting privately – which more than doubled to 1.6 million in the decade to 2015/16 – has made a major contribution, partially because ‘second steppers’, who need more space when a child arrives, have been unable to take the second step. Indeed, the growth of private landlordism has dealt a ‘double whammy’ to these working-class households, since, in addition to higher spending on housing, they have also lost the opportunity to acquire wealth.

In the 2017 general election Labour’s performance amongst social classes D and E was lacklustre, with a lead over the Conservatives of only 3%. It lost ‘heartland’ seats such as Mansfield, Walsall North, Stoke-on-Trent South, and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. A North-East ward in the top 10 most deprived wards in the UK, with 68% of households renting either from a social or private landlord, 49% with routine or semi-routine jobs and 18% classified as ‘never worked or long-term unemployed’, voted 82.5% to leave the European Union.

The UK’s vote to leave the European Union in the June 2016 referendum outcome has been described as a ‘peasants’ revolt’. Although housing did not feature prominently in the referendum campaign, public concerns about the economy and immigration are closely related to housing. In The One and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017), Mark Lilla castigates campus liberals and their acolytes for elevating identity politics and neglecting class. The housing crisis powerfully shows why social scientists need to re-engage with class analysis if they are to grapple effectively with the social and political realities facing Brexit Britain.



About the author

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Brian Lund is Visiting Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is author of Housing Politics in the United Kingdom: Power, Planning and Protest, Bristol: Policy Press (2016) and Understanding Housing Policy (third edition) Bristol: Policy Press (2017).
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