“In a globalised era, a welfare system that relies on home ownership is critically vulnerable”

Yay? Image: Getty.

The inequalities and inequities that housing markets generate have become a cross-national issue in the last decade or so. In Australia, the UK and the US, discussions of “Generation Rent” have taken centre stage.

In the generational debate, older, asset-wealthy owner-occupiers advantaged by previously more stable lending conditions and historic house price trends have been pitted against younger cohorts. The latter have been priced out of the home buyers’ market and pushed into rental housing in ostensible perpetuity.

Evidence of just what “Generation Rent” is and, more importantly, why it matters have, however, been somewhat fuzzier.

Economies and security built on housing

One reason declining access to home ownership for younger people is of such concern is that housing is much more than housing. The wealth accumulated in our homes over our lifetimes has come to represent economic security and a means to live more comfortably in old age. It’s seen as a buffer in times of hardship – buying a home is an implicit part of the welfare system in many contexts.

Declining home ownership is contributing to inequality.

Governments have largely nurtured this. They often support or even fund the growth of home ownership and protect property value increases. It has become increasingly evident, however, that this approach to housing markets as a kind of welfare policy has fundamental limitations.

For one thing, the global financial crisis of almost a decade ago demonstrated how deeply rooted and transnational housing finance has become. A welfare system that relies on home ownership in a globalised era is thus critically vulnerable.

Although property markets work at a local level, global capital has become increasingly intrusive. Investment purchases are financed from around the world. While our homes function as our family savings accounts, housing now also serves as safety deposit boxes for transnational middle classes and wealthy elites.

The global financial crisis also illustrated that the very conditions that may require home owners to draw on their property assets as an economic buffer are likely to undermine their value and make them difficult to access when needed.

Since the crisis, housing has again become an overwhelming focus of investment, sustained by quantitative easing, weaker financial markets, and low interest rates. This is driving renewed inflation in house prices, especially in global cities, with overflows downwards and outwards.


Divide grows between owners and renters

Buying a home is now well beyond the capacity of many among the increasingly vulnerable cohorts of younger people. They have also faced reduced job security, subdued wage rises, and diminishing access to credit.

As a result, home ownership rates across English-speaking societies, but also elsewhere, have fallen significantly, driven by the collapse in home buying among millennials.

While it is easy to blame globalisation (especially foreign investors) and dwell on the historic advantages baby boomers enjoyed, much of the problem lies with our housing systems and especially with our approaches to fixing them. Critically, by relying on home ownership and making homes default savings accounts essential to our long-term welfare security (in the context of austerity or welfare state retrenchment), we have come to depend on them for much more than housing.

This is why Generation Rent represents so much of a challenge. It requires more than dealing with the supply and distribution of home ownership. It may require a complete rethinking of home ownership as a basis of our housing systems.

The term “Generation Rent” is not particularly useful as it implies direct conflict between cohorts. In fact, the opposite is true. In recent years different generations within families have increasingly mobilised around their collective property wealth in the face of diminishing economic security.

In the UK, around one in ten first-time home-buyers were getting help from parents in the mid-1990s. By 2005 this was up to 25 per cent. And since the GFC the figure has soared to as high as 75%.

The family assets invested in housing are undergoing profound shifts.

At the same time, has been a remarkable shift in family deployment of assets. Numbers of private landlords increased from just over half a million in the early 1990s to around 2.2m by 2015 (equivalent to almost one in ten households). This represents a remarkable boom in new landlords, owning just one or two extra properties, since the beginning of the century.

Various studies suggest that house hoarding and “landlording” have become an extension of the home-ownership welfare strategy. Buying and then renting out an extra home represents an effective means of ensuring long-term security. It’s also something that can be drawn upon to help out, or even pass onto the kids.

Generations, then, are not necessarily at odds with each other. There is little evidence that younger people directly blame their elders for their housing situation. In fact, it is older people that are most likely to help them out.

Problem is deeper than Generation Rent

Underlying Generation Rent is essentially a wider problem derived from the maturation of home-ownership systems in a diverse numbers of contexts, from Ireland to Japan.

In the past, home-ownership rates and property prices boomed, supporting asset accumulation for particular cohorts. However, this created conditions for tighter access, which has undermined the tenure and reinvigorated low-level rent-seeking in the longer term.

The outcome is not so much a polarisation between generations, but between younger people based on the housing market position, or strategy, of their parents, or even grandparents. The children of secure home owners are likely to eventually be helped out or inherit. The children of renters, over-leveraged mortgage-holders or ageing households who rely on their unmortgaged property to meet their own needs are likely to remain locked out unless they have a considerable income.

In the context of continued flows of global capital and the normalisation of property investment as family welfare strategy, we cannot realistically expect that socioeconomic inequalities derived from housing or problems of access among younger people are going to be reversed.

Governments have largely responded to declining home ownership by sponsoring access to credit or providing extra cash for potential home buyers. This has done little other than revive house price inflation and thus aggravate the affordability issue.

Rental housing careers are likely then to become more common and last for longer. We therefore need better means to reconcile tenants’ needs with both housing and welfare practices. This will involve policymakers and politicians imaging other ways of “doing” housing that consider different types of households and life courses, tenures and housing ladders.

Younger people themselves seem to be adapting to a post-homeownership landscape. While owner-occupation remains deeply normalised, household situations have become increasingly diverse. Sharing with friends or strangers has become much more common.

In cities, this shift has started to stimulate private-sector responses, including large-scale purpose-built developments expressly tailored to the needs of Generation Rent.

Richard Ronald is an associate professor at the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.