The great British housing crisis: where has affordability deteriorated most?

Keep on walking. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis. Homes in London, Oxford and Cambridge have grown eye-wateringly expensive. Things aren’t much better in most of the rest of the south, and the only reason prices don’t look ridiculous in the rest of the country is because we keep comparing it to the south east.

All this, you probably know already. (And if you don’t, hi! Enjoy your first visit to CityMetric!) But how have things changed over time? Where have things deteriorated most?

One way of measuring how ridiculous house prices are is to look at the “affordability ratio”: the multiple of the average income in a city required to buy the average home. Banks, after all, tend to limit the size of mortgages to four or five times the borrowers’ income – so an affordability ratio in double figures is clearly bad news for the vast majority.

Here’s a graph of how those ratios changed in 62 British cities between 2004 and 2015. It's massively over-crowded (seriously, look at it), but it should at least give you a general sense of the trend. It’s also interactive: hover over a dot for more info:

The general trend in most cities has been up, with a brief dip during the credit crunch. But that trend is clearly most pronounced in more expensive cities: prices in cheaper cities have been relatively stable. And few cities seems to have significantly shifted position in their league tables: pricy cities have stayed pricy.

All of which is all pretty much what you’d expect in a country where the highly-paid jobs are increasingly focused in a small number of cities, most of which aren’t building enough housing.

That graph is a bit much though, so let's slim it down. Let's look at cities where affordability has declined most.

(A quick note on methodology, which you're welcome to skip. I'm using the change in the affordability ratios – essentially, subtracting the 2004 figure from the 2014 one – rather than the ratio between them. "Prices have increased by four times the average wave" feels like a more meaningful result than "the affordability ratio has doubled".)

Here are the 10 cities where affordability has declined by the biggest multiple of the average local wage.

Click to expand.

That's a fairly predictable list of cities to anyone who follows Britain's housing debate. The vast majority of those places are within London's orbit. The obvious implication is that house prices in the capital are having a knock on effect: commuters are pushing up prices for everyone, whether they commute into London and earn the big bucks or not.

The one exception to that trend is Aberdeen, which is about as far from London as you can get in Britain. The increase in prices there has almost certainly been fuelled by the city's 40 year transformation from economic backwater to capital of the North Sea oil industry.

Something else worth-noting about this map. Oxford is, by affordability ratio, the least affordable city in the UK. But that’s been true for more than a decade: my suspicion is that its very tight green belt, rendering growth all but impossible, is to blame.

In 2004, though, Oxford was substantially less affordable than London or Cambridge. Both have since caught up.

What about the other end of the graph? Of the 62 cities in the Centre for Cities' database, only 16 saw their affordability ratio improve between 2004 and 2015.

In half of those, the improvement was by less than 0.1 (meaning, the average house price has improved by less than 10 per cent of the average wage). Here are those eight cities:

Click to expand.

It'd be wrong to say that housing affordability has been flat: it hasn't, and if we started or ended the data at different points we’d get different results. But we can say it hasn't improved very much.

Lastly, here are the eight cities where – statistical fluke or not – housing affordability was a bit better in 2015 than in 2004. In some of these cities, there does actually seem to be a slight downward trend:

Click to expand.

Only two cities have seen their housing affordability ratio fall by more than 0.3. In Sunderland, it's fallen by 0.5; in Nottingham, by 0.53.

This is the second time recently Nottingham has been an outlier. In an earlier instalment of this series, I noted:

Why Nottingham and Leeds should have sustained their populations when most similarly sized British cities didn't is quite frankly a mystery to me. Leeds, one can speculate, was helped out by having one of the north's more diversified (and richer) economies; the same can't be said of Nottingham, though.

So – Nottingham has sustained its population, when most large English cities outside the south have not; and, at the same time, its housing has become slightly more affordable.

There's clearly some key piece of information I'm missing here about the economics and demographics of Nottingham. If anyone out there has it, please do let me know.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.