Election 2017: What are the parties promising on housing?

Good luck with that. Image: Getty.

Remember the housing crisis? You remember: greedy landlords, eye-watering rents, people charging half a million quid for a shed in outer London? We used to talk about it a lot before Brexit? You remember.

Anyway – despite everything else that’s going on, the British housing market is still basically a great big hoover, sucking money out of the pockets of millennials and depositing it in those of rich baby boomers. Fixing this mess remains one of the biggest domestic policy challenges facing this country, and so, one might think, would feature pretty prominent in this election campaign.

The national housing debate yesterday. Image: via GIPHY.

So – what do our glorious leaders have to say about it? Let’s check the manifestos.

The Tories

Housing policy gets two pages of the Conservative manifesto (by way of comparison, the NHS gets four; education five), and starts out thus:


We have not built enough homes in this country for generations, and buying o renting a home has become increasingly unaffordable.  If we do not put this right, we will be unable to extend the promise of a decent home, let alone home ownership, to the millions who deserve it.

And, while I was all ready to slate it, it’s not actually too bad.

True, as with housing promises the nation over, it promises big numbers without providing much detail on how they’ll be delivered: a million homes built between 2015 and 2020; another half a million by 2022; 160,000 on government-owned land.

And where we’re going to put those remains an open question – the manifesto promises to continue protecting the green belt, and talk of “mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets” suggests that densification is the order of the day. Why brownfield will be enough now when it hasn’t been in the past is not entirely clear.

So why am I not tearing it to shreds, as is my way? Because, while it’s short of detail, there is at least some clue as to how it’s going to achieve this.

For one thing there’s very un-Tory talk of getting councils building again, providing them with low-cost capital funding, providing they ‘re building “high-quality, sustainable and integrated communities”. That means reforming Compulsory Purchase Orders to make it easier for councils to buy land.

Oh, and while Right to Buy will continue, this bit is interesting:

“We will build new fixed-term social houses, which will be sold privately after ten to fifteen years with an automatic Right to Buy for tenants, the proceeds of which will be recycled into further homes”.

That removes two of the problems with Right to Buy: that it disincentivises councils from building, and that the money it generates gets sucked out of housing altogether.

There’s also talk of ensuring “public sector landowners, and communities themselves, benefit from the increase in land value from urban regeneration and development”. A bigger role for housing associations is hinted at, too, “building on their considerable track record in recent years”.

All in all, this isn’t a radical break with the recent past (the housing white paper is still in effect). And I’m not convinced it’ll work: the figures for new homes promised by the manifesto are almost certainly too optimistic, as manifestos always are; and even if they’re not, they’re only enough to meet current demand, rather than plug the backlog.

But the manifesto is a move away from the Thatcherite orthodoxy that the market would deliver homes, despite the whopping great distortions imposed by land policy and the decades of evidence that the market was doing no such thing. It’s probably progress on the Cameron/Osborne era, at least.

That said, there is one major downside: the manifesto doesn’t mention renters at any point. I was wrong about this: there's a single sentence, confusing lumped into the consumer protection section, not the housing one. It's this:

“We will also improve protections for those who rent, including by looking at how we increase security for good tenants and encouraging landlords to offer longer tenancies as standard.” 

This is positive, I suppose, but it's all very weak, isn't it? A promise to consult and encourage, not one to act or legislate. It's also very odd that it isn't in the housing section.

On balance, then, I stand by my earlier conclusion: if you rent your own home, the Tories still don’t want your vote. Pass it on.


Despite the vast difference between the two parties on most topics, there’s a fair amount of common ground on housing. Labour too is promising to “invest to build over a million new homes”, which is a similar construction rate to the Tories. It’s also talking about a bigger role for councils and housing associations (100,000 a year, apparently).

What’s more, it too is promising to protect the green belt and prioritise brownfield, though like the Tories it’s a bit vague as to where all these new homes are actually going to go – although a new generation of new towns will be part of the mix.

One area where the two manifestos differs is in their treatment of private renters. For one thing, this one mentions them. Specifically, it’s promising three-year tenancies, and rent rises capped by inflation.

Oh, and a Labour government would introduce new legal minimum standards to ensure properties are “fit for human habitation”, and giving them a mechanism to take legal action if they’re not. Those radical lefties with their crazy ideas

The party is also promising a suspension of right-to buy, and to scrap the bedroom tax.

One oddity in the manifesto is the promise to “guarantee Help to Buy funding until 2027 to give long-term certainty both to first buyers and the housebuilding industry”. That’s a positive move if those new homes get built; if they don’t, it’s just pouring more money in an over-heated market.

Last but not least, Labour is promising to create a new Department for Housing, and to make land ownership more transparent. These things are not sexy, eye-catching promises like the million new homes – but a new housing department would raise the profile of the issue in government. And the fact we don’t know who owns nearly a fifth of England & Wales (seriously) is pretty embarrassing.

Overall, my sense is that Labour have thought less about the mechanics of the housing market than the Tories have (a reflection, I suspect, of not being in government). But the party is at least grappling with the fact that a significant chunk of the British population are renters, not owners, which is something no one seems to have told the Tories.

The LibDems

The yellow lot are promising 300,000 homes a year, in a “my target is bigger than your target” kind of a way. There’s talk of new garden cities (sarcastic yay), letting housing associations and councils borrow to build (sincere yay), and requiring councils’ local plans to plan for 15 year of future housing need (oooh).

The party is also promising a “new government-backed British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank”, which seems to make sense as a way of plugging the funding and transport gaps that prevent new developments from going ahead. They’re also still banging on about the “rent to own” model, in which rent payments give you a growing stake in a property. How this differs from existing models of shared ownership is not entirely clear.

Perhaps the most interesting LibDem policy is the promise to give tenants first refusal to buy the home they’re living in when landlords want to sell. I’ve no idea if this would make any difference but it sounds like it would annoy landlords so I’m keen.

The others

UKIP goes its own way by giving over more than half of the space it gives to housing (two pages) to its plans for modular housing, which is cheaper to build. It doesn’t mention land, best I can tell, so where they want to put these new homes I have no idea, and if you don’t deal with land you don’t solve the housing crisis.

The other things UKIP is concerned about are reviewing unaccountable housing associations (thanks, guys) and complaining about immigration. I know, I was surprised too.

The Green Party housing plan is really very similar to the Labour one, so I can’t be bothered to write about it. Here’s a screenshot:

Click to expand.

I’m not going to do the SNP or Plaid Cymru because housing is a devolved matter and I’ve banged on quite long enough.

Final thought

Most of the parties are promising to ban letting fees. I was under the impression that they'd already been banned, but no, the legislation is still working its way through: it is in the Tory manifesto, though.

Tomorrow: transport. I spoil you.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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How the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  

While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.