The fall in home ownership is not just a southern problem

Good luck. Image: Getty.

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

We talk a lot about the house prices in this country. Once upon a time, we used to talk about how brilliant high house prices were; but at some point it’s started to dawn that high house prices serve mainly to transfer money to the old and rich from the young and poor, and these days, we’re more likely to talk about how terrible they are.

But still, there’s sometimes a tendency to think that it’s fundamentally just a London, or at least, a southern problem. Sure, London house prices are crazy, the thinking runs: but there are plenty of other places you can still afford to buy. What are these kids whining about?

Anyway, it’s bollocks.

To explain why, let’s start with a map. The housing affordability ratio is the value of the average home and the average pay packet. Historically, it’s generally hovered at around 4, which is good because four times salary is the maximum multiple of your salary that banks generally think is a good idea to led you as a mortgage.

Here’s the housing affordability ratio in 62 British cities in 2016:

Even the cheapest cities are now above 4. A significant number are way, way above 4. That doesn’t mean housing is completely out of reach, of course: people buy in couples; and first-time buyers are probably not buying the ‘average’ house, but a smaller, cheaper property. Nonetheless, this map suggests that even affordable cities are not in fact that affordable.

That said, the situation clearly is much worse in the south. Get above that Bristol-Wash line, and there are, I think, only three cities in the darker colours (a ratio of 7.7 or above): Cardiff, York and Edinburgh.

So why is the idea that house price are a southern problem nonsense? Here’s a chart of how the affordability ratio has changed over the last 10 years. It’s risen in 51 cities, and fallen in only 11.

Click to expand.

In other words, it’s getting worse almost everywhere.

And yet, it’s still risen most strikingly in the cities in the south east. So to really make my case we need another metric.

Here’s one more map. This one shows the change in the percentage of “households renting privately or living rent-free” between 2001 and 2011. That sounds more complicated than it actually is: it basically just means households living in someone else’s private property. In principle, there could be vast numbers of people living at their nan’s or something, but in practice this is almost certainly a measure of the private rental sector (PRS).

The first thing you notice: the PRS has increased in size in literally every city. The smallest increase was in Barnsley, where it changed by 4.2 per cent, from 10.1 to 14.3. At the other end of the scale s Slough, where it increased by over 13 points, from 12.1 per cent to over 25 per cent. That’s a significant shift in the local tenure mix, and likely reflects both the town’s position in the London commuter belt, and the rise of the buy-to-let landlord class.

We can put the change more baldly. In 2001, there were 21 cities where less than 10 per cent of households were renting, and just three where it was more than 20 per cent. Ten years later, literally nowhere had less than 10 per cent of households renting – the lowest was Basildon, at 11.1. Meanwhile, 21 cities were at over 20. One, Oxford, was at over 30.

Still, that was six years ago, so I’m sure things will have improved by now, right?

[Brief pause for hollow laughter.]

 This is not new information, of course. In 2016 the Resolution Foundation put out a report showing how home ownership rates had changed. It showed that they’d fallen pretty much everywhere:

Click to expand.

The other side of the coin was that private renting has soared:

Click to expand.

In all sorts of places that people who can’t afford London are patronisingly told to move to, housing has become more expensive, and people have got stuck renting.

The message is, I hope, clear. Housing has become less affordable almost everywhere. Yes, the situation is worst in the south; but we shouldn’t let this obscure the fact home ownership, something that Britain’s politicians still claim to support, is now in national crisis.

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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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.