Sorry, minister, but grandparents aren't going to solve the housing crisis for you

Houses of the sort you will never, ever own. Image: Getty.

It’s a rare thing for me to find myself any form of a trendsetter, but on one measure, it seems, I was way ahead of the pack. The main reason that I found myself, some years ago, with the almost impossibly unlikely ability to buy a flat in London is because I inherited some money from my grandfather. 

In this, it turns out, I was anticipating the May government’s housing policy, a decade or more before it came into existence. Here’s housing minister Gavin Barwell, as quoted in today’s Telegraph:

“I have got a nice home, I have got three kids and my mother has just disinherited my brother and I in order that she can pass her assets on to her five grandchildren. They will be OK.”
Asked if others should think about transferring wealth down generations like this, he said: “Yes, absolutely. Generally in life we all like to think that our children are going to be better off than us. In terms of life expectancy and new technology, they are going to be. But at the moment as things stand they are less likely to own their own home and we need to do something about that.” 

The story is headlined: “Inheritance should skip a generation, says minister”.

Other media outlets have reported Barwell’s comments as if he thinks this is an actual solution to the actually existing housing crisis. That may be a little unfair: there’s nothing in those quotes to suggest that Barwell thinks this is a magic bullet.

But even so, this is such a ludicrous idea that I think it’s still worth ripping the idea to shreds, setting fire to what’s left and then stamping the resulting ashes into the ground. So:

Not everyone has rich grandparents

This shouldn’t need stating but apparently it does. Not all old people own homes, and even when they do they’re not all of sufficient value to sort out the next generation but one. (Apropos of nothing, today’s stories remind me of The Onion‘s take on John McCain’s plan to drag the US out of the 2008 economic crisis: “Everyone marry a beer heiress”.) 

Any housing policy that’s dependent on inheritance will serve mainly to entrench inequality: rich families will stay rich, poor families will stay poor. Except that it’s not clear that rich families will stay rich either because...

This only works for small families

The Barwell Plan worked out well for me in large part because my grandfather’s family was small (two daughters, two grandsons). If he’d had four kids and I’d been one of, say, 12 cousins, I’d be a lot less sorted and smug about it today.

While we’re at it:

Pensioner wealth could get swallowed by care costs

Okay, today’s pensioners are the richest we’ve ever had: research by retirement adviser Age Partnership suggests that England’s over 55s now own property worth more (£1.5trn) than the that entire GDP of Italy (£1.4trn). Sure, many individual pensioners are poor; but as a cohort, they’re loaded.

However: not all of this is going to be available to their kids when they snuff it. Some old people are going to end up needing residential care, and residential care is bloody expensive. 

In other words, even if you are one the only grandchild of some rich grandparents, and you stand to inherit some money – you probably shouldn’t bet your house on it.

One slightly distressing side effect of all this:

It risks incentivising kids to want their grandparents dead

I mean, I don’t want to get all dark here, but we’re going to create a situation in which people will face a direct choice between

a) making sure that granny has everything she wants to be comfortable and cared for, and

b) not doing that but having some hope of maybe owning a house one day.

(“I mean, can’t we at least go for the cheaper care home? Will she even notice the difference. She’s not really with it these days anyway. What? What are you looking at me like that for? What?”)

Barwell’s plan assumes that the parents are fine

And there’s a growing chance that they’re not: we’re moving into a world where plenty of parents are sitting on enormous mortgages, or don’t own a home at all. 

So skipping a generation and leaving all the money to the kids probably isn’t going to help. I mean, just look at discord this sowed when Peggy Woolley disinherited Tony in The Archers.


I said at the top of this thing that I thought people had been a little unfair to Barwell, a man who – as far as I can tell – had said nothing to suggest that he thinks this is really a solution to the housing crisis. 

The fact he is talking about this at all, though, is a sign of one way in which he is getting things terribly wrong: 

It’s misdiagnosing the problem

By talking about the important of passing housing wealth down, Barwell is treating the housing crisis as a matter of tenure. In his mind, the key to the problem seems to be that young people are being shut out of home ownership. (His attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for wanting to build new council housing – a move he describes as anti-aspirational – suggests much the same.)

But falling ownership isn’t the disease, but a symptom. The big problems here are that housing costs are too high, and homelessness is on the rise – and that’s because we aren’t building enough bloody houses.

Changing how we pass existing homes around isn’t going to solve anything. We need more of them. Get to it, minister.

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.