Buy with a little help

Should wider home ownership be a public policy objective? It is one of the big fault lines in housing policy debates. Advocates argue that ownership represents better value than renting, offers people a way to build up capital and creates more stable neighbourhoods. Sceptics say that our obsession with property ownership is diverting investment from more socially useful channels and fuelling a monstrous bubble of unaffordable house prices.

Both arguments are true to an extent. Home ownership has built up capital for generations and supported social mobility, but as prices have shot up more and more people have been locked out. Home ownership rose through the 20th Century, from fewer than 25 per cent of households in 1918 to nearly 70 per cent in 2001, though it has fallen back since then and particularly since the financial crisis of 2008/09. 

In London, ownership fell sharply for 25-34 year olds in the first years of this century. Fifty per cent of that age group were owner-occupiers in 2001, but only 27 per cent were in 2016. The proportion has risen slightly since then (as a result of stalled prices and extended availability of Help to Buy loans), but remains low by historic standards. 

It’s not hard to see why: mortgages may be relatively affordable, but the 2019/20 English Housing Survey, published this week, found that the median deposit for London’s first time buyers was £70,000 – more than twice the median salary. Given that less than half of those renting privately have any savings at all, it is mainly those with family wealth (“the Bank of Mum and Dad”) who can buy a property.

Some buyers have been assisted by the Help-to-Buy Equity Loan scheme (H2B), which was launched in 2013. It allows buyers to borrow a proportion of their deposit from the state and repay it when they sell-up or remortgage. Take up was initially low in London, but has increased since the maximum loan available was raised in 2016.

The scheme has been controversial. By stoking demand while doing to nothing to boost housing supply, it has been accused of pushing up prices. Restricting the scheme to new-builds has fuelled overpriced, poor quality schemes aimed primarily at the H2B market. These is also a risk that both government and house-buyers are left with losses in a period of stagnating prices. And now, the government has started winding the scheme down, restricting it to first-time buyers, and planning to shut it down completely by 2023. They have not said what, if anything, will replace it.

What is to be done? Many would advocate a huge increase in social housing provision and an end to the obsession with the “property ladder”. We certainly need more social housing. But as someone who bought a home when they were relatively cheap, I am uneasy with “Generation X-plaining” to younger people that they should be happy renting and miss out on the security and opportunities that can come with home ownership. And London’s recovery from coronavirus will not be helped if people who want to buy have to move out of the city (or choose wealthier parents). 

Of course, we don’t know what will happen to UK house prices as we recover from the Covid crisis. As the Stamp Duty holiday ends and the recession bites, the market may slow or even go into reverse. London already has the lowest rate of house price growth in England. Market moderation is welcome, but London would need a precipitous and damaging crash in prices (which would freeze the supply of new homes for sale) to bring them in line with wages and savings. Even the government’s favoured solution – discounted “first homes” – would require deposits beyond the means of many Londoners.

There is a powerful moral case for supporting first-time buyers, particularly those without family wealth, and the core of the H2B approach – a state-sponsored loan that is repaid as and when property prices rise – seems sound. But the scheme needs fixing. Firstly, it should not be restricted to new build, thereby tying young people into an expensive and mixed-quality market. Its primary purpose should be levelling the playing field, not “stimulating the market”. And the scheme should be able to run for longer than five years, particularly given the choppy conditions of the property market right now.

Would this simply fuel the speculative fires of the UK housing market? Maybe. But punishing young people from poorer backgrounds for the exuberance of property speculation seems absurd and unfair. So we should accompany support for first time buyers, with reform of the tax breaks that make home ownership so attractive as an investment – for example, the UK’s outdated and regressive property taxes, and even the exemption of family homes from capital gains and inheritance taxes. There is no reason, beyond electoral calculation, that homes and homes alone should allow untaxed capital accumulation. 

Restricting house-buying to wealthy families is a problem. Runaway house price inflation has also been a problem. Both problems have been most acute in London in recent years, and they need to be tackled together if the city is to offer opportunity to present and future citizens alike as it recovers from the pandemic. 

First published by OnLondon.

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