Monday, 9 February 2015

Neoliberal Nomads: Housing Insecurity and the Revival of Private Renting in the UK

By John Bone, University of Aberdeen

The emergence of a so-called 'Generation Rent' is a phenomenon that is gaining increasing prominence in political and media discourse, in recognition of the growing numbers of, in particular, young UK citizens who cannot gain access to the fabled 'property ladder'. This growing constituency are depicted as the main casualties of a UK housing crisis; victims of a combination of mushrooming house prices and undersupply which have conspired to freeze them out of owner occupation, while the level of disaffection being generated by this scenario was most recently illustrated by London’s ‘March for Homes’. The roots of this housing crisis have been exhaustively analysed, by a broad range of academic and other commentators, while many of these accounts suggest that it has largely arisen as much by design as via the caprice of markets.

A raft of interventions by successive UK governments have facilitated and supported the increasing marketisation and financialisation of the UK housing sector. In short, the late 1970s and early ‘80s 'free market' shift in political and economic policy has had a profound effect on housing. In the first instance, a newly deregulated and expanded financial sector targeted residential property as a highly convenient vehicle for the expansion of consumer credit. Consequently, extended mortgage lending in a competitive market saw home ownership grow; a process accelerated by the Thatcher government’s sell-off of council housing. In turn, expanded mortgage lending was followed by rising house prices as private sector supply failed to match rising demand. Against this background, potential gains from rising prices also began to shift public perceptions, from viewing housing as an essential utility to regarding residential 'property' as a lucrative personal investment vehicle.
This metamorphosis of the housing market was consolidated by the revival of the private rented sector, as both investment class and mainstream tenure. The latter was also facilitated by UK government policy (introduced through Housing Acts of 1988 and 1996), that radically reduced security of tenure, and by the financial sector's offering of new Buy to Let mortgage products aimed at amateur investors. As we know, these developments taken together have seen a great expansion of private renting, while the investment activities of a million or so private landlords has been a significant factor in driving prices ever higher and squeezing out many potential first time buyers, who have now become private sector tenants. Government support for this scenario has also extended to providing advantageous tax arrangements for landlords over owner occupiers.

In addition to ideological motivations, UK governments have also become ever more reliant on the residential property sector as an engine of economic growth, as rising house prices have boosted consumer confidence and activity in an expanded service sector by providing collateral for consumer credit in what has become a substantially debt-fuelled economy.
In a number of senses the revival of private renting has re-established some of the characteristics of the sector that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century, with the caveat that the new class of landlords are drawn from a much broader base than the small exclusive elite who rented property to around 90 per cent of the UK's population at that time. What is returning, however, is the spectre of sub-standard, prohibitively expensive and, critically, insecure housing that motivated a groundswell of political unrest in the past; the scenario that mobilised the mid 20th century's progressive reform of UK housing towards a mixed private/public and highly regulated form of provision. While there has been a good deal of attention paid to rising costs and declining standards affecting contemporary tenants, perhaps lesser attention has been paid to the consequences of long term insecurity.

It is clear that tenancies covered by the Assured Shorthold Tenancy (the majority in the sector) are wholly inconsistent with tenants’ capacity to establish a stable and secure home, given that after an initial 6 month term tenants can be arbitrarily evicted at two months notice. Evidently, this has practical implications in terms of access to workplaces, and for children of the growing number of families housed in the sector to rely on continuity with respect to schooling, where the latter can be disrupted at the whim of the landlord.

Arguably, however, less well understood are the subtler and deeper effects of the lack of control and predictability experienced by private sector tenants, where again the implications for families are perhaps particularly acute. In such conditions, maintaining friendships and community engagement can be increasingly difficult, while there are related implications for mental health and well-being.
Psychologists have long understood that some of the most stressful aspects of experience are founded on our limited capacity to deal with onerous demands and complexity as well as unpredictable and uncontrolled change. Sociologists have also long recognised the ill effects of such conditions on the psyche and, indeed, in terms of collective well-being. Recent discoveries of how the human brain functions are now offering evidence that underscores these widely recognised observations. For example, it has been demonstrated that we have a highly limited capacity to deal with information at a conscious level while, where we are overburdened, the consequences are experienced as significant arousal of the 'fear system'. In terms of ’real world’ implications, this may explain why we are prone to routinising and simplifying much of what we encounter, attempting to impose a significant degree of control, consistency and stability in our lives. It may even be the case that modern urban living of itself, as Georg Simmel notably observed, challenges us in this respect. Following from this, it may be reasonable to suggest that chronic insecurity regarding something so fundamental as one’s home (as with employment) is liable to critically undermine the conditions conducive to emotional stability and well-being, while a growing body of empirical evidence also supports this perspective.  In addition, once more drawing on neuroscientific findings, it appears that there may also be a relationship between the formation of long term memories, that are integral to the construction of our personal biographies, and the neural processes that orient us in geographical space. Simply put, it may be that spatial relocation, particularly where this is also involuntary and uncontrolled, may have a subtle but profound negative effect on our capacity to readily sustain a coherent and consistent biography; a stable self identity.

For the reasons outlined above, a reappraisal of the social and psychological effects as well as the more evident practical and economic ramifications of marketised housing is perhaps long overdue.
Read the full article in Sociological Research Online on which this blog post is based.



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