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Anthony Hilton: Home ownership and what it really costs the workforce

Housing: UK rental costs are close to 30% of income versus mortgages at 15%
Housing: UK rental costs are close to 30% of income versus mortgages at 15% / Getty Images
28 March 2019

ndrew Oswald of Warwick University and Danny Blanchflower of Dartmouth College once produced a paper together which said that moves to increase home ownership were also likely to increase unemployment, and damage the labour market.

It is not what people want to hear. Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy in the Eighties vigorously promoted home ownership and dented council housing, because she thought Labour voters would become Conservatives if they owned rather than rented their home.

That would help her to win two more general elections. Successive governments have followed a similar course. Perhaps it is time to think again.

But first, let us go back to the researchers, because they really did their homework.

They studied trends from 110 years in the US — a quite astonishing data set — covering the years from 1900 to 2010.

But they also looked at very different markets. They combined this with modern data on millions of randomly selected Americans.

The research is agnostic about some of the underlying mechanisms of how change happens, but the authors believe that high home ownership in an area leads to people staying put and commuting further and further to jobs, thereby creating cost and congestion for firms and other workers.

They also thought it led to “not in my back yard” (Nimby) activities, where homeowners block new businesses.

Rises in home ownership in the States were also followed by substantial increases in unemployment, over several periods in US history.

The study found, for example, that the states that had the highest change in home ownership (an average of +23% in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia) since 1950 had a rise in unemployment of 6.3 percentage points between 1950 and 2010.

By contrast, the five states that had the lowest increase in home ownership over the same period (an average of +1% in California, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin) saw a rise in joblessness of 3.5 percentage points.

Similar data has been found in Europe.

One of the richest countries, with one of the smallest proportions of unemployment, is Switzerland.

It also has one of the biggest rented sectors.

Germany and Austria likewise, have low unemployment and high rental sectors.

But in Spain and Greece where they have 80%-plus home ownership, there is 20%-plus unemployment.

Britain at present has almost full employment but lousy wages. It also has one of the highest rates of home ownership, but it is in decline.

The group born between 1983 and 1987 are half as likely to have bought a home by the age of 25, as were the same group 20 years before.

There is also a shift to rental for families with children.

In the period of 20 years from 1994 to 2014, in income terms the lowest quintile of home ownership dropped from 40% to 37%; the highest quintile dropped from 94% to 87%; but the middle quintile dropped from 69% to 50%, which is significant.

Rental costs for 26-to-30-year olds have also risen hugely.

In the Sixties it cost just a little bit more to rent than to buy.

Now rental costs are getting on for 30% of income whereas the cost of servicing a mortgage takes just 15%.

But in spite of this, everyone is seeking to promote home ownership — building societies, banks, politicians — are all in on the act.

Even the Bank of England does not want to upset homebuyers.

The only ones not playing ball are the 20-somethings and that may be because prices are so high there is no point in even trying.

Of course people think buying a house is a sure-fire way to make money. That’s been the case till now and it’s why people are still trying to get on the ladder.

But if house prices were stable, not for a year or two, but for a decade or more, people would be much more likely to go for rented housing, provided of course (and this is a big caveat) there was an adequate supply of good homes to rent.

Over time people might gradually give up on home ownership, and we could fall back to the levels of the Forties and Fifties.

“The UK urgently needs a high-quality private rental market like the Swiss and Germans. That would hugely improve the flexibility of our economy, reduce UK unemployment, and produce a lot of extra happiness all round,” Oswald said at the time.

But he does not expect it to happen any time soon.