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Changing families and housing

The Global Financial Crisis and the policies enacted in its aftermath have prompted much concern about the difficulties faced by young Europeans.

While Britain has been spared the astonishingly high levels of youth unemployment experienced by parts of the Eurozone, the crisis has prompted a heated debate about how changes in the British housing system are affecting young people. Plenty of column inches were devoted last summer to the latest findings from the English Housing Survey showing that owner-occupation rates have now been falling for a decade (from ~71% in 2003 to ~65% in 2012/13, while private renting has expanded and is now more common than social renting for the first time since the 1960s. These are large and very rapid changes, although it is worth noting that things are somewhat different in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Overall tenure trends mask more dramatic changes in the housing tenure position of young adults. Ownership rates have been falling for over two decades as people purchase their first dwelling later in life. Private renting has become the 'normal' tenure for an increasing proportion of young people, particularly in large cities. While it is debatable whether this is the Bad Thing it is sometimes made out to be; the speed, scale and importance of the changes in young people's housing positions is definitely worth understanding in more detail.

So what is going on here? Much of the debate focuses on how various economic shifts (often viewed as 'constraints') are leading young people to defer purchasing their first dwelling. Some of the most discussed are changes in:

  1. Affordability: This should perhaps be 'mortgage affordability' as for most people it is their ability to borrow that really matters. This is very well-worn turf but basically (a) prices rising faster than real incomes and (b) more stringent deposit requirements make it harder to get the mortgage required to purchase a dwelling. Intervening here has been a key aim of Help to Buy and improving affordability by increasing housing supply is a objective shared by all main political parties. Interest rates and their expected trajectory, although very low at present, are also an important factor in affordability considerations.
  2. Jobs: Last year's zero-hours debate highlighted how precarious and low-paid employment can be as much of a problem as unemployment. The proliferation of low-paid and insecure jobs, which are often entry-level and thus filled by younger workers, makes homeownership both less desirable and less attainable. Postdocs amongst you might like to take a moment to reflect on this.
  3. Debt: There is growing evidence that the large increase in student debt since the late 1990s has contributed to later ownership by reducing real take-home income.

Although we could probably add broader trends like changes in the welfare system to the mix, it is also important to step back from this economic perspective, not least because (a) owner-occupation is not something everyone wants in young adulthood and (b) there is lots of variation within both the ownership and rental sectors. While tenure patterns matter for a host of reasons it is worth remembering that housing is fundamentally about people, which means that how housing is linked to family and personal life is an important consideration. Indeed much press debate has focused on how housing affects family life, for example when children 'boomerang' back to live with their parents or when couples find it difficult to secure family friendly rented accommodation. However the relationship runs in the other direction as well in that changes in families alter the housing that individuals need and desire as they move through life.

This is where this project comes in (see the About page for an overview). The basic idea is that two aspects of family life matter for young people's 'housing trajectories' (which is just a succinct way of saying the types of housing they live in as they move through life), and these may help explain why these have changed over time.

  • Family resources: We know from Council for Mortgage Lender data that there has been a rise in the proportion of first-time homeowners who had financial assistance when buying their dwelling, with this often coming from family members. If it's not just George Osborne helping people to buy in the face of increasing economic constraints, then big questions start to loom about what happens to the housing situation of those people with parents who cannot or will not provide assistance. The occurrence, timing and geography of young people's transitions into owner-occupation may thus be becoming increasingly linked to the fortunes of their parents and potentially their extended family.
  • Family experiences: There have been massive changes in family structures since the end of the post-war 'golden age of marriage' in the early 1970s. For example delayed fertility and childbearing out of wedlock, the rise of cohabitation and postponement of marriage, greater partnership instability as well as the large increases in female employment all matter for the types of housing people move through over time. Demographic change therefore has the potential to dramatically reshape housing systems in ways that are bound up with economic shifts.

Its probably time to bring this post to a close. I hope this gives you a better understanding of the aims and purpose of the project. I intend to update this blog as often as possible so please check back soon for further updates and comment.

Published: 02/02/15