Affordable housing is …?

What is ‘affordable housing’?  There are UK national and local policy definitions.   The national one (dated 2012 – perhaps in need of a review?) states: [Affordable housing is] Housing for sale or rent, for those whose needs are not met by the market (including housing that provides a subsidised route to home ownership and/or is for essential local workers); and which complies with one or more of the following definitions:

The London Assembly defines it as: ‘Affordable housing is social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing, provided to eligible households whose needs are not met by the market. Eligibility is determined with regard to local incomes and local house prices.’

North Tyneside has a similar, but plainer English, glossary of affordable housing.  It states that Social housing ‘is rented housing, owned and managed by councils (council housing) and housing associations. It’s generally offered to those in housing need from a register (waiting list), at rents well below market level’.  While affordable rented housing is, ‘Like social rented housing, but the rents charged by the housing association or council could be anything up to 80% of market rents. The increased income from higher rents is used to build more affordable homes.’

The reference to the ‘market’ means (obviously) that people in areas where property is cheap will pay lower rents than people in areas where property is expensive. 

These policy definitions of affordable housing refer to housing that is offered in various ways at below market rates.  But the term ‘affordable housing’  is used much more loosely by people in the day-to-day.   Affordable housing is housing that they can afford to pay for – either renting or buying.  It’s linked to their income,  they have to aim to generate enough income to cover their housing costs, whether that’s rental or purchase cost.  

That’s getting increasingly hard to do.  The cost of housing – rented or purchased is outstripping people’s ability to pay for it.  Last week the issue threaded through various conversations I had with different friends.  Until I thought about it, I didn’t realise quite how many times the cost of accommodation had come up – seven. 

  • First, in relation to a co-owned housing scheme that I’m getting involved with.  One of the member said that the funding model for residents is not, in her view, ‘affordable’  and to say the units are affordable housing (as it currently says on the organisation’s website) is misleading.   Comment: ‘I’ve been working to get this co-op scheme off the ground for several years. Now, I find I’m in a position where I can’t afford to live there.  It’s so sad.  I have decided to leave the venture and wish you all well with it. I’ll continue to live in my privately rented place and hope the landlord doesn’t put the rent up.’
  • Second, when a friend said she couldn’t afford the rent she was paying for her privately rented accommodation and she would have to move – could I help her find somewhere cheaper.  Comment: ‘I think it’s because I’m Brazilian and don’t speak good English that people put up the rent.  I don’t understand about deposits and guarantees. Why is rental so expensive in London? I can’t move out because I’ll lose my job.’
  • Third, another friend is being transferred from one housing association property to another, because the one she is currently in is in a terrible state of repair.  Comment: ‘I can’t carry on living in this damp place that needs a lot of repair work.  The association has offered a bigger place, but it’s in another city.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford the higher rental payment and also fund the costs of moving.  I’d really like to stay in this city for my children’s sake and my sake – I know so many people here.’
  • Fourth,  when a landlord I know decided not to put up the rent on the property he lets out as he didn’t think his very good tenant would be able to afford a rent increase. Comment: ‘ The lease agreement says that the rent will go up annually, but over 4 years I haven’t increased it at all.  The tenants are very good, and I know they are on a low income, the wife has health issues, and the children are settled in school.  I don’t want them to feel under pressure and there’s so little affordable round here.’  
  • Fifth, when another friend pointed out that she could no longer afford to live in the village she grew up in. Comment: ‘It’s ridiculous – I’ve lived in the area all my life – my mum and dad grew up here too.  Now the place is over-run with weekenders, and though I’d like to buy somewhere in the village it’s impossible.  These second-homers are buying up everything and property prices have shot up. It’s time something was done to stop it.’
  • Sixth, a couple of people I know who can’t buy property in the cities they work in because the prices are outside their range. Comment:  We’re in such a dilemma.  It looks like choosing between job and accommodation. The thing we think we’ll have to do is buy outside of the area and travel in.  Which ends up costing almost as much as buying in the area, but we haven’t enough deposit to put on a place close to our jobs and the mortgage rates are getting astronomical.  We don’t want to become mortgage prisoners. Jobs near the cheaper houses pay less – so we’ll end up in the same position really.’
  • Seventh, a friend selling their house in one location, to move to a different location to be close to her children and grandchildren.  Comment:  I should be ok because I’m selling in a place where property prices have stayed steady, and moving to a slightly cheaper place.  But I have to factor in the costs of stamp duty, solicitors and agents fees, and all the rest of it that makes house moving so expensive.  I’m doing all the sums and hoping they’ll show I can afford to move.  Life for me and my family will get difficult if I can’t afford to move.’

In this day-to-day usage of ‘affordable housing’, it’s easy to see the human dilemmas and you read about them every day too.  The Big Issue (please subscribe to it)  with its mission to end homelessness, has an article ‘What does a normal homeless person look like?’  and asked AI to generate an answer.  It produced a stereotype picture ‘of a grubby, sad, bearded man in a sleeping bag’.  The writer points out that ‘this stereotype is dangerous, because we forget about all the other people out there who are falling through the cracks.’

In fact, anyone can become homeless.  It could happen to several of the people I’ve mentioned above. As the OECD points out, lack of affordable housing is a global crisis.  Until I started to think about it this week, I didn’t appreciate how close to home it is to me and my circle of friends.  (NOTE: I currently live in private rented accommodation).


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