Downsizing, Ageism and Housing

There has been much discussion following the publication of a report by the Intergenerational Foundation called ‘Hoarding of Housing : The intergenerational crisis in the Housing Market’.

Perhaps a deliberately provocative title was chosen for the report (no, I’m not completely naive in terms of creating press interest!) and there were the requisite reports  and comment pieces written about ‘Baby Boomers’ who are hoarding homes (via the Guardian) which concludes

As the foundation says, they need to be discouraged from hoarding and made to realise that someone further down the generational chain is suffering as a consequence.

Maybe these property owning,  middle class ‘hoarders’ exist in different worlds from the one that I occupy but I didn’t see that as the main issue with housing in this country. It is not necessarily a like for like swapping of those with property to those without. I also worry about the bitterness with which some of the commentary has been based and that there is an attempt, even in the name of the report, to build an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ type situation where in order for older people with the value in their property to be ‘winners’ there has to be a ‘loser’ – the younger adults trying to build families in smaller houses.

The  failing is not on the older people who live in homes that are, after all, their own homes,  but more the way the housing market has behaved over the last couple of decades.

It’s Mother’s Work posts a great blogpost  on the topic explaining and illustrating some of the undertones to this debate including the difference in the way the government considers under occupancy of social housing as opposed to that of private housing and then those second home owners.

That’s an important issue as the government will increasingly use the ‘benefits’ system to force people to give up rooms that are not needed but this report refers as well to home owners.

The housing market is biased and unbalanced but to place the blame at the door of those who are older and try and use sometimes not terribly masked ageism to force guilt is not, I don’t think the answer.

The large houses which it is proposed that older people move out of will likely be unaffordable for most people with young families. It is hardly likely to be an equivalent swap. The problem is that the cost of housing has risen at such an astronomical level that it is out of the reaches of many who did not jump on the proverbial ‘ladder’ at the right time.

Looking at the report itself, beyond the title and the headlines, there are some  interesting proposals like the abolition of universal benefits for those who live in housing which is valued over £500,000 or taxing the value of property but I would see practical difficulties with that.

I work in an area where housing costs are high and have definitely come across older people who would might be property rich but cash poor who would be terribly affected by these sorts of moves. It is possible to be ‘property rich’ through not thoughts of ‘hoarding’ but just by living in a house whose value has increased due to the location and style and to force someone away from their community due to the cost of their property feels uncomfortable to me.

I do think that more should be done to protect tenants. Short term assured tenancies tend to favour the landlord and the goal of ‘home ownership’ only exists because it is the only possibility of a secure tenure apart from increasingly rare social housing tenancies which are increasingly targeted by the government now – making them less secure.

I have a toe on the ‘housing ladder’ in the sense that I live in a ‘shared ownership’ property. Was I particularly bothered about owning a home? No, not really, but I made this move solely because I had been moved and shifted around by landlords and just wanted to live somewhere where I wouldn’t be asked to leave with a couple of months notice.

I certainly didn’t buy to invest or to rent. More social housing would be an obvious solution, as would longer term and more secure lets but the government doesn’t seem to want to consider that as a possibility. Their proposal of the extension of the ‘right to buy’ scheme seems more than wrong-footed by pushing more to property ownership rather than looking at making longer term tenancies more secure.

We have allowed ‘buy to let’ landlords to make millions on the property market and perhaps the government has no wish to tackle this group head-on to affect their profits but I think that’s the way I’d prefer policy making to go after all, if we look at the Southern Cross debacle, it’s worth remembering that it was an empire built on the value of the property rather than the value of the people who lived inside the homes.

Guilting older adults into feeling they are depriving the younger generation – well, it leaves me with a nasty taste of ageism.

Pickles and ‘Troubled Families’

An article that appeared in the Guardian on Monday has been playing on my mind for a couple of days. Eric Pickles the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (who incidentally seems dead set on destroying both) wants to tackle what he calls ‘troubled families’ or more importantly perhaps, he wants to streamline the amount they ‘cost’ the state.

Louise Casey has been appointed as a ‘Tsar’ to oversee a ‘troubled families’ unit which sounds like some kind of Stalinist initiative.

Not that I don’t want people who need help to get help in the most cost effective and streamlined way but there are a few issues on which I would challenge Pickles and the government. Firstly the direct correlation that they seem to draw between the riots in the summer and particular familial issues.

The government really need to make their mind up about what they perceive to be the reasons for the riots. Personally I think they are oversimplifying to the nth degree and trying to ostracise and target particular social groups. Yes, gangs may have been an element but the reasons the riots spread has to be taken much more broadly than that. The subsequent arrests show the age ranges were not necessarily concentrated around ‘youth’ and the class base of those pillaging the country is much broader than these ‘troubled’ families if you include the political classes who continue to twist rules (re: Liam Fox) and virtually ravage public services (NHS) just as those on the street looted the electronics stores.

There are broader issues which have created a ‘must have’ society and it is not only the so-called ‘troubled families’ and ‘gangs’ that need to be tackled but the corruptions at the heart of the political elite that create an ‘us versus them’ attitude to rule and one which is not helped by highlighting those who are ‘troubled’ and targetting them.

Back to Pickles though, the article quotes him as saying

“the common refrain was where are the parents? Why aren’t they keeping their kids indoors? Why weren’t they with them in court? The whole country got a sudden, unwelcome insight into our problem families. The ones that make misery in their communities and cause misery to themselves.”

What Pickles fails to appreciate is that ‘the country’ got in welcome insight in the summer to far more than these ‘problem families’. We got an insight into the way that our society has developed a materialistic and opportunist streak that is by no means confined to the ‘less than 1% of the population’.

Indeed, it was the willingness of those who are  not in this particular group of ‘troubled families’ to join the general lawlessness and looting that was the real social issue evidence in the aftermath of the rioting.

So what is a ‘troubled family’?

A family with multiple problems has been defined by the cabinet office as “no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items”.

Let’s see. Unemployment, poor housing, poor education.. oh look, mental health has been thrown in there too to add to the stigma as well as disability and low income. Hmm. That is a ‘problem’ family. Well, has it ever occured to the government that removing access to a comprehensive and supportive benefit system and social housing and decent education might actually cause some of these compounded ‘troubles’  rather than tackling the so-called ‘troubled’ families that arise from these social and financial circumstances.

Surely the proverbial ‘prevention is better than cure’ maxim applies? In which case, why doesn’t the government tackle the issues behind poverty rather than exacerbating them and marginalising and stigmatising poverty and the effects of poverty by dismissing families who grow up with these issues as ‘troubled’.

Labelling hurts. Labelling by a government is pure discrimination and playing politics with peoples’ lives is worse yet.

Troubled maybe, but troubled to whom?

I don’t say these families should not receive further help. Of course they should but they should on the basis of the poor housing, low incomes and ill-health rather than because they are ‘problems’.

Who created these problems and how can they be solved? That should be what the government is asking. How can we build a society with a sufficient and appropriate safety net than creates real community and doesn’t destroy localities and local services. The government cannot absolve itself from all social projects and social services by laying the blame on the ‘troubled families’ line without accepting responsibility.

Or maybe they can but we shouldn’t allow their narrative to become the predominant one.