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Article for The Times - It’s time to be honest about ‘affordable’ housing

November 10, 2017

Today (10th November) I have written an article for The Times about so-called 'affordable' housing. You can read it here, or in full below. 

 

Every so often certain words and phrases become political mantras, and as they do so they lose any real meaning. Under New Labour the public tired of jargon like “delivery” and “implementation”. In the coalition years we never saw the “Big Society” come to fruition. The repetition of mindless expressions is patronising and erodes trust in politics, reinforcing the chasm that exists between the Westminster village and the nation’s “hard working” and “just about managing” families.

 

Nowhere is the political class more out of touch with the country at large than on “affordable” housing. On Tuesday during a debate on temporary accommodation I repeated a demand that I have been making for years now — we need to banish the term “affordable” from the public policy lexicon because it means absolutely nothing to the people that we are sent to parliament to represent.

 

Affordable housing isn’t actually affordable in any real sense. There are around 10,000 households on the housing waiting list in my borough of Haringey and I would wager that not a single one of them could afford either the deposit or the mortgage on a so-called affordable home costing anything up to £450,000.

 

Calling these properties affordable makes a mockery of the government and parliament. We are supposed to serve our constituents but they don’t take us seriously if we can’t show that we understand their lives. Surely someone in Number 10, the Treasury, or the Department for Communities and Local Government could have asked — “but affordable for who, minister?” Even my own party trotted out the phrase on some literature during the last general election.

 

According to Shelter, in 2020 these homes will be affordable to households with an annual income of £77,000 per year and access to a deposit of £98,000. For comparison, a 25-year-old on the national living wage currently earns £15,600.

 

Affordable used to mean something. It used to mean a council house where the rent was significantly less than in the private rented sector. Now the government’s affordable homes policy doesn’t even help the people who need it most — 80 per cent of the housing budget is spent on state subsidises in the form of Help to Buy ISAs and starter home discounts. This is taxpayers’ money that is overheating the housing market and topping up bank of mum and dad deposits on flats, not helping those who cannot afford to rent privately.

 

Those who have benefited from Help to Buy earn more than 150 per cent of the national average income, and more than half said the government subsidy merely helped them buy a more expensive property or move to a better area. The government’s own data shows the average income of beneficiaries is £42,000, compared to an average income for working age households of £29,000. The Government’s flagship affordable housing programme should be supporting people who can’t put a roof over their heads, not people who would already be able to buy a home.

 

Whilst political parties may disagree about the correct response to the housing crisis, we can at least be honest with the public about what is going on. Grenfell thrust our housing policy into the public consciousness this year, but the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has built just 10 new council-funded social homes since 1990 and the Conservative Party has been ideologically opposed to social housing for decades. Private developers are driven by profit, so if we want homes that are actually affordable to those on average or low incomes it necessarily follows that the state must play a role in the housing market. These are simple points of fact, not up for debate

 

It is my belief that the only way the 3,140 families in my borough living in temporary accommodation can get a permanent home is through a mass council house building programme, yet on Tuesday the local government minister reiterated the government’s commitment to their “affordable” home programme. Affordable for who, minister?

 

 

 

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David Lammy

From Tottenham. For Tottenham.