Housing for the middle will keep communities together

Housing can help maintain our mixed, inclusive and empathetic communities

It’s no surprise that housing is consistently a top polling issue for Londoners, and that London politicians of all colours have gone miles further than their national colleagues to promise action on housing.

How politicians take action on housing has a huge impact on individuals and communities, and other concerns that leaders have about the future of our city.

A big issue for London over the coming years is the rapid process of social change happening across vast swathes of inner London, which could see many amazingly diverse and inclusive areas end up feeling more like middle class enclaves, and leave many lower and middle income Londoners feeling excluded or priced out the capital.

Housing is key to this process, and so my pitch is that you can address housing concerns and help maintain mixed, cohesive neighbourhoods with the same policies.

Let me explain how…

As house prices and rents rise rapidly, Londoners renting or buying find that their budgets go less far in the area they call home, and they are forced to move to a cheaper area, contributing to rising prices in those areas, and pushing people in similar situations out further. In Clapton, where I live, house prices have gone up by more than 40% and rents by 30% in just a couple of years.

There have been some real advantages for our neighbourhood. Crime has reduced dramatically and people feel safer on the streets, and there’s more money in the local economy, helping small businesses employing local people to flourish. That’s great.

But if you’re a young family who bought a two bedroom flat when the area was cheaper, you’ll find the step up to a three bedroom home more of an impossible leap. If you rent privately and receive housing benefit, both caps to housing benefit and huge market rent rises will make your home completely unaffordable.

This results in transience, with people renting privately having very few incentives to put down roots in their neighbourhood and get involved in the community, because that hefty rent rise is always around the corner, and you only ever have a short contract. It means families having to move across town to afford a home that meets their needs, and children changing schools as a result.

It also means a growing gap between rich and poor – as the gap between social housing and market rents/prices widens. This can mean little shared experience between people who can afford to live in the area now and who’ve lived in the area for a long time.

When I think of the 20 or so bars, cafes and restaurants that have opened in Clapton in the last two years, they almost exclusively cater to new wealthy demographics, who think little of spending £4.50 on a craft beer or £12 on a main course. As a result some people don’t feel at home on their local high street and feel the area no longer serves them.

Gentrification makes the lowest income households feel most excluded, but I believe the answer is in helping the ‘middle’ (households typically earning £30 – £45,000) afford to stay in inner London communities, and this is best done through improving housing options for the middle in inner London.

A stronger, stable middle income contingent would help support the kind of businesses that wealthier and less well off locals can use. They would promote cohesion at the school gates, and help make sure that London’s neighbourhoods don’t end up becoming a series of exclusive enclaves where only the cupcake economy thrives.

A future Mayor could make inner London affordable for middle earning Londoners through:

  1. Building lots of good quality, family size shared ownership homes, with smaller shares available to reduce costs. This will plug the huge gap between social and market housing and ensure there are decent housing options for all income points.
  2. Making private renting more stable by requiring landlords to offer five year tenancies with predictable rent increases, so that middle income families can plan their finances and can rest assured that they can keep their children at their local school. Alisa Helbitz wrote about this yesterday.
  3. Making it more straightforward for middle income people to convert and extend homes (and finance this) to create more space for their families and stay in their communities.

As long as inner London keeps its social housing stock there will be homes for people on the lowest incomes. But without a space for the middle, much of inner London will end up  unequal and polarised. London could rightfully be called the world’s greatest city, but if our local communities lack empathy, commitment and cohesion then that’s a pretty hollow accolade.

Robbie de Santos is a community activist in Lower Clapton, Hackney; a trustee of the National Private Tenants Organisation; and is currently Senior Public Policy Advocate at the debt charity StepChange, having previously led Shelter’s policy work on private renting. He is writing in a personal capacity. 

Photo courtesy of Becky E