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Transcript: Not Enough Space

In our final episode of the season, we explore the housing crisis, its causes and potential solutions for the future.  

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

housing, people, uk, community, housing market, pandemic, bartlett, thinking, samir, cities, citizen scientists, describing, home, inequalities, experiences, saffron, social housing, build, local authorities, happening

SPEAKERS

Christoph Lindner, Saffron Woodcraft, Samir Jeraj

Christoph Lindner  00:06

Hello and welcome to Building Better, a podcast about the cities and human spaces we build worldwide that asks, how can we build better? My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I'm the Dean here at UCL's Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. In each episode, I sit down with experts from the Bartlett and from the built environment sector to explore new ideas and solutions for some of the big issues that affect our daily lives, our societies and our planet.

Christoph Lindner  00:48

In the final episode of this series, we are going to be discussing the housing market. In the UK right now, we are in a cost of living crisis, with renting and renters' rights in a particularly precarious situation. The number of people sleeping rough is higher than pre-pandemic, with many experiencing homelessness for the first time. And a huge part of this problem is the housing market and how it operates. And so today I have invited two guests to talk about the housing market and potential alternatives.

Christoph Lindner  01:22

I would like to welcome Samir Jeraj, a writer at The New Statesman and a commissioning editor at Hyphen. Samir is the co-author of The Rent Trap, a critical account of the private rental sector, and his work focuses on social affairs, housing, health and immigration. He is an unofficial historian of The Bullring, aka Cardboard City, and for the past five years has been collecting interviews, photos, documents and materials about the UK's largest and most culturally iconic community of people who are homeless.

Christoph Lindner  02:00

And my second guest today is Saffron Woodcraft, a Principal Research Fellow at the Bartlett's Institute for Global Prosperity. Saffron is an anthropologist working with citizen scientists, and community organizations to understand lived experiences of prosperity and inequality. Her research focuses on changing the evidence that policymakers use to make decisions about urban regeneration. Saffron's research projects include UCL's new Citizen Science Academy, as well as Prosperity in East London 2021 to 2031, which is a longitudinal study that uses prosperity measures, designed by citizen scientists, to monitor regeneration impacts in 15 different neighborhoods.

Christoph Lindner  02:52

Our conversation today is going to have two halves. In the first half, we want to think about the problem and in the second half, we want to explore the solution. So we're going to begin by asking the big question of what is wrong with the housing market? And as a way into that really large question, Samir, can I just ask you, what does the housing market look like today? And what kinds of experiences are people having in it?

Samir Jeraj  03:17

So I'd say the housing market today for the many people looks expensive, chaotic, poor quality, and is a great source of stress for people.

Christoph Lindner  03:33

These are not good adjectives to describe the housing market, is the picture out there really so bleak?

Samir Jeraj  03:39

I would say, you know, for example, in private rented housing costs are very high, standards are very low. In social housing, there's a shortage of supply. And there's a whole issue around conditions at the moment. And within owner occupation, again, costs are very high. And people are currently kind of facing higher, like mortgage increases, you still got the kind of the fallout from the cladding issue in housing as well.

Christoph Lindner  04:09

That is a scary picture, because what you're describing are issues around the quality of space issues around the cost of housing issues, about safety of spaces, but also issues around policy and laws, none of which seems to be particularly concerned about the well being of the renter. Saffron, to bring you into this, I want to hear a little bit about what you've been observing and seeing with the communities that you work with.

Saffron Woodcraft  04:40

Yes, I think those two words housing market sum up the major challenges for me, and I think encapsulate the stories and the experiences that I hear from residents in East London. So over the past, you know, 30 or 40 years we've got used to the financialization of housing In the UK, and policy makers tend to talk about housing, and housing development as a driver of economic growth. Housing for those of us that are lucky enough to own a home is a major source of wealth. But when we talk about a housing crisis and affordability, what people talk about in their everyday lives is very different to the underlying assumptions that are in policy and in planning that house prices will keep on rising, for example. So there's a disconnect that I see. And in the work that I'm doing with citizen scientists, without talking about their own experiences and the experiences in their communities, that disconnect is very evident. And it's not just about affordability. And it's not just about the supply of housing. I think what I see and what I hear is a lack of attention, I think, to the importance of housing to our emotional well being to local communities. It's kind of wider societal contribution. So we've spent so long talking about and thinking about housing as a market. I feel like we've moved away from this bigger question, which is what should housing be doing for us as individuals as communities, and as a society.

Christoph Lindner  06:24

So I think this is about to reveal what a superficial person that I sometimes am. But while you were talking Saffron, it reminded me of the scene in the Fight Club, when the main character is sitting in his in his apartment, looking around, and every piece of furniture comes from Ikea, and he has this kind of realization that he's living in an Ikea catalog, is because in a way, what you're describing is how the home, which is supposed to be a place of refuge literally has been turned into something else, a commodity, a repository of value of capital. And that financialization of something that's really at the core of human society and living together as humans feels like it's very much intention almost irreconcilable the home as a place of refuge and the home as a financial product. Um, how did the UK get into that situation? If we look at a city like London, over the last several 100 years, there have been waves of investment in building trying to create housing for wide swaths of the population, but somehow in the 20th century, and now more acutely in the 21st century, we seem to be moving away from a vision of housing as something for people towards or maybe even embracing, reluctantly, I don't know, a vision of housing as a place to park capital, how did we get there Samir any insights?

Samir Jeraj  07:46

I mean, one of the key dates for that is the beginning of the Thatcher government in 1979. So up to that point, maybe around 1979, one in three households was living in social housing, which is definancialized. The rents are affordable, and it was effectively security of tenure, there are also rent controls in place in private rented housing, and between the right to buy introduced in the early 80s. And the scrapping of rent controls at the end of the 1980s these two things kind of like ushered in a, I suppose, deregulation of and privatization of a significant chunk of housing in the UK, combined with increased access to credit. And then in the kind of 90s you see the kind of emergence of the buy to let mortgage and then that like the kind of the cultural side of homeownership becoming like the preeminent thing like all the Home Makeover type shows, and these kind of like products being marketed as like this, this being something that shows your value and success as a person or as a family is in the specific items of a home rather than it being for our purpose, which is the kind of like well being of your of your family, its health and being placed with like education and community.

Christoph Lindner  09:09

And the situation you're describing that that cultural history of housing is connected to the UK, but that larger trend of financialized housing is something that we have seen seen all across the world, and the reasons that drive it different governments, different policies, but behind all of it, there is the same trend that's happening around the world. And I just wonder, is it too alarmist to say that now, as we come out of the pandemic, our cities are more unaffordable, more unhealthy, more inequitable than they have ever been? Is that overly dramatic?

Samir Jeraj  09:47

I mean, I think what was interesting about the pandemic was there was a brief like respite in a trend that had been emerging for for quite some time in, in cities and you know, I can speak to maybe the experience of of like the kind of like global global north and the countries that yes, there was this trend of cities in particular becoming more expensive, higher levels of inequality that the economy being concentrated there as well. Like you've got the, like regional inequalities in the UK, they've widened significantly between London and the rest of the rest of England. Definitely.

Christoph Lindner  10:24

And, Saffron, what do you think? Are cities more unequal now than before the pandemic?

Saffron Woodcraft  10:30

I would say so, yes. So I think if you look at UK cities, but also a data about international cities, too, you can see there's been growing inequalities. And I think the pandemic really foregrounded inequalities that low income or more deprived communities in the UK have been experiencing for a very long time. But those issues really came to the fore, and highlighted how things like digital exclusion, food insecurity, energy insecurity, are really closely linked to the housing system that we have the 10 years of housing that people occupy the particular places where people live. So I, I see that the pandemic definitely foregrounded those inequalities, and made it very evident what an important role housing plays in being able to access some of those services, but also, as you said, you know, have a refuge and somewhere to withdraw, but also for home to be a space where you can study where you can continue to work throughout the pandemic, for example. So there were a lot of issues that I think relate to urban resilience, and the resilience of cities that actually play out in the home, that we've seen really come to the fore over the last couple of years.

Christoph Lindner  11:55

There's something really heartbreaking though about the picture that you describe. And this is very different to the housing crisis that you see in countries like the US back around the time of the global financial crisis, what you're actually describing saffron is a situation where people are stretching and struggling just to have the basics of a home that they need. And this home by living in it by having a home is actually bankrupting them. And I'm really glad that you brought up not just the cost of housing, but all the things that go into housing, because one of the challenges we're seeing now with the cost of living crisis in the UK, that the challenge is not just affording a home, but once you're in the home, it's being able to afford heat, food, to bring into the table transportation to get to work or school or to a doctor. So it feels like the challenge of making housing affordable, has actually become bigger in the last year or so. And it's become much more multi dimensional. It's not just about the brick and mortars of where you live. It's how that connects in to energy systems, education, food, and all that kind of stuff. Where is this headed? What kind of path do you think we're on,

Saffron Woodcraft  13:03

I would really like to see that this moment is an opportunity to start a new kind of conversation about housing and the role that has imposed in societies. And I want to be optimistic that now is a good moment to have that conversation. And I think in the work that I do, which is often with local authorities who have a responsibility for housing and planning in local communities, then there is definitely a new kind of awareness, a new interest, and exactly what you were just describing, thinking about housing as part of a secure livelihood, as opposed to seeing housing as distinct from, say, labor market policy locally. So I think it's incredibly important at this at this moment, as we're coming out of the pandemic, but also facing huge issues in an urban context, like climate adaptation, that there's an opportunity for a different kind of conversation about what housing does for society, and a conversation that involves citizens directly in thinking about what some of those solutions might be. And thereby there's an opportunity for a wider than set of conversations with developers with housing associations with those engineers and you know, sustainability scientists that can perhaps address some of the issues that we were just talking about around energy security or food security at a very local level. So I think it would be wonderful, for example, to bring together a group of communities and architects and developers and say, Let's design energy costs out of housing that we're building over the next 20 or 30 years, you know, how might we do that? And think about that as part of an effort to innovate and create more resilient communities where housing is supporting livelihood security, rather than keeping people in this situation where they're over extended and stressed and therefore not able to work or not able to study?

Christoph Lindner  15:02

How do we bring local authorities and national government into this? Because it feels to me that unless we have the support and the participation of our councils, and our government it's going to be very hard to radically remake the picture. Samir, what do you think on that question?

Samir Jeraj  15:22

Well, interestingly, I was a local council employee and local councillor for for four years. So a little bit of insight into this, I think, actually, a lot of councils are quite interested in how to actually deliver the housing that their residents need. The problems, I think, are at that more kind of national level. So certainly, under, under conservative governments, the restrictions around planning have often been kind of used as the reason as to as to why there hasn't been why it hasn't been building and, and there's like lots of noise about it, but they're kind of caught politically between people who somewhat benefit from there being a shortage of housing. So certain types of developers, landowners, and homeowners as a as a kind of political category. People like to see their assets increase in value. And given that we've commodified housing, and on the other side, they're meant to be committed to this kind of like the market meeting, meeting demand. And so they shouldn't be having these concentrations of power out there actually kind of like dictating what, what is happening. And going back to kind of Saffron's point around, like how many of the housing issues, we're talking about have affected poorer people, for a long time, this is somewhat cynical point, but it's one that's been made, which is that MPs started to take notice of the housing crisis, as soon as their kids started experiencing it. You know, like, as soon as a generation starts to see their kids can't have the standard of living that they did, they will start to kind of ask questions of that. But whether they, as a political category of people will actually do something about it, I think, is a big challenge, because it because it kind of caught in between this thing of having created a lot of assets out of housing, and then having to sacrifice that or erode that, to meet the needs of younger people, poorer people.

Christoph Lindner  17:21

We ought to use part of our conversation to start imagining alternatives and thinking about what a fair and inclusive and affordable housing future could look like. If you could design a housing, let's call it a system, not a market or a housing environment. What would the ideal version be?

Samir Jeraj  17:47

So I mean, I would, I would imagine something whereby quality is, is high in terms of space standards, in terms of meeting the social, educational, emotional, environmentally needs of people, single people, people, whatever, kind of like family arrangements, or kind of living arrangements that they choose to have. And then together would be like the services around them being in place. Again, like schools, work, leisure, and you know, kind of like really kind of like yet basing it on that idea or that idea of both both leave, but also like, like luxury for, for want of a better phrase, I think one of the key issues is that housing has retreated from this idea that especially poor working class people deserve as good as anyone else. And that was a that was part of the original vision of of social housing was we're going to create really excellent places to live, whereas we're somewhat stuck at the moment and an idea of sufficiency. So I think this idea of luxury and luxury being meeting those higher needs.

Christoph Lindner  18:56

I love the way that you describe housing, in conjunction with services and thinking about the environment that surrounds housing, because in a way, it seems, Samir, that what you're talking about is a future that is about community. And it's it's more of a comprehensive vision of not just what housing should be, but how that should connect to the rest of society. What about you Saffron, the ideal vision of housing future?

Saffron Woodcraft  19:24

I really liked Samir's idea of luxury. I think that's a really nice place to start. Not with a low baseline, but to think about, you know, what, what role does housing play in our individual lives in our communities and in society? And one of the most exciting ideas I've come across recently is the idea of universal basic services and thinking that housing could be something that is a universal basic service, and that we think about designing neighborhoods, designing types of housing, where people are able to access housing as a service and instead of, you know, spending 40-50-60% of their monthly household income on trying to meet housing costs, whether that's mortgage debt or or rent, to think about much lower, much more genuinely affordable housing costs, or potentially no cost housing in, in some senses, and instead thinking about then how they could use the rest of that income in other ways. So I think that's, that's an idea that's really exciting. I always say, I'm really interested in the idea of thinking about housing, and the services that go into housing and designing out the costs around those two. So I think there's really exciting potential to think about different kinds of heating different kinds of food systems that are very local, that support individual and community resilience, but then also potentially create opportunities for community building, as well over three community enterprises like community power, or thinking about how green space public space, local urban food systems bring people together in different kinds of ways. What I'd like to see is a kind of a more holistic way of thinking about housing, and the points of connection it creates between citizens, but also then to other parts of the community and government.

Christoph Lindner  21:20

Yeah, that's a pretty radical vision, but I think, really compelling as well. And that word community also features quite prominently in your vision. And I wonder, in a way, Samir, and Saffron, what you've both been describing is a housing future that is much more about collaboration than competition. And it feels like the current housing market is all about competition. And maybe that's one of the things that we need to move away from. So let's start to bring reality back into the picture. So we've got a long term ideal future that we could potentially achieve, what are some of the steps that we need to take right now, if we're going to move away from the current housing market and start moving in the right direction? Samir?

Samir Jeraj  22:07

In my opinion, one of the key things that brings about change is is social movement, and politics and politicians often formalized what is actually kind of happening when a widespread way in in civil society. So I mean, there are examples out there of organizations and movements trying to like decommodify housing. I was really impressed first in the research for the for the book of with the student housing coops in the UK, again, they're very prominent in the US, but not so much in the UK and these guys had to have the vision that about it being in the community, it wasn't just kind of cheap housing, it was being part of a long term part of the community. And so you have kind of movements around Community Land Trusts, which I think kind of like interesting and picked up kind of, I think, quite a lot in perhaps more kind of like rural and suburban kind of areas where there's often been kind of quite a lot of resistance to new housing. So I think those are those were two things that I found kind of like quite interesting in terms of like new things happening. And then you have kind of renter organizations movements to protect Social Housing, as well.

Christoph Lindner  23:17

So social movements, coops, community land trusts, all of these seem that they're about collective action and thinking collectively about the future saffron, what are some of the first steps you would recommend to start moving towards a better housing future?

Saffron Woodcraft  23:32

So I agree with all of those suggestions. I think Community Land Trusts in particular, are a model that has a lot of potential, but I think to go in a slightly different direction, one of the things that I would do immediately is have citizens, communities, planners, housing officers and local authorities, for example, working together to develop different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of evidence about what the local issues and challenges are. And this is very closely linked to the work that I do with citizen science and citizen science as a methodology. But I can see through the work we've been doing in East London for a number of years transformation or changes in thinking and understanding about local problems that have come from these kinds of dialogue. And this kind of research with citizens and policymakers working together, now starting to filter into the conversations that are happening with local authorities around housing around livelihoods around community resilience. So I think this is a really important part of the picture, because I see quite often conversations around housing and housing provision and what is or isn't affordable, have a tendency to kind of become very binary. And I think this different kinds of knowledge, different kinds of evidence, bring nuance to the situation. But also they build the capacity of residents and planners and decision makers to work together and to come up with different kinds of solutions that perhaps they wouldn't do as individual groups,

Christoph Lindner  25:02

I detect in both of your answers a certain level of optimism. Would that be fair to say? That there's some optimism in your voices that we can start to achieve more of these things?

Samir Jeraj  25:12

I think I think so, you know, the situation is quite untenable at the at the moment, I think as well. The challenges that the current government face around housing are are huge. And yet, you know, like we, we had a budget on Wednesday where housing wasn't mentioned. So I think there's a real kind of pressure building up in terms of, again, quality, affordability, the actual kind of people realizing that their, that their housing can be different and should be different.

Saffron Woodcraft  25:45

Yeah, I think so, I'm optimistic in the sense that one of the projects I work on involves London's growth boroughs. So this is for local authorities in East London. And together the growth boroughs have adopted a new inclusive economy strategy, which they will be rolling out over the next decade. And they have taken the work that's been done by citizen scientists and residents and community groups around livelihood security, and put that at the heart of their inclusive economy strategy, which means a local understanding of the importance of housing, a local understanding of what affordability actually means to low income households in East London. And that relationship between good work, stable work, good housing, stable housing, and the key local services are going to be at the heart of that thinking moving forward. And that's come as a result of the kind of dialogues that I was just describing. So I'm optimistic that there is, you know, there is a new kind of thinking emerging around that this holistic thinking about housing.

Christoph Lindner  27:01

I have one more question that I want to ask. And it's the question that we end every episode with - looking to the future, what is one thing you think we should do so we can build better?

Saffron Woodcraft  27:12

What I would like to see is the Bartlett launch a new transdisciplinary planning, architecture and placemaking program to educate the next generation of urbanists. So we need to bring together the social sciences and built environment professions in a new kind of way, I think, that also brings citizens and communities into the mix. So what we see at the Bartlett, which is what makes the Bartlett brilliant, is, you know, a huge amount of attention to co-production and community. But to bring that into one program, where we've got a different kind of planner, a different kind of architect, a different kind of developer, thinking about these kinds of big integrator questions going forward, I think would be fantastic.

Christoph Lindner  27:59

Well, there you go. That's a project for us at the Bartlett.  Samir what about you, what is something you think we need to do to build better?

Samir Jeraj  28:06

I think I'd add to Saffron's suggestion to talk about, you know, like, again, like educating and training people in in how to how to organize how to build a movement. I think that's something that is that the US has traditionally been very been very good at, whereas that that tradition in the UK has somewhat been somewhat been lost over the years, but has been has been been around has been crucial in, for example, at the UK history of of rent control started from in social movements in in Glasgow in Scotland. So understanding what the role you can play in building a social movement is.

Christoph Lindner  28:45

Well, that fits very nicely with UCL's radical spirit of disruptive thinking. And on that note, let me thank both of my guests for joining me today.

Christoph Lindner  28:59

You've been listening to building better the Bartlett podcast. This podcast was presented by myself Christoph Lindner and brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. It was edited by Cerys Bradley, and featured music from Blue Dot Sessions. I was joined today by Samir Jeraj and Saffron Woodcraft. And if you would like to hear more of these podcasts, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. And of course, you can follow us @theBartlettUCL. See you next time.

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