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Nick Johnson: 'The homeowner fantasy is holding back housebuilding'

Nick Johnson, former director of developer Urban Splash talks, about why we need to remove the stigma of renting to help kickstart quality housebuilding

I was recently requested to attend and give evidence at a government inquiry into the ‘housing crisis’. When I stepped onto the floor, debate was raging about the the ‘barriers to home ownership’, the ‘level of deposits required’ and the “average age of entry to homeownership” which has stretched to 36. I asked both the inquisitors and the audience of 80 or so to hold their hands up if they were home owners, a good 75 per cent put their hands up. I then asked them to leave their hands up if they owned their property without a mortgage. There were two hands left. 

The idea that we own our own homes is a fallacy, a Great British fantasy

The idea that we own our own homes is a fallacy, a Great British fantasy - so long as our deeds are pledged to a lender, we at their tender mercy. Worse, we spend money on that ‘asset’,  we fix the roof, we refurb the kitchen, the bathroom, we paint, we plaster and in a no or low growth market they, not we, are the beneficiaries from investment in ‘our’ home by looking after the asset that we pledged. To add insult to injury the government tax us for the privilege of ownership, and we put all our available cash down by way of a deposit. 

This all works fine when there’s an upside, when the market’s rising and you can capture uplift in the form of homeowner nirvana - personal equity. When it isn’t, home ownership can look a little silly when you add up all the numbers….and if it goes wrong you can’t even walk away, like you can in the States.

The way to get better quality housing is about removing the dogma that surrounds homeownership

The way to get better quality housing is about removing things though - removing the dogma that surrounds homeownership and the stigma that goes with being a renter. That way we can begin to forge a sensible, sustainable equation that will lead to the delivery of quality and quantity in the housing market both now and in the long run.

The essential contract needed is for the investor to get a reasonable return, and for the occupier to get a decent home, it also needs to be seen as a long term solution, not a quick buck nor stopgap. 

Bring those two essential elements together and those that invest in quality, invest in good design, generous space standards, should be able to charge a premium for their product and so the value of investing in those very qualities will be realised and captured. In areas where the market isn’t presently working it needs government intervention, or if the the government are wanting to intervene, offer tax breaks to fix markets that are broken.

The proposal to remove perceived impediments to housing delivery is one more in a line of  policies that might sound good, or look good in the policy room on a Thursday afternoon. But is staggering in its lack of insight into any real sense of what the issues are and what opportunities exist to put matters right.   


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