Overcrowding is a big problem. MSD says:
“Housing space adequate to the needs and desires of a family is a core component of quality of life. National and international studies show an association between the prevalence of certain infectious diseases and crowding,70 between crowding and poor educational attainment, and between residential crowding and psychological distress”
And the problem is getting worse because we’re not building enough houses. Falling house prices and tighter credit have discouraged building, while the Nats have slashed the budget for new state housing to nearly nothing.
Normally, I would say that the solution to overcrowding is more state housing – eco-smart housing, which would also create jobs. But an interesting article in the Guardian recently by George Monbiot suggests another solution to overcrowding:
There are two housing crises in Britain. One of them is obvious and familiar: the walloping shortfall in supply. Households are forming at roughly twice the rate at which new homes are being built. In England alone, 650,000 homes are classed as overcrowded. Many other people are desperate to move into their own places, but find themselves stuck. Yet the new homes the government says we need – 5.8m by 2033 – threaten to mash our landscapes and overload the environment.
The other crisis is scarcely mentioned. I stumbled across it while researching last week’s column, buried on page 33 of a government document about another issue. It’s growing even faster than the first crisis – at a rate that’s hard to comprehend. Yet you’ll seldom hear a squeak about it in the press, in parliament, in government departments or even in the voluntary sector. Given its political sensitivity, perhaps that’s not surprising.
The issue is surplus housing – the remarkable growth of space that people don’t need. Between 2003 and 2008 (the latest available figures), there was a 45% increase in the number of under-occupied homes in England. The definition of under-occupied varies, but it usually means that households have at least two bedrooms more than they require. This category now accounts for over half the homes in which single people live, and almost a quarter of those used by larger households. Nearly 8m homes – 37% of the total housing stock – are officially under-occupied.
The only occasions on which you’ll hear politicians talk about this is when they’re referring to public housing. Many local authorities are trying to encourage their tenants to move into smaller homes. But public and social housing account for only 11% of the problem. The government reports that the rise in under-occupation “is entirely due to a large increase within the owner-occupied sector…
…A report by the International Longevity Centre comes to the conclusion: “Wealth … is the key factor in whether or not we choose to occupy more housing space than is essential.”While most houses are privately owned, the total housing stock is a common resource. Either we ensure that it is used wisely and fairly, or we allow its distribution to become the starkest expression of inequality. The UK appears to have chosen the second option. We have allowed the market, and the market alone, to decide who gets what – which means that families in desperate need of bigger homes are crammed together in squalid conditions, while those who have more space than they know what to do with face neither economic nor social pressure to downsize.”.
So, you’ve got all these overcrowded houses at one end of the market and all these undercrowded houses at the other. Doesn’t seem like a very efficient use of resources.
There’s no New Zealand figures on undercrowding but, going from the 2006 Census there’s about 4.5 million bedrooms in occupied homes (we’re not counting cribs here). Assume that an average of one per household is shared by a couple and that leaves over a million spare rooms. I suspect that a lot of this is empty-nesters living in the family home still after the kids have moved out with two or three spare bedrooms (my parents are in that category).
At the same time, 389,000 people were living in overcrowded houses needing at least one more bedroom (and 131,000 in households needing more two or more). It’s hard to be sure but let’s estimate on the high side and say the overcrowded households are short 100,000 bedrooms in total.
That means overcrowding – a driver of disease, poor educational outcomes etc – could be solved simply by getting the housing stock more efficiently allocated so that 10% of the empty rooms are filled.
But how to do it? I’m really struggling to think of a mechanism. Simply putting a tax on having unoccupied bedrooms and recycling that money into first-home mortgage assistance would be ideal but hellishly complex to administer.
Have you got any ideas? Or is the fact that some are living in near-empty homes while others endure overcrowding something we have to accept and focus on more state housing instead?