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Overcrowding & undercrowding

Written By: - Date published: 11:20 pm, January 20th, 2011 - 31 comments
Categories: class, housing - Tags:

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?

31 comments on “Overcrowding & undercrowding”

  1. McFlock 1

    I suppose [sarc] one could address the issue to some extent by decreasing the wealth disparities within a nation – i.e. economic mechanisms to automatically redistribute wealth towards the poor. Not to an extreme degree (before RWNJs scream “communism!”), just mechanisms like a progressive tax system with more brackets at the top and a higher tax-free threshhold, greater investment in smaller businesses, increases in the minimum wage, and income-related housing subsidies for the lower-middle class and working poor. Then state housing picks up the poorest members in society.

  2. Luxated 2

    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.

    Instead of taxing unoccupied bedrooms simply tax the liveable area at the point of sale (effectively house – garaging), I would imagine there would be a fairly strong correlation with the increase in area and number of bedrooms. The money generated would be put back into assistance for those who need upsize due to a change in size to their immediate family dwelling in the one residence.

    Combine this with standards for the ratio of non-bedroom space to bedroom space and a definition of what constitutes a double/single bedroom, which should prevent developers scrimping on what may be considered to be necessary space to reduce the sticker price.

    Some additional rule changes regard multi-tenanted buildings and green space ratios would probably need to be addressed too.

    Although this proposal probably has several problems I haven’t foreseen or addressed, not least in assessing the legitimate needs for assistance. It was the simplest solution from the tax side I could think of in the time I thought it over.

    • jcuknz 2.1

      In the old building code a single bedroom minimum was 66sqft while a double bedroom was 100sqft.
      But while my son grew up reasonably happy in his 66sqft my wife and I before we moved in pinched space off the ‘third bedroom’ to make our 100ftsg room a bit bigger …we built our own house so were able to do these things :-) The third bedroom was left open to the kitchen/breakfast-bar area and was occasionally curtained off for a guest.

  3. shaz47 3

    I’m not very good at this bloging thing and people here are so clever so please bear with me, as I do get this urge to say something if I feel strongly enough.

    My mother who lives alone, lives in a 3 bedroomed house. She has 5 adult children, 16 grandchildren and 1 3/4 great grandchildren spread across the length of New Zealand. There is never a week that goes by where the 2 spare rooms are not occupied. At times there are so many people that one of the grandchildren would be sleeping with her, that way everyone gets a bed. How would her 2 spare bedrooms be classified?

    I understand the problem of under-crowding but it would be impossible to enforce a tax especially if it was to rely on the honesty of the home-owner. She would have to admit to ‘someone’ that her 2 spare rooms were unoccupied and that would not be to her advantage and also untrue. However she would not be able to prove that the rooms were occupied as no one-person is actually there for longer than a week or two at most.

    I have an aunt and uncle who have recently died, their 3 bedroomed house is on the market for some months now and there is not a lot of interest in it, 3 other aunts/uncles who are sitting in large homes, they will be gone soon too. They are all parents of baby boomers so I think there is going to be a large number of big homes on the market, pressure will be on the government to buy up or landlords will be forced to lower rents because of the over supply. It may be sooner rather than later because public healthcare for the elderly is so poor they will all start dropping off very soon.

    • Marty G 3.1

      You are good at this blogging thing:) and I think you’re right about older people owning a lot of the spare rooms. I have a friend who is looking at buying an investment property and my warning to her is don’t expect any capital gain because there are a lot of large house owned by older people that will be coming on the market in coming years either as retirees look to cash up or they pass away

    • just saying 3.2

      Thanks for making all the points I was going to make – and doing it so well. I don’t think commenting on blogs is “blogging” though, (but I could be wrong). People are always joking about my political “blogging” obsession (*warning* blogs can be addictive), and I say I don’t blog, I just join the discussions sometimes.

      The property market is continuing to drop, and who knows where it will finally land. I’m in the process of selling up so I’ve been following my local market closely for a while now. There is still a disproportionate difference in the values of three compared to two bedroom homes, so it seems the reality of baby-boomers retiring is yet to affect prices for larger houses here. It’s good news that home-owning is becoming so much more affordable, and finally, people are buying homes to live in, rather than to invest in or speculate on. The continuing ‘crash’ may eventually help alleviate both over and undercrowding amongst home owners. Renters will continue to be scrwed over just the same, unfortunately.

      Edit
      Forgot to say that it as the market falls it would be prudent for housing corp to buy up and renovate some larger homes where the need is great, as well as to increase the numbers of houses it builds

      • jcuknz 3.2.1

        I think the Housing Corp is already onto this with their policy of leasing houses to sub-let instead of building … the Minister said something about it awhile ago which was reported in my local paper when the question of state housing being sold came up.
        A possible drawback to this is in many cases that the houses available for purchase are old and not insulated and really should be replaced rather than re-used. So the investment that people scrimped for over the years is not really an investment but a liability on their children when they go.

        • Colonial Viper 3.2.1.1

          Leasing houses takes problems away from National’s voter base who have large numbers of investment properties not doing very much. It provides them with a Government income supply.

          You won’t hear the Right Wingers complaining about this Government spending.

          On the other hand, building new affordable housing would help make owning a house even cheaper and more available to poor people, whie creating employment in the building industry. But, increased housing stock and increased housing affordability would screw National supporters who have large numbers of investment properties. These property speculators would also not get the benefit of Government money for leasing their houses. Screwed twice.

          So National will never do that. In fact, see moves underway to reduce the amount of publicly held housing stock.

    • Rusty Shackleford 3.3

      Really good post. You hit right on a pertinent point.

  4. Bazar 4

    Taxing based on rooms. Ugh. The very thought of taxing based on un-used bedrooms is a level of stupid bureaucracy i can’t even fully comprehend.

    But ulimamtly, so people have spare rooms that aren’t used. Thats not really a problem.
    If you pay rates, your already paying a tax based on your land in the form of rates. Having spare rooms means a higher quality home, which means you pay more in rates.

    And you want to double-dip into unused bedrooms. How about taxing for garages, or lawns. A garage promotes car ownership which only adds to traffic conjestion.

    Hell, the reason the building market slumped is because a lot of the land has devalued. Taxing ownership of land futher will only prolong the slump, futher prolonging the recovery of the building industry.

    • Marty G 4.1

      Like I say. That tax wouldn’t work. But it wouldn’t reduce house prices if you recycled the money into the pockets of people buying their first house. I don’t agree with you that there’s no problem when there’s all these empty rooms in some house and over crowding in others. The garage analogy is poor, you pay an annual registration fee per car which disincentives having spare cars

  5. Lindsey 5

    The problem is our style of housing. Many older people would like to move out of their 4/5 bedroom homes but do not want to leave the neighbourhood where they have lived for many years. As we have built whole suburbs of monotype housing, they do not have the choices. My parents looked for months and months before they found a two bedroom townhouse in Mission Bay so that they could quit the five bedroom home they were rattling round in.
    We need planning rules which support the construction of different types of housing so that people can stay in the neighbourhood with their friends, their doctor etc.

    • M 5.1

      Lindsey, that’s a good point you’ve made about continuity in a person’s community and the monotype housing which in many cases, is an overhang from the era of nappy valley suburbs. Town planning should always include a mix of housing from smaller places for singles and retirees through to larger spreads for families. If retirees need a hobby room perhaps an alcove could be incorporated into the design to avoid the building of extra bedrooms thus saving on costs.

      Also the type of materials being used for house building needs to be reconsidered as many of the homes are no longer starter houses like Hardiplank but seem to mostly be brick and tile. Eco housing in the form of straw bale homes or passiv houses like those in Germany need to given equal consideration.

      In addition the design of houses need to be looked at as so many houses are over glazed which will be a huge millstone around people’s necks in the future through the inevitable heat loss from over sized windows and many ranch sliders and the accompanying expensive energy bills. Thankfully my current home is not over glazed but these can be hard to find. The open plan homes of today will require more heating because heat is not contained in one room whereas in older homes doors could be closed to allow heat conservation and cut down on noise which is great for people if they need to study or just want some privacy. I can remember my parents herding us out of the kitchen and closing the door if they needed to discuss something not suitable for our ears.

      I think the threat from disease and psychological stress from not having some space that isn’t invaded by others all the time is will impact to a greater degree. Have those in power
      so quickly forgotten images of children with amputated limbs through meningitis? With the required belt tightening there probably won’t be a chance to have further vaccines made for any other strains of meningitis that may develop.

  6. Pete 6

    It’s not uncommon for people to retire and build a flash big dream home, and the kids are long gone, but it’s their choice, they should be able to do it if they want to. It already costs them more, higher rates, more capital tied up not earning anything.

    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?

    I think that’s the reality. It’s unfair and unrealistic to tax people based on their choice of house and number of bedrooms.

    Undercrowded state housing is an issue that should be dealt with. State housing should be assistance when needed, not a lifelong handout. If they are getting subsidised housing it should only be for what is required, not what is handy.

    I don’t know how much undercrowding there is in state housing though.

  7. Descendant Of Smith 7

    There’s plenty of old poor quality rental housing in our area that is close to town that should be bulldozed.

    It makes much more sense to build here good quality retirement housing. close to town, near supermarkets, picture theatres, etc.

    A brand new unit is not dissimilar in price to the 70’s 3 bedroom homes built for the baby boomers in the 60’s and 70’s to raise their families.

    No doubt there are plenty of people who would swap their three bedroom older home for a new unit in town.

    Why new subdivisions are being built on the outskirts of time for people to retire to is beyond me – as those people lose their licenses I’m not sure how they expect to get around. I’ve seen it happen to some already who are now trying to sell within a year of moving there.

    Town planning could control some of this by restricting what can be built where as could enforcement of housing regulations to ensure that some of this older housing is either bought up to scratch or demolished.

    I don’t have a problem either with councils building some of these new units.

    Housing for older disabled people also needs to be a priority – that population is aging as well. Housing NZ should be specifically addressing this issue – it’s bizarre that they build houses without considering this aspect and then Enable fund the modifications later. No later modifications can for instance make passageways wider for wheelchairs – this needs to be done at the time of building.

    The bottom will drop out of 3 and 4 bedroom homes anyway as the baby boomers die off and both their own homes and their rentals come up for sale.

  8. erentz 8

    Oh yeah. This is one of my (many) peeves. It isn’t helped by ridiculous planning rules that prevent decent infil development either.

  9. What we have now is it … full stop.
    The planet doesn’t have enough ‘stuff’ left to change the existing ‘arrangements’ (well not for the better)
    ‘We’ will be pulling buildings down to use for heating or repairing.
    There will be a period of overcrowding as the population reaches max, then once it explodes (like a Bali bomber), the overcrowding will disappear overnight.
    60 million vacant flats in China if they are filled with 3 person families that is equal to something like 45 New Zealands worth of power generation.
    Admittedly those 180 million people are useing power now so 45 times is a tad exaggerated, but maybe an indicator of how far behind any ‘good’ change we are?

  10. jcuknz 10

    A long term solution/policy whatever you want to call it is to impress on young people the folly of having children when they are not set up to look after them and themselves properly. It is not their right to carelessly bring more and more children into existence for the world to try and support in ever decreasing living standards. Just as with commerce and industry with trying to increase GDP so with people we need to invent an economy/system which maintains the status quo rather than endless expansion … because the later is not possible on a finite planet.

    • Rusty Shackleford 10.1

      A. Living standards aren’t falling.

      B. Do you support the DPB? If so, how do you square the incentive to produce babies the DPB causes with what you just said.

      C. Expansion also involves saving on what we use. Although we use more, we do more with what we use. Stopping that from happening is probably worse than simply using more resources.

  11. Sanctuary 11

    The answer is for the government to get back into the housing game, but not just (or even mainly) in the old state housing model but with a whole portfolio of innovative housing ideas.

    For one thing, building in this country is a cartel controlled by a few companies, and the cost of materials is incredibly high. It is a myth that our houses are primarily much more expensive than those in, say, the USA because of earthquake regulations. The primary reasons are our out-of-date and inefficient building practices (houses are still basically all hand built by artisan craftsmen in the country, a technique that was obsolete at the beginning of the last century – but also reflective of a much wider structurally inefficient artisan economy) and very high materials cost. The government, with standardised designs and a big wallet, could really drive the cost of construction down.

    We need to re-create the State Advances Corporation, and use it to fund (for example) inflation + 1% low interest mortgages to New Zealanders – a rate no foreign owned bank could match, keeping a pile of currently expatriated profits home here in the form of more money in the pockets of ordinary hard-working Kiwis and in a (very modest) return to the government.

    A government building program offers a number of attractive possibilities. For instance, building high density multi-story terraced housing to a standard plan in model communities around key public transport corridors, and offering this housing to all comers on a rent-to-buy/cost recovery only basis would put affordable housing within the range of many New Zealanders currently priced out of the housing market. it could also address the needs of an aging population by providing whole brown-field planned (access to medical care via PT, etc) model communities designed with an aging population in mind with, again, low rents aimed merely at cost recovery for this segment of the population.

    Of course, the idea of government housing driving down the cost of housing and government planned model communities making nice places for New Zealanders of all income levels to live would go down like a pork chop in a synagogue with the baby boomer multiple home owners, property speculators, land developers, and idle rentiers that make up the bulk of the National Party’s base membership…

    • Olwyn 11.1

      You are right Sanctuary, and the last Labor government did have a plan, as I remember, to buy houses in partnership with people, though as is often the case with these sorts of initiatives, probably on a limited scale. It is also high time that we faced the fact that the neoliberal model on a practical level is nothing more than an exercise in dispossession, with the housing problem being one aspect of this. It has led us to replace a productive economy with one based on scavenging and margin squeezing, and our situation would be even worse if Australia was not absorbing a large proportion of our work force. In short, we need a new plan, one that involves rebuilding our productive base, and one that does not treat all thought of social inclusion as akin to mentioning Voldemort.

      I notice that among the comments on a recent blog of Chris Trotter’s, three of 23 said that they were voting for NZF this election. Here is a quote from one of them:

      “Next year I will be probably be voting for Winston. All he has to do to get my vote is to make the end of the selling of NZ land, houses and assets overseas a bottom line in any coalition negotiations. I don’t care who he goes into coalition with either, just as long as he is true to his campaign promises.”

      I think that Winston’s appeal lies largely in the fact that the neoliberals have run out of convincing lies and that he is willing to openly challenge them.

    • prism 11.2

      That’s on the nail! Sanctuary. Individual craftsmen and individual designs push prices up. I noticed when I was in Oz in 1970s how cheap their houses were and good-looking. It is interesting to see the same style of house still being promoted now in NZ, sprawling over a section, etc with extra living and dining and family areas and so on.

      Some of my family used to live in Bayswater London, they had to manage in a small space and did so with style. It can be done, also two or three storey places are not unpleasant to live in, except steps are not good for people with mobility problems and the aged.

  12. ak 12

    The explosion of landlordism and its repulsive “rental management” parasites has not only wrecked the productive economy but primed a social tinderbox as the hope of home ownership gallops away from young dreams. Even NACT has moved – time for Labour to promise much, much more.

    • prism 12.1

      When I was younger, everyone who was settled, had a job and wanted to live in that location, immediately set about saving for a house. They put their efforts into getting one so they were investing with a solid capital item, and the consumerism wasn’t in getting new clothes and toys, and gee gaws from lifestyle shops, it was garden things, paint, wallpaper etc. Things you bought directly assisted your lifestyle and provided a basis for a capital gain, and the property appreciating alleviatrf the effect of inflation.

      I remember that Don Brash didn’t think that NZs should bother about home ownership, wider renting would release money that would go into investors’ pockets and be put to better use, in his mind. Some economists would also like homes to be regarded as unearned profit which would incur tax on that basis. Why should people have the comfort, pleasure and security of their own place in which to live their lives, and not have the fingers of the tax collectors charging them for this benefit?

  13. DeepRed 13

    Building upwards is a no-brainer, but certain shoebox developers have given it a bad rap, providing more ammo for the Quarter Acre Cartel. And those calling for metro urban limits to be relaxed aren’t interested in affordable housing at all, they’re out to build more McMansions for 1-child upper middle class families with status anxiety.

    One proposal to consider is a ‘McMansion tax‘ proposed by an American senator.

  14. Carol 14

    prism, I’m a life time renter (or pretty modest accommodation). I don’t understand this mania for everyone to own their home. I don’t see it as something that fills the bank accounts of the rich, anymore than prioritising home ownership benefits those at the top of the property ladder. Meanwhile those at the bottom of the ladder struggle and are probably always worried they won’t be able to pay the mortgage in future.

    On the UK situation, I saw a report on AlJazeera this morning that disgusted me (not the report but the content). It just highlights the vast inequalities.

    Video of it here:

    http://english.aljazeera.net/video/europe/2011/01/201112021023285524.html

    The world’s most expensive apartments have gone onto the market in one of London’s most desirable areas.

    Called One Hyde Park, only the super-rich will be able to afford one of the 86 apartments. A one bedroom apartment costs $10m and the penthouses $223m each.

    Al Jazeera’s Charlie Angela takes a look at the extravagant flats.

    Spacious, bullet proof glass, 24 hour “room service”, etc, etc. Apparently the makers reckon there’s plenty of buyers even in times of austerity. Mind you, many of them are from other countries eg in the MiddleEast & South East Asia.

    It looks like the buyers of such apartments will be living in a super-rich bubble, totally oblvious to the large numbers of people elsewhere on struggle street. OTOH it also made me think that these vast inequalities are just as likely to spark a revolution, as in Tunisia now, and the “let them eat cake” times of the French Revolution.

  15. Drakula 15

    One question that needs to be aimed at the Labour leaders; Does Labour have a policy to build x number of houses under a state housing scheme?

    If they do then they intend to live up to Labours traditional policies, if they don’t then the difference between them and National as Russell Noerman puts it, is the difference between Coke and Pepsi.

    We need a full scale state housing scheme to provide accommodation and by doing so keep the price of private accommodation affordable.

    The money to do this could come directly from a Capital Gains Tax, once that is achieved there will be much less likleyhood of speculative property bubbles forming.

    But instead of the government renting, this time they could provide a ‘rent to own agreement’ with the tennant. This gives the tennants more incentive to look after their homes.

  16. Rusty Shackleford 16

    “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.”

    Simple. Central planning. That always works.

  17. Rusty Shackleford 17

    “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?”

    It’s none of your business what kind of house I live in. The fact that I have a spare room isn’t taking a room away from anyone else.

    As to the answer? Allow economic growth. That means lower taxes and less govt intervention in general. Economic growth cures everything.

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