Fixing the housing crisis: it’s time to challenge our thirst for more living space

Home alone. Heider Almeida

It’s hard to be optimistic about British homes in the future. The lack of accommodation and the “broken” housing market are perpetually in the news. Millennials, even middle earners, are unlikely to own their own home.

The country’s new-builds are the smallest in Europe, with families “so cramped there isn’t enough space for them to live comfortably, sit down and eat together or even store necessities such as a vacuum cleaner”. As for the ageing population, the UK is said to be “woefully underprepared” for offering them appropriate housing and care.

These woes are variously blamed on “greedy developers” or Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy for council houses. Many commentators believe we need to build around 240,000 homes a year to solve the problem, while praising government schemes to increase ownership, such as the Help to Buy policy.

I want to argue for a different approach to making housing more viable. It focuses on a major cultural shift that has contributed to the housing problem, but too often gets overlooked.

Nearly one-third of the population now live on their own. Key demographic changes, such as young people deferring marriage and children until later in life and older women outliving their spouses and living on their own, has resulted in the average UK household size falling from almost three per household in 1970 to 2.4 for the past decade. This is part of why the number of households is rising, currently at about 1% a year.

UK household composition 1961-2011

ONS/Census

Accompanying these shifts have been changes in people’s expectations. Householders nowadays consider a spare bedroom a necessity, while children are less likely to share a room with siblings than was once the case. Despite all the talk of “rabbit hutch homes”, domestic space per person is actually increasing. With this in mind, here are a couple of alternative responses to the housing crisis that begin to make sense:

1. What we mean by family

The 1850 British census defined the family as “the wife, children, servants, relatives, visitors, and persons constantly or accidentally in the house”. This is an interesting reminder that past home life was much more communal than today.

Our little brood. Kompaniets Taras

The UK government already incentivises renting to lodgers through its Rent a Room scheme, offering homeowners up to £7,500 tax-free income per year if they let space. Taking a more creative approach to our perception of family and who we are willing to live with could make a big difference to the housing crisis. It would also be good for our wallets, not to mention wellbeing, helping people with loneliness and filling empty nests.

2. Honey, I shrunk the house

While the tiny house movement is becoming known for freeing people from mortgages and giving them more time to do what they love, this does not mean everyone needs to move into a 25 square metre home. Just downsizing from a large family house once you reach a certain age would help address our “ticking household bomb”.

The trouble is that people’s willingness to move house declines drastically after the age of 45 as they become more attached to their homes and wider community. Older householders often only move when they are forced by factors such as injury, illness or the death of their partner.

Rethink required. Jelle Harmen van Mourik

To combat this, organisations such as this one in the US, where there is a similar debate taking place, are already working to put a positive spin on downsizing and to market “downsizer homes” to people of a certain age. If we want to do something about the housing crisis, putting more emphasis on the upside of downsizing cannot be understated.

3. Time for substitutions

My research compares experiences of living in different sizes of house and household, and what motivates them. People expect more space for different reasons. Sometimes it makes it easier to enjoy living with your family members: more bathrooms per household reduces the potential for conflicts over who’s next in the shower, for instance. Or it may be because people have become accustomed to having a bedroom or study where they can do what they want and retreat from the company of others.

We need to play up the counterarguments: why is bigger always better, for example, when we know it often locks us into unaffordable mortgages and more housework and gardening?

We also need to encourage people to accommodate these desires in different ways. Soundproofing walls can create a better sense of privacy than having more rooms. Sofa beds can create temporary guest bedrooms that need not be empty for the majority of the year.

The answer to the housing crisis is not to build vast numbers of new homes and help people to own more space than they need. Instead, we need to make do with less and learn to appreciate it.