By Professor Duncan Maclennan, CBE FRSE FAcSS
Shaping Different Futures: a choice
Policy Scotland was at the heart of the Shaping Futures collaborative of nonprofits, cities, governments and researchers that recently explored the past consequences of and future possibilities for housing systems and policies in Australia, Britain and Canada. The report, published little more than a year ago, concluded that the housing that households inhabit shapes their current wellbeing and capabilities and these in turn shape the futures of individuals and households. At the same time housing comprises such a major share of household consumption, savings, wealth and debt that household choices quickly, and significantly, shape the major economic challenges of managing metropolitan areas and macro-economies.
The collaborative concluded that the housing systems of these advanced economies were failing to deliver housing outcomes that enhanced housing affordability and productivity and indeed demonstrably exacerbated inequalities of income and wealth, financial and economic instabilities and impaired efforts towards sustainable development. Homelessness was generally high and rising, queues for declining stocks of non-market affordable housing were lengthening and the burden of paying for housing historically high for renters and owners into the middle of the income distribution. Younger households faced particular difficulty in replicating housing choices their parents had made before the 1990s. Many of the difficulties identified had been worsened by the Global Financial Crisis but most had grown, despite sustained rises in GDP over that period, in scale and visibility over the last three decades. Their persistence and growth, and the worrying fragmentation of government actions and institutions to cope with them, appeared to lie in major policy settings within social and economic policies as much as the details of pressured housing programmes.
The group articulated principles and paths for change. We concluded that the 2020s would be a time for resetting the understandings and parameters for housing policies if they were to best contribute to the wellbeing of individuals and
communities and the wealth of nations. There was the need for governments to adopt a new role in shaping more effective, and potentially fairer, housing market outcomes and for ensuring that widely agreed ‘merit’ good provision for poorer families were actually delivered. It was clearly a time for significant, strategic, and often sub-national policy actions. Now times have changed and the fractured housing systems identified in Shaping Futures are playing key roles in shaping the social and spatial impacts of COVID-19. Yet changing housing outcomes offers important medium-term stimulus and longer-term recovery routes out of the current crises.
Pandemic, peak and possibilities: urgent responses and Different Futures
For the homeless and the poor, and especially the children of the, still too prevalent, slums, these are the worst of modern times as governments across rich and poor nations alike try to beat down the peak of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Anna Akhmatova wrote of an earlier, cruel, sometimes random set of mortalities as “it was only a time when only the dead smiled, happy in their peace”. COVID-19 has visited grief upon too many, and has brought unrelenting effort and uncertain futures to all citizens, cities and nations. It has also brought the opportunities to do some things better. The great pandemics of the 19th century cities in the major economic engines such as Glasgow, led – largely through the efforts of municipal Chief Medical Officers such as James Burn Russell during and after Glasgow’s typhoid epidemic of 1864-65 – to not only alleviating disasters but recognition of new opportunities for progressive change. Urgent action was followed by not just new preventative efforts and insights in science and medicine but also major breakthroughs in tackling the social infrastructures; from water supply to the size and quality of homes, and the working conditions and wages of workers which left families diminished in their capabilities to live, learn and work. In many metropolitan areas in the last quarter of the 19th century, it was public health arguments (whether couched as self-interested curtailment of vicious externalities on the part of the more affluent, or emerging altruism) that shaped early housing policies.
COVID-19 is creating similar challenges now. Those left as street homeless or crammed into crowded overnight shelters are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as, though socially excluded, they have no space for spatial isolation. Poorer families, in cramped, rented homes with no internet connections and with residual incomes eroded by unaffordable rents, are falling further behind those who own homes, with much space, multiple home multi-media connections, and human and social capital in their families to learn through the pandemic. In the UK there are estimated to be a million children at risk of poor nourishment and difficult parental circumstances, predominantly in poorer rental housing and often in areas of high, density, low quality homes. Although perverse in relation to sustainable development outcomes, there is already widespread recognition in the press in Australia, Canada and the UK that low-density patterns of suburban development with larger family homes and gardens for middle- and upper income households have meant lower infection rates and easier and more diverse ‘lockdown experiences’.
COVID-19 is not only a problem for the poor and for renters. It has essentially stopped housing systems working, especially the market. Sales and moves have fallen close to zero. Construction activity has been greatly, though not always completely, disrupted. Issues of paying for housing, as incomes and employment have fallen so sharply for so many, have raised major questions for governments of how best to support renters and home-owners until ‘economic recovery’ is well established. It is often less than clear how governments will begin to remove some of the urgent, arguably essential, measures they have introduced can be removed. The UK introduced rent controls as an emergency measure six months into the First World War and, arguably, only really removed them as a constraint on investment in 1989.
Immediate policy challenges facing nations, regions, cities and communities include:
- How best to cope urgently with homelessness in the time of COVID-19.
- Supporting paying for housing and then removing support.
- Ensuring the construction sector does not unduly fragment its supply chains.
- Exiting COVID-19 with a well-functioning rental housing system.
- Facilitating an orderly recovery of rental and owning markets.
- Making the best possible economic cases for housing in stimulus and recovery programmes.
New understandings for housing policies, that have an economic content as well as a social purpose, must be used to address the epidemic now. As the peak passes, governments must also look to how changing housing outcomes can best support the recovery of the economy and society. And as that task unfolds, looking to create better housing systems for new, different futures must become a shared mission of all levels of government, practitioners and research communities.
Policy Scotland, working with almost a hundred housing and government organisations and CaCHE at the University of Glasgow, leading housing researchers at Glasgow and Heriot Watt universities (UK), MacMaster, Carlton and Toronto (Canada) in Canada, and New South Wales, Melbourne and Adelaide (Australia) has resurrected the Shaping Futures Network. All the participants have strengthened it and we have renamed it as the ‘More Different Futures’ network.
Follow the work of the More Different Futures Network on the Policy Scotland website.
To cite this article: Maclennan, Duncan. More Different Futures: Housing after 2020, Policy Scotland, 13 May 2020, https://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk/more-different-futures-housing-after-2020/
Written content is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence.