It seems curious that so little research has been done into income inequality and its impact on housing

Brian Green

For the past few years three questions have bugged me persistently.

How could rising income inequality over the past 30 years not have affected the housing market?

If it has had significant effects, what are they and how have these come about?

Why is so little political and, it seems, academic attention paid to how income inequality might cause dysfunction within the housing market? This is in contrast to the more significant attention paid to how a dysfunctional housing system accentuates inequalities.

Naturally there’s a fourth question.

Am I mad to think that growing income inequality might be a significant factor in screwing up the UK housing market, when well-informed folk (by no means all) seem rather sniffy of the idea when I put it to them?

To start at the beginning, my curiosity was tweaked when using household income distribution data from the Institute Fiscal Studies Inequality and Poverty Spreadsheet

Why? I can’t remember. But my habit of data doodling had me pairing time series in the IFS spreadsheet with various housing related data.

I was struck by a potential relationship and a possibility that increasing income inequality might in some way be associated with why house prices have, over time, become more expensive and stayed more expensive relative to the median earnings.

How this might be the case, I wasn’t sure. And there are plenty of other variables that will be at work. But I remain curious and also rather surprised that income inequality seems to have received so little investigation in regards to how the housing market operates.

Anyway, let’s start with the first question, slightly recast. Does increasing income inequality have an effect on the housing market?

Having dabbled on and off for some while, it seems to me extremely hard to prove such an assertion. But we could consider the counterfactual and see where that leads.

Let’s suppose all those in full-time employment will earn an average over their working lives the equivalent of £32,700 a year in today’s terms.

(This is approximately the 2012 mean annual gross pay for a full-time worker from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings. The median is about £26,500).

Would we expect to see a spread of house prices? Yes. Would we expect to see the spread of house prices as wide as they are today? No.

I was struck by a potential relationship and a possibility that increasing income inequality might in some way be associated with why house prices have, over time, become more expensive and stayed more expensive relative to the median earnings

Looked at in this way it seems harder to defend a position that income inequality doesn’t play a part in shaping the housing market than to assert that it does. But then you probably thought that all along.

Extending this thinking further, it seems then reasonable to assume that if income inequality increased we should expect to see some impact on the housing market. But what would the effects be and how might they come about?

This fundamentally is the second question. This is the really hard bit. I’ll leave discussion of this question for later blogs, other than to say that my stumbling attempts at playing with what data I can grab hold of have led me to think, among other things, that rising inequality might, intriguingly, be one factor leading to fewer homes being built.

So let’s move on to question three, to which I also don’t really have an answer. But there are some observations I think worth making.

When politicians, their feeder think tanks and many camp-following commentators frame today’s housing market crisis the narrative almost inevitably seems to follow one of two main plots. These run separately or are intertwined in the telling of the story.

Either: A) planning and regulation is restricting supply; or B) hard-working families are being denied access to the housing ladder because funding is not flowing freely enough and so demand is restricted.

There is of course an array of nuances and subplots injected in the various tales told. It’s the influx of foreigners. It’s lack of council house building. It’s the developer cartel hording land. It’s nimbyism. It’s lax lending in the past by banks. And so on.

But broadly the policy responses follow these two main themes. So what does this lead to? Help to Buy and Funding for Lending targeted at the mortgage problem. The New Homes Bonus and the National Planning Policy Framework ranged against the planning problem.

This may seem over-simplistic, dismissive, even unfair, criticism of the quality of the debate and the analysis that lies behind housing policy-making in the UK, or more precisely England.

Ignoring prices seems rather remarkable in a debate on affordability, don’t you think?

But, in defence, it is worth noting just how bizarre thinking can be when it comes to housing policy. Before the collapse in 2008 remarkably few policy discussions concerning affordability, even at the highest level, squarely addressed or mentioned in public forum the notion that house prices might just be too high. Ignoring prices seems rather remarkable in a debate on affordability, don’t you think?

Two recent blogs, well worth reading, neatly throw some light on how the policy debate is framed.

Jules Birch in his blog takes apart the broadly accepted assumption that suggests if you can fix planning you fix supply, i.e. plot A. And one does not have to go far to find concerned experts expressing fears over plot B and, in particular, the Government’s attempts to provide ever more funding to support house purchases by “hard-working families”.

Meanwhile, Alex Marsh unpicks more closely the mechanisms by which one policy think tank seeks to outflank an unwelcome, in its eyes, policy proposal.

Leaving aside the interesting detail, for me a central and significant point I took from both blogs was that individual elements of the debate, even main themes, are on their own just part of a complex, continuing and ever-changing story.

This is in contrast to the notion that there is some silver bullet or three that will cure the problems.

As Alex Marsh says: “…housing markets are embedded within a particular socio-cultural-economic complex…”

This is a point often missed it seems.

The “market” is too often characterised by supply and demand and a soppy notion of a dream home for a nuclear family. Nothing wrong with dream homes. Nothing wrong with nuclear families. Nothing wrong with debates on supply and demand. But there is far more to housing that these.

There appears to be an underlying cosy assumption that the housing market we have today is – give or take an increase in households and extra older people and divorcees – pretty much the same as our image of what it was in the 1970s.

Worse still, there are many that make frequent reference to the housing market of the 1930s as if the peculiar confluence of circumstances that sparked the boom in house building then could be repeated today.

An acceptance of cosy assumptions, I believe, is the start of where so much goes wrong. My reading of Alex Marsh’s blog was that to understand the housing market, its problems, the changes and how best it might function, we have to understand the particular socio-cultural-economic complex of the day. This implies also an understanding of how we got there and where it all might lead.

This brings me back to the increase in income inequality, which has been one of the most profound socio-cultural-economic shifts seen since the 1970s. On almost any measure of income inequality since the late 1970s the UK has become far more unequal and has remained so irrespective of the political party in office.

It seems to me to be a massive oversight not to examine what impact income inequality may have had and how it may be interacting with the vast array of other factors that determine the path of the housing market.

It may be possible that I have missed something on my travels. Which in a way is why I am writing this blog.

I am truly puzzled.

Brian Green is an independent analyst, commentator and consultant working in construction, housing and property