Home ownership is popular for a reason: renting in England is a poor alternative

Two weeks ago we launched our ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ campaign, which is the latest in our efforts to highlight the increasing numbers of ‘Generation Rent’ priced out of home ownership in England. As our spokespeople did the media rounds on TV and the radio, you might have noticed them – as I did – being asked a pointed question by journalists: why is this even a problem?

Interestingly, this is one that is coming up with increasing regularity. The likes of Fraser Nelson and Adam Posen (which Alex Hern picks up here) are just the latest to pose it in the press. We get it in external meetings, too. It’s often the gateway to a bit of good old fashioned self-flagellation: why oh why this British obsession with home ownership? They’re not like it on the continent; look at Germany, why can’t we just live like them?

I should say here that as an organisation Shelter are ‘tenure neutral’ – basically, we just think there needs to be loads more of every kind of housing affordable for ordinary people (including council, social, shared ownership – the lot).

But the fact is, an overwhelming majority want to own their own home. And the reason is not that hard to work out. Ask yourself, what do people want in a home? Despite what classical economists might tell you, it’s not just an asset. Families in particular feel they want stability, certainty, somewhere to put down roots and send their children to the local school; somewhere that doesn’t suck up huge quantities of their income.

It is clear that in its current state, the private rented sector in England is just not fit to provide those things, as the CLG Select Committee are just the latest to acknowledge. For a large amount of people, renting in England is a horribly expensive, unstable and uncertain affair. Not only do we have rents going through the roof, but the culture of churn and short-termism leaves renters forced to move regularly and with little control or stake in their home. Then there’s the hassle of dealing with rogue landlords and rip off letting agents.

The doubling of families with children living in the PRS (students now make up just 10% of the market) over the last ten years make these problems particularly acute.

When you consider the story of parents like Helen who told us she has “an eight year old who has now lived in nine houses”, is it any wonder that people aspire to something better? Home ownership is not a panacea, but with waits for social housing at record levels, the sad truth is currently it is the only game in town when it comes to meeting a natural human desire for stability (at least while interest rates remain low).

That is not the case in the countries often held up as consolation to our declining rates of home ownership. Germany has a culture of longer term tenancies and stable rents, for instance.

Renting in England doesn’t have to be as unpalatable as it is – it can be fixed. Shelter’s Stable Rental Contract proposal is the best place to start, while building more homes would help bring rents down in the long-term. Following Scotland and Australia in ending exploitative fees charged to renters by letting agencies would also cost Government nothing, but save renters an average of £350 when they do move.

It’s very easy for people, particularly for those who already own a home, to question the desire of those looking to escape ‘Generation Rent’. But those doing so must propose bold action to improve the alternatives, particularly private renting. Without that, home ownership will quite understandably remain a very British obsession.