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Stake or break for housing market

Media speculation over whether the housing boom will end in a crash or a whimper continues unabated. Much depends on interest rate decisions over the coming months and the priority the monetary policy committee gives to tempering the overheating housing market.

While many homeowners revel in their growing equity, there is increasing recognition of the downsides of rapidly rising house prices. If rates rise significantly, this could trigger arrears, repossessions and a downturn in the market. This would hurt most those people who have been lured into buy to let by attractive returns from a buoyant market.

There is also some evidence that people without pension savings often view their home as their pension. If the home is a family&#39s only source of wealth, their well-being is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the market.

Affordability for many key workers is a major concern. The increasing plight of people on low and moderate incomes trying to find affordable housing in the South-east is well known. This is also a problem for local economies affected by recruitment and retention problems, a problem for communities when children and grandchildren can no longer afford to live nearby and a problem for public services as shortages of teachers, doctors and police leads to poor services.

The Government has made some steps to address this issue. The starter homes initiative, which aims to help 10,000 key public-sector workers find affordable accommodation, has been rolled out.

This was bolstered by the extra £1bn for housing in the recent spending review.

Other reforms are also important, not least increasing the capacity to build more homes. Changes to the planning system are afoot to turn this around but it is far from uncontroversial, given the desire to protect green spaces.

Finally, those at the bottom of the housing ladder suffer, too. The shortage of affordable homes has caused record levels of people living in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. Some blame this on the haemorrhaging of homes from the social housing sector due to the right-to-buy policy. Since Margaret Thatcher introduced right to buy over 20 years ago, 1.5 million council homes have been sold and less than half have been replaced with affordable homes to rent.

A surprise inclusion in last year&#39s Labour manifesto was targeted at people who have no housing wealth. Equity stakes for social housing tenants were greeted with scepticism, with many seeing them as little more than a gimmick designed to prove that New Labour is still capable of new ideas.

Then, shortly after the general election, the freshly appointed Secretary of State Stephen Byers championed equity stakes as integral to the future sustainability of social housing and people started to take notice.

The idea marries well with Labour&#39s drive to modernise social housing and its broader ambition to tackle the forces which are polarising society. It assumes that people&#39s choices should not be limited between renting or full homeownership but should consist of a more diverse range of options. The policy would allow social housing tenants to build up an asset related to their tenancy.

The Government is carrying out much needed research into equity stakes and the IPPR, in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Housing and working with tenants and landlords, is complementing this work. A new paper, A Stake Worth Having? recently launched by new housing minister Lord Rooker, sets out how this idea might work in practice.

Much needs to be done to understand the rationale for equity stakes and how best they should be designed. Are they primarily a means of helping people buy homes or part of a vision of a more flexible approach to tenure which allows people to rent while gaining assets and perhaps ownership rights?

This is a subtle but important distinction. Broader economic policy remains dominated by the need to keep mortgage-payers happy but how equity stakes are introduced will flush out Labour&#39s true views of homeownership.

While commentators continue to speculate on when the housing boom will end, let us not be naive about the consequences for those people struggling outside the market.

•A Stake Worth Having? is available from the Chartered Institute of Housing at

Sue Regan is associate director at the IPPR


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