This Commons Library briefing paper considers how affordable housing is defined in England and looks at key trends in the affordability of different tenure types. It also examines the supply of affordable housing and the role of Housing Benefit in enabling households to access and retain affordable housing.Jump to full report >>
The need for subsidised housing provision has long been recognised. The cost of private sector housing that meets acceptable standards, compared with the level and distribution of incomes and assets, means that significant numbers of households lack the resources to make a demand for decent housing effective in the market. Without subsidised housing, these households can fail to obtain housing of a decent standard.
Historically, homes for social rent (with rents set at around 50% of market rents) and affordable home ownership have been the main source of new affordable housing. However, the introduction in 2011 of social sector development with rents of up to 80% of market rents has, according to some, undermined the ability of even the social sector to supply housing that is truly affordable.
Currently, the most commonly referred to definition of affordable housing is set out in Annex 2 to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This is the definition that local planning authorities apply when making provision within their areas to meet local demand/need for affordable housing. In its December 2015 Consultation on proposed changes to national planning policy the Government proposed to amend the definition of affordable housing within the NPPF to incorporate Starter Homes. This proved controversial: commentators questioned how affordable Starter Homes would be. The homes will be sold at a minimum discount of 20% off the market price subject to price caps of £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 within London. The Government argued that the homes built will be sold at prices substantially below the price caps, but subsequently decided not to require local planning authorities to include a minimum percentage of Starter Homes on development sites.
The definition of affordable housing set out in the NPPF does not make reference to the proportion of a household's income or earnings that should be spent on housing costs. The Housing Cost to Income Ratio (HCIR) was referenced in Planning Policy Guidance Note 3: Housing (the guidance which was repealed and replaced by the NPPF) and is frequently used in research into housing affordability.
Housing costs can be compared to earnings (the amount of salary an employee earns before tax and benefits) or to household income (all the income a household receives, after tax and benefits). Earnings data is frequently used because it is readily available at local level. However, income data provides a more complete picture - it accounts for households with multiple earners, and those with a high proportion of their income coming from benefits.
Home ownership has become increasingly difficult to access, particularly for first-time buyers, as house price growth has outstripped growth in wages. Median house prices in England are now 7.7 times higher than median earnings. In London, the ratio can be considerably higher: in Chelsea & Fulham, it is 24.8.
Access to social housing is also constrained by a lack of supply. The number of new homes provided for social rent declined from 39,560 in 2010-11 to 6,550 in 2015-16. Following their introduction in 2011-12, the number of new homes for affordable rent initially increased rapidly: 40,730 new units were provided in 2014-15. However, the number of new affordable units in 2015-16 was much lower at 16,550.
Comparing mean social and affordable rents with the median household income of social-sector renters indicates that affordable rents take up a larger proportion of household income than social rents, particularly in London and the South East.
The private rented sector has been the beneficiary and now houses more households than the social rented sector. Private sector rent levels have increased in response to demand. One Government response has been to restrict levels of assistance through Housing Benefit. Housing Benefit is a personal subsidy which enables non-working households and those on a low income to pay for rented accommodation. There have been several changes to Housing Benefit entitlement since 2010 which mean that it is more likely that a claimant’s Housing Benefit entitlement may not cover the full amount of the rent due. Some London authorities argue that there is no affordable private rented accommodation available in their areas for households who are reliant on Housing Benefit.
Sector submissions to the 2016 Autumn Statement called for a reconfiguration of the Affordable Homes Programme to allow providers more flexibility over the type of housing developed. There were particular calls to encourage development at social rent levels in order to reduce pressure on Housing Benefit expenditure and to increase housing options for people on a low income without having to rely on Housing Benefit to assist with rent payments. The Autumn Statement did announce the relaxation of restrictions on grant funding “to allow providers to deliver a mix of homes for affordable rent and low cost ownership, to meet the housing needs of people in different circumstances and at different stages of their lives.” Subsequently, the Housing White Paper (February 2017) set out “a comprehensive package of reform to increase housing supply and halt the decline in housing affordability.”
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7747
Authors: Cassie Barton; Wendy Wilson