Buy to let, and to accumulate

Paul Sagar
November 25, 2015

The satirical news site The Daily Mash recently ran the headline ‘Tories to Build Thousands of Affordable Second Homes’. The article falls into the category ‘things that are funny because they are true’.

According to Aldermore, at present 1 in 5 UK homes is owned by a landlord. On current projections, they expect the figure to be 1 in 3 by 2032.  This in itself should be arresting. Soon, an entire third of UK houses  will not belong to the people who live in them, nor be a part of  government housing stock designed to protect the most vulnerable, but  will instead be vehicles of profit for third parties. This is no  accident nor an unavoidable outcome. It is a result of an economic  situation that government policy has happily exacerbated.

The underlying mechanism is that of an elegantly simple vicious  cycle. First, low affordability of houses due to high market prices  forces many people to rent. This drives rental demand up. Higher demand  means higher rents can be charged. This increases the attractiveness of  buy-to-let purchases for those who have the wealth to do so. An  increased level of buy-to-let investment leads to an increase in house  prices. This leads to even lower affordability, which leads to more  people renting… Thus, the snake eats its own tail.

And the snake is presently gorging itself at an especially  spectacular rate, due to historically unprecedented low rates of  interest. This is because low interest rates make buy-to-let purchases  an overwhelmingly desirable investment: they offer far greater yields  than any savings product, whilst being much less volatile than the stock  market. If you have money, and want more, then buy-to-let is a  no-brainer.

What could break the cycle? Well, not the government’s help-to-buy  scheme, which simply helps keep house prices inflated. Ditto the  Conservative’s cynical pre-election pledge to privatize housing  association stock. What would work would be a significant rise in  interest rates. But that won’t happen, in part precisely because there  are now so many buy-to-let landlords that a significant rise in interest  rates would cause a collapse in their ability to repay mortgages. This  would force them to sell their properties, meaning the housing market  would be glutted and quickly tank. In turn so would the whole economy,  because rising house prices are pretty much the only thing keeping the  current ‘recovery’ afloat. (In fairness, interest rates are probably  stuck at rock bottom anyway, due to the wider global economy being  firmly up the creek.

An alternative would be to build many hundreds of thousands of  genuinely affordable first homes, with controls put in place as to who  can buy them, alongside a simultaneous increase in the stock of social  housing. This would solve the problem, although it would take a few  years.

But it won’t happen. Firstly, because a large building programme  would cost money. But more importantly, because it would result in the  loss of advantage and financial gain that has accrued to those who have  made money hand over fist in the property market, i.e. the wealthy,  established, typically Tory-voting, older generations of England. To put  it bluntly, the losers would be people who already vote Tory, and the  winners would be those who either don’t, or can be duped into thinking that doing so is in their interests. From an electoral point of view, doing anything about the housing market is, for the Tories, another no-brainer.

What does this ultimately mean? The explosion of buy-to-let  represents the systematic transfer of wealth from the have-nots to the  haves. We are nurturing a society where increasing millions will live in  poorly maintained properties, at the mercy of eviction and arbitrary  rent increases, never able to build enough capital to make their own  investments or achieve financial security, and every month effectively  throwing money down the drain. At the bottom of that drain there will be  another class, collecting the money and investing it to make more. This  second class will live in the security and comfort denied to those who  make their own possible. In sum, the scandal of the buy-to-let market  represents the apotheosis of Tory Britain. A society in which the rich  don’t just get richer as the poor get poorer, but in which the rich get  richer because the poor get poorer.


All by
Paul Sagar