For some people, it’s Pavlovian: mention the housing crisis, and on they drone about how “Britain is full”; rents are high because asylum seekers are all given 6 -bedroom £1.85 million Georgian piles in Sandgate and elsewhere after being smuggled through Calais.
But it is possible to discuss housing without being xenophobic, pretty straightforwardly, by getting to the root of the problem – and sticking to facts.
Our latest Prime Minister in a speech in December 2012, claimed that more than one third of all new housing demand in Britain was caused by immigration. “And there is evidence that without the demand caused by mass immigration, house prices could be 10% lower over a 20-year period,” she said. Such a statement mirrors a growing theme in any debate on the housing crisis: the belief that it is caused by mass migration, and that without migration, Britain would have no need for more housing.
The London School Of Economics report cited by Mrs May as the source for her claim also says: “In the early years even better off migrants tend to form fewer households as compared to the indigenous population; to live disproportionately in private renting; and to live at higher densities. However, the longer they stay, the more their housing consumption resembles that of similar indigenous households.”
This, in part, lampoons the notion that immigration is the biggest strain on housing – new arrivals tend to live in denser households and take up less space, than native Britons.
Migrants are much more likely to rent in the private sector, as opposed to buying homes or living in social housing. According to the Oxford Migration Observatory 74% of recent migrants (those who have been in the UK for five years or less) were in the private rented sector in the first quarter of 2015: they are twice as likely to be renters compared with the total migrant population; 39% of the total foreign-born population were in the private rented sector, and just 14% of the UK-born population.
Despite this evidence, there is a distinct perception among white native Britons that migrants receive positive discrimination when it comes to the allocation of social housing. This in part is fuelled by the right wing media and by ignorance we believe (see below). A 2014 London School of Economics report states:
“The level of discrimination perceived by white Britons in social housing is higher than that perceived by any other group in social housing. And the only other ethnic groups reporting higher levels of perceived discrimination with any part of the state is the black community with the police, criminal justice and immigration authorities, a relationship that we know to be very troubled.”
A Daily Mail headline from 2012, which has since been amended, once read: “Revealed: How HALF of all social housing in England goes to people born abroad”. The actual figure at the time was 8.6%: it now stands at 9%. 91% of all new social tenancies are taken up by UK-born citizens.
A labour economist and academic, found that immigration actually lowers, rather than raises, house prices in some areas. In a 2014 Economic Journal article Immigration & house prices in the UK, the author wrote that an increase of immigrants equal to 1% of the initial local population leads to a 1.7% reduction in house prices, based on immigration data from the Labour Force Survey.
Essentially, new immigration to an area tends to lower the average local income, and decrease both housing demand and supply: immigration often leads to an outflow of natives, leading to a lower demand for housing, the author wrote.
Overall, the impact of immigration on housing is mixed, and geographically specific. As the LSE report May cited points out, two thirds of housing demand is created not by net migration figures being higher than in previous years, but by a lack of social housing stock, an increase in life expectancy, and more households delaying marriage or forgoing cohabitation resulting in an increased number of smaller households.
The 1980s TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet captured the story of British construction workers moving to Germany for jobs. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features
There is one very important area where immigration has been crucial in attempting to solve the housing crisis: building. The Chartered Institute of Building reminds us that any caps on immigration will harm housebuilding rates, as not enough British-born nationals are either trained or interested in construction careers, and migrants have been filling the gap.