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The coronavirus has made our existing housing crisis worse. We need more homes, now.

This article is part of our Voices of the Economy series. The project brings together the economic experiences and opinions of people from a range of different backgrounds and showcases voices which are not heard as often when we talk about the economy. To find out more and share your own story, click here.

This piece was written by John Myers. John is the co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, which campaign to end the housing crisis and make places better with the support of local people.


What’s housing got to do with coronavirus?

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has hit some people much worse than others. One of the things that makes a big difference to how you experience Covid-19 is your housing. People are more likely to catch the virus if they live in crowded homes or with many people who are not relatives. These people also often get a bigger dose of the virus when they first catch it. That often means their illness is worse.

Plus, if you are stuck in a small overcrowded flat, staying at home is much harder than for people with big homes. It’s even harder for families with children and no outdoor space.

If we want our society to be able to cope well with Covid-19 and similar future crises, we need to provide better housing.

How could we do better when it comes to housing?

Unfortunately, we’ve had problems with housing for a long time - well before the pandemic hit. Fortunately, that means people have already spent lots of time thinking and experimenting with ways to fix these problems.
I help run a campaign to end the housing crisis called YIMBY Alliance. YIMBY stands for ‘Yes In My Back Yard’. It is the opposite of ‘NIMBY’, or ‘Not In My Back Yard.’ We campaign for more good homes of kinds that will help people and improve places with support of local people.

I started it when I realized we could easily end the suffering caused by our needless shortage of homes. Too many of my friends struggle to pay rent and share homes in cramped conditions.

High rents are a big cause of need. They cause stress and overcrowding. They stop people moving to better homes without mould or damp. They force people to commute long distances. That takes away time for their families and for sleep. Lack of sleep harms their health.

High rents also mean young people are less able to move to better jobs today. That keeps their wages low and hurts the economy as a whole.

What are the main reasons we don’t have enough good homes?

Some people say low interest rates caused the housing crisis. But there are many countries with low interest rates and no housing crisis. People already complained about the housing crisis when interest rates were high in the 1970s.

Others say the crisis is caused by house buyers from abroad. But homes are expensive in many areas with no foreign buyers. I thought the problem might be homes kept empty. But the number of empty homes today is low compared to history and to many other places.

So what is the main reason for the housing crisis? Well, we used to be much better at building homes. Since the Second World War, we have never even grown our number of homes as quickly as we did in the 1830s or the 1930s. We have not built enough homes for fifty years. When there aren’t enough homes, people have to compete over what’s available - and that drives prices up.

Here’s how we could build more homes

People have been complaining about the high cost of land for homes since the 1950s. But politics always made reform impossible. To beat that problem, we set out to find ideas that are popular with local people and help get lots more homes built.

In the end, if we build plenty of homes like we used to, there will be plenty of homes that people can afford. We can build beautiful homes that will improve local areas rather than ugly new buildings. There are plenty of ways to do better with the land we have by letting local people decide that they want to do more.

We want to let the people living on any single street between two crossroads decide for themselves to allow more homes if they want. If two-thirds can agree, they will pick the designs of new extensions or replacement buildings that should be allowed on each plot. That can increase the value for current homeowners and make more homes available over time. We call the idea ‘Better Streets’.

We also want to let the residents of a block of houses on large plots decide together to allow mews houses inside the block. That would also add more homes and more value for everyone. We call that ‘Better Blocks’.

Many people welcomed a recent government report that mentioned us and recommended trials of that sort of ideas. Those ideas have attracted many people, from town planners to people in technology.

Thousands of streets have small 1930s houses on big plots. Those streets could be even prettier with more homes like the Victorian ‘mansion blocks’ of flats in Kensington or the five-floor Georgian terraced houses in Edinburgh or Bath. We have plenty of room to add lots more homes on the land we have while making places better. That will bring in more people to support local shops, and reduce the housing crisis.

A recent independent study estimated every extra pound spent on our campaign creates a thousand pounds of benefit for the country. Please sign up for our free email newsletter and find out more on our website.

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