How many ‘affordable’ homes do we need?

At the SURF conference yesterday (that’s the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum), I took a punt at guessing how many ‘affordable homes’ we need to build.  It’s a dreadful piece of jargon, which doesn’t mean a great deal by itself.  All housing should be ‘affordable’ for someone; what we really mean is housing that’s accessible to people on relatively low incomes.  The Scottish Government is currently aiming to build 6000 a year.  One paper for Audit Scotland was based on a 2005 estimate of 8000 a year.  An earlier  paper by Ken Gibb and Chris Leishman refers to margins between 4,700 and 11,350.

These estimates are based on the demand for housing, and I can’t see that any estimate which doesn’t take a broader view than that is ever going to be adequate.  From the Scottish Housing Statistics there are about 2.4 million households in Scotland, and 2.5 million housing units.  Let’s assume that we need about a third of all housing to be ‘affordable’.  That figure is admittedly arbitrary – it would make as much sense to argue for a quarter or 40%.  That means, though, that we should be talking in terms of a total stock of affordable homes, assuming a constant population, of 800,000 houses.   Houses wear out.  If we build 6,000 houses a year, the average life of an affordable house has to be 133 years.  So we need to build 12,000 more a year, additional to any housing to meet fresh demand, just to replace the housing that is wearing out over a standard 60-year life.  If we accept the existing figures, that gets us to 18-20,000 a year.

Then we need to account for a few other shortfalls.  Audit Scotland noted a current deficit of 14,000 houses.  Further replacement is needed for about 40,000 low income units that have been demolished – generally prematurely, in the sense that they have had to be demolished before their projected life has been reached, or the associated financial liabilities  have been settled.  With increasing numbers of single-person households, we need to consider whether we have sufficient numbers of units to accommodate household fission.  And we need to allow for locational shifts – the kind of thing which has left surplus houses in some places and shortages in others.  And so, if we’re planning for the next 10-15 years, even for a static population (a big assumption), we get from the current level of 6,000 a year to a need to build something that looks closer to 25-30,000 affordable homes – four to five times more than we’ve planned for.

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