Worried about the impact of wealth investment on housing in the UK? Look North! For most of us, 2021 was a horrible year. Throughout lockdown we dreamt of lounging in parks and beer gardens surrounded by friends and family—but, when the UK eventually opened up, all we got was the wettest summer in a decade, a ‘pingdemic’, and, of course, the Delta variant. Yet the year was not a let-down for everyone. For property investors, sky-rocketing house prices created an incredible opportunity for profits. With the suspension of the stamp-duty tax resulting in as much as a 10% rise in house prices one property group went as far as to call 2021 ‘exceptional’. The ‘exceptional’ opportunity then of Covid-19 for wealth investment in the UK property market occurred alongside extreme insecurity for many others, particularly renters. Across England, 174,000 renters were threatened with eviction. Many faced this threat due to changing life circumstances impacting their ability to pay rent. Yet others have faced this terrifying prospect simply due to their landlord’s desire to take advantage of the investment climate. Overall, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) estimated in September 2021 that the country was seeing the largest ever gap between rental supply and tenant demand. As I will detail in this blog, this is a terrifying situation. While the housing crisis cannot be simplified to a supply/demand imbalance, overdemand, the very factor that allows excess profits, is also illustrative of the human cost of the housing crisis. New Areas of Focus While the impact of wealth investment in London—and increasingly Manchester—is well-documented, here at Action on Empty Homes (AEH) we are keen to follow the trends and identify new areas where wealth investment is a growing, yet underrecognized, threat. In fact, savvy investors are no longer looking at London. While prime real estate in the capital is still highly profitable, overall, the city is no longer a haven for investors as its pricey housing offers only limited returns on investment. Growth in London is so slow in comparison to the rest of the UK that one investment index places London dead last in their list of the 177 best cities for real estate investment in the UK. According to Savills, those looking to maximize their returns should look up—specifically to the North and the Midlands. Overall, the Northwest and Yorkshire/Humber are predicted to see the highest rates of house price growth at 18.8% over 5-years, followed by Wales at 18.2%, the Northeast at 17.6% and the East and West Midlands coming in at 15.9%. Therefore AEH plans to focus its work on wealth investment and the housing crisis on 3 key cities identified as ‘up-and-coming’ sites for lucrative investment: Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds. We will be producing new ‘Pretty Vacant’ reports on these cities in order to continue expanding our purview beyond the capital. Supply and Demand So what? Isn’t attracting investors a good thing? Couldn’t spreading investment out across the country amount to ‘levelling up’? As AEH have reported, increasing wealth investment results in more properties that are underutilized—meaning they are empty a large majority of the time and used as ‘second homes’, Airbnb’s and short-term lets, as vehicles for investment, or even for money laundering and illicit criminal activities. Further, as I move to explain, investors can only make a substantial profit if supply and demand are stretched so that there is simply not enough adequate housing to go around. The ability of buy-to-let landlords or wealth investors to squeeze rents from tenants or to resell properties at vastly inflated prices is dependent on price growth from growing demand. As one investment site puts it ‘As any investor knows, high demand and low supply typically means one thing – rising prices. With such a competitive market, this can create lucrative opportunities’. With incentives to invest allowing supply to accumulate into fewer hands, people are forced to spend more and more of their wages on rents or mortgages in order to have a chance at a safe and secure home; others are excluded entirely from being able to access this artificially scarce supply. This overdemand then is the very definition of a housing crisis. Yet for investors it is simply another lucrative opportunity for a passive income. Birmingham Zooming in on one of our key cities, where wealth investment is predicted to increase, reveals the human cost of overdemand. In Birmingham there are nearly 3,500 families in temporary accommodation in the council area—500 in B+B’s and hotels, 600 in family homeless centres, 1,700 in council properties and 1,000 more in privately leased homes. Countless more are sleeping rough or facing hidden homelessness. Inside Housing recently revealed that 500 households apply each week to join Birmingham’s social housing list, with 250 ultimately accepted. This amounts to 26,000 applications per year—even if rigid requirements only allow 11,700 to join the list. As one councillor reflects: "we were in a situation where we were seeing so many homeless people coming forward that in one calendar month that would have been the equivalent of filling four 20 storey tower blocks per calendar month …We could never build at that speed". Yet as hundreds of new applicants join the social housing register each month, the number of empty properties in Birmingham has reached a decade-long high. Simply building more is not the solution to the housing crisis. Instead, tackling underutilization and wealth investment to bring more properties back into use as homes can alleviate crushing overdemand, reverse unaffordability trends and provide safe homes for individuals and families. Focusing on underutilization rather than simply building can serve local need without costly, time-consuming and carbon-emitting development projects. Conclusion A rising tide won’t lift all boats; overdemand just ensures people are left stranded. Tackling wealth investment is therefore imperative as it creates the very supply/demand mismatch indicative of a crisis in the housing sector before turning around to celebrate this mismatch as evidence of growth. Yet overdemand is a human issue marked by unsafe, insecure, overcrowded accommodations and not simply an opportunity for profits. In October, AEH held a national day of action in alliance with The Big Issue, the Green Party, Labour Homelessness Campaign and the Radical Housing Network, alongside many others to highlight these issues. In 2022, the Campaign Against Empty Homes plans to ensure the human and ecological costs of underutilization and wealth investment are central in the May local government elections taking place across the country. As AEH deepens its work on wealth investment and underutilization we want to build contacts and hear from civil society, housing campaigners and any groups or interested parties in these key areas: Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds. Please do get in touch with us at [email protected] if you’d like to contribute to this exciting next phase of our work!