How resilient is the housing system? From the Global Financial Crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic

In little more than a decade, the UK’s housing system has faced two major shocks: the Global Financial Crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. How resilient has our housing system been in the face of such adversity? And how has it responded?

This blog reflects on a literature review, completed as part of one of CaCHE’s housing and Covid-19 research projects, Housing systems, their institutions and their resilience. The literature review explored the concept of resilience from both the broader and housing studies literature. The review highlighted how resilience has been used and applied across a wide range of disciplines and at a variety of scales, including to explore crises such as the GFC. It also noted that while there has been increasing application of resilience within housing studies and organisational studies, there is a need for further research in this area and specifically exploring the resilience of groups of organisations, i.e. institutions (the focus of this study).

This study thus aims to contribute to these gaps by assessing the evolution of the housing system between the start of the GFC in 2007/08 and the Covid-19 crisis, in particular considering in what respects its resilience was strengthened or undermined during this period. It is also considering what is required to create a “resilient” housing system, for example in terms of what types of reform are needed. This is being done by focussing on two marked-based institutions: the mortgage industry (UK) and the housebuilding industry (England and Scotland). An interim report was published earlier this year, examining whether the mortgage and the housing building industries were more resilient going into the Covid-19 pandemic than the GFC, based on a series of semi-structured interviews.

From this literature review, it was clear that resilience is certainly a ‘slippery’ concept which has been adopted and adapted for a range of different topics and disciplines, both within policy and academia. This has caused challenges in defining resilience clearly and applying it within housing studies, with scholars warning of the challenges that may occur if “resilience” becomes a buzzword or a panacea for policy problems.

The definition adopted for this project thus far is that provided by Gibson and Tarrant (2010:6), with resilience being defined here as:

“…not just [being] about ‘bouncing back from adversity’ but… more broadly concerned with adaptive capacity and how we better understand and address uncertainty in our internal and external environments.”

Gibson and Tarrant (2010:6)

The focus on adaptation is important here, given the complexity of the housing system and its institutions, and the extreme and unprecedented shocks it has faced in recent years, first with the GFC and then the Covid-19 pandemic. This understanding also allows consideration of the types of interventions that may be required from government to maintain adaptability and, importantly, to reform and improve the housing system going forward.

The literature review thus identifies key debates about resilience as they apply to housing and organisational studies. A key question is whether resilience can be used in a “radical” or “progressive” sense to reform and improve policy, in this case regarding housing; or whether the concept is inherently “conservative” (see Raco & Street, 2012), with those adopting it wishing to revert to the “status quo” following a shock or crisis (Jacobs & Malpass, 2018; Lee, 2019). These debates will be further explored in the second phase of project as the UK Government and housing market institutions continue to respond to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with the conclusion to the Interim Report recognising: “… the importance of context – and in particular policy context – to the strategies that these industries have adopted” and questioning:

“Has resilience taken a conservative or radical form? Have the industries sought to adapt and reform, or to return to revert to ‘business as usual’? What role has policy played in shaping industry responses? In whose interests have policy and industry strategy adapted?”

Stephens et al., 2021:28

It certainly continues to be an unprecedented time for the housing market in the UK, and indeed elsewhere, with much discussion of the reasons behind the continuing resilience (and indeed, growth) of house prices across the English-speaking world and in much of Europe too, despite the Covid-19 pandemic (see this article, for example). It is yet to be seen how far the UK’s experience is similar or different to other countries, but the responses of different governments to this situation are regardless highly relevant for debates about housing system resilience. This literature review thus sets the foundation for exploring these issues and questions further through this project.

Alice Earley is a temporary Research Assistant at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.


Date: November 17, 2021 12:00 pm


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