Private housing has become a compensation for the increasingly gross maldistribution of income. Inadequate incomes mean that large numbers of people don’t have access to the style of life that has always been the ultimate justification of neoliberalism and to which, reasonably enough, they now believe they have a right. What does give them access to it (in the short term) is credit. But credit has to be secured, and that’s what housing does. However, it works only if house prices keep rising and people have enough income to repay debt. When prices stop going up and people can no longer repay what they owe, the financial system begins to disintegrate. This is what has happened; and it has happened because we have replaced something like social democracy with credit democracy, or universal access to credit, and credit is a thoroughly inadequate substitute because sooner or later it has to be repaid. Which means that people’s incomes have to be sufficient to repay it, and in many cases they aren’t. What we have put in place is a dynamically destructive cycle. The number of houses is rationed in order to force up prices; people buy houses in order to secure credit on the strength of those prices; this encourages a heady belief in perpetual profit and thus both risky lending and risky borrowing; this renders the banking system unstable; and lending both to individuals and among banks then collapses.
Ross McKibbin's excellent LRB article.