A Housing Culture Crisis?
Today’s revelations about the state of Britain’s housing make for grim reading, but tucked away behind a lot of the reporting is a fundamentally flawed attitude towards housing ownership as one of life’s ultimate aims. It may not be a stretch of the imagination to name it as a contributing factor to our current crisis.
The fact that Britain lacks housing stock is well known and much rehearsed. The effects of high house prices and high rents are devastating for sure. The diminishing numbers of people privately owning their houses? Why is this a problem in and of itself?
I should declare the privilege of having an accommodating landlord who believes the correct rate to charge for a room in a house is the amount the council give in Housing Benefit, and that the correct time to issue a final demand for missing rent is a week after the Council get their act together. I suppose this is essentially the difference between renting from a private landlord and a commercial landlord, though sadly the distinction doesn’t exist in law. So perhaps its rather easy for me to snipe at people’s individual urges towards house-buying.
With effective regulation and reasonable home availability, renting a home isn’t a bad thing. A vast plethora of situations are made much simpler if a landlord/council is responsible (a big if, but one we should stand up for). If something goes horribly wrong with the house, its officially, legally, ultimately not my problem. I can’t go bankrupt because my house failed in some dramatic fashion and I can’t afford to repair it. Too many people, fighting to get on ‘the ladder’ at the earliest moment, will find themselves in this situation all too readily.
Its also vastly easier to sort out house sharing if you don’t have a mortgage to sort out as well. Housing Coops are both a stroke of genius but also a potential nightmare of paperwork. We need house sharing. We need it socially, we need it because we don’t have enough space to live separately, and we need it to teach us to stop being selfish (…and do the washing up).
Amongst the drivers of the housing market over the last few decades has been the tendency towards people separating and living separately. This isn’t a dig at divorce, but rather a comment that you considerably more housing stock to deal with people separating, and then living individually. Whilst some people have genuine problems living in groups, many just need a better set of housemates and many need to get over their curiously British ‘need for space’. Good housemates don’t really impinge on your space, and its quite liberating in its own bizarre way to have someone to natter to until gone bedtime who’s genuinely just a friend.
Add to this the effects of second-home ownership, and you have a massive problem. Housing density probably used to be around 3 people per ‘roof’, and may be as low as 1 today due to smaller families (not a bad thing), people living individually post separation (bad outcome of ambiguous situation) and people having second homes (pretty much all bad really).
But then there’s the housing crisis itself. Its an established fact that Britain has a very high level of home ownership compared to Scandinavian countries, and whilst this isn’t the only difference between their economies and ours, it does have a sizable effect on individual debt levels, and the amounts that banks must be prepared to loan people. In crude summation: less debt equals less debt crisis leading to less general economic crisis.
I could write a whole other blog post on the ‘psychology’ of home ownership and how, of all life’s steps that I’m observing amongst my peers, it alone stands out as having a negative impact on people’s ability to think outside their own often dramatically more insular lives. This is probably a pretty natural reaction to having a £200k millstone pressing on your mind, and the added imperative to push everyone aside for promotions and such like.
Given all the problems that there are with renting in Britain today, the idea that home ownership is a personal ticket out seems very selfish. If renting isn’t working for people, isn’t it time we challenged the landlords? What good is it to move into your own home? It doesn’t actually solve the problem in any conceivable way, not even by reducing the numbers of people chasing individual rental properties by any meaningful quantity. It might make things better for yourselves in the short term, but its pretty much just using your privileges to wash your hands of the situation. We need a solution to the problem that genuinely works for everyone, not just the banks and the richest individuals.