Housing

Why are we so obsessed with home ownership?

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A recent article by Sonia Sodha in The Guardian bemoans the suggestion by pensions minister Guy Opperman that young people could be allowed to dip into their pension pots to raise the necessary capital for a deposit on a house. 

Sodha argues, quite rightly, that this simply redirects funds that young people will undoubtedly need for security in old age to the here and now, enabling the government to essentially do nothing while offering a solution that will only benefit a small number anyway. 

This is a very accurate assessment of Opperman’s plans, and it is also pleasing to see Sodha come out in favour of mass social housing, saying that state action and involvement in providing homes is vital if everyone in this society is to live in a safe and secure one. 

But Sodha does not see social housing as a permanent solution. Instead it is a means to an end:

‘why shouldn’t everyone aged between 18 and 28 get guaranteed five-year social housing tenancy, allowing them save more for a deposit if they so wish?’

What she should ask is: why should anyone need to save for a deposit, if the rental market is properly controlled and guarantees high-quality, secure accommodation?

This might well be described as pie-in-the-sky thinking; we certainly don’t have a rental market that is properly controlled, or that guarantees tenants quality or safety. Section 21 evictions mean that renters in the UK are constantly at risk of being turfed out of where they live with hardly enough warning and for no good reason. Private rentals are often cramped and overpriced, and unscrupulous landlords are commonplace. 

But what if, just if, we had a rental sector that looked different? Where rent rises are capped and tenancies are longer? Where quality control is assured and accommodation is always habitable? If that was the case, would we still place home ownership on a pedestal?

The drive for home ownership dominates all facets of British life. It is something that we are told to aspire to from a young age, and it is one of those things that is rarely questioned. When talking about the housing crisis, media outlets of all stripes regularly lambast the unaffordable nature of housing and discuss young people’s inability to get on the housing ladder. We are a society that has unquestioningly accepted home ownership as a paradigm for modern life. When Boris Johnson recently boasted of a new plan for 5% mortgages that could turn ‘generation rent’ into ‘generation buy’, no-one questioned the supposed superiority of buying over renting. Instead, we all seem to have accepted a sub-standard rental system – a place from which the only escape is to save up for that deposit and buy a house. 

And this is in spite of the fact that things were not always this way. In 1980, one in three people in the UK lived in social housing, a sphere which at the time provided controlled and regulated rents and rental properties for huge numbers of people – and not just those in severe need. But then along came Margaret Thatcher, unleashing her plans for a ‘property-owning democracy’ on Britain, and rolling the right-to-buy scheme out across the country. Instead of being a public service, housing transformed into a marketised commodity. No longer would councils build secure and affordable accommodation for the many; property would instead be governed by market forces – and those who didn’t own would be left out.

Why have we now come to a situation (in such a relatively short space of time) where a house is primarily treated as an asset? Why is the change in value of a house just as important as the house itself for prospective buyers? We are looking at a scenario where housing is no longer the fundamental right that it once was, and is instead treated as a commodity – often pitched at the luxury end of the market.

This isn’t simply a problem because it puts secure and high-quality living out of reach for so many in this country. Yes, our commoditised housing market and poorly regulated rental sector both conspire to ensure that too few people get the quality of accommodation they really need. But even if our rental sector was well controlled, the uncontrolled nature of the property market would still be an issue, not least because rents cannot be properly regulated while landlords are paying off hefty mortgages. 

A significant issue here is that as long as buying a house means investing capital into something that is likely to ultimately increase your capital exponentially, we will never be able to solve issues of inequality in this country. The average deposit for a first-time buyer in the UK stood at £46,060 in the first half of 2020. That’s a huge amount of capital that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds or without parental help will most likely struggle to raise. And once you have a house, it can be passed on to your children as inheritance, deepening inter-generational inequality  and turning Britain into a society divided between propertied families and others – a horrible 21st century version of aristocracy. 

The way we view housing needs an urgent rethink. Other European countries like Germany have a much higher proportion of renters, and a far more regulated rental market which offers protection to tenants against evictions and rent increases. This is the system that we need to begin to move to here in the UK. It starts with a serious investment in social housing, so that a greater proportion of the population live in homes where they rent and rents are controlled. This will go some way towards reversing the trend where we see housing as a commodity, and will help to restore it to its rightful place as a service. 

If you don’t want this, you have to ask yourself why. Why should safe, good quality housing be a privilege and not a right? Because that is how things are now. And really, there’s no good reason for it. 

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