Dwellings, units, homes, houses, and investments.

Block of nine houses advertised as an investment opportunity and a dark kitchen. Durham Road, Gateshead, 2020. Photo credit: Marianne Kell.

Anyone who has lived and/or worked in an environment dominated by British people cannot fail to have noticed the national obsession with property. By this I do not refer to housing, nor architecture and physical form. To the average Brit, property is considered an asset with an emphasis on ownership and increasing value. We are a nation of wannabe estate agents and small-time real estate developers. The specific nature with which property is discussed among friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers using the same casual tone with which one might discuss the weather, or the same earnestness as applied to the post-mortem of a Premier League football match, demonstrates the special place property holds in the national psyche. To Brits, property ownership is a sport. To inhabitants of other countries where the relationship between property, land, and society isn’t so perverted, this attitude is completely alien.

There are indeed active and lively resistance movements in Germany over rent controls, debates in Barcelona and other cities with a tourism-oriented economy on the Airbnb-ification of their neighbourhoods, discussions in Stockholm and other Scandinavian cities over the future of collective rent bargaining and gaining secure tenancies in the face of chronic housing shortages, and we all see widespread social displacement from increasingly unaffordable city living across in the face of a yawning inequality gap and stagnating economies in major cities of both the global north and south. While both the spectrum and root causes of these struggles are broad, they have one thing in common: all depart from the definition of housing as home, as a place to live.

In the Anglo world, housing is viewed from a different angle. Houses here are first and foremost treated as investments. Cue the continual cycle of modifications to increase property value: conservatories, extensions, loft conversions, patios, restorations, and so it goes. Once on the “property ladder” there is the never-ending quest to move up to the next rung. Buy small, extend, increase value, sell, upsize and upscale. Or make a sideways step by using the proceeds to build tiny empires: buy even more properties you can upsize, and upscale while extracting rent, to eventual sell and the cycle continues.

In the UK specifically, housing is so deeply embedded within the class system that I would argue that a house, or dwelling (in technocratic planner-speak), is first and foremost a social status signifier. Tower blocks are historically the domain, literally, of the working classes (side note: although in London this has shifted considerably since the 1980s). The middle-class ideal of the single or two-storey house in the suburbs with a private garden has withstood the test of time. For the upper-middle, gated communities and private estates continue to exist, segregating new and old money from the lower classes. The real old money continues to own land, unhindered since the last time this island was invaded in 1066.

Within each social class, there is even more granularity in the attitudes towards housing. The British middle class has a disconcerting talent for knowing exactly what each postcode means in relation not only to house prices and whether they are likely to increase significantly (an “investment opportunity” the aspiring British landlord will purr), but also the types of people who live there. This extends not only to which ethnic group, but also career, age demographic, levels of education, and even whether more people in the area were privately educated or attended state school. While the US is similarly configured, although more markedly along racial lines, this level of social segregation is unheard of elsewhere in Europe.

This attitude to housing is problematic, to say the least. If housing is considered an investment opportunity in a competitive market, what happens to those people who fail to step into the housing ladder? Here, the situation becomes complicated.

Previously, the gap was filled by council housing which was rented at affordable rates in relation to wages. In 1980, Thatcher introduced the Housing Act which saw a turbo-charged Right to Buy scheme. This saw a mass-scale transfer of ownership of council housing from the state to private hands where 500,000 council homes were sold off between 1980 and 1985. Today the renting classes continue to suffer the consequence of this action, while the rentiers of the world have increased their riches extraordinarily. There is an acute shortage of affordable housing, which pushes people into the unregulated private rental sector. High rents prevent workers on stagnant salaries from saving up a deposit required for securing a mortgage. Low deposits for first time buyers is no good either, as the monthly re-payments are often higher still than the already uncontrolled rents on the private market.

In the deregulated market of the 1980s and 1990s, mortgages were easier than ever before to obtain. This, coupled with the possibility of buying heavily discounted Council housing, created the perfect conditions for an expanding inequality gap to exacerbate the difference between those who own property and those who do not. Those who purchased their Council homes in the 1980s at heavily discounted rates were then able to sell them off at enormously inflated values a decade later. The proceeds with which were then able to either upsize significantly or purchase additional houses for the purpose of leverages rents on the private market. The expansion of Rent to Buy in 1996 formalised this structure. Since then, the housing market has become increasingly lopsided and the structural crisis is becoming increasingly entrenched. Without radical state intervention, the situation is unlikely to be rectified anytime soon.

Consequently, British society is very much organised into two groups: those who own property, and those who do not. Increasingly, those who own property own not just a roof over their heads but multiple properties that are rented out on the private market. Often, this alone can provide a household income – there’s no need to work a 9-5 job for an employer. The professional landlord now makes more money than would be possible working in a regular salaried profession, thanks to a combination of decades of wage stagnation, an affordable housing shortage and spiralling property prices.

Without drawing any further conclusions or speculations on what must, could, or should be done to resolve this flaming hot issue, this brings me to the main point of this blog: the understanding that housing, property, and land ownership in the Anglo-American world is at the very core of our political, social, and economic system. Our access to and relationship with property dictates our social values, who we are most likely to vote for, where we are likely to live, what our employment prospects might be. Our entire political system, at its heart, is based around the nature of property ownership: do we protect the interests of rentiers, or renters? Should housing be treated as a right whereby everyone should be granted access to a roof over their head, or as an asset from which to extract profit?

Understanding attitudes to social housing in the UK provides a picture of the political and social conditions and the likely trajectory in the decade to come. And we better strap ourselves in – it’s going to be a hell of a ride.


Author: marianne

Urban design, planning, housing, buildings, music

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