Can we establish forms of home ownership that promote empathy and solidarity?

Home ownership is seen as a route to security. But a more fluid conception could benefit everyone. Part of openDemocracy's "Left governmentality" mini-series.

James Gregory
22 May 2019
World's End estate, Chelsea
World's End estate, Chelsea
Nico Hogg/Flickr, CC 2.0

There are few forms of consumption that match the depth of feeling brought to homeownership. Political and cultural expectation in Britain sets ownership as the ‘natural’ choice of all those who have the means to buy into it, realising for the owner the personal ideals of security and independence. In this idealised, and ideological, construction of home ownership, housing consumption is not only private – chosen through the market and the site of the most personal expressions of identity and filial bonding – but also privatising; it rests on an understanding of ‘independence’ as social distance, an intentional withdrawal from the support of collective institutions. But if homeownership has brought security and independence for some it has also, as we all know, come to mean insecurity for others, as housing costs escalate and entrench inequalities of wealth and income.

Whichever way Brexit-limbo plays out, this is set to get worse: the latest figures compiled by Shelter show that in 2017 median house prices in England were nearly 8 times greater than annual median earnings – a gap that is wider even than the pre-crash figures of 2007. At the same time – in a perhaps surprising parity of consumer mistreatment - the number of private developments revealed to have been built with the same cladding that caused the Grenfell tragedy continues to grow (Inside Housing, April 3rd, 2019). Prices rise, quality declines; inequality nevertheless grows.

Addressing housing inequality within the existing framework

Housing inequality clearly stands out as the tangible challenge for distributive justice. But for those who want action on inequality but do not want not to reject ownership as a legitimate policy goal there is a more fundamental challenge: can homeownership serve the ideals of private choice and consumption without radically privatising implications? Egalitarian-minded supporters of homeownership who don’t ask this question risk extending the good of ownership, only to find we have just brought more people into the social dynamic of independence as separation.

For some people the issue of housing provision and social solidarity (our inter-dependence) may suggest a call for a large-scale extension of cooperative housing, cohousing or community land trusts. There are pragmatic reasons to treat this with caution. The UK (in contrast to Austria for example) has never had more than a negligible cooperative sector (now to be estimated at 45,000 homes across the UK), and there is a similar picture for cohousing. The question then becomes one of strategy: is this the best place to start given the challenges of housing supply and inequality we now face? We could make the same pragmatic argument in the case of Community Land Trusts. Running with the grain of our housing system, one which actually still has a strong social sector, is a much stronger starting point than an unproven faith in apparently more radical approaches.

This is not a simple case of political expedience, timidly taking the line of least resistance. I have argued elsewhere that a politics of interdependence needs a structural and gradualist approach, using housing and planning policy to create the kind of social proximity in which socio-economic difference (and in particular reliance on welfare mechanisms) may slowly come to be judged less in terms of the moralising discursive tradition of ‘desert’ and with more empathy and understanding of the challenges faced by lower-income households.[1]

Social housing plays an important and familiar role in this argument. The spatial conditions of proximity and empathy are not compatible with the concentration of social disadvantage in mono-tenure social housing estates. Nor, indeed, is a highly residualised social housing stock that is distributed only to those in the greatest need. The response to these residualising trends must be to build more social housing and to distribute it more widely to a range of income groups. But at the same time there is legitimate demand for other forms of housing, including, of course, for owner-occupation.

The aim is therefore to develop a housing framework that embraces ownership whilst creating a more interdependent and less hierarchical social dynamic. What could this process might look like?

Three steps towards more interdependent home ownership

1. The first observation is, at first sight, prosaic and conservative. The fact is that for decades the housing policy world has had a very good idea of what a more egalitarian and less individualistic vision of homeownership would look like. Most importantly, ownership needs to be a choice, and for this there need to be genuine alternatives. Within the owner-occupied sector this requires a greater degree of flexibility and forms of ownership, including new forms of shared-ownership and, crucially, the ability (in the jargon) to reduce the owner’s stake by stair-casing down instead of just up. The policy world is, moreover, painfully aware that these prescriptions have had little real impact and have proved unpopular. Excessively restrictive covenants (for example, preventing owners taking on a flatmate) and sometimes simple bad design help account for the unpopularity, but the more glaring issue is the one that faces all forms of housing in Britain today; the expense of shared-ownership makes it an impossible dream for many of the people it has been aimed at.

So, perhaps paradoxically, the most fundamental step in creating choice for would-be owners is to improve our rental sectors, and particularly the private rental market. Germany is the tried and tested debate device in this context. But whilst it is often observed that private renting is an accepted norm in Germany, the historical conditions of this are less often remarked upon. These conditions included generous government support for private landlords in the earlier years of post-war reconstruction and, indeed, the historic lack of such support in Britain is unusual. In return private landlords accept far stronger tenancy rights than in Britain. Some may object to a subsidy for capital accumulation. Yet it is notable that countries who have followed this path tend to have remained, against the global current, significantly less neo-liberal than our own. I would argue – a hint of which comes below –that this is not coincidental.

2. Housing is not necessarily about housing; that is to say, a pathological pursuit of homeownership may be driven be entirely understandable anxieties in others spheres of life. These need not be openly articulated to be powerful. The Australian sociologist, Jim Kemeny, provides us with a general framework for thinking about such dynamics. For Kemeny there is a trade-off between ownership and support for taxation and thus the welfare state.[2] Upfront costs early in life reduce housing costs in retirement, so ownership lessons the political imperative to maintain strong pensions, whilst the earlier household strain in meeting mortgage costs may create tax aversion. Inevitably this thesis has attracted academic dispute. But it points to an important possibility; the neurosis of homeownership may in fact be the fear of insecurity and poverty later in life. We may also frame this, as above, in terms of our first observation, providing the background conditions in which it is indeed seen as a choice rather than a necessity.

3. Gradualism does not rule out prompt reform to the finance of housing provision, and in particular the massive redistribution of Treasury funds to homeowners. We can see the broadly regressive nature of this redistribution with figures from the UK Housing Review. This is clear from government funding commitments since 2015: whereas May last year announced £2bn to finance new housing association homes in England, this comes in the context of a Coalition policy legacy that allows private developers to discharge commitments (as part of planning consent) to build a proportion of ‘affordable’ starter homes for sale. In this sense developers are technically meeting the letter of their of their commitment to cross-subsidise other forms of housing, but in a way that that only meets the spirit of the system (originally designed to fund social homes) in a questionable way. Last year a report from the Chartered Institute for Housing found that over the five years to 2020/21 homeownership will housing will receive around £4bn in direct government subsidy annually, compared to just £2bn annually for social housing.

It is important to stress we need to exercise some caution here. I have described the housing finance regime as ‘broadly’ regressive because the beneficiaries are not one homogenous economic group. Some will be seeking homeownership rights on the margins of affordability whilst, undeniably, a many of those who have benefitted are simply enjoying an additional layer of economic privilege for which few will have an easy time justifying. This regressive distribution is part of a broader pattern of subsidised wealth accumulation for the comfortably off and amounts, as I have written elsewhere, to hidden asset-based welfare state.[3] Nevertheless, if we want a more egalitarian homeownership framework a proactive supply approach will require subsidy, and this will inevitably be regressive if we are comparing low to middle-income recipients with the lowest income deciles.

The flip-side of this is that making ownership more accessible further down the income scale would need to be part of a more general redistribution of existing housing wealth, some for new owners, some to fund other housing options. The mechanism of this funding should be a form of housing wealth tax, payable on sale or when transferred through inheritance. It might be assumed that this is politically difficult and more radical than the gradualism I have suggested. Yet the point of gradualism is to work with the social meanings and understandings we live within, sometimes slowly, but also with a quick strike when the time is right. We have such an opportunity now. There is an intuitive understanding that those who have most benefited ever growing housing wealth since 2003 have done so through sheer luck and historical happenstance. Taxing this gain, at the right time, is very hard to argue against. The crucial proviso is that tax gains from housing should be spent on housing, transparently and as a matter of stated principle. People get this too: it taps into growing concern with intergenerational fairness, and perhaps also allays some of the perceived need to pass housing wealth on through inheritance.

Different needs at different times

This brings us back to the point I started with – that homeownership in Britain is tied to a privatising view of ‘independence’ as separation from the collective institutions of the welfare state. We cannot reshape this dynamic from a standing start; we will not wake up one say with a miraculous transformation of the good of ownership. But the processes outlined in this article have the potential to create a less hierarchical and more fluid view of the place of homeownership in our housing system. In part this would come from the greater choice not to own, bringing a stronger sense that ownership is one of a number of socially valued choices. Greater flexibility and movement between tenures plays a role too, signalling that we have different needs at different times, rather than dividing the world into the separate social identities of the dependent or independent. The pension anxiety touched upon above is a case in point. How strong would the pull of ownership be if we had stronger pensions and social services to maintain independence in old age, along with practical and attractive options to move out of owner-occupation at the right time? Perhaps this will also make it easier to let go of housing wealth, and to view a wealth tax as end-stage in the life-cycle of social contract based on less privatising understanding of ownership and independence.

[1] Gregory, James. "Engineering compassion: The institutional structure of virtue." Journal of Social Policy 44, no. 2 (2015): 339-356.

[2] Kemeny, Jim. "“The really big trade‐off” between home ownership and welfare: Castles' evaluation of the 1980 thesis, and a reformulation 25 years on." Housing, Theory and society 22, no. 2 (2005): 59-75.

[3] Gregory, James. "The search for an ‘asset-effect’: What do we want from asset-based welfare?." Critical Social Policy 34, no. 4 (2014): 475-494.

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