I know that, traditionally, becoming a homeowner is meant to make people more small-c conservative, but it seems to have had the opposite effect on me. Perhaps it’s because I’m acutely aware that buying my flat is much more due to luck than hard work: I had a conveniently timed redundancy, which coincided with a small inheritance from a great uncle I never actually met. Without those factors, I would still be living in insecure (often dangerous) rented properties and trying to scrape together a deposit. Over the years I encountered, variously: a creepy landlord who used to let himself into my bedsit while I was sleeping; a recurrent rat infestation; windows that fell out if I tried to clean them; a flat that had holes in the wall, floor, and ceiling; a landlord who refused to replace the heater when it broke, then charged me for the damage ultimately caused by the cold and damp; a letting agent who left my front door open a few days after someone on my street was stabbed to death; and a mains-based smoke alarm that the landlord refused to replace – the year after Grenfell Tower – despite the fact that it was twelve years out of date. These are the things that have stuck in my memory, but there are many others. Moving into my own safe, warm, blessedly rat-free flat has shown me the gulf that lies between private renting and home ownership. This has radicalised me on the issue far more effectively than another decade in terrible flats would have done.
It was with this in mind that I picked up A Home of One’s Own: Why the housing crisis matters and what needs to change, by Hashi Mohamed. Mohamed is a planning lawyer with a history of homelessness – he arrived in London in the early 90s as a nine-year-old Somalian refugee. This slim volume is effectively a long-form essay that draws both on his experiences of being insecurely housed, on his expertise in planning law, and on his experiences as a homeowner. Being generally of the opinion that discussions about policy are more constructive than arguments about politics, I’ve been trying to understand the different options that are proposed for solving the housing crisis. Mohamed gave a very good interview on the New Statesman podcast recently talking about the planning system, and I found it interesting enough that I thought I would give his new book a go.
The first part of this book, which is an analysis of the current situation and how we got here, is very good. In some respects, it’s a distillation of Municipal Dreams (which I read earlier this year), insofar as it covers what has happened to council housing in recent decades – but Mohamed’s focus is broader, so he also covers topics like the financial crash of 2008. Mohamed also relates changes over the past three decades to his own journey from homelessness to homeownership. In his acknowledgements, he thanks his family for allowing him to share so much of their early circumstances in the hopes that other people will benefit from it – and I imagine that was quite a difficult choice on their part, because a lot of what he shares is very grim.
Above the North Wembley train station, in the London Borough of Brent, was a small three-bedroom flat where 18 people lived. This was the start of 1994, and I was one of the many children who belonged to the three households sharing this crowded space, waiting for the local council to do something about it.
My own start in life was much pleasanter (and even during the bleak decade of private renting I never lived anywhere like this), but when he talks about the impact home ownership has had on his wellbeing I related to it very strongly. (He is careful to point out that there are plenty of people who don’t want the burdens or responsibilities that come with ownership, and still deserve decent housing – but in this country, which confers so many extra protections on owners over renters, it makes sense that it is still something many of us aspire to).
There was a genuine shift in my emotional state: no more measuring time and the stability of my residence according to the next tenancy agreement cycle; no more thinking about what to do when the estate agents tell me it will cost £100 for them to reprint the same agreement with only the date changed; no more thinking about how to convince a landlord to spend money they do not want to spend on a problem that they care little about… It meant being completely present in my own surroundings, and slightly daunted that I was responsible for every nook and cranny, but also excited at the fact that the option of calling the landlord to fix something no longer existed.
The problem with books like this, of course, is that anyone who reads them already agrees that the housing crisis is an urgent situation that needs to be resolved. No-one currently trying to scrap legislation against no-fault evictions, or actively reduce the amount of affordable homes, is going to pick it up. (Incidentally, while I’ve not been a particular fan of any recent PM, Liz Truss is the first one in my political memory to be making the housing crisis worse on purpose*). I was hoping this would have specific advice about how to engage with local government, contribute positively to planning processes, etc. Unfortunately, this is pretty vague on details. While this is well-written, there is nothing here that people interested in the subject don’t already know. There are also one or two sweeping generalisations: at one point, he says that people whose parents have helped them get on the housing ladder have also inevitably been brought up in an atmosphere of stability and security (“a double-whammy financial and emotional inheritance of riches”). Yet there are plenty of dreadful parents who have done great emotional damage to their children, but are still able to help them make up a deposit, because families are complicated.
The other issue, which isn’t Mohamed’s fault at all, is that this was written earlier this year and published sometime around the start of Liz Truss’s premiership, and I read it in the dying days of that same premiership. Comments about artificially low interest rates, for instance, feel like they are from decades rather than weeks ago, as do some of the stats about how many people will be in fuel poverty this winter. Now, it’s not unreasonable to write a longform essay about a particular time in the political landscape and expect it to remain current for at least a year or so – but the problem is already so much worse than the one Mohamed was writing about that it feels intensely dated. There’s a cheery thought.
Basically, this book is strong on rhetoric, and on its analysis of the situation, but the conclusions are not supported by the preceding arguments. I don’t disagree with much in it, but I don’t feel any better equipped to make changes either. Mohamed’s concluding remarks appear to be, basically, “fix politics”. Which would be nice (and he does lay out in a lot of detail what qualities a political system that improved housing would have), but by stating that there is no solution to this problem other than the kind of sweeping political change we saw in the immediate postwar period, he basically disempowers the very people he claims have the power to help: middle-income homeowning professionals who have a decent amount of free time on their hands, like me. I cannot fathom anything I would like less (and am less suited for) than entering politics. (I couldn’t even handle being a member of my local Labour party for longer than a couple of years. I am not cut out for such shouty environments). I don’t actually believe this is the only way to make change to the system, if only because that’s too bleak a prospect to contemplate – but I would have liked some detail about how to engage with it.
Overall, this is well-written and engaging, but I don’t understand who it’s for. There’s nothing in here that’s new for someone who’s thought about the issue in any kind of depth, but nobody else is going to pick it up. Maybe it would be effective as a gift for a well-intentioned friend who is a bit of a nimbyist? It’s well-argued enough that it might convince someone who’d never really thought about the consequences of constantly blocking developments – and I can only hope that politicians and councillors will pick it up.
*Look, when I started this post, she was still PM, okay? At least the scrapping of legislation to scrap no-fault eviction has itself been scrapped…
I’ve gone full circle, from tenant to landlord, though I’ve never been at the extremes of either of those positions. Australia apparently has a rental shortage now, but nothing like the slums and overcrowding that characterised the Depression and elements of which continued through to the 1950s, so that I remember tacked on sleepouts, converted verandahs and tin shanties, none of which exist now.
The cure I think was widespread state housing in cheap 3 bedroom houses after WWII.
That housing stock is mostly gone now and the poor are being fobbed off with rent subsidies. The problem is I don’t think Australians would live in the small houses we lived in in the 1950s and 60s, and in any case we must persuade them to live in apartments (not that we set any land aside for parks, nor much for public transport).
I’ve read that the UK already has the smallest houses in Europe or possibly just Western Europe – which makes sense, because we’re fairly densely populated in a small country, but I don’t think people would put up with them getting much smaller. As for rent subsidies – we do have housing benefit but most landlords won’t rent to people in receipt of housing benefit, so that compounds rather than solves the issue. Lots of problems that politicians of all stripes are unwilling to try and solve because they would lose votes from homeowners and landlords.
Haha, it’s pretty impossible to stay current on politics at the moment, isn’t it? I’ve just finished paying my mortgage and was talking to my brother the other day about how I lucked out all the way in terms of the mortgage market, with low or no deposits back then, and low interest rates ever since the crash. It’s so much harder now than it was back then, and that’s unexpected – each generation expects the next generation to have things better, but currently we seem to be regressing.
My own view has always been that the problem was exacerbated by the sell-off of council housing stock. People bought the good ones and left the slums to continue degrading. Some councils and housing associations do housing well now, but there simply aren’t enough decent houses to meet the demand. And we have a sort of snobbishness, which I think is almost unique to Britain, that buying is better than renting, which becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, since as a result landlords aren’t held to high enough standards – people are just encouraged to get on the housing ladder instead. As for getting involved in party politics, totally agree – I’ve never been able to bear Labour Party meetings, and I’m not quite old and mad enough yet to go to Conservative ones… 😉
Totally agree about the sell-off of council housing stock – there are exceptions, of course (my mum’s still in a housing association property, and most of the houses on her street are still nice and decently maintained), but not nearly enough. You’re right about the snobbery – and I think it then allows for clauses in tenancy agreements that wouldn’t be allowed in other countries, because everyone who’s renting is assumed to be just doing so briefly before buying their own place. I would have carried on renting quite happily if I’d been allowed to decorate my home, keep a pet, and hadn’t had to move every year or two! But I think in this country we tend to see the main function of property as “financial asset” rather than “home”, which lends itself to all sorts of shenanigans by landlords.
The conditions you describe are frightening, and I’m glad you’re not living like that anymore. You’re right about these kinds of books; often times they only reach the audience that already agrees. Sometimes, books like this do offer solutions in the end, but in the US the solution tends to be get out and vote. I rarely hear anything about local politics. My mom worked in a local government for a long time, so I’m aware of the different offices and what they can do, but that doesn’t make me better informed on how to actually change something within those different offices. For instance, she started out in the zoning department. What all do I know about zoning? But actually, zoning really does matter when it comes to houses. So what do I do? I think focusing on big elections is a distraction, because the change that you’re really going to see will come locally. But at least in the US, in public school, we don’t seem to be talking about that. When I worked at the library, the number of people who had no clue where they could find something like a marriage certificate or a death certificate was staggering. That’s just a basic piece of documentation, let alone how houses and apartments are developed.
Also, what’s a redundancy? I know the definition, but what does that mean in regards to housing?
Unfortunately the conditions I describe are fairly common to private renting in the UK – there’s such snobbery here about home ownership that it allows for very lax standards in the private renting market. Landlords are not held to account for the quality of their properties at all, because they’re seen as the landlord’s asset rather than the tenant’s home.
As for redundancy, I was made redundant in late 2019, just as a better job became available – so I took the redundancy payment from my last employer and it became the bulk of the deposit for my flat.
I don’t think we have redundancy pay here? Maybe it’s the equivalent of a severance package, which can happen in the U.S., but is not required by law.
The last apartment I lived in would have occasional issues, like the bathroom lights didn’t work because the person downstairs moved out, and it turns out my bathroom lights are on his bill. However, Biscuit and I discovered that the woman who owned the building used to have a huge crush on my dad in high school, so whenever there was an issue, we’d have him call while Biscuit and I danced around in the background singing, “….sitting in a tree! K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
This sounds interesting though not specific to my area. We have a major housing here too – people call it a shortage but it’s actually about affordability. Like you, I feel like my own home ownership is mostly down to luck. Including the pure dumb luck of buying a house right before the market really exploded so that in 7 years our house has tripled in value. And I’ll never be able to afford a house in any major city near me. My parents never owned a house when I was growing up and we moved quite a bit. I thought home ownership was mostly for the fabulously wealthy so I’m still a bit in awe that I’ve ended up where I am!
I also thought home ownership was for the fabulously wealthy – until I got to university and met a bunch of people whose parents were homeowners, I sort of didn’t know that people *could* buy homes. So I still can’t really believe that I have bought one! Our housing crisis is a mixture of shortage and affordability – much of our Victorian housing stock is crumbling to pieces and not being replaced, but also it is very difficult in any kind of city to buy a home. I live in a dirt cheap area in a fairly deprived city and earn a good income, and it was still quite difficult for me to buy!
I had a somewhat similar experience…but my husband grew up in a family that always owned their home so I see where that sort of background offers a lot of support too. In my town, a lot of the housing problem revolved around properties being bought up by people who don’t actually live here and then rent them out to tourists. Meaning that finding a long-term rental is really hard. Our monthly mortgage is far cheaper than we would pay to rent a similar house but of course not everyone can afford the down payment to even get into the market.
Sorry to hear that this didn’t offer much practical advice for making change! I’ve decided to actively resist becoming more conservative after having bought a home and plan to channel my “protect the value of my home” energy into cleaning and decorating, rather than preventing other people from accessing additional housing. I’m still making time to go to county council meetings to advocate for new development as well. I’m in the US, so I don’t have specific advice on how to engage with your political system, but I started by just learning as much as I could about local news sources and politics.
Yes, I have tried to make a similar decision about the “protect the value of my home” instincts! Thanks for the advice – I am trying to engage more with local politics, and I hope to find some more routes into engaging with the process.