In this article I suggest that we should stop talking about ‘housing and starting using ‘homeing’ to describe how people live.
Housing. A word everyone uses. A familiar word. An everyday word. So familiar that we rarely stop to think about what it means. We all know what ‘housing’ is. But do we? Is it the right word for the modern world? The world of twenty-first century Britain.
My definition of housing is: accommodation in which people live. That does it for me. People live in accommodation, of various kinds. For a lot of people that means living in houses; but for an increasing number of people it does not. We all live in homes; some of those homes we make in houses. From that point of view, the whole idea is very simple. The problem I have with the word ‘housing’ is that it implies houses; living in properties that we think of as being houses. In fact, people live in all kinds of residential structures and units. Blocks of flats, caravans, boats, converted windmills, mobile homes, prefabs… there is a wide variety of things in which people have made their homes.
The word housing, to me, also implies status, ownership and tenure. Let’s stop, and think what is known:
The property market is splitting Britain into two classes: Those rich enough to own their own homes, often outright; and those under 35, who pay twice the percentage of their incomes to rent in the private market. The split is new. Ten years ago, a majority of people under 35 owned homes, according to government data. Now, a majority under 35 rent. In fact, half of all renters in the UK are under 35.
Those are the words of journalist Jim Edwards, writing in The Guardian on 7th May this year. He talks about the ‘property market’ which is understandable and I have used to same term myself; it’s the collective known for man-made structures. Interesting to see his choice of words – that people who own their own homes are ‘rich.’ Not my choice of word. Wealthy or better-off perhaps, but rich? Behind the figures he refers to is the belief that rent forms a very high percentage of disposable incomes – for a lot of people.
More people than ever before are renting apartments from private landlords. In England we often call these ‘flats.’ Tenants tend to pay for a flat to live in on a monthly basis. A key datum is the ratio between rent and income; for some people, their rent takes up a high percentage of their monthly income.
‘…the average rental cost across the UK taking up 41 per cent of take-home pay, according to online letting agent Rentify.’
Reports the website This is money, in September 2015. Regional variations across the UK shows that the proportion of income swallowed up by rent varies between a third and a half. The proportion varies according to age group and to type of property; single people living in one-bedroom flats can pay a higher percentage and have to foot the rent bill alone.
There are an estimated 4.3 million tenants in the private rental market. Added to that there are people who live in what is called the ‘social’ market where their accommodation is owned by either the local authority or by a housing association.
For a high proportion of people the private rented sector is the default choice. These are people who cannot afford to buy their own houses. Statistics such as these obscure the diversity of the populating renting homes. Some of them are students. Some of them are transient migrants. Some of them are contractors who know they will need to move on after a few months. Some of them are young people who need to leave home and set up in a place of their own. A growing number of retired people are leaving their family houses and down-sizing to smaller units of accommodation but cannot obtained a mortgage because of their age.
The groups that concern me the most are those aged 25 to 35 who cannot afford a mortgage and older people, over retirement age, who cannot afford to keep a family home going just for themselves.
Figures like these get to the crux of the issue. People don’t live in houses any more. What people live in is a mixed economy of residential properties. This economy includes what has blandly become known as ‘social housing.’ I rejected this phrase when I said “All housing is social housing.” What I meant by that is that providing people with homes to live in is always a social function; not merely a commercial one. The distinction between private and social sectors is as artificial as it is obfuscation. Having a home to live in a social right and a social need. We don’t need to differentiate between the status of the property – by distinguishing between types of owners. A home is a home – who ever owns it and however they provide it to its occupants. If people live in it, then it is their home.
Almost half the adult in Britain these days live in rented apartments. And yet the government and politicians keep on talking about housing. Journalists keeping writing about the ‘housing crisis.’ We like to use words with which we are familiar; we like to think that familiar words will be understood by everyone.
The problem with the familiar word ‘housing’ is that it fixes our ideas; it formats our thinking in a certain way. It inhibits policymakers from thinking outside the box of everyday speech. We need to think differently about residential accommodation. The problem is: what word do we use that is short enough for everyday speech which means what we current mean by ‘housing’ but which does not just mean houses? Even in 2017, the kind of professionals who should know better, still see the private rented sector and its supply of apartments, as catering for temporary need. Just like the legislators of the 1980s did. But it’s not about short-term tenancies and temporary arrangements; it’s about permanent homes.
According to the website of lpcliving, in 2017, just over half (51%) of private renters are under 35 years of age and 54% have no dependents, and so are unlikely to get social housing. Newspapers continue to wax lyrical about the increase in house prices – as though it was actually a good thing! In fact rising house prices is a two-edged sword – good for some but a disaster for others.
If we are to change the way that policies are made – about living accommodation – then the words used in those policies will have to change. The people who most need to start changing their choice of words, are politicians. They need to stop talking about housing as though it means only houses.
People in government, who control our lives, either limit or expand the choices we have available to us, permit or deny access to the resources we need to live ordered lives; they need to talk differently, change their dialogue, revise their mantras, re-gear their codes – about living. What people want these days are choices. They want to be able to choose where they live, what kind of property they live in, how they get access to that property, what they have to pay for it and how long it remains theirs to live in. They want to choose; to decide for themselves. They do not want to have choices forced on them by market circumstances.
People in government, policymakers, builders, landlords, local authorities – everyone needs to change the way they think about residential accommodation. The world is changing and our minds have to change to keep up with reality. In 1988 people talked about renting as being temporary. How times have changed! In the twenty-first century a large proportion of the British population has abandoned any hope of ever getting on the ladder of housing ownership. Renting a residential property is now the default for a substantial proportion of adults. This is why the law now needs to be updated. Politicians will be better able to deal with the current crisis in the provision of homes if they stop talking about ‘housing.’
More importantly, we must stop seeing the solution to the current crisis as lying with building. We cannot build our way out of this problem. Increasing the supply of newly built houses is not the way; too many people who need better homes simply cannot afford to buy them.
The sooner we stop talking about housing the sooner will be able to see solutions to the present problems. So what word should be using? It might be a neologism but my suggestion is to use the word ‘homeing’ – the supply of residential accommodation for people to live in. That changes the emphasis away from the type of property to the one things that all types have in common – being a home.
What people want is homes to live in; if they cannot afford to live in houses then they have to accept alternatives. If we start talking about homeing people then we can begin to think freely about the crisis that confronts us.
Trevor Locke, 12th May 2017.