Monday 16 January 2017

What is a house?

Since New Year, I've been reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto, her book mainly of columns from The Times [of London]. We’ve met Caitlin before and before. She grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton in the post-industrial West Midlands of England. Her father was a union shop steward on disablility, she was the eldest of eight children who were home educated. She taught herself to write, and because she didn’t go to school, didn’t have any voice to adopt but her own and that of the many many books that she read as a child and teenager. She had to integrate facts, attitudes, politics and sensibilities and invent herself. Comfortable people should read her because she can make you feel uncomfortable without ranting like a demagogue. A joke can make the pill more bitter.

Here she is on the time when 'house' changed from being synonymous with home to getting redefined as asset, investment, nest-egg . . .
In the 1980s, when the Conservative government put Britain’s council housing stock up for sale, my father received a letter – asking us if we wished to buy our home, for £12,000.
‘Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t do it,’ he said. ‘There’s no moral logic to it. A council house is for someone who would not have a house any other way. If you can afford to *buy* it, you shouldn’t be *in* it”.
Our old house – our home – is now worth £100,000. I looked it up on a property website this morning. Those council tenants that did buy, back in the eighties – half our street – got an astonishing bargain.

In Ireland, we slavishly followed the Thatcherite model of letting The Market sort out housing, including the selling of much of the corporate housing stock to the then present incumbent. Those families, particularly in Dublin, are now sitting on an asset: the mortgage will have been paid off and the house can now be used as collateral for further loans. Meanwhile, The Market generated thousands of domestic houses during the boom, often in famously unsuitable locations: on the flood-plains of rivers; with no transport infra-structure; on top of radon sumps; on foundations of pyrite. In 2009, the chattering classes looked around tsk tsk to count the ghost-estates of empty and half-finished houses which were never going to sell.

Now the chattering classes are talking about the housing crisis because hundreds of children spent Christmas in hotel rooms and hostels. Many of these talking-heads have an "obvious" solution to this glitch in supply and demand which turns out to be "impossible to implement". It's impossible to implement under an economic model that building houses has to involve profit as an incentive. But there's all sorts of things that happen for / in society which don't make a profit: public transport, the post office, the Abbey Theatre, national parks, schools, parliament itself. For reasons that go beyond logic, the first three items on that list, at least, are 'meant' to be profitable. But nobody seems to ask why?

So let's ask: why should public transport or public housing be profitable? And what parameters do you throw into the model to determine the profit and loss? Homeless people are more likely to get sick and occupy a hospital bed. What price do you put on a chap topping himself because his home has been repossessed? Will properly resourced = unprofitable transport infrastructure get cars off the roads, allow children to walk their obesity off on the way to school, reduce road-rage, decrease commute times, lower the carbon foot-print? Caitlin Moran asserts that 75% of the rentable domestic housing stock in London is owned by foreign investors. In Dublin this ratio is only 40% but we're catching up. Cui bono? Who benefits here? not the people on benefit.

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