The ‘homelessness’ of modern Britain

Paul Williams, March 2004

The housing market is once again at the forefront of the news headlines in the UK. Many economists have regarded the housing market as the saviour of the UK economy, as house prices continued to rise throughout the global recession that began in 2000.

This has enabled consumers to raise extensive amounts of debt against their new-found housing wealth and spend it on all sorts of consumer goods. Equally, some economists also regard the housing market as the source of our impending economic downfall – because all this debt must be paid off. The Bank of England is also worried, and raised interest rates by 0.25 per cent in both November and February, in order (it hopes) to bring consumers gently back to earth.

Certainly we British are somewhat obsessed with houses and homes. We have one of the highest rates of home ownership in Europe, we spend just over £1bn every week on DIY and home improvements – six times as much as we give to charity – and our TV channels are awash with programmes about improving our homes, how to sell our homes, designing our dream homes, looking at other people’s homes, and admiring great houses of the past. Houses are our favourite national pastime.

Property, house, home

I want to reflect on this national characteristic by considering three words that we use to convey different concepts: property, house and home:

  • ‘Property’ is an economic construct, signifying the ownership of land and buildings (and more generally, other material things). Property is a form of wealth that people own in a place.
  • ‘House’, or ‘dwelling’, is essentially an environmental construct, signifying a place of shelter from the elements in which the basic functions of life can take place. A house is a place for people to live.
  • ‘Home’ is a social construct, signifying a sense of belonging and permanence within a community of people, often associated with hospitality. This sense of permanence combines with the first concept of property ownership. When combined with the second concept, ‘house’ takes on new meaning and becomes a signifier not merely of a dwelling but of a family, a household, even a noble lineage. Home is a place where people belong.

Of course, while we can identify and separate these words and concepts to help us think about them, in reality they overlap a great deal and certainly in ordinary English usage are often used fairly interchangeably (e.g. residential property equals house equals home).

A biblical theme

The relationship between people, place and property is, perhaps surprisingly, a central theme of the biblical story. Eden is essentially a home, a place of belonging for Adam and Eve in the presence of God. Abraham and the patriarchs are nomadic tent dwellers but receive God’s promise of a place, the land of Israel, as a possession (a property and a home). In Egypt, the place of slavery, it is clear that the Israelites had houses and property in the best part of the land (Genesis 47:11) yet this was not their home. Indeed part of their journey to a place of belonging involved the nomadic tent-dwelling existence of the desert, until eventually they are given ‘land on which you did not toil, cities you did not build’. (Joshua 24:13). Later, when David wanted to build a house for the Ark to dwell in, God spoke to him through Nathan the prophet, saying ‘I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed.’ (2 Samuel 7:10).

But despite the sharing out of the land to all the tribes and clans and the well-known Jubilee regulations to ensure continuity of familial ownership, one of the reasons given for exile involves houses. Isaiah’s target is those who ‘add house to house, field to field’ (Isaiah 5:8) – they ignore the Jubilee laws and acquire more and more property from others. Similarly, Micah rails against those who ‘defraud a man of his home’, ‘drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes’, and thereby ‘take away my blessing from their children for ever’. (Micah 2:2, 9).

Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65) is one in which ‘my people will build houses and dwell in them’. Zechariah’s vision includes the wonderful detail of community life lived out in a place, where ‘men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.’ (Zechariah 8:5). Although Jesus had ‘no place to rest his head’, he promises to prepare a place in his Father’s house where we can belong and dwell with God. (John 14:1–3).

There is a ‘now but not yet’ element to the biblical theology of home therefore. Whilst possession of inherited property is established as a creational ideal (at one level the Creation itself is our property given on trust by God), the text also makes clear that ‘home’ is a more fundamental concept for human identity and that we can be at ‘home’ in community without necessarily owning property. Ultimately our ‘home’ is to be found in relationship with God, though Jesus persists in using the analogy of ‘place’ to describe this for us.

‘Homeless’ property owners

When compared with biblical Hebrew culture, twenty-first-century British attitudes towards housing contain a number of paradoxes.

The first concerns our understanding of property as an economic construct, because although three or four different Hebrew words are used to describe property, most of them convey also the sense of inheritance. In other words, as it was envisaged by biblical authors, property ownership was received from one’s family, not acquired through market transactions. Today, instead of families inheriting property, individuals buy and sell it.

Contrary to the Jubilee regulations, our own market environment and inheritance laws have undermined both the ability of families to own and pass on property over time and also the cohesion of the extended family. A further consequence of this is that our own culture has an increasing number of citizens who are homeless and many more who cannot own a property at all but are forced to rent.

Recent evidence suggests that the housing market is reinforcing a divided Britain in which some own one or more houses while others are excluded from home ownership entirely. House prices are now continuing to grow despite a substantial decrease in the number of first-time buyers. The latter can no longer afford to enter the market, but rather than prices falling, the demand is instead being supplied by investors purchasing buy-to-let properties. More and more of our society is effectively excluded from the possibility of ‘home-making’ that house ownership affords.

This growing division within Britain also reinforces the ‘private’ nature of modern home ownership compared with the more community-oriented nature of Hebrew living. Our residential streets are a far cry now from Zechariah’s vision, and our houses are more and more private retreats and fortresses than places of open community. Rather than homes expressing belonging to community, to often in our society houses become merely another means of materialistic self-expression.

As a result, a final paradox is that even those who do own one or more houses are rarely ‘at home’ in the Hebrew sense of a safe resting place of belonging and acceptance (literally, a pasture for sheep). Instead there is much mobility, a never-ending quest for ‘home improvement’ (by which we mean house improvement) and an underlying culture of frantic restless activity.

What can Christians do?

Christian engagement with our culture in this area takes place at a number of levels. First, we need to continue acting to change the functioning of our market system in favour of the extended family, the possibility of rootedness, and more widespread inclusion in home ownership.

Secondly we can seek to build family homes wherever we are (and whether we own a house or not) that are places of belonging not just for ourselves but for the ‘house-less’ and ‘home-less’ community around us. This was a key part of the Celtic missionary strategy of the fifth and sixth centuries. They sought to create open homes with a culture of acceptance and hospitality as an incarnation of the Trinity’s openness in community towards humanity. Finally, we can take advantage of the post-modern blurring of work and home by building such a culture in our workplaces – sadly the only place of community for many people now. Instead of allowing the culture of work to invade our homes, can we bring the culture of ‘home’ to the workplace?

Paul Williams is currently the Head of International Research at DTZ plc.

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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2004

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