By Njoki Mahiaini, 21 April 2015
Once upon a time in a not-so-faraway kingdom lived a people with reasonable expectations of home ownership. Although the grandest palace was reserved for their ruler, there was a saying which rang true in all four corners of the nation: ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’. However, in neighbouring dominions, otherwise alike in strength and dignity, this maxim was rejected. The inhabitants of these lands were sated by the care of noble landlords and so it was, as ages passed. Until the crisis came…
If you are still with us, rest assured the butchering of a beloved genre ends here. Yet, in considering housing, especially for first-time buyers, it’s easy for the lines between farce, fable and fairy tale to become blurred. Nonetheless what is clear is that home ownership is a big deal. When it comes to buying a home those who can, do, and those who can’t really, really wish they could.
House prices in the news
House prices do not simply make the news, they are the news on a regular basis. Even so, what ought to provide cause for concern is the mind-set behind the mania. Regardless of education, social class or faith background, home ownership is regarded as an indicator of success and something highly aspirational. This is in some ways obvious. After all, neither homelessness nor the nomadic life have ever been en vogue, but they are also not the sole alternatives. Many countries in Western Europe – most notably Germany and Switzerland – have home ownership rates far lower than the UK. These differences occur despite their respective larger populations and higher overall costs of living and reflect an increased tendency towards renting in the long-term. So who, if anyone, has the right idea? Indeed, is our desire to own property God-given or market-driven?
For the past five years in particular, but with momentum growing over most of the past decade, housing has become a hot political topic. Not only has there been a public outcry at the slow rate at which ‘affordable’ homes have been built but there have been high-profile examples of underhand tactics being employed by private landlords in order to upgrade their clientele artificially. In short, their strategy has been to drive up rents as a means of driving out tenants on middle and lower incomes. This stealthy attempt at social cleansing is a technique which might have worked in Hoxton had the investors not underestimated the tenacity of the residents of the New Era estate and their self-appointed spokesperson, Russell Brand.
The relational impact of the housing crisis is being keenly felt, especially by those in the 25-34 age bracket. Home ownership in this demographic (many of whom are also saddled with substantial student debts) has declined by almost a fifth in the last 10 years. More people than ever are leaving their home town to study, in search of work or simply to settle somewhere they can afford to live independently. As a result, rootedness and cultural continuity – key concepts in the Old Testament vision for Israelite society – are compromised leaving communities fractured.
The picture above is part of an ad campaign on the London Underground. It highlights another unintended consequence of housing shortages, and one which further jeopardises Britain’s already precarious pensions situation: the fact that many couples are delaying starting a family until they can afford to buy a home. The later their dream of home ownership is realised, the older these parents will be and the fewer children they are likely to have.
Yet, does the desire for a permanent roof over our heads – the modern equivalent of having a tie to the land – enable us to know God or each other better? Ironically, despite an unprecedented desire for ownership among ‘Generation Rent’, coupled with increasing demand for properties to let (potentially a highly relational tenancy arrangement), the landlord-tenant relationship is more distant than ever. The use of agents and impersonal email communication, our increasingly litigious culture, the rise in buy-to-let and the geographical distance which often exists between an owner and their properties has made cultivating any kind of meaningful relationship with tenants difficult if not impossible. Additionally, the poor regulation of privately rented properties and the fact that supply of new homes has, consistently, lagged behind demand has meant there are many more negative relational outcomes of the housing crisis. These include the rise in the number of single-person dwellings – even in homes designed for families – as well as a corresponding decline in multi-generational households as the duty of care for the elderly has shifted from the family to the state or even the private sector.
In the Old Testament we see God promise the Israelites deliverance into a land where they will be able to establish their home (Exodus 23:31). Through the laws in Leviticus 25:13-17 we see clear instructions for the management of property and, every 50th year (the Jubilee), the restoration of land to the family who originally owned it. Not only that, but there is an explicit command for the price of land to be related to its yield as the Israelites are told they ‘must not take advantage of each other’.
Christian home ownership
This is an important model for Christians aspiring toward ownership of or already managing property. Although we are not suggesting that Christians should insist on a 50-year leasehold arrangement, it may be helpful for Christian landlords prayerfully to consider the way in which they steward their properties, the influential nature of the service they provide and the quality of the relationship that exists between them and their tenants. The questions real-estate savvy Christians should ask themselves when considering whether to buy or rent or, indeed, buy again have less to do with economic merit than spiritual motive. Land and property will always be sought-after commodities but for those who seek first the kingdom of God, the most important consideration must be the value of their relational rather than their financial potential.
For more information about the housing crisis, its effects and possible responses please see:
- Housing Justice – a Christian charity which tackles homelessness & seeks to find appropriate shelter for those with housing difficulties.
- Homes for Britain – an umbrella organisation which runs a campaign to promote the building of more homes to match Britain’s housing needs.
- The Good Right – a conservative social movement founded by Tim Montgomerie, a journalist who has been vocal in his support for large-scale housebuilding and better support for families. The Good Right lists housing first in a list of 12 policies which form its draft ‘manifesto.’
- Reactivating the Extended Family – a Jubilee Centre booklet that explores the relevance of Old Testament principles for modern-day social and economic issues.