Hollow Homes and Speculated Spaces

Society

15.11.2016

Hollow Homes and Speculated Spaces

‘Home is where the heart is’. It’s the sort of platitude we’ve all heard so many times or seen so many times, cross-stitched in some ancient relative’s hallway, that we don’t stop to even consider it. But, in elevating the dwelling as ‘the reference of every metaphor’ in his The Practice of Everyday Life, the late French writer Michel De Certeau gave form to this seemingly banal idea. He suggested that the home is a fragment or isolated form of society that reflects the public order – so, stepping beyond the personal significance of our abodes, perhaps, home is where our [collective] heart is, too. While an individual home is a tiny grain in the fabric of our cities and societies, the way it has changed over time, or the way our perceptions towards it have changed over time, offer insights into societal shifts and changing worldviews.

Our homes, current and previous, mark certain periods in our lives; they can cue up a reel of memories on our departure or return; they often situate who we are, or were, in a very physical container. For those of us fortunate enough to stay in one place for a long time, we can trace our physical and personal growth - the walls where heights were marked, the rooms where we mourned.  My family home in Christchurch is the setting of my earliest memories. Over time, it became not only a home for my siblings and myself, but for cousins, uncles, aunties, and friends who needed shelter and safety. Within its walls, relationships were formed and grew, fights were had, doors slammed. To this day, whenever I return home for a visit, the worst of my stubborn teenage self rears its head. And my 6-year-old-self’s attempt to spell my brother’s name is still there, engraved in the timber table: ‘Petre’.

The home forms a concrete and, ideally, a safe grounding for our developing psyche. If we widen the gaze to consider the home’s changing role in society, perhaps it offers insight into the collective psyche, too. From caves to hide tents, stilt houses to cob houses, yurts to minka - the home’s evolution is long and complex. Reflecting geographical location, access to resources, the stability and prosperity of a community, and cultural influences, the home is a microcosm of a society’s values.

So, what is the home today and what does it say about us? In many Western societies, perhaps more than ever before, it has increasingly become an investment, a means to passively accumulate wealth untethered from owner or occupant. New Zealand’s Child Poverty Action Group issued a housing briefing paper in May 2015 which highlighted the significant decline in households who own their own home; a drop from 75% in 1991 to 64% at the end of 2014. And, sadly in many countries, New Zealand included, renters - who are the ones paying the mortgage or lining the owner’s pockets - often have very little control over individualising the home in which they live. This is due to significant restrictions on unauthorised changes or fixtures, often coupled with limited-term rental contracts, amongst other factors. Even the cross-stitched “Home Is Where The Heart Is”, applied carelessly to a wall you don’t own with the wrong materials, could eat up half a bond years down the road.

Once a spatial and stylistic representation of society, the home is now, largely, an economic unit of value; a worrisome embodiment of that bland truism, ‘it takes money to make money’. The commodification of the home was such a logical next rung on the ladder. As Canadian writer and organiser Max Haiven says in his essay “The Four Faces of Financialisation” (originally published on Amateur Cities), contrary to De Certeau’s  vision of what the home could be:

“We have been taught to imagine our homes not as dwellings for our families or as parts of communities, but as privatised vehicles for personal, competitive investment…the financialization of practically every aspect of our social lives both depends on and contributes to a deeper cultural shift, one where we are all instructed to imagine ourselves and act in the world as ruthlessly competitive investors, responsible for subjecting nearly every decision and relationship to the austere measurements of the speculative market.”

Financial accumulation is the name of the game, after all - it was for the boomers, it was for Gen X, and though we might protest, it is for most millennials. In the upper echelons of our societies, it’s a game well played.

House prices in New Zealand have increased by a dramatically disproportionate 150% over the past 30 years relative to income and inflation, in no small part thanks to their financialisation. People are no longer just buying their first home: a 2014 report by Shamubeel Eaqub for the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research found that of the 92% of homes that are bought by New Zealanders, a staggering 48% are investment properties. As much as we like to flog overseas investors in our papers and parliament, they only have dibs on a scant 8% of the market. More often than not, it’s our fellow countrymen making money off their money - and us. Yet this isn’t some inevitable and intractable problem - in contrast, over the same time period, house prices in Germany (where I live now) have remained constant relative to income and inflation.

As the Morgan Foundation’s economist Geoff Simmons points out in his article “Why German House Prices have been Flat”, in a country whose home ownership rate is the second lowest in Europe, “housing is seen as part of the country’s infrastructure, rather than a sector pretty much solely for private endeavour.” Housing cooperatives abound, rent is regulated, and the government charges a standard tax every time a property changes hand. Whatever capital gains remain after that are also subject to tax. The importance of homeownership in Germany - mortgage or freehold - pales in comparison to the security of tenure. Whether you’re on the title or not, home should be a source of certainty and security; thanks to a number of regulations that is often the case for Germany’s renters.

Absent the cultivation of that sort of culture (let alone a culture of other, productive investment), the idea of amassing a housing portfolio is seductive. Sure, the safety and opportunity afforded by individualised financial security (you have enough to be safe, and now you can go ahead and make yourself wealthier) can be liberating and empowering, but it masks dangerous and destabilising consequences. This reconceptualisation of baseline needs into assets to be amassed and speculated upon has rendered even the most primitive form of shelter, security, and personal expression - the home - a commodity first and a right second. Nor does the manufacture of these appetites end at homeowners - even renters are increasingly being groomed for predatory speculation, encouraged to see their spare rooms as another economic unit rather than for a friend or family member in need.

Airbnb and similar platforms are undoubtedly responsible for contributing to or are, perhaps, a symptom of these sorts of attitudes. As a traveller, I’d be hypocritical if I said I didn’t love the cheap and friendly options the platform offered me. But, in many cities and neighbourhoods, the ‘sharing economy’ has become little more than a euphemism for individual gain at community expense. It cannot plead innocent in the displacement of residents. Berlin, a city with a notorious renter’s ladder - in spite of the country’s regulations aimed at stemming the housing market and favouring long-term tenancy - implemented a ban on Airbnb rentals earlier this year.

Unfortunately, the unwitting participation in platforms such as Airbnb and German speaking counterpart WG-Gesucht has whet many appetites: it is all too common that after obtaining a long-term lease in Berlin, renters move out of their apartment and into another one, meanwhile illegally subletting the initial apartment for a much higher price. Finding backdoors and loopholes to siphon money off others, renters themselves make a nice passive income by exploiting those who may not fit the profile of the ‘most desirable tenant’ (migrants, the unemployed, the indebted) and be otherwise passed over by agents or landlords .

Back in New Zealand, where regulations stray from protecting renters and favour homeowners, a huge amount of writing and fretting has been dedicated to the generational divide in New Zealand's housing crisis, such that you would believe that all baby boomers decided to go in on housing as investment in a form of collective middle-aged solidarity against destitute millennials. While plenty of the social and economic shifts of the past 30 years have certainly favoured those who came of age on the right side of them, the inducement to "get on the ladder" and work your way up is as potent for the 20-somethings that can do it as the 60-somethings that already have.

A common line of thought for those on the right side of things is still set on anchoring all responsibility to the propertyless for their own decisions, and it’s now drifting across the generational divide as some millennials come into good fortune. The, "back in my day" rhetoric is tiresome and inaccurate, failing to reflect a different social and economic reality. But, even worse is the common, damaging utterance from people approximately my age, in feel-good newspaper stories or distant family reunions: "If I can do it, you/they - right there, on the other side of the city, my house-buying contemporary - can do it too. If you get off your ass and work a little harder, of course”. Few of their suggestions on exactly how to do this bear water outside of their lucky context, nor do any of the infuriating, context-free “a landlord at 25!” stories.

Because just as there are a whole series of different external factors affecting my ability to buy a house than those which affected my parents, there's also a whole series of privileges I have been born into that colour my chances of owning property - ones others have not been afforded. In his 2011 essay ‘In What Time Do We Live?’, philosopher Jacques Rancière describes the eagerness of many to “defend their privileges and to sacrifice the future to the short-sighted defence of those privileges.” And therein lies an oppressive force far greater than any generational change: a fear of losing the advantages one holds over another.

The future sneaks up on you fast. Wherever you are, you’ve likely seen the heart-breaking accounts of New Zealand families living in cars because they cannot support their families on their full-time income (to the government’s embarrassment, it’s one of the few NZ current affairs stories regularly generating coverage outside the country, in the likes of the Guardian and Al-Jazeera). Laziness? Really? There's no amount of jobhunting or penny-pinching that’s going to enable you to pay your rent, let alone buy a house, when your income does not equate to your basic living costs. Low-income families were and are the first to be excluded from homeownership, but even worse, they are now denied a basic need: a roof over their head, owned or not. While the rich prosper in their material accumulation, the working poor are being stripped of basic human dignities.

What has become increasingly evident is that the problem we’re now facing runs a lot deeper than unaffordable housing stock. The values we bring to ‘home’ reflect the values of our societies. In societies which incentivise an ‘every man for himself’ mentality, climbing the ladder to accumulate more and more housing as wealth will always prevail over housing as a unit of community, family, a secure base to build any meaningful life on. In turning home and the spaces within it into an investment, we have rendered the objects in which we can represent and document our lives as mere commodities. And worse yet, the lives that are subject to the our whims are now commodities, too.

When you're benefiting, it's easy to be fooled into thinking that this financialisation of each and every part of our lives serves us. There are plenty of institutions and markets who are keen to have us continue to think so. But for anyone who wants to live in a safe and decent society, it doesn’t, and it certainly doesn’t serve those whose lives’ potential is limited as a result. Rising inequality, rising debt, rising homelessness, and rising social divides are not benchmarks of a healthy society. There has to be an alternative to this agglomeration of individualised financial bubbles into one all-consuming crisis. But, first we need to recognise the deep failings of our societal values, economic structures, and their relationship with each other, so we can start doing things differently.

There are many suggestions already on the table from a raft of diverse interest groups; some of these involve changes to tenancy law, alternative measures such as cooperative ownership, a willingness to accept the tax and compliance costs that may be required to cool the market, or a return to post-war levels of funding for not-for-profit housing. However, whatever alternatives we decide pursue, there is a necessary buy-in required to enact change. That buy-in will have to start with those of us who may stand to become property owners and those of us who already are. Change is critical. Any trite trappings aside, the sentiment is valid and real - home should be where the heart is. But our current housing market is heartless.

Cover image: Auckland Council Housing, Greys Avenue, c.1960.
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