I’ve spent today writing a presentation for a conference on Friday about Housing in Scotland. I’m tasked with covering the issues facing young people in the housing market. Yet my gut reaction is that we can’t understand the complexity of issues at play if we only look at ‘the market’. I suppose this reflects my dissatisfaction with the way in which economists think about ‘choice’ in terms of how people negotiate the housing market. For me, choice is a fallacy because societal structures ultimately shape and construct the ‘decisions’ individuals and households make – focusing on the rational decison making process fails to get to grips with this. To fully grasp the issues at play we need to get beyond the immediate housing issues and think about the interplay between housing and other social and economic policies, and also demographic issues. Housing has been central to individual and national wealth in the post-war period, It has also assumed a pivotal role in more recent societal shifts from collective to asset-based welfare provisions. This involves individuals assuming more responsibility for their own future well-being, thus reducing the burden upon the state.
It strikes me that housing has been and will continue to be fundamental to patterns of social inequality both within and across generations. It is now extremely difficult for young people to purchase a home in the UK without drawing on financial support from their family. Where however does this leave those young people who are the children of renters? Is homeownership now further reinforcing existing patterns of wealth and inheritance? Given our ageing population and shift towards ‘asset-based welfare’ it also remains to be seen whether house-rich older generation are able to (and want to) leave an inheritance to their children and grand-children. The growing expectation from government that we should use our housing assets to secure our own future welfare (i.e. to fund social care in old age, or to top-up our meager state pensions) means they may need their housing assets in their own old age. Again this raises questions about how the current cohort of young people are supposed to secure their own future welfare if they are being denied access (or are having a delayed entry) to the housing ladder.
These dilemmas highlight the crucial importance of this public policy issue, and it is one which I am lucky enough to be able to investigate and unpack over the next few years. The Leverhulme Foundation have funded my colleagues and I to conduct a three year, inter-disciplinary project to investigate the role of housing wealth in creating inter-generational inequalities. The project involves St Andrews, Birmingham and Durham Universities and is led by Dr Beverley Searle at St Andrews. The workstream which I am leading focuses on the issues mentioned above in terms of young people, tenure choice and future welfare. I look forward to being able to report some empirical results in the years ahead.
Last week I was teaching my class about mixed communities policy, and in the seminar that followed we were discussing our own attitudes towards living in socially mixed neighbourhoods and how tenure-mix might alleviate poverty. Now, as a housing researcher I am very critical of the evidence base underpinning this idea:
- I find the ‘role model’ idea very patronising (in a nutshell this theory suggests social renters can become better citizens by living next door to home-owners … seriously?!)
- I don’ think housing policy on its own can address the problems of concentrated poverty (wealth also needs to be redistributed via person centred as well as place-based solutions)
- Research suggests home-owners and social renters don’t really interact on mixed-tenure estates (there still seems to be segregation within some estates)
Despite all of the above I still find the ideal of social mix an attractive one because of its potential to help overcome social distance. And here’s why …. one of the things that struck me in the conversations with my students is that social housing is very much an alien concept to them. Few of them know social housing tenants personally, and so are too ready to accept popular stereotypes perpetuated in the tabloids which renders such people and places as ‘problematic’ (see Sean Damer’s class book for example).
This is in stark contrast to my own childhood experience in North Lanarkshire – a local authority dominated by council housing. I grew up in social housing and even now live in an ex-council house. My housing estate (or ‘scheme’ as we would call it in Scotland) is comprised of a mix of renters and owners, and to be honest that’s one of its endearing features. You can’t tell (aesthetically) which homes are bought and which are rented, and both are pepper-potted at the street-level, which allows more social interaction across tenures. Having experienced social mix first-hand I have a very different view of social housing from my students, because I can more easily separate the moral panic about ‘sink estates’ and ‘schemes’ from the reality of life in working class communities.
To me, mixing people of different backgrounds together (whether in the context of housing & neighbourhoods, comprehensive schools, a national health service etc) is key to bridging social distance and emphasising the common bonds that bind us all together. Physical segregation by contrast reinforces differences. Arguably one of the strengths of social housing in Scotland in its hey day was that it was home to a broad cross section of the population (it wasn’t just for the ‘poor’). In a Scottish context tenure-mix has also been really important for social mobility by allowing ‘aspiring’ households to remain in their local community, instead of leaving it in search of better (often private) housing markets elsewhere. This is probably the bracket I’d put myself in, as where I live now is only a few miles away from where I grew up as a child. And I have a strong place attachment to the area.
So despite my hostility to the evidence base surrounding ‘tenure-mix’ as a solution to concentrated poverty, I have been pondering that perhaps mixed communities aren’t always a bad thing. Nor does it always equate with gentrification as some on the left have argued (although in some circumstances it can do – see for example the work of Kirsteen Paton on Partick in Glasgow). Would be interested in other people’s views on this, as I know many housing researchers are critical of tenure (and social) mix – often for very good reasons.