At a certain time in one’s life, when settlement features heavily in any thoughts to the future, it becomes necessary to refer consciously to a space (albeit a room, a flat or a house) as ‘home’. The subtle transition from a ‘house’ or ‘flat’ as an object, to the declaration of ownership that results in the naming of a space as ‘home’1 confirms the inhabitants possession and responsibility for the space, deciding that they are housed there, belong there. From this point, healthy2 relationships with the ‘self’ are nurtured; one feels rooted and stable in their surroundings and a sense of belonging dominates, encouraging the growth of relationships with individuals and groups.
Settled, rooted individuals form stable communities.
Though the idea of owning and indeed, controlling one’s environment or dwelling has been a widely assumed given for those living throughout recent history in the U.K3, this attitude seems to vary widely across Europe. In contrast, Germany and the Netherlands in particular, show significant proportions of the population choosing long-term rental instead of owner-occupied dwellings4. However, for the context of this essay, I draw attention only to the current situation of families and individuals throughout the UK.
Inflated markets for the past 10 years, a shortage of available homes5, a buoyant rental market and poor quality design of new housing have confronted many families, partnerships and individuals wishing to create a stable living environment.
Challenged now, by the growing uncertainty of the economy, having seen a sharp decline over the period of several months, the housing market has been one of the first markets to suffer. Interest rates are now at their lowest in the Bank of England’s 315 year history6 and tighter controls by lenders (with buyers commonly expected to have circa £40,000 as a deposit) has taken the market to a precipice of stasis. With fear of recession (and in many cases redundancy), the mood is ominous; homeowners are unwilling to accept negative equity on selling7, first-time buyers and people in rental accommodation (hoping at one time to step foot onto the property ladder) are, on application more likely to be denied a mortgage, ergo a ‘home’.
A stark indicator of the struggles ahead for homeowners, businesses and relationships alike, is the forecast of 75,000 8 repossessions this year with further evidence suggesting, “…that 34 per cent of repossessions result from the breakdown of relationships [and] another 25 percent arise from the closure of a family company”9. Perhaps then, understandably, headlines such as, “Economy at 60-year low, says Darling. And it will get worse”10 frame the turbulent uncertainty of the immediate and somewhat distant future in personal, domestic environments and commercial businesses realistically.
Does this mean that under the current circumstances, some members of society are now so distanced from forming a stable living environment that our domestic aspirations of comfort, familiarity and security are faltering, leaving them insecure, unstable and disenfranchised?
Given the circumstances, naturally the rental market is in high demand, but with restrictions and pre-requisites on how the occupant must behave in this borrowed, transient space, the feeling of the temporary dominates. Christopher Alexander in “The Pattern Language” wrote;
“People cannot be genuinely comfortable and healthy in a house which is not theirs. All forms of rental-whether from private landlords or public housing agencies-work against the natural processes which allow people to form stable, self-healing communities”and
“People will only be able to feel comfortable…if they can change their houses to suit themselves, add on whatever they need…”
In terms of comfort therefore stability, rental accommodation fails to provide for the inhabitants that require the freedom to mark and alter a space as ‘he’ wishes. Landlords, by governing this sterile space, cultivate the feeling of ‘dwelling as temporary ‘stop-gap’’, consciously rejecting long-term or permanent settlement. By denying the inhabitant a sense of permanence or an ‘ideal’ living environment, unconscious instability or an attitude that one doesn’t belong, prevails. One is not wholly ‘comfortable’ and ‘healthy’ in a space that is not theirs.
Being in control of one’s environment is essential in order to form a solid foundation. Where one has a solid foundation, the ‘home’ exists as a central, physical reference point to orbit round and at times, return to. Our ‘home’ is where everything is familiar and grounding and upon our return, we surround ourselves with mementoes of our everyday, validating and reconfirming our existence. Alain de Botton in “The Architecture of Happiness” wrote;
“We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.”
The ‘home’ enables the inhabitant to ‘house’ ones beliefs and ideals, enabling one to make comparisons to the distant and immediate past to current familial, professional and social situations. Braced from the psychological tumult of daily life, the steel structures support and isolate oneself, allowing freedom for reflection by protecting the more vulnerable, fragile sides of the psyche that elsewhere may otherwise be lost, unnoticed or unappreciated.
By default, housing all elements of ones identity in the home results in the communication of the inhabitants’ personality to their visitors. Sam Gosling11, a psychologist specialising in the study of personality differences and how people form impressions of others in daily life, insists that the “minutiae of our private spaces hold the secrets of our true personality”12. Central to his study are the conscious decisions that one makes on the choice of objects, their arrangement and location, ranging from public or private spaces.
“Displaying a poster of Martin Luther King JR may simultaneously reinforce your view of yourself and communicate your values of others, but it is useful to treat the two kinds of claims as separate. This distinction may help us understand the difference between public and private spaces”
Likening our homes to display cabinets of parts of our personalities to the visitors we invite into our spaces, it is easy to comprehend how “[a] building [or a room] can act as a repository for our ideas [or personalities]” (Botton, p137). It is interesting to note Alexander’s reference to the term he calls the ‘intimacy gradient’13 of the home. By acknowledging spaces whose function is primarily those of a public or private space and the boundaries associated with those specific rooms, we begin to understand the choices we make when we embellish a room with ornaments and memorabilia.
Through the sense of privacy brings an element of control, with a tangible feeling of security and stability.
With permanent housing having been so unattainable for some over the past few years, the Government has acknowledged a need to improve accessibility for those that are first time buyers. Launching and improving schemes such as the Home-Ownership (whereby you purchase a percentage of the property and pay a subsidised rent on the remaining proportion) and Key Worker14 ownership schemes have helped many buyers on modest incomes. In Boris Johnson’s15, ‘First Steps Proposal’16, emphasis was placed on the importance of affordability, accessibility and sustainability of current and future housing in the UK. Despite the good intentions of properties included in the schemes (discounts ensure that properties are at least 20% below the local market rate), buyers with a joint salary of £60,000 are automatically excluded. Considering that the average salary in London is approximately £30,200, any joint buyers on average incomes would be prevented from purchasing under the scheme. With property being such a premium, only Londoners with an income of circa £86,50017 are able to purchase an average priced home. This wage-gap, between those on average salaries and £43,250, has resulted in a vast section of the community that continue to wish for a permanent space still very much out of their reach.
There is no doubt that we are likely to see an enormous shift in the markets over the next few years as the economic boom busts, but with repossessions and homelessness set to increase a focus on the importance of the ‘home’ is set to magnify. What remains in question are the potential social ramifications on the community in years to come as a result of these unsettled individuals and families, prevented from forming a stable, private, self-reflecting environment.
Only time will tell.
- For the context of this post, this ‘declaration’ results from a financial ownership, resulting through the purchase of a property. [↩]
- By ‘healthy’ I refer to all that is stable, communicative and open and by ‘unhealthy’ all that is unstable, detached and closed. [↩]
- In particular the Conservative Governments ‘right-to-buy’ policy in the 1980’s (whereby inhabitants in social dwellings were given the opportunity to purchase their housing at discounted rates (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/december/20/newsid_4017000/4017019.stm). [↩]
- Over the past century the percentage of people living in owner-occupied dwellings in the UK has increased. It is interesting to note that in 2000, 43% of Germans and 53% of people in the Netherlands owned their property in comparison to 71% of people in the UK. Further information can be found here; http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/facts/index43.aspx?ComponentId=12642&SourcePageId=19659. Please note - Table 1: Percentage of owner-occupied dwellings in different European countries, 2000. [↩]
- “We estimate that the number of households has been growing at 200,000 or even more each year in recent years… yet new building has been running at between 140,000 and 160,000 a year” – Milan Katri, Chief economist of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors - Ian Pollock, 24th November 2006 - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6065330.stm [↩]
- ‘Interest rates hit all time low’- BBC, 8th January 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7817453.stm [↩]
- “More people are unable, or unwilling to sell their properties right now choosing to let instead…Many new landlords are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach, preferring to hold onto their assets rather than selling for a potential loss” – Lee Jones, “Landlords, Landlords, everywhere, but not a mortgage in sight” – MoneyMarketing, 22 August 2008 [↩]
- Figure quoted in article, ‘Repossessions to hit 75,000’, Wednesday, 3 December 2008 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7762627.stm. This is a sharp rise from the figure quoted in the article by Anne Ashworth – “What other secrets may lie in Ms Flint’s handbag?” - Bricks and mortar, 16th May 2008, The Times, which predicted repossessions to rise to 45,000 in 2008 [↩]
- Anne Ashwoth, What other secrets may lie in Ms Flint’s handbag?” - Bricks and mortar, 16th May 2008, The Times [↩]
- Economy at 60-year low, says Darling. And it will get worse – Nicholas Watt, The Guardian - Saturday, 30th August, 2008 [↩]
- Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas [↩]
- Sam Gosling, The Guardian Weekend, 28th June 2008 [↩]
- “Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, guests, clients, family, will always be a little awkward.” - p610 – A Pattern Language – Christopher Alexander et al [↩]
- Key workers are those working in the public sector such as those that are nurses and teachers [↩]
- Conservative Major of London, elected 2008 [↩]
- A download of the First Steps proposal Member Briefing can be accessed by clicking on the following link; http://www.housing.org.uk/default.aspx?tabid=318&mid=1061&ctl=Details&ArticleID=1081 , National Housing Federation, April 2008 [↩]
- ibid [↩]