Mam was right, we didn't know how lucky we were. We were lucky in all sorts of ways, but in one in particular: we grew up in a council house. Back in the time when you didn't talk about living in a council house – not because there was any kind of stigma attached to it, but because everyone you knew lived in a council house. It was a new town and it was founded on social housing. Your neighbours were factory workers, or shop-workers, or - as it might be – teachers or doctors or engineers or draughtsman or accountants.
I grew up in a typical post-war three-bed terraced house of the kind that so long as you paid your rent on time and didn't trash the place it was sort of expected that you would be allowed. Not entitled to, but allowed. We were never so poor as to have to fear the rent-man, but Mam did talk about the local housing officer as being a 'fierce lady – no-one crossed her'. I'm sure she was just doing her job. I wouldn't know, I was just a kid – the only time I came into contact with the housing department was calling into the prefab on Saturday morning to pay the rent.
I don't recall much more in the way of interaction. Perhaps the maintenance men came round now and then, but my Dad would have done most of the day to day repairs – not because it was tenant's responsibility, but simply because he could, so he did. The only major upgrade we had was when they took out the old open fires and put in the Raeburn with the back boiler (courtesy of the clean air act) - which exercised our minds greatly because we weren't sure how Santa was now going to get down the chimney!
Then when I was in senior school, there was suddenly talk of mortgages and could we afford it and wouldn't it be silly not to…Right to Buy had arrived and my parents were going to become property owners. I won't knock the Right-to-Buy having benefited from it twice over. Owning the house let my parents make some of the changes they wanted, upgrading the bathroom, moving a cupboard entrance to the other side of the wall to give more space in the back bedroom, closing off a door to the living room, stone cladding the fire-place, adding on a porch, double-glazing, full central heating…but it also meant there were the unexpected expenses: retiling the roof for one.
Buying the house was however about buying a home. It was never about what the cash-in value of the property was. We were always very clear that it wasn't really worth anything because if you wanted a bigger or better place (and what would better mean anyway?) then you'd pay more than you'd get. It was a home – from six months after my birth to the day they died.
What was the house worth? It was a place of safety, of love, of memories (most of them happy). It was where I studied for the exams that would enable me to go to university and create a very different life. It was a place of laughter. It was where my Dad taught me to read, and then (belatedly) to cook. It was a warm place. It was the place I was told to bring my friends home to. It was a place I was given freedom and privacy. It was a place I was expected to obey the rules. It was where I learned that actions have consequences and that you save up for stuff you really want. It was where I learned to earn, to negotiate for what I wanted, and that "it's not fair" is not a negotiating tactic.
What is all of that worth?
It's not something I would have even have thought about putting a cash value on.
When my parents died, we sold the house back to the housing association that had taken on the old corporation stock. Hopefully another family are creating their own futures within its walls.
That makes me feel better about the fact that I continue to benefit from RTB. I live in an ex-Local Authority property. I saved up for years to get the deposit, was mortgaged to hilt and moved in with two deck-chairs, a coffee table and the TV. In cash terms I'd guess that this place is worth twice what I paid for it, but it would be a guess, I actually have no idea.
This house, like the old one isn't worth anything so far as the money goes… like the one I grew up in, this is where we make our new memories, cement our new traditions. It is where I work (most of the time), it is where I study (yes, still). In all honesty I would not have chosen to own, I would prefer to rent and be able to call on someone when something needs fixing but being employed, and single, and child-free that was never going to be an option – certainly not an option that would give me a garden, and a spare room, and an office.
My house is worth peace of mind, of a kind. It's a sanctuary on some days – and a pain in the proverbial on others. It is a measure of what I have achieved…maybe not much to some folk, but enough to me. It isn't an investment. It isn't a step on some mythical ladder. It's a treasure store holding memories, souvenirs of my travels, my mother's embroidery, my father's books, and those of my own that he led me to,. It's a place to rest. A place to think.
It's where my partner and I teach each other what the one knows and the other doesn't yet. It's where we sometimes row, but more often laugh. It is where we sit late into the night talking, as if we were still students. It's not full of the latest technology – some rooms haven't been decorated since I moved in a decade ago – the garden gets fixed up and then grows wild again. Much like us.
It is very simply a place to come home to.
So what is the point? you will be wondering. The point is this: the Right to Buy, Right to Acquire, rent to purchase and all the rest are not inherently bad ideas. Only two things cause them to fail. Firstly, the failure to replace every single house sold with one built (or bought) so that the net stock does not diminish. That should have been the bedrock of the policy from day one – sadly, the reverse happened. Councils were actively prevented from building to replace. Secondly, and this is the one that I think hurts us most, is that 'ownership' was mis-sold. It moved so very quickly from 'owning your own home' and being secure, being able to adapt it to yourselves, having a stake in it…to the stake being the only point. We don't buy homes any more. We buy a rung on a ladder, we only want this so we can have the next one, we pay the mortgage and pray the value increases so that we can take on a bigger (and better debt) as we move on up.
"Stake" = a bet. We have been blind-sided into betting that house prices will continue to rise. So many burst bubbles and negativity equity stories do not seem to work to re-educate us.
So then what should be homes do indeed become nothing more than investment accounts. Owned by people who not only don't live in them, but don't let them out to others either. This creates the shortage which pushes the price up which makes actual homes even less affordable to those who – had they been lucky enough to have been part of my generation – might have been relatively sure of a decent home.
I strongly believe that that mind-set needs to change if we are to solve the housing crisis. We have to find our way back to wanting houses to become homes, not bank accounts.
I'm not on the ladder. I don't envisage moving in the foreseeable future. I bought my house to live in, because my options were limited.
And despite what Mam used to say: I do know how lucky I am.
The point is that in this day and age, in this society – it should not come down to luck.
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