It's a terrible cliché but I can't get on the housing ladder. Should I care?


Over the last couple of years, my husband and I have tried to buy four properties, all of which have fallen through costing us thousands of pounds.

We've been in a privileged position of having some savings as well as support from a housing association and other investors. These contributions are to help us buy on an inner-city London estate where we are seeking to be part of the local community. It's a deep irony that one of the most socially deprived areas in the country also boasts the highest property prices. As the gentrifiers move in (and we'd be foolish if we tried to disassociate ourselves from that group too much, much as we would like to), we've seen how the local community can become further isolated and ghettoised.

Our dreams of homeownership, like so many others, have been thwarted time after time as the estate agents and those seeking to sell have hiked the prices up so high – and the valuations of the properties have come back so low – we have been unable to make any of the purchases work. It's left me asking if there is any morality left in the housing market? And I'd extend that to the rental market. Even more so in fact, as there seems to be no limits to how much is being charged for small, mice-infested, noisy and poorly maintained properties.

My one gain from these experiences is a deeper understanding of what the 'housing crisis' is like for many people. When 'affordable' housing replaces the term once known as 'social' housing and is defined as 80 per cent of the market rate, you have to think someone is having a laugh and you know that someone is definitely making a big, fat profit from all these shenanigans.

You might be surprised to discover that a few years ago I gave a talk at Greenbelt called 'By the time I'm 40, I don't want to be a homeowner' in which I set out an argument that home-owning increases inequality in this country. Once you're on the housing ladder, the likelihood of increasing your wealth is significantly higher than someone who is not; and you're only going to get richer as the value of your property increases. Those who aren't able to buy, meanwhile, are left with rising rents, insecure tenancies and no investment for the future.

Just three years later and I am banging my head against a brick wall, as we try to 'get on the housing ladder'. To use another cliché, there's something about my recent marriage that has given me a greater desire to settle down. I feel embarrassed to say it after everything I argued for in my talk. The tension lies in the thought that if we do buy somewhere, we will be contributing even further to the chasm that exists in our society between rich and poor. Once defined as homeowners we will be setting ourselves further apart from those who will never have the opportunity to buy. But at the same time, buying shared ownership with this housing association will root us in the community for the long term, while the reduced costs will enable us to give more of our time to the community.

The majority of my friends have their own homes, some for a number of years, and at times it's hard to resist those worldly measures of success: university-career-marriage-children-home-ownership-blah-blah-blah. If you don't feel on target year by year, your whole life can seem like a disaster.

Yet, I am reminded that: "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." (Matthew 8:20) I follow a homeless traveller who had no income, no secure housing and no certain future in terms we could conventionally define. When I walk past someone sleeping on the streets, I might feel like they are the absolute measures of anti-success (on my handy measure-of-success chart) but it might just be that they already walk closer to Jesus than I ever will.

Jesus always pushes us outside of the box into something unconventional and radical. He doesn't call all of us to sleep on the streets, live in a tent in the Calais refugee camp or become squatters – although he will ask some people to this. And I don't think he would condemn those who do own homes.

Maybe as I grapple with these issues, rather than looking for a place to rest I should first look for restlessness like the traveller did. Restlessness at the injustice of poor housing that thousands are living with daily, restlessness at a market that always favours the rich over the poor – and seek rest in that wanderer, totally certain of who he was and his destiny, in spite of living with every physical insecurity you could imagine.

And if I ever get a place to call my own, maybe I'll need to hold it lightly, with open hands and be ready to walk away from it if I'm called to some place else. Or hold it lightly when we've outgrown it and it's got a bit tatty but our calling is to stay rooted. Hold it generously, welcoming in many with warmth and hospitality; hold it like it's not really mine anyway, that it doesn't really have anything to do with 'ownership' but is a gift, made for sharing.

The Centre for Theology and Community has produced a report titled From Houses to Homes: Faith, Power and the Housing Crisis looking at what the Church's response could be. Equally worth a read is Foxes have holes: Christian Reflections on Britain's Housing Needs edited by Andrew Francis.

Katherine Maxwell-Rose is a writer, speaker and activist campaigning on issues of social justice and transformation. She is part of a community of peacemakers from the charity CHIPS (Christian International Peace Service) living on estates in Brixton affected by gang violence.