Ownership obsession: do we really need 'Help-to-Buy'?


Everyone should own their own home. Listening to media coverage discussing the government's 'Help-to-Buy' scheme in recent weeks, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of universally assumed axiom. The big questions surrounding the plan weren't about whether the introductory offer of an interest-free loan for five years was deceptive, or whether pegging the later interest rate to inflation was something to be wary of. Instead, the most heated debate focused on how, if at all, the coalition's initiative would impact house prices. Amazing. Even when we're talking about getting people onto the first rung property ladder, the principal concern is the financial welfare of those who are already at the top. That's how good an idea property ownership is. Not only should other concerns be subservient to its protection, but we're not even going to suggest in our discussions that the alternative arrangements might be viable, let alone desirable.

There's plenty of social status and stigma in Britain when it comes to the question of your dwelling. Letting is primarily associated with youth and beginnings. Small companies let offices. Students let rooms. People starting new jobs let apartments. But if you've been earning/operating for a while, eventually you'll move towards buying. And why wouldn't you. After all, if you let a house you're always at the mercy of a landlord. Thanks to the work of writers like Maria Edgeworth and Charles Dickens we all know how unpleasant these people can be. They own the house, so they can sell up whenever they like! They can charge whatever they like, demand whatever deposits they like, restrict what you can do with/in the property any way you like. You're under their roof, it's their rules. And why would you want that?

The simple answer is that you might want it because you can't afford the alternative. Putting together the money needed to buy a house is so incredibly difficult that the national housing federation said in 2010 that the average 21-year-old won't be able to get onto the property ladder until they are 43. But there is a broader question here. Even if you can afford it, why should you have to pay that much? Why not go down what is often the simpler, and at least initially cheaper route? As long as you have a property to live in, is that not enough? Why should you listen to the world that tells you that you 'must' own this item?

The standard argument goes that renting is essentially 'throwing money away'. Better explained, it isn't a long term investment. You put in all this money, and you don't get anything back at the 'end'. Except by that logic isn't spending money on food an awful waste? After all, you put all that money in and it's just gone. The response to that is 'but you need food right now' to which the tenant's answer might be 'and we don't need shelter now?'

Looking deeper into this, we have to ask ourselves whether this drive towards ownership is really an attitude a Christian should have. The primary arguments in favour don't seem very Christian at all. As Christians, we're not called to be looking for the kind of worldly comfort that the freedom of home ownership is supposed to offer. We're meant to have higher concerns about the use of our money. If renting means a person can devote more resources in a Kingdomly direction, then we should be very much open to the idea. Jesus certainly didn't seem to have much good to say for the attitude of angling for the long term pay-off. The parable of the rich fool warns us against the folly of building up long term investments for us to enjoy 'later'. After all, it reminds each of us that we may well never experience 'later' at all.

Surely then, at a time after a financial crisis that was in large part caused by the drive to have a home of one's own, should we not reflect on the state of our letting market and ask whether it is in fact possible to have our cake and eat it too? Tenants in the UK have substantially fewer rights than those in other parts of the world. In Germany for instance, landlords are expected to give wide berths to tenants in regard to augmentation and decoration of their properties, and they can be fined if they charge rent more than 20% higher than comparable properties and they cannot give eviction notices unless they have very specific and well-grounded justifications (such as if the landlord/lady needs the property for themselves or their family). European rental agreements are also generally much longer term affairs, protecting tenants from sudden price hikes, and in France it is illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant in the winter months. A legal system that favours those in need of shelter, rather than those who make money from that need, should be a system most Christians welcome.

None of this is to say that buying a property is somehow a 'sinful' decision, but we should look at our attitudes towards property ownership and ask what fuels them. Is our expectation of two point four children and a mortgage based on a cultural norm, or do we have more well-grounded reasons behind this position. Some take the view that property is the most secure form of inheritance delivery, and that to buy a house is to be responsible and provide your children with the security and stability they need. And while there might be some truth to that, at a time when the price of that kind of guarantee is so high, can we really call people 'responsible' for putting so much of their resources in a single direction? Can we not have a more honest and open discussion about the alternatives? At the very least, can we depart from the myopic obsession that an Englishman's home must be his castle? Home ownership is an option, but it is far from the only one.