First Wallet, then Soul
I was an angry young renter who railed against the mortgage industry. Until I bought a house.
by Henry Wismayer
Sothis is how we drift into the great middle-class dream: in a windowless office of a high-street bank, sat across the desk from a polite mortgage adviser, who taps some numbers into a computer, steeples his fingers and says: “Mortgage approved.”
For the last decade, I’ve been an angry renter in south London, railing against the iniquities of a property market gone mad.
When the economic downturn struck, and then, counter-intuitively, house prices began to rocket beyond reason, I was one of millions left spinning in the slipstream. Chances are you know someone like me: I’m the sort of person who bores people in the pub with tirades about the lack of affordable housing and heaps scorn on the glittering empty edifices springing up across our capital city, the sort of person who glowers pointlessly at shimmering estate agent windows.
But then, precipitated by the spectre of my young family being evicted from our two-bed apartment, and some unforeseen inheritance, I got a mortgage. Inevitably, shamefully, my outlook has changed.
It’s not that I’ve become suddenly blind to the crisis in British housing. If anything, the realisation that my ability to buy a house has hinged on the generosity and relative affluence of family has only brought the system’s inequity — its tendency to entrench privilege — into starker relief. But I’m no longer cheerleading for the price correction that Brexit may have precipitated. How can I? With one trip to the bank, I’ve become far too invested in the perpetuation of the mania.
As a renter, looking in from the outside, I’ve been hearing this collective denial from my new tribe — the home-owners — for years. I’ve heard it from the mouths of baby-boomers saying: “We ate baked beans for two years to buy our first house,” while playing conveniently deaf to the statistical truth that average house prices, four times median incomes then, are twenty times today. I’ve heard it from contemporaries who’ve seen their house-value double since the crash, saying: “Yes, but it’s all relative. I can’t afford to live in Chelsea,” while resolutely disregarding that the stratospheric appreciation of their three-bed terrace, bought with their parents’ money, is an accident of birth. “But I’ve worked bloody hard to pay for this house!” This incantation should be written on the tombstone of Britain’s social contract.
If that sounds bitter, that’s because I am. I’m bitter that because I have children, because the pension safety-net may have shredded beyond repair by the time I’m old, and because renting in London is brutal now, buying a house has become my one and only route to a stable future. But most of all, I’m bitter at the prospect of my own simmering hypocrisy. This, after all, is perhaps my last chance to declaim against our cult of property. Because I’m aware that, as I cross the yawning divide between renter and owner, I must join the chorus.
Suddenly, the naked Emperor will be resplendent in silk finery. I will start believing that, because I work, and consider myself to be an upstanding member of society, a 10% annual yield is mine by right. I’ll start denying the ramifications of the death of social-housing, ignoring the transformation of London into a city increasingly ghettoized, both culturally and geographically, into pockets of rich and poor. I will secretly, guiltily, welcome the demise of local shops as they’re replaced by the bistros and coffee-shops beloved of the wealthy people whose interest in my area will inflate the value of my home. I’ll shrug at the plutocrats hoarding vast portfolios of central London real estate, knowing that their activities, in displacing affluence towards the outer London neighbourhoods of my youth, will prolong the bonanza. And if all those people I need for my community to function — the doctors, cleaners, nurses, teachers — can’t afford to live here, well, they should just get a higher paid job or move to Sunderland or something.
Far from acknowledging that something in the Thatcherite concept of Britain as a property-owning democracy has gone terribly awry, I will see just reward for my years of patient graft. I know this will happen, because I can already sense it. In the hunt for a house, I’m laying the foundations of my own corruption.
House-viewings have become, not just a quest for a roof to shelter my family, but an exercise in dispassionate property speculation. Through a process of cultural osmosis, programs like ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ ensure that I’m asking about conversion potential before I even walk through the door. “That might work as an additional bedroom,” I muse, peering into the airing cupboard. “Now how big is the attic?”
In between, I drive around the city like a vulture picking through the carrion of London’s erstwhile diversity. My aim? To pinpoint and decode the auguries — a Bugaboo pram, some waxed beards — that suggest an area in my price-bracket is set to host the next hipster influx, bumping up house-prices even as it bleeds the area of diversity and soul. Turns out that nothing exposes the limits of middle-class social compassion quite like property.
And when I enter the bank to talk to that mortgage-lender, ushered into a back-room by a fawning man in a suit, I can feel myself being sucked further down the rabbit-hole. He’s a nice bloke, the banker, all meaningful handshakes and courteous demeanour. But it’s impossible not to read, in the way he leans forward with a vulpine grin, dismissing my concerns about future interest rate hikes with a wave of his hand, the institutional hunger that feeds the beast. As he says the bank can lend us a colossal sum that sounds scarily reminiscent of the percentages from before the crash, I can feel my pupils dilating at the possibilities the loan might afford. House-hunting permits you to see first-hand how millions of discreet bits of greed, from facilitators, lenders, buyers and sellers, coagulate into something ineluctable and insane.
But then what choice is there but to hope for my growth, even if that growth runs counter to the fairer society I’ve long propounded. Despite all the costs to society at large, the sheer expense of buying a house in 2016 means that first-time buyers like me are too over-exposed — too vulnerable to the spectre of negative equity — to countenance the crash that has to come.
I am investing everything, not just the contents of my bank account, but my sense of security and the future security of my children, into a pile of bricks and a scrap of lawn. As such, those bricks must become impregnated with hopes and dreams.
Owning a house might not upend my politics, but it must surely suffuse them. My perspective on important economic issues will no longer be wholly governed by what I think is right, but what is right for me. The questions are already nagging: What would rent control do to the value of my house? What will Brexit do to the value of my house? What does Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty mean for the value of my house?
Soon I’ll be one of those people who likes talking about loft conversions, or pulls out floor-plans in the pub, even though I know deep-down that property-obsessed people are the most tedious people on earth. “Isn’t it terrible,” I’ll say, paying lip-service to expiring principles, “about home ownership being out of reach for all but those with rich families or a six-figure salary…” Then I’ll turn back to surreptitiously cheer on the figures clicking over on Zoopla.
This is the great tragedy of housing in Britain today. No other social force so powerfully pits those who have against those who don’t. We are all in it together, I’ve realized, so long as we own.