On Housing and Hubris

Life imitates art.  And it’s true also, that the news imitates The Onion.

Recently I was blessed with this absolute gem popping up on my recommended news stories.  It’s behind a paywall, but if you can stomach creating an account with the Times, you can read it (once) for free.

If you cannot, here’s the synopsis:

Milquetoast Property Developer Family can’t find a house to spend their minimum budget of a cool milli on.  MPDF decided to sell their own property first to help their chances, and in the process, shafted their £1.075m agreed buyer and allowed another to gazump them for a few thousand more, because – in their words – “given that [they] had not earned much for the past year [their] morals went out the window and [they] took it.”  Later on, after months of unsuccessful offers, they – seemingly with absolutely no self awareness whatsoever – attempted to gazump someone else.  Unsuccessfully.  Violins at the ready, lads.

Before we even get into the irony of their own gazump being rejected on moral grounds, the irony of a family worth well over a million due to their exploitation of the astonishingly elitist housing market they have personally helped perpetuate now becoming ‘desperate’ victims of said market, is not lost on me.  It is lost on the editors of the Times however, whose use of the word ‘desperate’ in the headline makes a mockery of the suffering endured by those without a financial cushion this year – those who have lost their homes, those who are waiting for the inevitable eviction notice that will flutter through their letterboxes the moment their parasitic landlords are allowed to serve section 21’s again, and those who have had to carry on as normal through the pandemic.  Life or rent, the choice is yours.

It’s important to say that class and socioeconomic status are complex animals, and many of us feel as though we don’t ‘fit’ in the bracket we were assigned.  I come from a working class family and grew up dirt poor.  I’ve had times in my life I’ve felt comfortably off, and (many) times where I’ve relied on foodbanks and handouts from friends.  I’ve faced bankruptcy, as well as experiencing significant financial luck.  My (frankly incongruous) life experience has illustrated to me, on a very personal level, how feelings of discomfort and desperation are valid no matter what’s in the bank.

It’s perfectly okay to say ‘I am uncomfortable with my income at the moment’, or, ‘my housing situation feels tenuous and unpredictable’.  No matter how much you’re earning or how secure you are, you’re very much allowed to Have Emotions About Disruptive and Worrying Times.  I don’t think there are many people who would straight up say that non-poor folks aren’t allowed to be sad or stressed – that’s unfair, inaccurate, and erases many peoples’ complex relationships to class and where they feel they belong.  We wouldn’t say that a broke babe who got lucky can’t stake claim on their traumatic, precarious and uniquely working-class history.

But honestly? Using a term like ‘desperate’ to describe situations that are literally not?  No.  That word is not subjective, it means something.  You don’t know desperate until your budget is so tight that even the slightest deviation means you won’t make rent.  You don’t know desperate until you’re choosing between electricity and food, or you can’t afford treatment for your kids’ headlice and have to hope the doctor will give you a prescription, or you’re counting the pennies you’ve found between the sofa cushions to get a loaf of bread for packed lunches.  I want every working class person to consign those experiences to history, go forth and thrive, but you generally won’t see us forgetting where we came from.

“But they’ve worked hard for their money!”, I hear a Tory cry.  I mean, if you count hard work as raking in cash from overpriced properties and developing someone’s former family home into seven dingey matchbox flats to be rented at a squillion pounds a month is hard work, then sure.  They worked hard.  But to be honest, the connection we have between hard work and financial security is a capitalist fairy story.  That’s a whole other post, but even on the most basic level, we know that ‘hard work’ means very little – there is no social mobility without luck.  Ask any Amazon Warehouse worker, any Uber driver, any Deliveroo rider. You can work into the night, save as much as you can, and plough as much of the limited time you have outside of your job into Making It, but it takes extraordinary luck to break that barrier. And even if you manage it, you will likely live with the trauma of poverty for the rest of your life.  You could have that cool milli in the bank and your stomach will still fill with dread when Christmas and birthdays roll around, the washing machine dies unexpectedly, or a brown envelope comes through the door.

However, if you do happen to get lucky, brace yourself for the Great Unmooring.  You no longer feel you belong in your community; you’ve got more money than your friends and feel terrible about it, and you’ve probably lost your social capital – the only capital you’ve ever had.   But the point is this: whilst financial security doesn’t solve all your problems, it’s one huge problem less to deal with.  The luck:work ratio tips in favour of the latter; you have a chance, an opportunity.  You have tangible capital.  You have the gift of a bit more time.  And if nothing else, you have a buffer.  Yes, it’s still hard.  Yes, you’ll still be scared sometimes, and that’s entirely valid. But you’ll be okay.  MPDF, if you’re reading this, you’ll be fine slumming it as renters for a while – the family friend you’re renting from won’t be serving you that S21 any time soon.

It’s not even about MPDF, to be honest.  They didn’t choose the word ‘desperate’ to head their article, and for all we know they might well be deeply embarrassed about how they’ve come off given some time to reflect. The Times and its readers will always want their top-tier privileged whine content, and this story is no more blinkered and tone-deaf than anything else they publish.  It’s a paper for a certain type of person, and MPDF are just another face to pretty-up the rot. Ranting about blithely ignorant wealthy people being blithely ignorant is low hanging fruit, even for me.  The heart of it, really, is far more complex, and it comes down to choices – what choices are available to us, which of those are tolerable, and what you do when you don’t have them.  It’s no surprise that they threw their morals in the bin for the sake of a few thousand; they already built their security upon an industry with none.

The choices under capitalism, if you’re high enough on the food chain to access them, are kill or be killed. Lose your morals or get shafted.  Grab everything you possibly can and fuck everybody else.  Scarcity mindset manifests across the board – whether it’s the underclass passing around the same fiver for the lekkie meter forever, or the wealthy holding on to their spoils for dear life.  MPDF are, possibly for the first time, experiencing something that vaguely echoes housing insecurity – and they don’t like it one bit.  Capitalism was never intended to benefit everyone, and this could well be their inaugural experience of their previously sure-fire power of choice being removed. Boris Johnson pointed out once that society needs inequality to function, and he fucking loves capitalism – take it from the expert himself.

I’ve often heard of ‘ethical capitalism’ being suggested as a more realistic alternative to socialism, the concept of which is as absurd a paradox as you could imagine.  I don’t want to live in a world where the only options are ‘watch your wealth multiply off the backs of the working class’, or ‘work yourself into the ground and hope for the best’.  Of course there’s a middle ground, but I don’t want that either.   I want a world in which the abhorrent, violent industry that brought MPDF their wealth (and then hubristically shanked them) is replaced with a system in which the fucking Times has no readership and everyone can have a home.

MPDF still have choices.  If they really needed to, they could take their million quid and buy their desired family home in another area of the UK – one where house prices aren’t upwards of £800k – rather than limiting their search to expensive, well-to-do areas with nice schools and nice countryside, and transport links to London so convenient you’d forget you didn’t live there.  That’s what we say to those on the council house list in London, right?  That’s the rule we apply to broke single mums in shitty, damp, council-funded B&B’s fleeing domestic violence who wait on the list for months and eventually get offered a property in Birmingham or Manchester.  They know that if they refuse to be removed from their vital support networks, the council will relinquish their responsibility to house them forever. Congratulations, take what you’re given and be grateful, and fuck your wellbeing.  You don’t get a choice if you’re poor.

However, the Times would like us take a moment to shed a tear for MPDF.  They’re desperate, after all.

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