Why Housing is A Sentiment Deeper Than Rooms and a Roof

Doaa Shabbir, a 15 year-old school student in Glasgow, reflects on Common Weal’s Housing convention last year, and asks: can we have an approach to housing which transcends materialistic ideology?

MATERIALISTIC desires mimic God; that is why we hold on to them so much.

That is, at least, the view of Baruch Spinoza, a leading rationalist philosopher who found that as human beings, we engage in materialism as a way of placing ourselves at an almost other-worldly level spiritually as we pull ourselves out of the mundane inertia of common life without luxury. In other words: we thrive as a materialistic society because we believe it gives us the almighty power to seemingly resist the clutches of poverty.

Explicitly, materialistic ideologies seem to be most prevalent in the purchase and value of fine points of what we deem as items of “high culture”. But what happens if we look at the gross inequality within the housing sector as a kind of thinly-veiled materialism? What if our desire for large, eloquent houses is a direct product of our desire to shun what seems to be a lesser form of life?

“What happens if we look at the gross inequality within the housing sector as a kind of thinly-veiled materialism? What if our desire for large, eloquent houses is a direct product of our desire to shun what seems to be a lesser form of life?”

One can only wonder if that is the case when in Scotland, there are properties on the market worth over a million pounds at the same time as thousands of women and children find themselves on the streets each year. One can only wonder if that is the case when over 30% of houses in Scotland were identified to be in a state of urgent or critical disrepair while streets in some areas have average house values that are greater than the amount some will earn in their entire lives.

Essentially, the issue with inequality is that it is deeply rooted in the politics of the society. As products of our surroundings, a culture where inequality is tolerated or even heralded by some allows us to turn a blind eye to blatant social injustices such as the housing divide.

Common Weal’s housing conference last October discussed a multitude of issues within the housing market of our country, such as the difficulties people of gypsy origin face finding their place in the housing market, as well as the high costs and poor living standards residents in the private rented sector often face.

Personally, I always saw Scotland as a place of opportunity. Being the first generation child of two immigrants, this country to me represents a place where my family did find a home. After struggling in abusive households and facing poverty, my parents’ move to this country represents an upwards shift in mobility they made, and a greater strive for ambition. To me, the concept of ambition is vital: to gain knowledge and enrich ourselves from experiences of the world around us, we must must first consider what our possibilities are. Economic ambition, fundamentally, is a form of empowerment with which we allow ourselves to dream, we give ourselves the privilege of wondering what a society should look like. Upon attending the conference however, I realised that this privilege is not the reality at all across the country at large. Finding a home to feel safe in is central to our stability as shareholders of a society, yet hidden homelessness is often an unnoticed yet stark reality for many. The ones who suffer include displaced victims of domestic abuse, or disabled peoples who find themselves immobile in their own homes.

“Finding a home to feel safe in is central to our stability as shareholders of a society, yet hidden homelessness is often an unnoticed yet stark reality for many. The ones who suffer include displaced victims of domestic abuse, or disabled peoples who find themselves immobile in their own homes.”

The critical issues do not only lie within the structure and cost of individual houses, but also within the increasingly broken communities in which we live. If I look at my own city for example, Glasgow, I can recognise of a multitude of issues in the most deprived areas which run deeper than the economic level: alcoholism, drug misuse, gang violence- to name a few. It would be unfair and unreasonable to blame these issues on a kind of “moral decay” of society as described by David Cameron. These issues are inter-generational, and become the perceived reality for the most ostracised within society, an ideological paradigm which is hard to address and even harder to break.

Suffering, poverty, and pain are many faced monsters. As a young person, I still have a tremendous amount to learn and even begin to understand about wider society: but in my mind, I can recognise basic failures of society.  If squalor is a giant evil of society, we need to rethink how we look at housing. At the conference, speakers talked of communal housing, and using renewable eco-friendly materials to construct sustainable housing, as well as the idea of social housing for all.

From a human rights point of view, all the steps we take as a country need to result in the protection of human dignity. Engaging communities to better the place they live is central to the idea of good housing, and alternative concepts  are worth a discussion. As a teenager, I find it crucial that we question society around us. As it becomes increasingly difficult for young people to find their way onto the property ladder, concerns continue to rise about if home ownership will be a reality for my generation. If it is possible to move away from the standard, conventional frame of the housing market today, could we remove ourselves from the state of want that Spinoza identified as the primary motivator of human beings?

“Architect Alejandro Aravena for example, gained recognition for his construction of “half houses” in Chile which allowed lower income families to develop the value of their own property as they wished to and believed that participatory design was essential to allow communities to connect, support each other, and for residents to have a sense of pride.”

Innovation and participation are two areas touched upon during the conference and two areas which I believe to have immense potential for change within the housing sector, as exemplified through their role in developing housing development strategies in developing countries. Architect Alejandro Aravena for example, gained recognition for his construction of “half houses” in Chile which allowed lower income families to develop the value of their own property as they wished to and believed that participatory design was essential to allow communities to connect, support each other, and for residents to have a sense of pride. The scheme of Organised Self Help was promoted by USAID in Latin America under the Kennedy administration, and continues to be used today in developing countries. Working on a basis of sweat-equity, this scheme allowed future residents of an area to contribute to building a sense of involvement and pride in the community. While strategies like this were sometimes criticised because of the difficulty involved in administering them, most agree they were helpful in realising the values of social and economic development in housing. Or, as John FC Turner referred to it, viewing housing as a verb and not a noun.

Turner also acknowledged that because of the variability in the needs of residents, one size fits all government policies may not be enough to better social housing. When we commodify or generalise housing, we remove the sentiments attached to the places we actively exist. In my opinion, that is the impact of a widespread ideology which takes roots in a materialistic view of life. A house should not be a mark of affluence, or an indication of social status. Real progress is to understand society around oneself to a greater extent, and part of that is to see housing as a medium through which we can discuss the deficiencies within accepted societal structures and encourage people to build a life for themselves.

In essence, that is the process through which we can give our lives more meaning.