Talking about housing

On 28 February 2023, FrameWorks UK, in collaboration with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, launched a toolkit, ‘How to talk about homes’, with a live broadcast online. The toolkit was underpinned by analysis of conversations with members of the public and various organisations.

The resource, as I understood it, was created to equip people who want to facilitate a shift in ‘mindsets’ among those (all of us?) deemed to have historically turned a blind and/or disparaging eye to real financial difficulties faced by many people seeking to own or rent a UK home. This is a noble intention, reflected in Catholic social teaching about our unacknowledged/unconscious roles – individual and collective complicities – that allow structural (systemic) sin to flourish, and from which relatively few people profit greatly. How we talk about things matters – not just deterministically in influencing policy choices, but in creating a civilisation of love.

It seemed that many individuals participating in the research focused on housing as an asset and investment, echoing the ‘housing ladder’ fallacy towards being ‘detached’ that I have critiqued in earlier reflections posted on this site. But it appeared that FrameWorks wished in summary for us all to create a mindset in which homes are understood as, first, a ‘source of health and wellbeing’. Later in the presentation this was talked up into ‘decent’ homes being ‘essential to life’. Other than the intellectual escapes from justice that these statements allow in the relativist and utilitarian UK policy and consumer cultures, two immediate concerns come to mind. A ‘health first’ approach seems likely to reinforce the cultural mindset that a decent home is one in which individuals are disconnected from others – references to home as a place of relational encounter and formation appeared to be absent from the narrative. (My) ‘Health first’ downplays the higher order task of designing places that foster (healthy) encounter. As a political engagement tool for change, while it is true that spending on treating ill-health has greatly increased in recent years relative to education (for example), it is too far removed from the relevant centres of power in national and local government departments. Secondly, in a post-Covid political context, it is understandable that focusing on ‘health and wellbeing’ might be handy in short-term campaigns. But, as we saw in the pandemic, it continues to idolise an imagined condition of self-sufficiency that is in reality always shifting as we age, and for which inventiveness in the face of quantitative resource scarcity is part of entering into life’s adventure. As Sr Joan Chittister reflected in ‘Between the Dark and the Daylight’, a focus on health, security and safety makes us ‘the prisoner of our own small designs’, evading positive risk-taking. It serves the ends of those who benefit most from underlying systemic injustices that perpetuate the exclusion of people from land and amenable conditions on which to build. Sustained attention to the ownership, commodification and proceeds of land is needed for access to a sufficient supply of housing to be better realised. This is not a ‘health first’ issue.

The presentation came closer to addressing these concerns, when discussing a need to ‘invoke people’s sense of moral responsibility’, in order to shift societal dialogue towards collective action. However, this promising start was utterly undone by a framing approach that invited us to append, to a statement of our moral responsibility, any solution you’re looking to push. As is common in the work of charities campaigning on social security, there was an inherent bias towards the Government needing to ‘step up’, not landowners, the media, employers or citizens in general. In this mindset, the supply of adequate housing is a policy problem to be rationalised and controlled by remote Government – including how citizens are to think about their home, not a shared human responsibility to shape the built environment, founded on an appreciation of mutual gift, the vocation to work, and working with the resources to hand. It is a far cry from the long-established call to welfare capitalism, in particular the relationship between employers and the families of staff, that I associate with JRF’s history and example.

While it is clear that changing our own and others’ narratives about social ills can be reasonable and effective, it is a process open to abusive consequences, characterised in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. An intentional approach to good information is vital to counter ideological (and uncharitable) superhighways towards further social disintegration, polarisation, and the triumph of the loudest or best-resourced voice – as we have seen with populist leaders. FrameWorks and JRF are to be commended for challenging the embedded misuse of information channels to suit powerful interests in housing and the markets, at the expense of swathes of the population. How is a narrative to be tested?

The media must be used to build up and sustain the human community in its different sectors: economic, political, cultural, educational and religious. “The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity”. The essential question is whether the current information system is contributing to the betterment of the human person; that is, does it make people more spiritually mature, more aware of the dignity of their humanity, more responsible or more open to others, in particular to the neediest and the weakest. A further aspect of great importance is the requisite that new technologies respect legitimate cultural differences. […] one fundamental moral principle always applies: the human person and the human community are the end and measure of the use of the mediaA second principle is complementary to the first: the good of human beings cannot be attained independently of the common good of the community to which they belong.

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 415.

What we really need first, then, is a healthy space of reconciliation to manage natural resources, starting with the land. In the land and housing contexts I see this as best advanced through collective negotiation at the local political and regional economic levels, which have been hollowed out by central government over decades in a preferential option for privatisation. Churches, which in some cases have established regional and national structures, could pursue this far more seriously than their ways of organising and ordering resources admit. But their public voices sound increasingly compromised by a selective and superficial treatment of environmental concerns. This is a mindset that focuses on what we see – for example, retro-fitting a house that is above the surface – not an engagement with the sub-surface judgment or action that leaves too many people, including church members, involuntarily isolated from building their (home)land.