The Precarious Confines of Homeownership and Rights

The Aylesbury Estate in South East London, with the financial centre of the City visible in the background.
Caterina Sartori discusses how homeowners on the Aylesbury Estate in South East London have struggled to reclaim their property rights and the right to shape the public image of their home.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the introduction and other posts in the series, click here.]

In the contemporary sociopolitical, economic and affective landscape, homeownership continues to be the privileged form of tenure, promising stability, financial security and social recognition. Owning property, in the present conjuncture characterised by a financialised housing market, is one of the key markers of personal success, a key factor in class mobility and intergenerational wealth transmission, and a way to invest in future oriented value creation. However, property ownership does not always live up to its promise. Following the subprime crisis, academic research on the risks and liabilities associated with homeownership, especially for working-class, low income, and racialised groups, has contributed to a critical questioning of the primacy of private ownership.1Helen Carr, “The Right to Buy, the Leaseholder, and the Impoverishment of Ownership,” Journal of Law and Society 38, no. 4 (2011): 519–41, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6478.2011.00557.x.; Melissa García-Lamarca and Maria Kaika, “‘Mortgaged Lives’: The Biopolitics of Debt and Housing Financialisation,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41, no.3 (2016): 313–27, https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12126.; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019 In this piece, I will present a case study based on my research with homeowners on an inner London housing estate that is in the process of being demolished, to discuss the ways in which for some, homeownership, rather than representing long-term financial security and a sense of emplacement, can be uncertain and retractable, and greatly precarious.

Right-to-Buy, introduced in the UK in 1980 by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, makes it possible for tenants renting a home from the local council, such as Tina, to purchase them at a discount, and become owners. For many, this has represented a chance to join the nation of homeowners that Margaret Thatcher advocated and to benefit from the investments, both financial and affective, that homeownership requires. In a context of decreasing wages, increasing employment precarity and widening social disparities, getting on the “housing ladder” was for many one of the key ways to become socially mobile, and to achieve a degree of security. This is particularly true for the many homeowners on the Aylesbury Estate (London) who migrated to the UK from ex-colonies and whose experiences in the country are marked by an institutional and widespread racism that results in a high degree of housing and employment precarity and downward mobility or “levelling.”2Ellie Vasta and Leander Kandilige, “‘London the Leveller’: Ghanaian Work _ Strategies and Community Solidarity,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36, no. 4 (2010): 581–98, https://doi.org/10.1080/13691830903398888; Kavita Datta, Joanna Herbert, Yara Evans, Jon May, Cathy Mcilwaine, and Jane Wills, “Multiculturalism at Work: The Experiences of Ghanaians in London,” (2006) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241893192

Image originally published on Aylesbury Tenants First blog (https://aylesburytenantsfirst.wordpress.com)

This group is, of course, far from homogenous, but the homeowners I worked with share some of these challenges and, despite them, have enhanced their social and economic position over the years. They have jobs in accounting and in the building trade, and they run small businesses, drive taxis, work for the local authority and the NHS as nurses and technicians; many of their children went to university and are starting off in their own professional careers. This contrasts sharply with pervasive media depictions of housing estate residents, and especially racialised residents, that privilege narratives of failure, downward mobility, crime and social exclusion.3Ben Campkin, Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture (London: IB Tauris, 2013 This is not solely the domain of the media: the social sciences have historically privileged an account of working-class urban life as shaped by deprivation and deviance, and I argue that these forms of representation that marginalise and stigmatise contribute to the possibility of dispossession that Right to Buy homeowners on the Aylesbury Estate are confronted with.

Citizenship in the “nation of homeowners” is in fact not straightforwardly secured by the possession of a leasehold or property document. On the Aylesbury Estate, as well as in many of the other housing estates undergoing regeneration,4Paul Watt, Estate Regeneration and Its Discontents: Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London (Bristol: Policy Press, 2021); Adam Elliott Cooper, Phil Hubbard, and Loretta Lees, “Sold out? The Right-to-Buy, Gentrification and Working-Class Displacements in London,” Sociological Review 68, no. 6 (2020): 1354–69, https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026120906790 homeowners de facto experience the “buy-back” of their properties earmarked for demolition as a form of dispossession, as the local authorities and property developers offer them a very limited range of options, all of which require the relinquishing of some key aspect of the rights that homeownership promises. In addition, homeowners experience the “buy-back” as a protracted, slow and confusing procedure that in many cases takes years to come to fruition.

Image originally published on Aylesbury Tenants First blog (https://aylesburytenantsfirst.wordpress.com)

Tina, one of the research participants I interviewed in the frame of my doctoral research from which this material emerges, described her experience thus:

“Because I am a painter and my income is not regular, when I made some money I thought, maybe (if I buy my flat) I will be secure, a bit more secure, because being self-employed isn’t secure, so you use that money instead of paying rent for the next ten years. I thought (buying) would provide security. Little did I know it would be the most insecure I’d been in my life ” (Tina). 5Interviewed 17/10/2017. All the research participants’ names cited in this text are pseudonyms.

The feelings of insecurity that Tina articulates above were produced by the uncertainty about her future and a lack of control over the process of selling back, moving out and finding a new place to live in. Tina was so affected by the stress that she started questioning all her life choices and she became suicidal. After years of uncertainty she eventually reached a settlement with the council, and although she now has a new home, she is left with a bitter feeling and very painful memories of the way an otherwise happy twenty years on the Aylesbury Estate came to an end against her will.

Like other homeowners on the estate, Tina was offered a range of “rehousing options” that she thought little of. One of the options was to become a council tenant again — “to go back to the rent” as Kostas, an Aylesbury homeowner in his late sixties, puts it. “It’s just not the same, is it?”, he added. Another option on the table is to re-invest part or all of the income from the property sale into ‘shared ownership’ on a new housing development. Aylesbury homeowners and the literature on shared ownership agree in identifying this form of tenure as one with significantly disadvantageous conditions for owners.6Susan Bright and Nicholas Hopkins, “Home, Meaning and Identity: Learning from the English Model of Shared Ownership,” Housing, Theory and Society 28, no. 4 (2011): 377–97, https://doi.org/10.1080/14036096.2010.527119 Another option is selling back their property, settling the remaining debts and walking away with the difference.

Image originally published on Aylesbury Tenants First blog (https://aylesburytenantsfirst.wordpress.com)

The one key concern that links the “options” homeowners are presented with is the financial valuation of the properties, which are considered “blighted” by the threat of demolition itself and by years of planned disinvestment in their physical infrastructure. The low financial values that these Right to Buy properties command are also shaped by the reputation of housing estates in general, in particular multicultural, hyperdiverse, inner city estates, built in concrete in a brutalist style, and extending vertically. The role that images and media representations play in shaping and furthering a devaluation of people living on housing estates on lower incomes, who are racialised and whose history is marked by migration cannot be underestimated.

Entering the term “Aylesbury Estate London” into an internet search engine and filtering for images will throw up page after page of images foregrounding the imposing concrete architecture, framed to emphasise the very large size, uniformity and extension of the buildings. This kind of framing, that privileges the exteriors rather than the domestic interiors, conveys a sense of desolation and alienation and erases the presence of residents. I consider these images as a short hand, a stand-in for a discourse on housing estates that posits the buildings and their residents, as a “problem to be solved”. Architectural forms and materials – i.e. concrete high rise buildings, especially brutalist ones come to evoke social issues such as poverty and exclusion, and conjure up the idea that demolishing the buildings will solve the issues experienced by those inhabiting them. Cognisant of the power that visual imaginary plays in the regeneration narrative, a group of residents have created a website featuring alternative views of their homes, from the inside out, privileging low-key images of domestic interiors, views from the balconies, and portraits of residents going about their everyday life. The residents ask that readers contribute to their project by clicking the link, so that it will start appearing in a higher position on search engines. Reclaiming the way their living spaces are seen by the wider public is a way for residents to reconfigure the connections between architectural space, private interiors, the everyday life of those living on a low income, and regeneration.

Image originally published on Aylesbury Tenants First blog (https://aylesburytenantsfirst.wordpress.com)

The failure to extend full property rights to homeowners on housing estates by denying them fair compensation for the demolition of their homes is the source of an incredible sense of insecurity, worry, and fear about housing and finances, as Tina’s words quoted above suggest. In addition, and perhaps more fundamentally, homeowners also understand this as a denial to be granted full participation in the institution that has historically marked the confines of liberal citizenship — the right to own private property as a marker of having fully human status and rights within the democratic order. The practices of image making and image circulation are deeply implicated in these dynamics, and through their visual intervention residents attempt to redress the way that value, both financial and affective, is ascribed to their homes and to those who make their lives in them.

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