imomus (imomus) wrote,

Brick-and-mortar conservatism?

Is there a link between owning a house and conservatism? Intuitively I'd say yes, there is, and that conversely there's a link between renting and radicalism. Take a look, for instance, at this ranking of the percentage of people renting in various cities:

Berlin 87
Geneva 85
Amsterdam 83
Hamburg 78
Vienna 76
New York 70
San Francisco 65
Chicago 60
Brussels 57
Copenhagen 50
Stockholm 49
Helsinki 47
London 41
Oslo 30
Barcelona 30
Dublin 28
Athens 27

Aren't the cities at the top of that list some of the most radical? Surely it's no accident that people in cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco prefer to rent than buy? Surely it changes the whole tenor and texture of civic life in those cities?

But when Evan Davis asked contributors to his interesting investigation into the politics of home ownership, The Price of Property (BBC Radio 4) the same question, he got resounding "no"s all round.

Geo-demographic expert (and iMomus ultra-villain this week) Richard Webber -- author of the Mosaic consumer segmentation tool -- said that there couldn't be a connection between home ownership and conservatism because South Wales contains constituencies where Conservative MPs regularly lose their deposits, and yet South Wales has a high proportion of home ownership. Meanwhile, Labour MP Roy Hattersley and Conservative MP Michael Gove were busy agreeing that because three quarters of British people own their own home, and 90% aspire to, it's impossible to align home ownership with one party or the other. This, it seems to me, is akin to saying that if enough British people -- and all British political parties -- loved Hitler, loving Hitler wouldn't make you a fascist. Surely it's possible that property ownership has shifted the whole of Britain to the right, so that no political party now would dare propose a policy actively encouraging people to rent, or suggesting that renting is a virtue?

House prices -- which for the time being continue to rise feverishly -- drive the UK economy as well as every dinner table conversation. Home ownership is official policy in the UK; the government wants 80% of Britons to own their own homes. Currently, 70% do, the same percentage as in the US. The European average is 60%, though in cities like Berlin that can drop to a mere 13%.

British people borrow more money than anyone in the world to buy their homes. Ownership satisfies a deep need, we're told, in the British psyche: every Englishman's home is his castle. Owning allows you to decorate your place the way you want it, to express yourself, even if in practice that just means that your substandard, identikit, vastly overpriced house has a front door painted in a colour you picked yourself, and that instead of holding your habitat somewhat at arm's length, you hug its horrible chintzy bay windows, dingy garden and meanly-proportioned staircase close to your heart, regarding them as your very own special things.

The politician most responsible for Britain's recent surge in home ownership is Margaret Thatcher, who's quoted on the programme saying that Britain would only be united when everyone in the land owned property. Part of her mission to eradicate socialism saw her selling off public housing, now desperately scarce in the UK.

In fact, owning property has long been at the heart of the British political system. The Great Reform Act of 1832 linked it directly to the right to vote. You could only vote if you owned property worth 40 shillings a year in the counties or 10 pounds a year in the cities. This led to some strange anomalies: the London borough of Westminster returned the most radical MPs, only because property was so expensive there that everyone had the vote, which meant that radical views usually excluded from parliament had to be heard.

Britain in the 19th century was a country where the majority of people rented their accommodation. The Conservative party made it policy to extend property ownership to a wider group in order to fend off threats to property from liberalism, radicalism and socialism. These threats were very real -- Marxism threatened the abolition of private property altogether, and the Liberals and Socialists were generally against it. Meanwhile, as you can read here, withholding rent was a powerful political tool for the working classes. A rent strike in London's East End helped win the Dockers Strike of 1891, for instance, and there were further successful rent strikes during the First World War and in the late 1930s. People who own property tend not to go on "mortgage strike" in support of their brothers in the mines.

What about Japan? Well, occupier-owned homes account for 60.3 % of homes in Japan, the same as the general European level. But, unlike in Britain, ownership in Japan is declining. Many young people are renting, and will rent for life. The Tokyo rental sector is expanding 4% a year, and is at record levels. Meanwhile, ownership is not seen as a good investment; property prices continue a long, slow slump from the absurd over-valuations of the Bubble period.

Journalist, photographer, artist and iMomus all-round superhero Kyoichi Tsuzuki puts a more human face on this situation in his preface to Archilab Japan 2006: Nested in the City. Tsuzuki, author of the Toyko Style photo book, is rather down on architects in general.

"For young people," he writes, "interior design is unimportant. Anything will do, a bit like camping in the mountains. Camping is not a desire in itself. What counts is the desire to be in the mountains. Likewise, young people first choose to live in a city they like. Then they rent a room to live in. As for the rest, they know how to take advantage of what the city offers. Indeed, what could be simpler when meeting with friends than to transform the corner pub into a dining room, the places where one meets for a drink, to dance, listen to music into a living room, or the gym into a bathroom. All these functions can be projected outside because they are available in the city. In the end, only the sleeping function remains attached to the room."

This dependence on local services as extensions of one's tiny living space makes for an effervescent and vital city, with lots of youthful fizz in public places.

"Nowadays," continues Tsuzuki, "young urbanites no longer feel any compelling desire to be anchored... Singles for the most part, they tell themselves that, if they had enough money, they would spend it on travelling abroad. This is the first generation that is really aware of the possibilities available to it, possibilities that no longer require them to become attached to one city. For those broken to life in New York, taking a plane to Paris or Tokyo from Kyushu amounts to virtually the same thing."

Obviously this is a lifestyle I totally recognize and identify with, and places where a lot of people feel this way are places I fit right into. There's something in the spirit, the feel, the texture of towns like this that's like oxygen. And maybe -- just maybe -- what's so liberating is the lack of brick-and-mortar conservatism.

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