When I was a child a woman visited our home every Friday night. My mother gave her money fresh from my father’s pay packet and the woman, smiling, wrote in small neat handwriting in a little book. This was how my parents bought their modest terrace home in Leeds, West Yorkshire.
They never had the income or acumen to get a mortgage. They bought their home in a private arrangement from well-off sisters, one of whom was this kindly woman calling for their dues.
My parents were hand-to-mouth poor, but they felt better off than people in council houses living under the Town Hall diktat. At least they could paint their front door any colour – even if they could not afford the paint.
No doubt many council tenants in turn sneered at private renters who, in my part of the world, lived in slums.
These days, as more council homes are sold than built, my parents would probably have had to rent.
New figures from the National Housing Federation (NHF) show that private landlords are indirectly receiving £9 billion in housing benefit from the taxpayer, double the amount a decade ago. They confirm that the trend is driven by a steep rise in the number of poorer families forced to rent privately.
Renters include a soaring population of retirees. York University’s Professor Steve Wilcox has warned of a ‘housing benefit ticking time-bomb’ with up to a third of 60-year-olds renting by 2040, many of whom will never have been homeowners.
A recent report by the think tank Resolution Foundation shows home-ownership at its lowest level for 30 years, 64 per cent, down from a high of 73 per cent in 2000.
Home-ownership has long been out of reach for many Londoners, but high prices mean it is an impossible dream for an increasing number of people in the rest of the country, especially Manchester, and other northern cities.
The characters of EastEnders, Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Hollyoaks couldn’t afford to rent, never mind buy, the homes they live in – a fact cleverly pointed out a while back by the NHF, which looked at homes in East London, Salford, the Yorkshire Dales and Chester, and the characters’ average wages as listed by the Office of National Statistics.
Our obsession with home-ownership can be traced to the 17th century, when jurist Sir Edward Coke established as common law the precept that ‘a man’s house is his castle and nobody could enter except by invitation’.
Later British Prime Minister William Pitt said a ‘castle’ could even be a cottage. He declared, poetically: ‘It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.’
Side by side with the desire to own a home was the stigma of renting. This arose partly because, until the late nineteenth century, only property owners could vote.
Until a few years ago there was a feeling that there was ‘something wrong’ if you did not buy. Rent was seen as money down the drain, better poured into the security of bricks and mortar.
But now borrowing to buy expensive homes has pushed many into debt, ruining lives and sabotaging the economy. There are mumblings that the British should end their obsession with home-ownership, rent and put by spare cash.
But I believe home-ownership is a healthy obsession, arising out of an aversion to the lack of independence and security in renting. We just need to find ways of making it possible for more people.
Renting has far more downsides than a mushrooming benefits bill.
Pro-renting pundits point to Germany and France, where people are happy to rent. But there renting is more regulated and pro-tenant. Here the sector is under-regulated. And rents can be so high that tenants have no money left to save or invest.
Better-off folk in well-appointed rentals owned by reputable landlords may extol the virtues of living debt-free with no worries about home maintenance. And if they have money they have more options if they face eviction.
But, for many, renting long-term is an expensive and precarious road to nowhere. You need roots to thrive.
Renter retirees are especially vulnerable. If given notice, they will have the emotional and physical upheaval of finding new homes at a vulnerable time of their life
And if you own your home at least you can indulge in DIY and keep a pet.
Home-ownership confers benefits of stability. Many politicians of all colours believe it helps people feel they have a stake in the country, literally and metaphorically.
And owning their own home gives people security and independence in older age, allowing them access to cash through downsizing or equity release.
The Thatcher Government’s Right-to-Buy scheme, which let council tenants buy their homes, could have given us a healthy housing market. But over-generous discounts meant valuable national assets were sold too cheaply.
The revenue raised was not ploughed into building more houses, as intended. And areas where council homes were not bought suffered urban blight, crime and misery.
Right-to-Buy fuelled property speculation, helping to turn the UK into a nation that saw houses as investments to make money from, not places to live in.
The housing market is broken. We need a massive multi-pronged push to fix it, including building affordable homes to buy, better controls on the rental sector, and more decent social housing. Oh, and maybe measures to reward people like the sisters in Leeds who sold a home to my parents.
Every home should be a castle to those who live inside.
Lynne Bateson is a freelance writer and journalist. She was a national newspaper financial editor and consumer columnist.