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Pieter's Corner: Housing

Students, first-time buyers, parents with stay-at-home children, migrants in need of a house; the problems in the housing market affect many layers within the society. The lack of housing is a growing problem. How does this affect our behaviour and the way we think about 'living' ? What are the consequences for our family and our children? How do politics deal with this and what impact does this have on us? How can we turn the tide?

Students living in campsites

- Clinical Psychologist Willem van der Does

The academic year has begun, bringing with it the usual news articles on the strong growth of the Netherlands’ universities. This might give us the impression that the situation was rosy. But articles such as Student pleased with any place to stay after campsite (in Dutch, NRC, 20/8) reveal one of the darker sides. The response from the university authorities – in this case in Wageningen – is shocking: “It’s not our problem”, says the spokesperson, “accommodation is not our core business”. Local councillors, too, are happy for the universities to keep on growing. Students are left to the devices of unscrupulous landlords who fleece them mercilessly. And all the while glossy brochures continue to be churned out about the charms of studying at a top-100-ranked university.

The latter aspect points the way to the solution. There is little to be hoped from the politicians. Politicians want our universities to be the best, but also to be cheap and accessible to all. The only hope is that the people behind the rankings may come to realize that the availability of affordable accommodation should be an important criterion in their assessment. Top universities force their students to live on campus, certainly for the first year. On their own two feet, free of parental pampering. In the Netherlands, whether by choice or by necessity, a large proportion of students live at home. A missed opportunity for their development, for which points should be deducted in the Elsevier survey, the Times ranking, and the like. If our universities find themselves ceding their place in the top 100 because they outsource the broader education of their students to public transport companies and bad landlords, there’s a chance they may change their priorities.

Housing through the lens of property

- Cultural Anthropologist Marianne Maeckelbergh

Food, clothes, and a roof over our heads. Nothing can be more essential than these three things. And yet none are guaranteed. Why? Housing is much more than just the places where people live: it is an indicator of a healthy democracy. If people live without the basic security of a home, not just today, but also in the future, this is a sign of a society troubled by a profound level of uncertainty and fear. Not having a secure place to live deeply impacts people's ability to participate in society.

In order to understand the broader significance of the growing housing insecurity, not only for those living in precarious situations but for society as a whole, we need to view housing through the concept of property – a core concept in the history of democratic thought.

When we frame housing in this way it raises some fundamental questions. What, for example, should the main purpose of property be in a democratic society? Should it serve as a place to live, as a place to produce goods, or as a place to generate profit? And if profit is a central goal of property, then who should have the right to earn this profit? Those who live in a house? Those who own the house? The government (in the form of taxes)? The banks that issue mortgages? Or the investors on financial markets who buy mortgages in the form of financial products (so-called “mortgage backed securities”)?

When we understand housing not only as being about a place to live, but also as entwined in a set of moral discourses that influence what policy regulations and financial instruments are created to “govern” housing, we see that housing as a place to live and housing as a source of profit are often at odds. What is the impact of housing-as-profit on the ability of society to provide housing for those who need it? Behind this conflict are people – some of whom must defend their right to live somewhere, others who defend their right to earn money from their property, and yet others who defend the role of housing in global financial markets (and sometimes it is the same people defending all 3).

When we speak of housing, this is the conflict we are invoking. And this is ultimately a question about democracy: who gets to decide which of property's many roles should take precedence in a democratic society, and on the basis of what criteria?

Property, wealth, and the importance of a place to hide in

- Political Scientist Maurits de Jongh

Property and wealth are often mentioned together in political philosophy. Even if they are not viewed as synonymous, at the very least the former is seen as constituting an important indication of the latter. There is certainly some truth in this. But there are also good reasons to take property and prosperity separately. For instance because property is generally taken to refer to ‘real estate’, a lasting, solid object, whereas prosperity is often transformed into more fleeting ‘liquid’ assets. Viewed in this light, the two are at odds with one another, and one person’s prosperity or wealth often has its historical origins in the expropriation of the property of another, or the unattainability of property for that other. This is the sense in which Hannah Arendt posits that the “individual appropriation of wealth will in the long run respect private property no more than socialization of the accumulation process”.  The housing crisis currently dogging the Netherlands is symptomatic of the tension inherent to an economic system based both on property ownership and the increase of prosperity. If, in a competitive housing market, a private investor is bidding against young first-time buyers, thus driving up prices still further, this increases the tension between the profit of the one and the attainability of property for the other.

Politics, then, has the task of addressing the desirability or undesirability of this tension and of devising legislation and policy to keep it in check. And here it is important to ask ourselves again what the whole point and importance of private property is. Should making private property attainable for all be an end in itself, or are there other considerations to be taken into account? Arendt has a fitting answer to this question. She holds that every individual needs to have a “place to hide in”. By this she means that participation in the light of the public world – as a citizen or in any other way – can only be meaningful and sustainable if we can periodically withdraw to a protected space of privacy and intimacy. Private property is of course not the only institution that can guarantee this complementary relationship between the public and the private domain; social housing and tenancy law undoubtedly also play an important role here. Nevertheless, it is a matter for serious concern that for many people, especially of younger generations, acquiring a stable, protected place to hide in, in the form of private property, is less attainable than ever before.

Pieter's Corner – a soapbox for social scientists

Pieter’s Corner is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the ‘inhabitants’ of the Pieter de la Court Building an opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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