Childhood homes, the housing crisis and communities
It is the stairs I remember most about my childhood home. The house I grew up in. It was an old victorian end-of-terrace and the stairs were part of that aesthetic. Despite the ‘licks of paint’ the house was given intermittently over the 15 years we lived there, its features, its character, remained in that long gone period of British history. Including the stairs. The dark brown wood that lead you right to the top of the house and the darkened landing leading you into the low ceilinged loft rooms. Those stairs were all lined with twisting, winding, bulbous Victorian bannisters that I remember peering through as people passed by below. It was a house of profound height, length and depth, seemingly stretched in its proportions. It would no doubt seem smaller now but as a child the house was a mansion and all that goes with such a gothic suggestion. Hearth, home and hauntings.
The spaces we live in have a profound effect on us. Psychologically and physically. We have seen enough shock documentaries about the effects poor habitats have on animals to know this, with Killer Whales and their curled fins, chickens resorting to cannibalism in battery farms and cows living in their own filth under corrugated iron roofs. The same is true of people, of course. But while the glib comparison between battery farms and social housing or sky scrapers may seem appropriate at least these places constitute homes. In the UK, Crisis estimates around 200,000 people sleep rough on the streets while there is a estimated far larger number of so-called ‘Hidden Homeless’ who are of-no-fixed-abode and sleep on sofas or in hotels when they can, and is about to get worse. This is all in spite of there being enough accommodation to house these people with room to spare, proved when the majority of homeless people were taken off the streets at the start of the pandemic. In spite of the immediate moral issues this raises, whereby these people are allowed to freeze to death on the streets in the depths of winter, it also provokes the question of what psychological effects these surroundings (or lack thereof) can have on a person. Whatever illusory idea of ‘Freedom’ may come from the notion of being without the burden of rent or housing tax, the lack of shelter instead is the prison of being cast by society as a vagrant, an indigent, ignored and patronised. This is all without addressing the fact that the rate of psychosis is 4–15 times more prevalent amongst the homeless community than in the general population. So with people already made homeless often due to a fragile mental state, to what effect does such a stressful living space have on these people?
Whenever I went to a friend’s house as a child I saw a reflection of my own home. The same creaky wooden stairs with dusty corners, wood chip wallpaper barely holding on to the cement beneath, skirting boards with clumped and dried drips of paint and light bulbs hanging from too-high ceilings. These were all buildings from the era around the turn of the century, not luxury homes and rarely drastically remodelled throughout their life span, built with families in mind. Houses that retained heat so the heating bill was cheaper but with massive windows of thin glass that were too cold to touch in the winter. Houses where you could often uncover a strange old cornice or plaster moulding inside a cupboard that hadn’t been removed by previous owners. Houses that hid all kinds of secrets from over their hundred year history. These were the most common places in which people I knew lived. Student digs, my school friends’ homes, my parent’s friends palatial town houses, care homes for the elderly, bed and breakfast hotels, hostels, all were predominantly this same form of ageing, history-storing pile. Films and TV shows seemed to only have these types of buildings in them too, either haunted by a ghost, a place to hide from the murderer, somewhere to have oh-so-painful struggles in middle class suburbia or to represent a poverty stricken council estate, these generation’s old buildings were the spaces the characters called home.
The vast shortfall in housing available to the poorest in society compared with actual bricks and mortar domiciles that already exist today is bizarre. With holiday destinations all but empty of residents due the lucrative AirBnB property model that allows homes to be sublet or purchased and left empty to accommodate seasonal trade, or whole brand new blocks of apartments that stand largely empty, or even the boarded up houses that remain structurally sound but require remodelling, the housing market remains lucrative but for people who need somewhere to live stock is sparse. This lack of public housing (as opposed to housing purchased in bulk by companies or organisations as investment capital) was traditionally bolstered by Social/Welfare/Council Housing but thanks to the ‘Right to Buy’ initiative in the UK in the 80s the number of those dwindled and have not been replaced since. Instead, the contemporary initiative is to build ‘Affordable’ housing, which amounts to new estates built at the bare minimum of cost based on a significantly reduced set of safety standards that deemed buildings like the immolated Grenfell Tower habitable. They are also, in my opinion, ugly. Soulless, plastic or mixed material clusters, crammed into whatever tiny area will fit them, built in amounts that allow the housebuilding companies hired by councils to carefully avoid the legal requirement that demands schools and other infrastructure be built whenever new homes are built in bulk. Far from creating a community, these housing projects are nothing more than investment opportunities for house builders and estate agents, many of which — despite their name — end up being utterly unaffordable to the majority of people who need them. All while a legacy of older houses sit empty in already built towns, ready for new communities to inhabit, that might require refurbishment but would cost far less than the building of entire new groups of houses.
Only a particular group of my friend’s parents lived in ‘new’ homes when I was young. The nouveau riche of the 80s boom enjoyed this form of (what felt like) decadence. Their newness often sat ill amongst the array of architectural styles from throughout the last two centuries found in most villages and towns. Not in a snobbish “not-in-keeping-with-the-rustic-aesthetic” way but in a truly gaudy, ostentatious-yet-in-no-way-unique way. They were often more open plan, white, had “lots of light” and must remain immaculate and prisitine. A stark contrast to the often dingy, cluttered, narrow spaces found in the older homes I was used to. And it was here I began to feel what today I still feel these new houses lacked: closeness.
A home should be about togetherness. Rooms in these older buildings could be large but still remain close with others, with halls only wide enough for one, or where the warmest rooms gathered the household to them and the lightest rooms found us there in the day while the gloomiest would be lit up at night by the glow of a television in the corner. These ageing works of brick and stone were designed with family in mind. They sat on streets, glued to one another, on long narrow streets that brought whole roads of families together, roads that sprawled out onto high streets that brought whole towns together. Archaic city planning did not think far ahead given how ill equipped most British towns are for modern transport needs, but it did plan for a town’s soul: the people that lived there. Today whether it is the ‘modern housing solutions’ that solve none of the housing market issues and design homes around efficiency and economy of production rather than quality of life, or the trend for remodelling older homes to better reflect the standards of contemporary design and its need for “lots of light” and empty space (space that is rarely filled by anyone or anything in day to day life), these are the overriding forms of housing I see. Whereas I see less and less of those homes I knew as a child. Those buildings and homes that held a family lineage in their decor and hidden recesses, houses that survived wars and floods, homes that encouraged us to huddle together for comfort but equally gave us room for privacy, houses that formed neighbourhoods, places that — if nothing else — had some form of character rather than an off-the-shelf idiosyncrasy designed by committee and seen on ‘Grand Designs’. They are either remodelled and extended to remove these aspects or cordoned off as holiday apartments or weekend homes for the wealthiest in society. But these are the spaces that build families, communities and whole districts, and, most importantly, there are plenty of them. There has always been enough space to accommodate those that need a roof over their heads, it is now a question of whether the value of these spaces is to remain monetary or moral. We should be using the spaces we already have instead of occupying more space without good reason.
The spaces we live in have a profound effect on us but we have a profound effect on those spaces too. Like a glass of water we take on the form of the space around us, but, equally, the spaces we occupy take on our form in how we decorate and fashion them to fit ourselves. Everybody needs such a space, everybody deserves such a space, but — for me — I want everyone to experience these spaces so they can interact with and enjoy the same history, closeness and community that I did in the space I grew up in. And to be able to look through those same brown bannisters at my mother passing through the high and narrow hallway, to go and sit in the tall but cosy front room and read her book. That space is where my heart is.