The Meaning of Home

by Stefan Kielbasiewicz

7 January 2017

Stefan Kielbasiewicz

This March, Elina Garrick, a single mother of three, was finally able to move from Boundary House in north London to another house in Basildon, Essex.

Located in Welwyn Garden City, Boundary House was originally built for single nurses. Acquired by an agency named Theori Housing Management Ltd, it was to be rented out as private accommodation for people supported on housing benefits. For Elina, it was meant to be the next move in a seemingly endless journey through temporary housing situations. She was told she would be there for only three weeks. But for two years, together with her children, Elina lived in a single room infested with damp, mould, cockroaches, and broken appliances. “You don’t feel security – you can’t hold a job. It’s not just living somewhere temporarily – it’s temporary life,” she said of her situation. Her monthly rent was £1300 a month, not including bills.

I met Elina in front of the offices of Theori Housing on Friday 28 October. Supported by Focus E15, a housing activist group comprised of young mothers, Elina and nearly two-dozen other women and children – some from Boundary House – had gathered to shut down Theori’s offices and send a message to the wider community. Their presence was a feat in itself. Not only is it difficult finding the time to organise in a climate where most people are too busy trying to make ends meet than to go to meetings, the inherent impermanence of London’s social housing makes it near-impossible to forge a sense of community.

I arrived at the same time as the women. I witnessed them taunting the Theori Housing employees through the glass and trying to force their way into the building, which led to a stand-off and the arrival of the police. Theori effectively closed down for the day as protesters tacked pictures of living conditions on the glass, set up a gazebo for people to gather under, made speeches for housing justice and shouted slogans like “Social housing is our right! Here to stay, here to fight!” In their act of resistance, they had broken down the barrier between the public and private, the social and the corporate. “I’m a strong person, I’m not a weak person. I’m not going to be put down like this,” a young mother named Lily said to the crowd. It was then I realised that not only were people like Elina and Lily fighting for decent living conditions, they were fighting for their basic right to a home.

But what does having a ‘home’ even mean? And, what’s more, what does it mean in the midst of a housing crisis? To recap: this year, the number of affordable houses being built fell to a 24-year low; the number of households living in temporary accommodation increased by 45% over the last six years (a figure which includes 114,930 children); last year more than 100 households were evicted each day, and the four biggest house building firms made more than £2bn gross in profits. The meaning of ‘home’, however, is what the homelessness charity Shelter, in partnership with Ipsos Mori and British Gas, attempted to define this October on a scale that hadn’t been attempted before. Hoping to create something akin to the living wage, they introduced the ‘living home standard’ along with a report which compiled people’s responses into categories of affordability, space, stability, decent conditions and neighbourhood. In England, 43% of homes fell below the standard. In London 73% of houses were deemed inadequate.

While the living home standard is a much-needed, practical tool to improving housing conditions, it doesn’t succeed in offering a definition of home that is ‘bigger than bricks and mortar’, as the introduction to the report claims. Anne Baxendale, head of policy at Shelter, expanded on the report with an article in the Huffington Post entitled “We Need to Reclaim the Meaning of Home.” In it she writes that “housing is mentioned dozens of times a week in parliament and the news, but ‘home’ only rarely.” Indeed, both both the government and the media use ‘house’ and ‘home’ interchangeably, drawing no distinction between the two. We should start by establishing this distinction.

We all know what a house is (a physical dwelling), but what exactly is a home? This is a question that has occupied the minds of sociologists and environmental psychologists for over 30 years. In a landmark paper published in the Sociological Review in 2004, Shelley Mallett gave a comprehensive overview of how researchers have approached the term’s meaning in society. Firstly, it is important to note that western conceptions of home are mostly connected with a physical structure or dwelling, unlike cultures that may not have a system of exclusive rights to access land. In English, we can trace the word’s original usage from the Anglo-Saxon ham, meaning village, estate or town. With the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 17th century, home became associated with the idea of homeland by the ruling classes in an attempt to preserve land, wealth and power. At the same time, it also became linked with a ‘domestic morality’ aimed at protecting familial property, including estates, women and children.

Jumping into the 20th century, the growth of the middle class after WWII and the economic downturn from the 1970s onwards led to the government cutting spending on public housing and placing more emphasis on housing tenure and the ideal of ‘home ownership’ – where being at home meant owning a home. As Mallett states, rather than being an economic solution, ‘home ownership’ is an ideological term that conflates house, home and family, and shifts the burden of responsibility from the state onto the nuclear family. This idea is still popular with the conservative government today, touted as a solution to the housing crisis rather than building more affordable housing or implementing rent control and expanding tenants’ rights. If we have to reclaim the meaning of home, as Anne Baxendale argued in her Huffington Post piece, it would be from this misleading ideal.

Mallett concludes her overview by writing that home “functions as a repository for complex, inter-related and at times contradictory socio-cultural ideas about people’s relationship with one another, especially family, and with places, spaces, and things.” Home can be associated with feelings of comfort, intimacy and security, or it can equally be an expression of personal identity. Rather than being something static, it can also be a process, in the sense of ‘making a home’ or doing things that make a person feel at home regardless of geographical place. On the flip side, home can also be a symbol of oppression and persecution in the case of victims of domestic and sexual abuse. It can also be linked to racist and xenophobic discrimination where people of different ethnicities and nationalities have been told to “go home.” 

While the term ‘home’ in almost every area of life, it’s interesting to see where it’s hardly used at all – the legal system. Perhaps because it is wary of the complexity associated with its meaning, the UK’s common law barely features ‘home’, instead preferring to use words such as ‘land’, ‘property’, ‘freehold’, ‘leasehold’ and ‘accommodation’. As Lorna Fox, a legal scholar on housing rights and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Essex University writes, within the legal system the psychological, cultural and emotional value of home is usually diminished against the “more concrete financial claims of creditors,” developers and policy makers. Due to its intangibility as an idea and its resistance to rational characterisation, ‘home’ is “still not a coherent legal concept” – at best it is ignored or trivialised altogether.

I spoke with Elina again recently – she says she quite likes Basildon. The house is nicer than what she had previously had at Boundary House, and her children are going to school. But she is still far from having a sense of home, Council representatives and repairmen come to the house at random hours without any notice and regardless of whether anyone is present. She still receives invoices from Theori even though she hasn’t been living there for more than half a year. Recently, she was arrested, and later released, when council representatives came to the house and discovered she had left one of her children in the house alone. (Elina claims she had only been gone for thirty minutes to go pick up her other two children from school.) She lives in palpable fear of the council, which has near-total control over her life, but still remains strong and continues to make the best of her circumstances.

In the current debate about how to solve the housing crisis, we speak of the need to build houses and homes interchangeably. No doubt, both are equally necessary: everyone, regardless of income or citizenship, has the right to housing and a home. To me though, the two concepts are fundamentally different: one can conceivably have a home without a house, but under no circumstances should one have a house that is not also a home. We need to make room in the debate for this kind of nuance, which does not simply reflect the wishes of policymakers and developers, but the actual feelings that people associate with their living situations. This is what Shelter set out to do, but instead they produced a report that crunched people’s experiences down to numbers and graphs. This is not the answer. We need real people at the receiving end of these policies and their stories influencing the national conversation.

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