Telling the Green story on housing

How can we tell a simple, persuasive story about Green housing policy? Tom Hill sent me this challenging article about the US Democrats’ recent failure to turn solid facts into folksy stories, reminiscent of George Lakoff’s past work on their failure to frame issues correctly (read this and this).

I’ve been doing some work recently on the Green story about the recession, and what the Mayor of London should do in response. A big part of this is the Green story on housing, since the housing bubble is both a structural weakness in our economy and a negative consequence for the majority of people for whom it is far too expensive. Jenny Jones has recently published a great report explaining the downside of the story, and we’re working together on a follow-up describing a range of rather complex solutions.

So how can we tell our positive story on housing in a way that people can connect with, that will win their emotional sympathy without triggering justified intellectual cynicism? The cynicism should be dealt with by our detailed report, but here’s a first and rather long attempt at the story:

We all want a home we can afford, that we can make our own, and if possible to build up a stake in it for our retirement – a fair approach to housing.

The Labour government has tried to solve this by providing subsidies to big business builders, who offer slightly cheaper private housing that just becomes completely unaffordable later on. Everyone who struggles to afford this can get state handouts – housing benefit or social housing – paid for by the profits of big business, making us all dependent on their success.

The Green Party would hand ownership and control of our land and homes to communities. Instead of expensive short-term subsidies, we would support pensions and other long-term investments into housing that is owned and run by local communities. You could build up a financial stake in your home, and you would pass it on to the next generation at a permanently affordable price.

Does that make sense? I’d love to read any comments and thoughts.

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10 thoughts on “Telling the Green story on housing

  1. Interesting stuff!

    “The Labour government has tried to solve this by providing subsidies to big business builders, who offer slightly cheaper private housing that just becomes completely unaffordable later on.”

    I’d be stronger than this. A lot of social/affordable housing is in fact completely unaffordable from the start for most people. I think its worth us confronting this head on, as I think it is a truth that most people recognise, and a prime example of Orwellian LabourSpeak. :)

    “The Green Party would hand ownership and control of our land and homes to communities. Instead of expensive short-term subsidies, we would support pensions and other long-term investments into housing that is owned and run by local communities. You could build up a financial stake in your home, and you would pass it on to the next generation at a permanently affordable price.”

    I like the idea, but I don’t think the first sentence will do anything except ring alarm bells for people. It sound as if ‘your home’ will be owned and run entirely by ‘the community’. I have no problem with that at all, personally, but if we are looking for effective narratives and frames, I am not sure it works.

    I also think that there is a strong argument for more strongly undermining the idea that homes are a speculative tool/asset purely for increasing one’s wealth. There is a world of difference between wanting to build up security in ones own home (singular) and building up a portolio of houses (plural) which one juggles around and speculates with to make money, and damn the consequences. I think, despite the plethora of programmes on TV making out that ‘everyone can be a property developer’, people actually realise that this is not sensible or ultimately productive behaviour. And, as Greens, we need to be saying that.

    More thoughts when I am less tired and more compos mentis, perhaps.

    Matt

    • Thanks Matt, some very good points, particularly on community ownership. This is a tricky one!

      The best way to prevent a house’s price from rising way above inflation is to take the land into community ownership (a community land trust). A very clever way of making it more affordable for people to build up a capital stake in their home is to have a co-operative build and own all of the houses with a corporate mortage, and then residents make a more flexible monthly payment similar to rent (mutual home ownership).

      Now we don’t want to suggest we’re advocating communes. Finance aside, it’s really more like buying (through HomeBuy) a housing association home – you pay a ground rent to cover maintenance that they do for the whole estate, but with your lease you’re sort of in control of your own home.

      Completely agree about speculative investments. The trick is not to negate the aspiration (“housing shouldn’t be an investment in your retirement”) or the immediate benefit (“you can’t make a killing when you sell the home on”). Perhaps talking about “passing on permanently affordable homes” and “helping people access homes, not risky investments”?

      The problem, which you’ve touched on, is that we are comfortable with these two models – private ownership, or renting – and it’s hard to describe something in between.

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  3. I would add something that baffles me about Greens: my perception, at least, is that you all oppose most new housing builds. Be it Aylesbury, or private housing developments. You, perhaps rightly, are always arguing against new builds and the loss of green space.

    So where are all these houses going to go? As Jenny points out, there is a shortage. Where do we build them?

    I agree about the dilemma of ‘communes’ and seemingly attacking ‘aspirations’. I worked hard, saved, went without and managed to buy a home, add value and sell on. I hate it when I’m told I’ve been ‘lucky’. I worked my end off and went without so much – council tenants across the road were driving flash cars and had Sky dishes. Now, I don’t want to sound Daily Mail, as I do want to do my bit to help with the crisis, but come on, don’t make a whole lot of us out here feel bad for hard work.

    • Thanks Rico.

      Your’e right, there is a perception of Greens knee-jerk objecting to new homes being built. That’s something I’d like to change! The hard bit is doing that without then accepting the argument that we simply need to build more and more houses to deal with the affordability crisis; and without accepting that the much-needed revitalisation of Aylesbury, Heygate, etc. has to be done by displacing lots of local residents to make way for expensive houses in the name of “mixed communities”.

      In London, just for example, if I were a councillor on planning I’d look very favourably on almost any social housing planned for places like Dulwich, even sometimes if it meant building on gardens or the like. There’s plenty of space in low density suburbs, and a lot of brownfield knocking about.

      You’re also quite right to say that you have worked hard to buy your home. I want to find a way of saying, in a snappier way: it’s fine to want the chance to buy up an equity stake in your home, to work hard to earn something that will keep you well when you retire. But it’s not fair that so much of your income had to go into that mortgage, it’s not fair that a shrinking number of people can grow their wealth because a dysfunctional property market has these bubbles, and it’s not fair that more and more people find they can’t buy and pay so much in rent that they can’t set enough aside to save.

      Back to work for me, then!

  4. Tom, not so much a recommendation but more of an observation …

    I’m wondering whether the way that you’ve wrote that paragraph is, essentially, the type of argument that you would be convinced by. If the Greens are only hoping to target nice hugable liberals like ourselves then I think that that kind of language is fine. However, I wonder how your average Daily Express reader would feel about it … I can’t imagine ‘fairness’ and ‘equity’ (at least non-house/assest related) featuring very highly on their agenda. Perhaps something like;

    ‘After the Government’s disasterous taxpayer funded banker-bonus-bailout is it any wonder that most of us normal folk can no longer afford a decent home.’

    Obviously complete nonsense but potentially quite on the mark rhetorically and maybe liable to chime with an audience less familiar with the Greens?

    * Note, according to my mentor my interest in rhetoric is decidedly un-Stoic!

    • Hi Tom, I don’t think we’re too concerned with reaching somebody who doesn’t care about “fairness”, that being a value shared by quite a sizeable majority of the population and certainly all potential Green voters, not just the tiny hardcore.

      That said, an emotive link between the cost of housing – the housing bubble – the government bailing out and propping up this ridiculous bubble. Not a bad link to make.

  5. Perhaps we’re talking about two things.

    One – access to decent housing. Two- home ownership. What are Green principles behind each? Everyone deserves access to decent housing. That is fair. Home ownership surely requires a two-way street?

    • What’s the two-way street?

      I think there are three things, if you think in terms of the things that really matter to people. One – access to decent housing. Two – control over your own home. Three – building up a financial stake in your home. It just so happens that we’ve come to think of home ownership as the only means of achieving all three goals. Models like Mutual Home Ownership offer another way of doing that.

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