The Way We Live and the Homes We Get to Live In
What happens when we design and build inclusive, affordable housing where no one is left behind?
Rachel is an artist living in Hook Norton. Read her personal and moving account of how the creation of affordable, sustainable housing brings hope to the community.
Some of you may have seen the news article online recently about a 24-year-old woman with a decent job and a £50,000 deposit who she still couldn’t get a mortgage. She didn’t meet the threshold requirements to borrow £200,000. I’ve also seen a meme going around on Instagram recently that always catches my attention: “In monopoly, when no one can afford to live on the board anymore, that’s when the game is over, and you have to start again”.
Now, I’ve got another 20 years on that youngster who finds herself unable to move from the starting position and nowhere near that amount in my savings. I’ve spent the last couple of decades watching the game from the sidelines, carelessly and sometimes deliberately missing all the chances to get a foothold. I spent seven years renting in Banbury, saving some but not much, and when my landlord decided to sell the property with me as a sitting tenant, he was genuinely surprised that I didn’t have the deposit to buy it myself. Then mynew landlord immediately put the rent up.
I think, for me, the possibility of homeownership began to fade with my choice of degree (Fine Art) and ended with a catastrophically bad romantic relationship in my late twenties. The first choice led me to a very fulfilling, if not quite lucrative, career as an artist and tutor, the second one I think I’m still paying for. Throw in redundancy, an illness that’s led to many invasive surgeries, a pandemic and the care and passing of my mum earlier this year and the idea of a ‘forever home’ seems to get further and further away. None of us get through life without experiencing some heartache, but I didn’t make buying a home a priority in my thirties and somehow that ship has sailed without me. I know I’m not the only one.
It's probably become apparent to many of us that the net that should catch us when things don’t work out is full of holes. The welfare state, the NHS, social housing, mental health services. They exist (barely) but these systems are not robust. And when it comes to housing, no one is coming to save us. There is no real incentive for any housing development to make its homes affordable beyond the bare minimum. Their priority is to raise the most amount of profit possible per square metre of land and that usually involves building 4/5-bedroom houses, even though three-child families account for only 15% of UK households with dependants. So, what are all those bedrooms for?
I’ve lived in this village for six years now and I’ve seen the options that are (un)available to me. I don’t think anyone knows what to do with single women except gesture vaguely in the direction of internet dating as if a romantic partner is going to solve all my problems and if I’m very lucky I could become part of a dual income household. I seem to have been living under the illusion that we had moved on from Jane Austen and the idea of women inheriting and marrying into wealth and home. But unfortunately, whereas once I imagined myself to be Lizzie Bennett, traipsing romantically through the countryside, it turns out I was Charlotte Lucas all along.
If I had lived 50 years ago, I would’ve lived in a council house, 400 years ago an alms house. 600 years ago, I might’ve been a wise woman, in a hut on the edge of the village dispensing tinctures and prophecy. As it is I watch every new development being built with a sense of dismay, and a strong understanding of the choices I would have to make to have access to what’s on offer. I also refuse to give in to nagging suspicion that I don’t deserve to stay here because I haven’t sacrificed my ideals or tried hard enough.
The way we live and the homes we get to live in? it doesn’t work for me; in fact, I don’t think it works for many people. It doesn’t work for the elderly students in my classes whose support network is here in the village but with nowhere local for them to downsize to, they end up living in huge draughty houses, and I don’t think it works for the families who are so busy they have no time for anything else. The mums whose only friends are other mums. The graduates who drift back to their parents and the young professionals forced to move to the nearest town instead.
All of us in our little tribes, with its own uniform and behaviour patterns, fighting for our allotted piece of the pie. If it feels unnatural, it’s because it is. Historically we hunted and collected, raised families together, and grew food together. No wonder we’re now in an epidemic of loneliness.
But what happens when you design and build a small pocket of inclusive housing where no one is left behind? And what happens when that template for engagement and fundraising is picked up by other villages sick of seeing the mono-aesthetic of large developers change the identity of their community. Imagine moving to an estate with a built-in babysitter and dogsitter, because I think single women might be one of the last great unused resources. I always have wine in fridge, there is always cake and chocolate in my cupboard, and I can probably rustle up a tincture if needed.
I’ve been peripherally involved with this project for the past five years and each passing year has bought a new obstacle to navigate. I can’t quite believe that we are finally here. Not expanding the boundary of the village but using infill land, not having to make the choice between affordable and sustainable but able to do both. Putting inclusivity and community at the heart of the development. I can see cranes and machinery slotting walls into place from my driveway. I may not end up living in one of these houses, but I am so happy that I have been able to watch this unfold as one piece of the net is stitched back together by the people in this community.
BY RACHEL CRONIN SEPTEMBER 2023