The Costs of 'Transience'

 Our understanding of transience in the private rented sector is rooted in the idea that what was traditionally meant to be temporary is now a long-term condition. The prolonged house-sharing of Friends or Spaced is meant to last for a limited time, usually in your 20s, before you ascend to home ownership, or you’re at least able to afford to live alone or with your partner. Prolonged transience is therefore associated with class failure, downward mobility, and also sometimes of failure to lock down a long-term monogamous partner you can co-habit with. The problems with associating long-term private renting with transience are twofold. Firstly, it constructs involuntary mobility, rather than immobility, as a key hardship that renters face. Secondly, it ignores the involuntary transience that other types of tenants are subject to, often as a result of sub-market initiatives to get middle-class millennials ‘back on the property ladder’. The following discussion deconstructs the separation of social and private renting in light of ‘affordability’, the latter driving sub-markets that subsume social housing provision. I argue that this landscape not only exposes increasing numbers of social tenants to unaccountability comparable to the private rented sector, but can also lock people into involuntary permanence.

The discursive and political separation of social tenants and private renters is bewildering. The paucity of state-owned social housing stock is a well-known fact, as is the primacy of housing associations in social housing provision. The resulting circumstances are that social housing is now increasingly allocated through the private sector. Clearly there’s something else driving the economic and political separation of social and private tenants. It seems that it doesn’t matter who you pay for housing, what’s more important is how much. Private investment in social housing is literally mandated by legislation: the 2011 Localism Act obliged local housing authorities to rely on the private sector to house people. It’s not a coincidence that in the same year, reductions to Stamp Duty Land Tax made it a lot easier for large-scale investors to purchase rented property. There was money to be made from a shortage of social housing. So it should come as no surprise that housing associations have been increasingly selling off social homes to fund bigger developments, with only a percentage of units required to be ‘affordable’.  

 Affordable is different to ‘social’. The shift from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’ is rooted in the creation of housing sub-markets rather than the provision of housing. Of the 90,000 new London homes intended for construction in Sadiq Khan’s Affordable Homes Programme, 58,500 are earmarked for either shared ownership or London Living Rent, the latter pegged at a third of the average borough-specific household income. 29,000 of the new homes are set at Affordable Rent, which, like social housing, is allocated according to eligibility, but can be set at up to 80% of local market rates. Much of this is a continuation of Boris Johnson’s emphasis on intermediate housing products to help those who ‘traditionally’ would have had access to home ownership get their foot on the property ladder. It just so happens that these products are also quite lucrative for housing associations. The point of all this is to say that private investment in social housing provision impacts rents and tenancies. Assured shorthold tenancies are seen as the ‘best use of assets’ in social housing provision, and these can be as short as two years. Insecurity, short-term renting, and unaccountable landlords are not just the preserve of private market renters. Social housing increasingly comprises a sub-market division of the same sector and the discourse of ‘affordability’ has helped this landscape emerge.

All this being said, short-term, insecure tenancies in the private rented sector obviously do often make for miserable living. Although rents have stagnated in London, they are still ludicrously high, and the threat of no-fault eviction puts tenants in a position of low bargaining power. Short tenancies mean more moving and less durable connections with the homes people occupy. This absence of connection sometimes makes it easier to rationalise moving – ‘I didn’t even put any shelves up! I never even shared a meal with my housemates!’ Indeed, the frequency with which private renters move and the expense of moving has prompted the emergence of alternative letting companies like Movebubble and Tipi, who target millennial renters to ‘join the rebellion’ and only advertise lettings that include fees and bills. Once again, the priced-out weariness of the millennial private renter can be marketised. 

 Frequent moving is not only good for the bottom line of such companies, it also tends to increase local rents. When private tenants leave and new tenants must be found, landlords exploit the opportunity of a new contract to raise the rent. As local market rents rise, so do the rates of ‘affordable’ rents, and this can have the effect of pricing social tenants out of areas too. But such processes can also keep social tenants involuntarily immobile. This is something that has come up frequently in my own research. High private market rents mean that young people can’t afford to move out of family homes. This means more people are living in overcrowded conditions with no sign of an out. Exacerbating this situation is the under-occupancy penalty targeting social housing tenants, where spare rooms are taxed through benefit cuts. One of my research participants said that he was scared to move out because it would affect his ageing parents’ access to housing. At the same time, he was aware that staying in the house was also threatening his family’s benefit entitlements because he is no longer classified as a dependent. The costs of private market transience can be the immobility of more marginalised tenants.

Concurrent with the emergence of ‘affordable’ housing sub-markets is the sub-contracting of maintenance, repairs, and management services among housing associations. As housing associations become more corporatised, they look for multiple strategies of procurement in order to minimise running costs and maximise their profits. This means that more and more people living in social housing don’t have open lines of communication and accountability with their landlords. Another one of my study’s participants was living with multiple family members in a HA-rented house and hadn’t been able to have their kitchen fixed for months, nor gauge how long it would take via a third-party maintenance company. At the same time, the family wasn’t allowed to make any repairs themselves. The entanglement of HA deregulation with the emergence of ‘affordable’ sub-market renting creates such conditions; despite being kept afloat by social rents, HAs are increasingly invested in deferring actual responsibility for the upkeep of social homes.

My aim here is not to disregard the difficulties of insecure private renting. If anything, I am appalled that the unregulated nature of the private rented sector is the increasingly common environment that those most in need of housing are subjected to. Indeed, one of my central critiques here is around the idea that compared to private renting, social housing is stable, rooted, and permanent. Where permanence is found, it is not always a chosen condition. Involuntary permanence can be carceral. In abusive situations, it can be life-threatening.  In this regard, the costs of private market transience are manifold, shortening tenancies and limiting accountability for some social housing tenants, while subjecting others to immobility. To address it, we need to start thinking about social housing tenants and private sector tenants as subject to the same economic relations.

'The Intimate Costs of Housing Insecurity among Young Renters in Hackney ' - Feminist Engagements with Austerity Symposium, University of Bristol

Context and background: governing through insecurity

The state governs and disciplines through insecurity. Welfare reform and public sector cuts associated with austerity comprise part of this discipline, but insecurity can’t be understood fully without also taking into account the hostile environment and the broader casualisation of employment and housing. Casualisation is also related to austerity; for example, the defunding of social housing means that social housing providers increasingly rely on funding through private rents.

These precarities reinforce each other and download the burden of cost onto individuals and families. The following discussion is theoretically grounded in the idea that this cost translates as the heightened labour of social reproduction, in particular the labour of reproducing and nourishing intimate relationships. People have to work harder mentally, materially, and emotionally to establish and maintain bonds, because these relationships are mediated through cumulative precarity.

More broadly, my PhD attempts to integrate social reproduction and reproduction-as-family-creation by focusing on the ways people strive to love and care, and the temporality involved in that striving. My research really confirmed for me that people don’t think about biological reproduction in isolation from other forms of care and dependency.  Reproduction does not start with conception and birth. Undoing that idea helps us to decentre genetic paternity and actually recognise the work of marginalised subjects. It also allows us to understand that the uncompensated extraction of this work is the process by which power is constructed – this is basically how I am using queer feminist political economy.  

This presentation is based on PhD research conducted in 2017 and 2018 that looked at the ways that young people living in rented accommodation in Hackney form and sustain intimate relationships amidst housing and employment precarity.

Popular discourse around generational obstructions to reproduction have prompted critique regarding a) class analysis and b) the types of reproduction being obstructed; not everyone is sad because they can’t have their ideal hetero nuclear family home. Some people want children on their own. Some people want relationships of care that aren’t centred around children. Some people don’t have a choice.

This is not to say that economic policies over the last eight years haven’t disproportionately affected young people – tripling tuition fees, scrapping EMA, decline in real wages. We just have to take more things into account when considering what reproductive obstruction might mean.

My research tries to do this by exploring the ways that reproductive impingement is thought about and experienced by a cross-section of millennial renters in Hackney.

I spoke to twenty-four people aged between 23 and 36 living in a variety of tenancies across Hackney. With most participants I carried out two interviews, with the second in their own home. I recruited participants through children’s centres, housing groups, unions, and more informal networks I’d built over the years as a teacher, activist and renter in Hackney. Hackney is a good place to look at disparity as well as solidarity because so many people are different from each other but experiencing comparable issues, albeit at different levels of extremity.

A key part of my analysis and dissemination involved illustration – I’m compiling anonymised comics as a resource for my participants and grassroots groups

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Study findings illustrate the malleability of reproduction and kinship in precarious times, the significance of capital in formulating linear reproductive trajectories, and the permeation of economic precarity within experiences of intimate unsafety

 This paper is going to look at five empirical examples of cumulative precarity engendering costs to people’s relationships.

Abdul

Abdul was 24 at the time of our discussions and living in a council-rented flat in Dalston with his parents and sister. He is an actor and has sporadic work on screen and stage. He had lost multiple service jobs because of casting calls but refused to give up his professional ambitions despite immense pressure from his parents. His low income and the unaffordability of private renting in his area meant that he was forced to stay at home. However, he was also locked into staying at home because of the unoccupancy penalty, which meant that if he left the house he would be effectively putting his family at risk of eviction.

He described to me that his financial and housing situation had destroyed his relationship with his ex-girlfriend.

Tinashe

Tinashe was 26 when we had our interviews. At the time she was living in a council-rented house in Clapton with her father and two sisters. She has spent some years as a child in foster care with her younger sister and twin. Owing to the way that social services intervened during this time, she was still estranged from her mum. As she was growing up her mum had struggled with her mental health and was evicted repeatedly. Tinashe described how one of the recent social housing accommodations that her mum had been in was effectively a private tenancy with constant changes in residents and serious disrepair. She told me that it was practically impossible to maintain a relationship with her mum because her mum was embarrassed by the conditions and she and her sisters were put off by them too. She also explained that a no-fault eviction notice had meant that she no longer even knew where her mum was.

Jonathan

Jonathan was 29 when we spoke. At the time, he lived in a privately rented one-bedroom flat with his partner, but he told me that he had lived in multiple private tenancies in Hackney over the past five years. Jonathan recalled a time that he and his partner decided to lodge in a friend’s house to escape a particularly dire rental property in Bethnal Green. He explained that the ostensibly supportive and stable environment of living with someone he knew in a house that she owned was initially appealing. However, she quickly put the rent up, sullying their friendship and forcing him and his partner out of the house.

Nouman

I met Nouman when he was 24. At the time he was living with his parents, sister, two brothers, sister-in-law, niece and nephew in a house in Homerton rented from a housing association. Nouman family had come to the UK has refugees in the 90s. His older brother’s wife was not from the UK or EEA and his brother did not currently meet the financial requirements for sponsoring her spousal visa. Housing unaffordability and his brother’s financial situation meant that they had to live in the family home with their two children. The overcrowding caused tension and conflict but also engendered fear of economic and legal penalty. Firstly, Nouman’s sister-in-law does not have the legal right to rent in the UK. There is also complete legal ambiguity as to whether extra lodgers are allowed in homes rented from housing associations. Moreover, any extra money contributed by lodgers to the overall rent is considered income, which can affect housing benefit.

Maja

Maja was 28 at the time of our interviews together. She had been bouncing around different live/work warehouse tenancies in Hackney Wick for the past two years. She told me that her mother had died when she was 22 and had left her some money, which buffered the regular shortfalls she had in income from her zero-hour job at a local bar. She explained that, up until recently, she had been sharing a room with her boyfriend, who had no job and no money. His financial situation had hastened their moving in with each other, and their constant proximity created tension. This tension was often grounded in unwanted dependency, shared space, and conflicting schedules.  

Concluding Remarks

Capital obstructs and impinges upon love, attachment, care, and desire

 Through welfare reform, hostile immigration policies, and the casualisation of both housing and employment, the government both directly and indirectly intervenes in intimate life

This intervention is partly grounded in demographic ideologies around who gets to make what type of family or network

While the ideological grounding of such interventions is explicitly racist and misogynist, they are channelled through a logic of profit that is presented an inexorable, e.g. the recent doubling of the immigration health surcharge is presented as justifiable owing to the need for NHS funding; social housing provision, also gutted by austerity, is presented as requiring funds from private market rents

It is normal that capital would be the mode through which this engineering is executed, because profit is the financial expression of power. By extracting more money and more work from the poor and marginalised, hegemonies are preserved. 

People nonetheless strive to circumvent impingement, to nourish their existing bonds and form new ones. Any concept of reproductive obstruction needs to take this into account.

 

Conference Paper: 'Hackney’s Young Renters and the Precarious Work of Reproducing Relationships' - Feminist Geographies 2018, University of Montreal

This is a paper I gave for the wonderful ‘Querying the Future of Work’ session at Feminist Geographies 2018 in Montreal.

In this paper I will be discussing the relationship between capital and labour in the reproduction of intimate relationships among young renters in Hackney.

In the context of housing and employment precarisation in the UK, the discussion builds on data gathered from qualitative interviews conducted with a cross-section of ‘millennials’ living in rented accommodation.

Research findings convey a complex picture of the various labours undertaken to fulfil different intimate trajectories, from the economic foundations required for the establishment of family households, to the work of maintaining familial relationships amidst incarceration and eviction.

Feedback is especially sought with regard to community dissemination, inclusive publication, and the challenges of coupling class critique with a praxis that emphasises solidarity.

Generational inequality is increasingly seen as having bifurcated the UK populace across economic and political lines; Brexit, decline in real wages, collapse of home ownership: a central theme is baby boomer wealth accumulation at the expense of millennials’ ability to access stable housing or even a living wage.

This discourse is often built on notable obstructions to the ‘good life’. Increasingly, the inability to establish independent households and family units is one of these. My research deals with both the material experience and narrative of economic insecurity as a factor in the reconfiguration of ‘normative’ relatedness

My work embraces the facts grounding this notion of millennial economic and reproductive loss, but also queries its unanimity. In deconstructing the uniformity of millennial experience, we can begin to trace the ways that capital is stored, reproduced, or lost through networks of relationships.  And we can begin to examine the different forms of work undertaken to reproduce capital as well as reproduce relationships.

Themes emerging from my fieldwork with 18-35-year-old tenants in Hackney illuminate the different ways with which labour is engaged for the reproduction of intimacy and the reproduction of capital. The discussion in this paper touches on three topics relating to these forms of labour: firstly, we’ll look at the perceived futility of salaried work and saving, and the relationship between this and depleted emotional investment in familial goals.  Next I’ll talk about the work of childcare amidst disparate perceptions and experiences of violence in the city. And finally, the paper will discuss the work of fantasy and identity-construction in compensating for disrupted intimacy, with particular emphasis on the use of digital and virtual space for communicating desire and relatedness.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

For me, reproduction encapsulates the various forms of labour performed to ensure the continued life of people. In this regard, reproduction often most directly relates to caring, creative, and constructive work.

I interpret intimacy as affective attachment that may be romantic, familial, and/or social, and therefore an outcome of reproductive labour.

In this paper and elsewhere in my work, capital is employed as antithetical to reproductive labour, and theoretically indistinct from other forms of hierarchical power relations. As in Marx’s theory of constant capital as stored up or dead labour, the accumulation of capital requires labour that is either poorly compensated or uncompensated. My position is that power operates similarly, in that it relies on the uncompensated extraction of work for the maintenance of disparate resources, rights, and privileges.

For example, in my research, this relationship is evident in the intersections between wealth and whiteness in Hackney’s rental market, whereby the construction of an economically oppressed private market renter is achieved through the invisibilising of reproductive labour at the margins.

In summary, capital intervenes with and obstructs reproduction, impinging upon the creation and maintenance of intimate relationships. In response, new forms of labour are undertaken to circumvent these obstructions and to strive towards attachment and relatedness.

 

REGION OF STUDY AND METHOD

Hackney is a ‘super-diverse’ borough in London and is also statistically young

There is a proportionally very high level of social housing in Hackney (44%), but the private rental market is also ‘booming’.

House prices have spiralled and the average private renter in the area spends almost 75% of their income on rent, making it the most proportionally expensive place to rent in London.

 My fieldwork has shown me that the distinction between private and social renters is needless, given that much of social housing is being privatized. The division between them is ideological and classist. Since the construction of ‘broke millennials’ as being extorted by the rental market is contingent on them having access to it, discourse around ‘renters rights’ becomes oriented around consumer injustice. Hackney is actually full of young people from different backgrounds who grew up in the area but can’t afford to live ‘independently’. Moreover, the frequency with which private sector renters move house makes it easier to increase rents in a given area, further locking social tenants out of markets. The assured fixed term tenancy introduced under Thatcher incentivized short tenancies and was premised on wealth accumulation through rents. Still, despite property fetishism and landlordism being obvious opponents to the rights of tenants, a lot of the discourse around the private rental sector has become about ‘value-for-money’. 

 Participants gave two interviews, with the second usually in their own home.

 I’ve recently introduced graphic illustration into my transcription and analysis to present and explore meaning within narratives, building on creative methodologies of people like Eric Laurier

 CASE STUDIES

 The Futility of Salaried Work; The Futility of Saving

abdul 24

 My mum is completely deluded! So I had to have this conversation like let’s just work this out, ok. So you think I’m gonna make what, 50 thousand pounds a year. And I’m not gonna spend a single penny of it. She’s like ‘yeah just give it all to us, we’ll help you live’. Ok cos you know, we’re doing so well now, but anyway – So we just counted out 50, 100, 150, 200 – we’re talking about 15, 20 years of not spending a single penny. To eventually buy a house in cash. Do you realise – and then I spoke her through what inflation means. And I spoke her through taxes. And things like that and how the way the economy works is set up so you can’t just save it, you have to make it work further, otherwise it just decreases. You can’t sit on it. I think I eventually got through to her.

maja 28

 And I guess I can do what I’m doing here and live – it’s a quite precarious situation to not have certain income or a place to live for certain long periods of time – but I know I can always bounce back on him, or like, I’ll never… I don’t have to be too stressed. Cos at the end of the – if things would fuck up, I could just go back.

 Politically I’m a bit pissed off. I don’t think people should own their own place just because they want to feel that they have a place to stay or somewhere they can call home. I don’t really… I had a big argument with my best friend. She rang me once and she’d been to the bank with her boyfriend, they’re both freelancers, they’re not that old. And was like we’ve got a mortgage! They got a mortgage for 3.1 million Swedish crowns which is 300,000 pounds, something like that. And I was like should I congratulate her? She’s going to be in debt for the rest of her life! And I was like agh… As she was in the process of finding a house, she just wanted me to go wow, that’s amazing, well done. She got so pissed off with me, we didn’t speak for  months

penny 36

 We’ve both got pensions through work, but that, we haven’t even discussed it really. Cos at the moment I just feel like we’re so skint all the time, to even think about saving more for then is just, it feels ridiculous at the moment, to discuss that. We probably should. We also kind of just both assume that we’re both gonna be working til we’re at least 70. We’ll probably die before then (laughs). I’m only half joking.

the whole student loans thing, I don’t think I’ll ever pay mine off. I might? I don’t even worry about it, it’s just not even on my radar. It’s just annoying when I get my payslip and I’m like they’ve taken how much each month? I could use that money now, but then it would be taxed and everything

 The work of childcare amidst disparate experiences of violence in the city

 

kiyana 36

 I have a leak in my um, kitchen. In the ceiling. And that leaking started since six months ago. Until present, they haven’t sorted it out. And rather than it getting better, it’s getting worse. Cos that leak now is spreading to the whole ceiling and there’s cracks in the ceiling, and cracks in the wall. And we just recently last month found out that the water that’s leaking is from the toilets. The flat’s above us on top, every time they go to the toilet and flush it, I’m getting it.

My eldest child is a clean freak. She loves to clean and she love environment to be clean. Every little thing that happens to her now is because of this leak. So now, she thinks they’re trying to kill her. Because she can’t clean. And she’s mopping the kitchen floor every two hours. As soon as she sees the liquid, she’s getting the mop. She’s got a belly-ache, it’s because of that. I’m begging her to (?) and the water’s not clean, or ‘I can’t mum, I can’t drink from the tap, because if all that water’s leaking into that sink, it’s not healthy, I can’t be drinking from it, you have to buy water for me, mum’.

 

rachel 30s

 

I want to live in the middle of nowhere where I haven’t got any neighbours. No dog poo when I step outside my house. Sea, wind. No sirens anymore. I wouldn’t have to go anywhere that I’m gonna get blown up or run over by a van. You know I just want to live in somewhere that’s quiet. I’ve always been one of those you know, don’t let it affect us, but since having my little boy, the thought – you know I take him to like museums or something, we go to Euston when we’re travelling up to my mum’s. And quite often I stand on the Euston road. And it holds memories for me because the 55 – that’s where the 55’s roof came off. And I always think about it when I’m around that area. And I stand there sometimes and I think ‘any one of these cars could just do that. Like any one’. There are that many crazy people in the world these days. And they are saturated in these central, busy areas.

penny

I grew up on a farm in Yorkshire. I think I’m just missing that. But you know, the increasing violence… like London general, like gun, knife crime, in general. But also, on a very local level, you know like, the last two days, we’ve been crossing the lights on a green man, and bikes – motorbikes and cyclists – have almost knocked us both over. You know, little things like that. I don’t know, it just seems to be a bit more prevalent than in previous years. Also, in this area, especially as she’s growing up, I don’t really want her involved in that.

The Work of Fantasy in Compensating for Disrupted Intimacy

abdul

 I really changed how I behaved on social media. Like it gassed me up, like my ego really took control, and I was, it was really kind of, a person that I don’t like on social media. Like I was working Uber Eats, and I’d go for a cycle at the end of my shift, cos I’m sitting like this, my muscles would be quite pumped? And I’d be like yooo check out my muscles, ra ta ta ta ta, really cos I just wanted to show Sophie, but I put it on my story, which is for everyone, which that in itself – to me that’s cringey, I hate when people do that. But then I started doing that just to Sophie, but then that ended up being 10, 20 a day. Right? And along those themes, right, just showing off really, and I’m not that kind of person. And I bumped into her two months later, at her acting class, and afterwards we had a chat, and she was seeing someone new at the time and I was like ok that’s cool. And yeah. Yeah all the classic kind of feelings, sure. But here’s the thing like, it was someone she was  going out with before and I know about him and he’s like, he’s got this big job in an accounting firm, and I know what it’s like, this used to bug me in the relationship, that like, now they can go have fancy tea somewhere. Or like go to a menu and order the bottom half of the menu 

tom 27

 Most of these pictures on the wall, I think I got them all off Facebook. They’re actually things that are all on Facebook. I think part of it is for me, but I think honestly part of it is for the other people that come into my room too. So I think even on that micro level, this is fulfilling a bit of what Facebook fulfils on a bigger level.  They’re nice memories for me to look at, and it’s just a nice thing to have. I guess it fulfils both purposes. It’s nice for me, but it’s also like ‘look at the fun stuff I do!’, look at all this different stuff that’s going on, for other people.

melissa 26

I think the thing is that we expect that friendship has to be really effortless, and it just happens, and you become friends, but I think as you get older you actually have to put that emotional labour in. And I think Bumble in some ways acknowledges that, and just sort of lets you directly do it, instead of this weird song and dance where you pretend that you’re not trying too hard

alice 30

We all just cram in. We have taken the side off S’s cot – she has never spent a night in it, but, sometimes I sleep diagonal in the cot, with my legs on the bed […]Have you seen the film Away We Go? With Maggie Gyllenhall? Her character is this hippie mum who does extended breastfeeding and her partner is a stay-at-home Dad and they have this family bed. […] which is basically just a whole room that’s a bed and I’m like… actually that’s an amazing idea.

AAG/CIG

I spent an incredibly busy Spring recording with Suggested Friends, then going to the AAG in New Orleans, then going on tour to Germany with Chorusgirl, then going to the CIG in Maynooth. I often compare musician life with academia life because it relies so much on patronage, casualisation, and the erosion of expectations around earning any money or having any security - or any time off. But over the course of the last few shows with both of my bands I think the main point of departure really is the complete expectation of no reimbursement with regarding to academic conferencing, and how many working class people that must exclude (NB. I am culturally and materially middle class, though members of my family have working class origins). With touring you can plan it out and hope for the best that you at least won't lose a big chunk of money. For PhD students on limited stipends and research training grants, it's just a given that doing the things that seem vital to entering academia will cost you a lot of money. Just another contradiction of academia I suppose - people love theorising about money and researching the way people use it but they don't really talk about how much they have or where it's coming from. Institutions foster this through making expenses claims systems infuriatingly labyrinthine, and through the acceptability that payment for literal labour might take months and months to process. I'm still waiting to be paid for some marking I did in December! Anyway, venting aside, the purpose of this post was to upload some of my AAG and CIG papers. Since the CIG paper pretty much ended up being a fine-tuned version of the AAG one, I'll stick to that. The session was about 'Compensatory Homemaking' so I've referred to 'compensatory' labour to resonate with that. It sounds very bullet-pointy because that's the way I have to write papers to stop my eyes being glued to the page, and I've chopped some stuff out to make this post more digestible!: 

A Tale of Two Boroughs: Social Reproduction, Capital, and Homemaking in Hackney’s Rental Market

 Generational inequality’ is increasingly seen as having bifurcated the political and economic conditions of the UK population. From Brexit to declines in real wages, a central feature of political commentary relies on the construction of beleaguered millennials bearing the brunt of baby boomer wealth and its accompanying fiscal conservatism e.g. new 10k inheritance leveler/pensioner tax.

Within this discourse, one repercussion of long-term renting and the scarcity of past routes to stable employment is the inability to ‘reproduce’ a family; pathways to the nuclear family fantasy have been obstructed, and often the destination has changed. My research deals with the material experience and narrative of economic insecurity as a factor in the reconfiguration of ‘normative’ relatedness.

We can embrace the factual economic foundations of this narrative of millennial economic loss, and also query its unanimity. What does a narrative of generational disparity actually do for our understanding of class?

Themes emerging from my fieldwork with 18-35 year-old tenants in Hackney illuminate the ways that ‘lost’ capital is compensated for through the pooling of resources among private renters and the intimate labour expended in the reproduction of capital. My research has also revealed the ways that this capital reproduction impinges on the everyday social reproduction of those partially or fully excluded from private rental markets.

 

Outline of paper contents:

 

I.              Intimate labour in UK austerity context

II.             Methodology

III.           Theory and Empirics

IV.           Summary of Themes

 

I.              Intimate and Compensatory Labour in UK Austerity Context

 

We can see this unfold empirically in the effects of the UK’s unrelenting housing ‘crisis’, an effect of over a decade of austerity and the privatization of public wealth. The impetus to expend intimate labour to conserve and add value to property assets and markets is inscribed in policy. One example: ‘under-occupancy’ charges for social housing tenants introduced in the 2012 Reform Act force families to share less space or relocate, thereby freeing up social homes for private sale.

Intimate labour is demanded indirectly, too, through the rising costs of living: financial resources are hastily pooled in new romantic partnerships through premature co-habitation in a private rental market that all but incentivises the merging of lives. These types of negotiation are at the foreground of the social reproduction of everyday life, but they are also deeply embedded in the work of ‘compensatory homemaking’ that goes into the reproduction of societal relations. For example, a couple will pool private rental resources only when each person has comparable financial security, whether this is in the form of a salaried income or financial safety nets through inherited wealth or familial support. This is literally encouraged by the deregulation of housing, e.g. through letting agents requiring guarantors. Forming partnerships and friendships with people that are invested in and/or have access to similar trajectories is a common theme. 

The impact that market exclusivity has on ‘millennials’ from poorer backgrounds extends the imperative to perform compensatory labour to other forms of space: urban, virtual, and imagined. As salaried or financially cushioned private tenants configure and consolidate networks of relatedness for ‘house sharing’, young people ‘stuck’ in their family homes turn to other forms of space to meet, nurture ties, escape pressures, and create identities. In this way, millennial ‘homemaking’ that is based around shared resources and shared interests is both a result of the imposition of market capital accumulation and often a preserve of wealthier young renters. For this reason the discourse around ‘renters rights’ is often framed in terms of ‘value-for-money’.

II.            Situating this in Hackney

 Hackney is a ‘super-diverse’ borough in London and is also statistically young. There is a proportionally very high level of social housing in Hackney (44%), but the private rental market is also ‘booming’. House prices have spiraled; the average private renter in the area spends almost 75% of their income on rent, making it the most proportionally expensive place to rent in London.

My fieldwork has shown me that the distinction between private and social renters is needless, given that much of social housing is being privatized. Hackney is full of young people from different backgrounds who grew up in the area but can’t afford to live ‘independently’. Moreover, the frequency with which private sector renters move house makes it easier to increase rents in a given area, further locking social tenants out of markets. This situation is partly a result of assured fixed term tenancies that function in the interest of landlords and increase private rental insecurity.

III.         Theory and Empirics  (5 mins)

My fieldwork as much as my reading has informed the ways I’ve started to see and understand social reproduction as something that rooted in the intimate, affective, and precarious labour of managing and reproducing relationships. With this in mind I will be elaborating on some of my theoretical framework through empirical examples from my research.

Some background on the theoretical foundations that led me to my project: for me, intimacy is rooted in affective rather than physical relatedness. This disentangles essentialising discourses around the ways that families and wider relationships are constituted (Pratt & Rosner, 2012). Intimacy need not be thought of as physical and neither should reproduction. Social reproduction is a useful idea in this capacity because it helps us to deconstruct where life ‘starts’. Deconstructing the association between intimacy and physicality, and the fetishisation of reproduction as genetic paternity, is also a key part of challenging rape culture. This allows us to shift focus to a broader assemblage of activities constituting intimate life.

In order to look at the ways that intimacy is ‘done’ amidst economic insecurity, we have to acknowledge the patriarchal ideologies that are embedded in mainstream economic policy-making. Historically, essentialism has abounded in influential discourses around the ways economies affect family formation e.g. demographic transition theory relies on ethnocentric concepts like age at marriage and reproductive ‘behaviour’ without questioning the universality of categories and subjects. Fusing ‘economic growth’ to declining fertility is ideologically useful for a system premised on blaming the poor for their own poverty. You can see these Malthusian tropes in Tory policy, e.g. benefit sanctions for multiple kids.

I use the notion of ‘precarity’ to identify points of continuity across these scales, from state policy to everyday life. Precarity is a political, economic, and affective phenomenon, so it’s useful for looking at the way the state’s actions transmit across different levels of life. ‘Precarity’ is used in my work as something that is ‘felt’ affectively between and among people, that is imposed through policy, and as a broad theme framing contemporary understandings of generational inequality under UK austerity policies (Berlant, 2007, 2011). In this way, precarity acts as a useful bridge between thinking about social reproduction as labour and thinking about it as the reproduction of social hierarchies.  The idea of social reproduction being in ‘crisis’ can  relate to a crisis in caring labour, but I think it can also relate to a crisis in ‘social mobility’ comprised of economic obstacles to the reproduction of particular relationship models. Examining the way precarity manifests in the subtler moments of the everyday can help with integrating the social reproduction of class into the social reproduction of daily life, and how we impact each other. In short, social reproduction is bound up with intimacy and precarity across scales. Here I’m going to let an example from my fieldwork elaborate:

DT: Insecure Private Renting and Identity

 DT is 30 and lives with her partner and their two-year-old child. DT explained to me the difficulties of sharing so little space with her partner and child:

We all just cram in. We have taken the side off C’s cot – she has never spent a night in it, but, sometimes I sleep diagonal in the cot, with my legs on the bed […] Have you seen the film Away We Go? With Maggie Gyllenhall? Her character is this hippie mum who does extended breastfeeding and her partner is a stay-at-home Dad and they have this family bed. […] which is basically just a whole room that’s a bed and I’m like… actually that’s an amazing idea.

The expense of private renting has required DT to settle for a space that is structurally unsafe and legally insecure. But this is something that is rationalised through her own class imagination. She negotiates precarity through intimate refashioning: the bed a site on which to inscribe her identity and not just sleep. The temporariness of her situation is also something she refers to – how she dreams of something different, partly because change is not completely intangible. She compensates for her lack of stability through reconciling temporariness to her situation.

We talk about what we would do if we had money. Would we get on? Because we have this underdog status. And like, you know we’ve got this shared enemy of the landlords, and the housing market, and if we were able to sort of comfortably be part of that environment, and we were able to afford a nice place, or even just get on the housing ladder, would mean – what would we talk about? What would we complain about? […] Maybe me and B will split up as soon as we leave London. That’d be sad for C.

DT's precarity is part-facilitated by market participation but also because labour has been done to reconcile that specific mode of consumption to her intimate life. In this example, the social reproduction of everyday life is interrupted by precarious materialities, but this precarity in itself becomes a vehicle for the social reproduction of an underdog status that is paradoxically both exploited and relatively class-privileged.

Tithi Bhattacharya’s suggestion that social reproduction be understood in terms of both exploitation and oppression might point to the use of power and capital as interchangeable concepts. The inextricable connections between power and capital are certainly palpable in the context of London’s housing crisis, at the most intimate levels of life; in the closure of domestic violence refuges, not only does the government also act as abusive partner, consigning women to literal murder by their partners, but the power that men have over women is literally given a currency in the form of shelter. But this relationship between power and capital can also operate more subtly: for example, capital might mean an exchangeable commodity in the form of classed knowledge for housing access. As in the example of DT, this type of knowledge might comprise a fetishisation of precarity.

My research has become in many ways a political economy of intimacy and attachment, beginning from an understanding of love as labour, and of labour as a ‘unique commodity’ that can be bought and sold. In this regard, my work views intimacy and relatedness as not simply disrupted by the market relations of contemporary capitalism, but as a vehicle through which capital is exchanged, accumulated, stored, or lost. As SR’s and OP’s narratives show, families and friendships are rich sites of imagination for reconfiguring and compensating for a lack of space, security, and wealth. However, different types of bargaining take place outside of the realm of the private market, where a process of refashioning must be done for basic forms of housing access rather than personal legitimation:

KC: Trading in Feelings, Compensating with Consumer Space

 KC is 24 and lives on a council estate. He ended up living in Hackney as a young teenager because his family was able to do a ‘council house swap’ with another family who wanted to live elsewhere in London. This happens often because families ‘under-occupying’ socially rented homes are forced to find smaller properties.

We did a house swap – we used to live in Finsbury Park, on the Hackney side of it. And it was a two-bedroom maisonette and I was like kind of sharing with my little sister, […] She was always in my face, always in my space. And at 14 we were getting family counselling, and I think that kind of gave weight to our – you know they have like a points system? To exchange houses and things like that […] So like the therapy thing actually worked out to help us. We found this couple that, her mum just died, so they had extra rooms and they needed – they were getting pushed out of the house.

 Within this we see a very clear exchange of intimate hardship for security and space. Private market exclusion rendered his household a tradeable commodity in itself – one that is useful to increasing values and rents in a gentrifying area. KC's ability to trade in feelings – to swap his sibling stress with bereavement – allowed his family to negotiate the space to exist in the area. 

Last night was just weird, it was the first time. The guy, I dunno who he was. I was literally here, reading my papers. This was about midnight. And he was like ‘I’m gonna go upstairs, and when I come back you need to be gone’ […] He was like ‘are you homeless? Do you need somewhere to stay or something? Are you dumb? Get out, you’re a tramp’[…]All my friends still live with their families. My house specifically, cos my parents are so nosy, they’ll like smell weed on us. Or even like, just chilling in my house, it’s not really that freeing, because the walls are so thin, so you can’t really like just speak your minds. It’s like, don’t swear, got to speak in hushed tones, so it’s not a good place to try and relax. It’s the same for my next door neighbours. Yeah the trick is to find a warm place, ideally with sofas. And where you’re not forced to spend eighteen pounds.

 KC compensates for his lack of independent home space by attempting to socialise in public spaces, but is repeatedly obstructed from doing so by the obligation to pay to exist in cafes and restaurants. He later describes how he was asked to stop coming to a café because he ‘only bought coffees’. While his ability to ‘home-make’ is pushed outside of the physical space of his house, its lack of market usage carries stigma. Through this type of exclusion, we see how the market subjects KC’s relationships to a process of valuation, and designates them as more valuable outside of the area he lives in.

JT: State Interventions in Social Reproduction, Compensating through Fiction

They put us in <South London>. They said if we wanted to stay in Hackney they’d have to split us. We didn’t have no friends, nowhere to go, it was just –yep. For us it was like a no-man’s land.  So they said, oh yeah you can still go to school in Hackney, but you’ll have to get driven. So at the time we had to get a taxi, which was awkward because our friends didn’t know so they were like ‘oh why are you coming in in a taxi with this man you don’t know?’ and so for a little while the cab driver had to pose as our dad, because we were just embarrassed, and the school didn’t want too many questions.

In this there is an imperative to perform familial normativity, and to ‘home-make’ while literally in transit between JT’s displacement-home and her actual home and community in Hackney.  This fictional compensation JT makes for her lack of relationship to the taxi driver and the responsibility she feels to maintain a visage of normalcy operates as a labour of legitimation for her continued existence in Hackney.

Themes

 

Market inclusion/market exclusion changes the way we perceive affordability, and what we are compensating for: am I compensating the state and consumers for my existence, or am I compensating for the entitlements I had once envisioned for myself?

Privatization of social housing bars poorer tenants from being considered consumers but makes their living situations more insecure and more policed: if they cannot pay they become the product

Discourse of ‘millennial precarity’ propels the ideologically useful separation of social/private tenant; we need to separate payment from entitlement.

Focusing on intimacy and reproduction of relationships allows us to locate points of continuity and solidarity between seemingly disparate lives; it’s not like market participants don’t feel insecurity, they just get more airtime. 

 

References: 

Berlant, L., 2007. Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta.Public Culture 19:2, 273-301. doi 10.1215/08992363-2006-036

Berlant, L., 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press

Bhattacharya, T., 2017. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press

Pratt, G., Rosner, V., 2013. The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time. New York: Columbia University Press

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There you have it folks. 

Peace!

 

 

 

 

market exclusion: what constitutes a 'private renter'?

my fieldwork has recently led me to question the misleading distinctions that pepper discourse around housing in the UK. tenants renting from 'social landlords' are increasingly dealing with exactly the same unregulated tenancies that private market renters face, with all of the attendant insecurities. for a start, social housing providers are increasingly choosing to introduce fixed-term tenancies over lifetime/assured tenancies. controls around the cost of social renting are also increasingly dubious; councils and housing associations can now charge an 'affordable rent' that is 80% of the market rate - 'market' denoting the maximum that a landlord can reasonably expect to receive, which is understandably formulated in the interest of landlords and not their tenants.

housing associations (HAs) are private organisations that are 'non-profit-making'. in the UK, non-profit-making basically means that these organisations don't have any shareholders, but they have all the other benefits of corporate status. despite their non-profit status, there's a lot of money to be made in HA management. chief execs of HAs can expect to rake in 6 figure salaries basically across the board. Keith Exford, the CEO of Clarion - one of the UK's biggest HAs - earned £376,199 in 2016/2017. a third of HAs awarded their CEOs bonuses in this tax year, too. the average housing officer meanwhile earns £21k. income for HA staff is generated by rents and service charges paid by their tenants. 

i recently presented a discussion of my research at an event in hackney, attended by local renters and other interested people. a member of staff from the housing charity shelter also gave a presentation about the history of land value and property discourse in the UK. in the discussions that followed our presentations, there was some disagreement over what constitutes private and social sector. the presenter from shelter was adamant that the 44% social housing statistic I had given for Hackney was indicative of a wonderfully strong level of housing provision for lower-income residents in the borough. 'gentrification', too, was for him simply something that connoted social housing tenants being pushed out of their local areas by rising rents. my contention is that the lumping-together of all people who cannot afford private *market* rents as 'social tenants' ignores the multiplicity of experiences among them. some of their tenancies effectively function in exactly the same way as a private market renter. the only difference is that they are paying less. in this way, they are plucked out of the discourse around insecure private tenancies, and instead thought of as being catered for by state-regulated bodies.

this is a misleading dichotomy and one that i think also needs to be addressed in grassroots activism around housing justice. there is more common ground between social and private renters than there is distance. making distinctions based on the ability to access private sector markets is class discrimination. hopefully there will be more opportunities in the coming weeks for me to talk to 'social tenants' living in a variety of privately-rented, council-rented, and HA-rented properties, to get a wider picture of these complexities.