Monday, 8 November 2010

Do the poor have a right to live in expensive areas?

Yes. That’s the catchy headline of a discussion piece on the BBC News website ( that caught my eye yesterday. “The row over housing benefit has led to warnings of ‘social cleansing’,” it begins. “But can those on low incomes really have an entitlement to stay in expensive localities?”

Enter Shaun Bailey – a youth worker (curiously), and the unsuccessful Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith: "You can talk about your right to live in the community where you grew up, but where do you get the right to spend other people's money? I'd love to live in Buckingham Palace but I can't afford it," he adds. "The flipside of having a right to stay somewhere is that people aren't prepared to move around. The middle class have always been prepared to go all over the country to find work."

And then there’s Lynsey Hanley, author of ‘Estates: An Intimate History’, which ain’t half bad as books go, chronicling, as the article puts it, “the ghettoisation, social breakdown and increased pressure on services that resulted from moving the working class to peripheral housing schemes… Gentrification,” she argues, “has caused many low-income households to suffer pricing them out of communities that they once called their own.”

But look closely at her contra-argument to Bailey’s… “[Hanley] argues the poor have every right to live in wealthy areas - because the wealthy rely on them more than they admit: ‘We need these people to do many of the minimum-wage jobs on which we depend - cleaning, catering, retail and so on… If you take away housing benefit and shift them out, this country's high transport costs mean they'll have no incentive to come into our cities to work. What I'd say to David Cameron is: come back to me when the minimum wage is £12 an hour.’"

My first reaction was to cheer Hanley’s last sentence. And then the cheer got stuck in my throat. It was the “we need these people” that did it. But let’s first wind back a bit, to the premise of the article in Bailey’s comments…

1. ‘Rights’ and the housing market

‘Do the poor have a right to live in expensive areas?’ the article asks. But why should ‘place’, let alone ‘home’, be defined first and foremost by the capricious and pernicious whims of the housing market? Why should the fact that ‘the market’ has sent house prices through the roof in a particular area mean that people who have called that place ‘home’ no longer have a right to do so?

When Article 17 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property”, did it imagine an exception clause to allow for ‘the housing market’? Or perhaps those who rent have no such rights?

2. Mobility vs. Stability

For Bailey, though, there is also a societal duty to remember: we should “[be] prepared to go all over the country to find work”, apparently. And work that can pay for, not the house you might want to call ‘home’, but simply the house you can afford, presumably (I don’t think the circular logic’s mine, here).

But more than that, it seems that being prepared to move to ‘find work’ (read: being a productive cog in the economic machine) trumps any value there might be in “staying somewhere” – like, rootedness in identity, stability in relationships, trust between neighbours, any kind of depth to a sense of community, commitment to a particular piece of earth, for example. All things that should be in the bloodstream of Christians, for whom the Benedictine vow of ‘stability’ – the commitment to finding God among these unlikely people in this unpromising place – sums up much of the incarnational gospel.

3. “We need these people”

But lastly, back to Lynsey Hanley’s throat-sticking phrase. “We” – the middle-classes, obviously. “These people” – that section of society whose purpose in life, apparently, is to do the minimum-wage jobs on which “we” depend. So we need them living close by, says Hanley, or they won’t bother coming to sell us sandwiches and suits and clean our offices.

I’m not going to labour (sic) here over the whole system of assumptions that assigns ridiculously different ‘wage values’ to different forms of work, although that surely needs questioning more than ever, in the world of sky-high salaries for footballers and (even failed) bankers.

What I want to pull apart here is the assumption that some people (“these people”) should be defined – in both their ‘purpose’ and their capacity to call some place ‘home’ – solely in terms of the ‘needs’ of some other people (Hanley’s “we”) – while the latter group apparently get away with defining their own ‘purpose’ and place called ‘home’.

I want to say to Lynsey Hanley: “these people” are not means to my middle-class ends, they are my next-door neighbours, they are my co-workers in our neighbourhood, they are among my friends. “Their” purpose, just as mine, is to grow into our identities as beloved children of God, who has chosen to move into our neighbourhood and call it ‘home’. And our homes (the places where we learn to ‘dwell in love’) and our neighbourhoods (our schools for loving others) must always trump the so-called ‘needs’ and whims of ‘the market’.

So I’ll concede this to Hanley: “we” middle-class professionals might “need these people” – but not as a definition of their identity, but of ours – “we” need “them”, because they are the neighbours that we need to learn to love. While they remain strangers, and not friends, we are failing to love. And while they remain at a distance, rather than next-door or around the corner, our opportunities to learn to love them are pretty slim.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (recently author of The Wisdom of Stability, among other things) suggests that Hanley’s “we”, the world’s rich, should get serious about “loving our enemies”, the poor. It’s shocking, at first listen. But let’s get real about this. What do you call people you do your best to avoid and distance yourself from? What do you call people you don’t look on as equals? What do you call people you implicitly blame for any misfortunes you perceive yourself to suffer? What do you call people you talk about ‘getting tough on’, or ‘cracking down on’? What do you call people you see as competition for scarce resources that you would rather have to yourself?

“Love your neighbour” is in danger of fitting in all-too-cosily with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric – at least while the middle-classes sit comfortably with a narrow view of their neighbours as the nice family who live in the equally-nice house next-door.

“Love your enemy” is much more dangerous. It dares to highlight the relationships we would rather ignore, or define in distanced, economic terms – rather than in real, mutually vulnerable, face-to-face encounter. The relationships where power is seriously unequal, where mutual suspicion reigns. ‘Love’ here becomes anything but cosy and comfortable. It cries out for a courage that overcomes distance, a humility that re-balances power, a vulnerability that seeks to nurture reconciliation and mutual trust.

The good news of the gospel is that it is just possible for enemies to become friends. The one who made his home among the poorest invites us all into a kingdom – a common wealth – where, beyond anxiety, we discover there is more than enough for all, and where we can delight in making our homes together, enjoying the company of a glorious array of strange and wonderful, God-created neighbours. The invitation is also a challenge to us all: if we dare, we can choose to move in right now.


  1. Dear Revd Barrett,

    Lynsey Hanley here - just to let you know that the phrase "We need these people" jarred with me too - my quotes were quite seriously paraphrased in that interview and ended up giving the impression that I think it's some people's role in life to do other people's menial work. I absolutely do not, and have let the BBC know that I wasn't happy with it. Thanks.

  2. Hi Lynsey,
    Many thanks for responding - and I'm delighted to hear that it was more media spin than what you actually said/meant. Sorry if I've done you a dis-service here, but thanks for putting the record straight.