Migration and housing are rarely discussed in the same context apart from blaming migrants for taking homes from nationals. Certainly, my master course in migration studies featured very little readings on housing matters and policies. Nevertheless, three months after I graduated with a degree in Migration Studies, I found myself working as an assistant at a registered provider of social housing in southwest England. Not an obvious career step to make. At first glance, migration and social housing have very little in common; indeed, only a few of our customers are migrants. Yet in the past few months I have learned that there are many overlaps between the two.
Housing, like migration, is going through a crisis. There is a severe lack of houses. Both the sector and the government agree that hundreds of thousands need to be built urgently. In the words of Theresa May, people need to be able to get on the property ladder and realise their aspirations to become homeowners. What is somewhat missing from the debate is a critical voice: why should all people be homeowners? Why renting is not considered a legitimate option? Does the country really need more houses, or could distribution of properties be the real issue?
This points out to the larger trend of zooming in on social issues and trying to solve them out of their context. The problem goes beyond failing to see renting as a valid alternative to homeownership. What is happening in housing suggests a deliberate political unwillingness to change the status quo and, instead, a tendency to defend one’s own interests by thwarting efforts to solve societal problems.
Politicians’ failure to act may cause severe harm and disrupt lives, as illustrated by a recent case in Kent. There, seven hundred private renters were evicted because their landlord had decided to get rid of his portfolio and retire. When interviewed, the tenants complained about the precarity of renting and how difficult it was to move on the two-month notice granted by UK law.
‘It’s stressful. You start putting your roots down, in the garden for example, and you are gone.’
The government is aware of the lack of protection of private renters but so far has not done anything to tackle it. As The Guardian highlights, the ministry of housing shelved its three-year protection proposal after landlords protested against it. This is no coincidence. Many MPs and nearly all leading government members are landlords. They have few incentives to introduce greater assurances for tenants who by themselves have very little power to force the government’s hand. Instead of admitting their interests, those in power prefer to find scapegoats and blame them for precarity and privation. They point to migrants and say: ‘It’s their fault, they are the dangerous outsiders!’.
Nonetheless, the experience of migration is not applicable only to a few people selected and labelled as migrants. UK nationals living in the UK are not traditionally seen as forced migrants, yet, as the Kent case highlights, they are forced to move when evicted. Granted, the consequences for evicted tenants are different than for Afghan refugees, but, in essence, this is one story of having one’s roots cut. Instead of buying into narratives of exclusion when their problems are not ours, we need to realise that social issues are human issues. Boxing them under separate categories makes for a poorer analysis and, ultimately, misguided solutions. However, if we acknowledge our common experience, the places of hurt and want may become a basis for connections, creating a network of solidarity. Just like searching for a home, (im)mobility is a human story, a universal condition.
I believe that in the UK right now, we need a more holistic perspective on migration, housing, and other social phenomena. In the mayhem of Brexit, the way forward is not to offer easy answers, like blaming migrants for the rise of populism, but to go deeper and search for causes beyond established boxes. When examining the support for Brexit, observers should link it to the massive cuts that many local authorities, especially in northern England, have faced in the past decade. When discussing the housing shortage, activists and decision-makers should bear in mind the interests of MPs who are also private landlords and challenge their power. Likewise, they should demand greater use of unoccupied properties.
Both migration and housing, as well as many other areas, show that too much zooming in and dissecting issues under a microscope contributes to producing crises which are seemingly impossible to solve. This is sometimes done deliberately to cover the interests and actions of powerful groups. In reality, social phenomena, like the need for a home or the challenges faced when navigating (im)mobilities, are deeply interwoven. That is why, ultimately, the way forward from our crises will be a journey of questioning accepted boundaries and looking beyond established horizons.
Markéta grew up in a small town in the Czech Republic. Her time in academia started at Charles University in Prague with a degree in International Area Studies, she also spent one year in Leeds as an Erasmus exchange student. In July, she graduated from the University of Oxford with an MSc in Migration Studies. She is currently working at a non-profit in Somerset. Apart from volunteering and reading on (post)secularism, she spends her free time looking for J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpieces she has not yet read.