Renting vs. buying, Sofia-style

Bulgarian anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev has some interesting articles up at Eurozine. He’s good on migrant workers; he’s downright brilliant when justifying my prejudices against home ownership.

As in the rest of the country, nine out of ten people in Sofia own the home they live in (unlike in the former GDR, for example, home ownership in Bulgaria was as high during communism as it is today). A similar proportion consider it self-evident to keep the same flat for life and see their children inherit it; to sell property is considered somehow to be an evil.

The real-estate market, abolished under communism in 1948, has been slow to come into motion. People find excuses not to sell: they waited for prices to go up first with Nato accession (2004), then with EU accession (2007). Well, prices did go up, but there was no property boom. Typically, elderly persons would live in extreme poverty, turning off the central heating in all but the bedroom, and obstinately refusing to sell their bigger flat and buy a smaller one.

This means that even after 15 years of “transition”, the spatial expression of new social inequalities has been slow to take shape. In the same block of flats, one finds growing differences in income, culture, and expectations; rarely is it possible to convince all owners to pay for the re-plastering of the fa├žade (making much of the city look as if it had been subject to air raids). From the outside, it is possible to single out the rich owner who has covered his floor with a strip of brand-new stucco; it is said that burglars identify their targets according to the estimated price of the window frames.

The British and American faith in home ownership as a free-market idol confuses me. In personal terms, investing 300% of your wealth in one asset seems like dubious personal finance. In market terms, apartment blocks are like enclosures: more efficient than strip farming, and they free the serfs to seek their fortune in another city.
Seems to me, Britain isn’t far from Bulgaria on this. Some of the reasons for owning homes are exactly comparable: faith in ever-rising prices, and the desire to pass on a family home through the generations, despite the low likelihood of your children wanting to live in the same place.
Most of our other reasons are historical, cultural and social, conservative rather than pro-market. Renting meant government ownership, hence unresponsive management. It also often meant blocks of flats, hence New Brutalist concrete, product of cheap postwar reconstruction and a bone-headed architectural fad. Thatcher’s sale of council homes was a way to turn the richer workers into loyal Conservative voters. Pillaging public assets to subsidise this, she made buying into a genuinely good deal for anybody rich enough to afford it. Since then, we’ve convinced ourselves that house prices always rise, so anybody who rents is either a fool, or too poor to get rich. Plus, there’s that unpleasant “Englishman’s home is his castle” thing.
Despite this, we talk about home ownership primarily in economic terms. Why?

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