It is a rainy Saturday afternoon and I am listening to the radio.
It is a panel show. The guests are talking about housing. A matinee performance of well-rehearsed roles. We need more housing; we have land; the State must build it and fast. You should have done it already. You were once in Government.
Then, Orla Muldoon, a Professor of Psychology in Limerick calmly suggests, more or less, that we need to be sure, that whatever we do, we build the housing people want.
She quietly repeats this in some form. Hers is almost the last comment and as such it both fades into oblivion and remains rather undiscussed, but it is a gripping, unexpected, cliffhanger.
The housing people want.
I wake up on Sunday morning to complete this text. I am thinking about this statement, made by someone with much expertise in understanding people, their desires, motivations, and behaviours. I believe her. I trust from instinct and experience that she is correct, and I know that what people want comes, in part, from what people know.
Over the last number of years, I have sat down in living rooms and kitchens across Ireland for an ongoing research project. As part of this, I have asked people about their homes and the social, spatial and material buildings that frame their home-life; more about the home they havethan the one they want, although the latter, of course, comes up.
Most recently, I did this together with Aisling McCoy, a photographer, and architect, as part of a public art-architecture project, Home on the Grange. Aisling documented the homes as we encountered them with her camera, I listened, and later tried to capture what was discussed using words.
During these visits, two commonly held, binary positions on the realities of domestic life in Ireland were undermined by people’s, narrated lived experience and their undeniable, local authority.
It appears that people who live in the same housing are not all the same “kinds” of people. Nor should we ever assume they are. It really is not possible to put your finger on a group who live in public housing or in a private, leafy estate and say, yes, that is both who and what they are because they live in this or that form of housing. It might be convenient to do so – if communities can be considered concrete, perhaps we can more easily pour their lives into housing and, the market, the media, they enjoy this clarity.
It was also evident in people’s stories that while there has been a rise in some kinds of individualism, it is not absolute that we are now so individual that we do not care about each other, our neighbours, our local environment, or are, generally, disinclined to participate in what is going on around us. People seem to do what they can, when they can, with as many people as they can, when they feel able to participate.
Of course, when discussing everyday life, people can stand on one side or the other, declaring annoyance at a neighbor or an entire local group, railing against specific changes in the world they see from their window; but people do not talk about their own home in these absolute terms, all of the time. Rather they live in the messy grey middle-ground, a ground that is very much underpinned by their current, past and future notions and experiences of home.
For the most part, people I have met, admitted that their home is the place from which they both step in to and out of the world; this view seemed consistent, regardless of how individuals have secured the rooms they occupy or how they believe houses or apartments should be provided for others, i.e by the state or the market.
What you find, when you listen, is that the individual experience of home is certainly framed by the physical and material form around it – be it an apartment, a house or just one room – but a homes’ existence is sustained by the people within it and who move through it, those who visit.
The life of a home is also nourished by the physical objects of family and memory that act as a kind of supporting cast in our everyday domestic dramas; a home is enriched, not always undermined, by the different views found in the human relationships we make in the outside world; a home is the place, from which, amid noise, and confusion and mess, emerges our best and confident selves, to go forth, to set out, to head back, to lie low.
When asked, “why do you want a home?” or “what does a home mean to you?”, people tended to focus less on the object of the house, or apartment itself but on the opportunity having, a home provides for them or for their family.
But we rarely give air time to a discussion about opportunity. We fail to remember that an opportunity to participate is fundamental to the assembly and the social sustainability of our communities.
Our housing crisis might be more accurately framed as not only one of physical access to, and the economic affordability of, housing but a crisis borne of citizens simply not being afforded their rightful opportunities to make home. And, it may not be the lack of provision of physical housing but the failure to secure the opportunity for all citizens to make home that is, arguably, our greatest political failure.
Perhaps the local, domestic authority of those citizens already making home is a significant, untapped, political asset. If this is the case, it may be no longer good enough to meet people and report their views on and from the doorsteps. It’s what’s inside that counts.