Everything Wrong with Rent - Wrested from the Uncanniness of the Universe

4 November 2020

This is part 4 of a series on rent.

So far we’ve discussed how home rental is an asymmetrical relationship between landlord and tenant, which exploits the latter for the former’s enrichment. That’s not the only drawback though. Here we’ll look at why home ownership is what we should be aiming for, even aside from financial considerations.

What is a home?

A home is not just a place to sleep and sit, with a roof to block out the sun and rain. It is the one tiny point in the vast world that we can call our own and where we can live by our own rules. As Martin Buber puts it in A Believing Humanism:

These days I read in the newspaper that the Prime Minister of Burma has promised his people a welfare state in which each citizen shall have his own house. This sort of statement rings in our ears like a romantic utopia, hence like a utopia which lacks the most precious quality of a utopia: to be unromantic. But it is not so romantic and also not so utopian as it sounds; for it is bound up with one of those primal demands of the human heart which at any moment, overnight, will break through to actualization and become self evident. Man not only must have a dwelling, he also wants it. And he wants to dwell in a house. But in the imperishable primal language of the human heart house means my house, your house, a man’s own house. The house is the winning throw of the dice which man has wrested from the uncanniness of universe; it is his defense against the chaos that threatens to invade him. Therefore his deeper wish is that it be his own house, that he not have to share with anyone other than his own family.

A home fulfills so many roles. It is a refuge from the outside world where we can feel comfortable and safe. It grounds us when life is chaotic. It is one thing that can remain constant over the years, though jobs, friends, and routines of all sorts may change.

It gives us quiet and privacy when we wish, to the degree we wish. But it is also a place to open up and receive others, to entertain; a stage for our hospitality.

We may work from home, plant a garden, and grow our own food there if we have the space. It is also a place to play, cook, do crafts, and make music.

A home both stores and displays our belongings. It absorbs our character over time and grants an impression of our history and our tastes to any who visit. Over the years we alter and shape it more and more to fit our needs and habits, likes and dislikes, and it becomes in a way an extension of ourselves.

A home is a place of warmth and many memories. As I write this, I think fondly of my grandparents’ house, with its many old clocks always ticking away, different colors in each room, unusual furniture, the owl sculpture on the porch, the birdbath and bird feeders in the backyard, the garden my grandmother always filled with flowers until she was too old to manage it, the cobblestones my grandfather had placed to line the driveway. And I think of the times spent there as a child, holidays there with family, and how I later drove there to visit as an adult, and how my parents themselves were wed there (before I was born, but I’ve seen photos). When my grandmother moved to a senior development later in life to be nearer to my parents, she arranged her new home beautifully, but it was missing the memories and authenticity that build up over a lifetime.

Shaping our homes to fit us

Our homes may never reach perfection perfect (nothing does), but over time they can become more and more closely suited to the people who live in them. In our own home, we might knock down a wall to open up a kitchen. Or we might put one up, so as to get some peace from screaming children or a nagging spouse. A friend of mine who is rather tall found that kitchen countertops in most homes were too low for him. When he bought his own home, he had counters installed that he didn’t have to hunch over to use. We can install custom bookshelves, flooring, window treatments. Windows might be added, blocked up, or changed for a different type. We can pamper ourselves with French doors, stained glass, pet doors, beautiful tilework. We may combine rooms, build extensions, add or remove a fireplace, build a balcony or enclose an existing one.

Outside, we might add a railing to the stairs, repave a driveway, remodel a porch or patio, plant a garden or some fruit trees.

Half shutter on home in Mdina, Malta Door handles in Mdina, Malta

Above are two pictures I took in Mdina, the old capital of Malta. On the left are half-height shutters on a ground-floor window. It’s simple, elegant way to get some privacy without blocking out all the light. One the right are two beautiful fish-shaped door handles. The ways we can personalize our homes is as varied as we are.

But good luck doing any of these things in a rental. Even on the off chance that they are not expressly forbidden, since you know your time there is limited (or could be limited, since the landlord can choose not to let you renew), anything more than a light paint job is generally not worth the effort and cost. If you do make any changes, you may have to reverse them before you leave. And if your improvements do remain intact, their value will accrue to the owner, not you. He’ll actually be justified in raising the rent next time around, now that he’s putting a better property on the market.

Those who own their home benefit from security and stability, and have the possibility of working on and personalizing it over time, until it is something they can take not only comfort but pride in. Those who rent their home cannot. The relationship between person and home there is distorted, the potential impeded, efforts perverted for another’s benefit. Security is exchanged for insecurity, personalization for anonymity, pride for helplessness. In the next post we’ll look at the further effects of this derangement.

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