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Kieran Yates
Vicky Grout

Kieran Yates: ‘We should be critical of the dreams that are sold to us’

The journalist discusses the housing crisis and the importance of community ahead of the release of her debut book, All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In

Part memoir, part manifesto, All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In delves into the difficult realities of navigating a dysfunctional housing system. Drawing on her experiences of living in 20 different houses by the age of 25, journalist Kieran Yates reveals how her personal journey taught her about the wider housing crisis that the UK is facing. 

From nostalgic tales of living in immigrant households which offer shelter in a hostile environment, to recalling her teenage years living in a car showroom in Wales, to the colonial history of our houseplants, Yates takes the reader on a journey into our homes in all their forms.

In her debut book, Yates explores not just the structures of our homes, but the significance of the things that fill them, and challenges the dreams that have been sold to us about home ownership. We spoke to Yates ahead of the book’s release about the housing crisis outside of London, the struggle for housing security, and the importance of community.

You’ve lived in a number of homes and places across the country, spending some of your childhood living above a car showroom in Wales. Do you feel the current conversations around the housing crisis focus too much on London?

Kieran Yates: London has a large population plus a huge disparity of wealth and access to open space, so I can see how it is easily used as a framework to think about these things. But this is a conversation that is national – even global. I’m somebody who understands that because I’ve lived in lots of different places around the UK outside of the cities. There’s no way that you can talk about gentrification in our cities – whether that’s Manchester or Birmingham or London – without talking about rural gentrification too, and thinking about the impact of second homes or Airbnbs on smaller local economies.

 “There’s no way that you can talk about gentrification in our cities [...] without talking about rural gentrification too, and thinking about the impact of second homes or Airbnbs on smaller local economies

In the book you touch upon how housing ownership has become an unattainable dream for most. Do you think we should put effort towards making it a possible reality, or invest in alternative modes of housing and living?

Kieran Yates: I think that we should be critical of the dreams that are sold to us. I think we are certainly a generation who’ve grown up wanting to own, but it has been sold to us increasingly – certainly over the last decade – as such a luxury that it makes it harder to advocate for housing for all because we see it as a prize to be won. When you see [home ownership] as something that the individual has worked really hard to achieve, it’s really hard to then be like ‘all of us have a right to this!’. The stories of ownership are either yoked in hard work, or they’re yoked in these exceptional circumstances.

What successive governments have done over the last 50 years is make it their business for us to see ourselves as separate interest groups. Middle class homeowners and working class people, usually in social housing, see themselves as separate interest groups, for example. But homeowners need to see themselves as part of this crisis. It is their responsibility to advocate for better housing for everybody, to say, ‘I’m going to join a tenants’ union, I want to advocate for long-term, private rented accommodation for everybody to be affordable and to be good quality, I want to advocate for a rent cap’. And to say that ‘now I have gained a semblance of stability, I want that for everybody’. It’s not about, you know, inhabiting your castles and raising the drawbridge. It’s about saying ‘okay, I’ve got some of this, how do I make that accessible to everybody?’.

From @newbuildhate on Twitter to the slander that Live Laugh Love signs get, why is our taste in decor and the appearance of the homes we live in so heavily policed?

Kieran Yates: There’s so much elitism about taste in this country. For example, my mum lives on an estate just outside London. She and her friends go to the same B&M sales, they look a certain way, and it’s beautiful. But we know that working class taste is always seen as tacky. And if you can’t be trusted to make the right aesthetic decisions, why should you be trusted to make the right political decisions about your own life? Historically, that’s the messaging from the upper class to the working class in this country. So it’s easy for every cultural production from working class people and marginalised people to be criticised and to be just ‘wrong’. So many of these ties us back to a very specific kind of colonial history in this country, which is if you don’t adhere or you don’t bend to the rules of a very narrow British experience, then you’re othered and you’re doing it wrong. Hopefully, maybe what we’re going to see next in this kind of maximalist moment is a shedding of those rules.

You talk about how the home can become a space of fear and insecurity for those who are impacted by citizenship issues, and how marginalised communities build solidarity networks to resist this. What examples of resistance do you find inspiring?

Kieran Yates: My family is from India, they’re from Punjab. They came to this country in the 60s, and there was a period of housing activism that existed in the 1970s of Bengali housing initiatives and housing activist groups, Black thinkers and intellectuals like Olive Morris, and the Squatters Handbook which thought of squatting a site of collective thinking and collective homemaking. That really taught me a lot about how we’ve always organised. The Black Parents Network taught me a lot about how these movements, which were springboarded by Black mothers, said ‘it’s important for our children to be safe and secure, so we’re going to the school gates because the school have to be part of this conversation too’. And when our children leave the school gates, we will still have a duty of care for each other. That was really inspiring to me.

Also, a lot of South Asian groups did in the 1970s set up mortgage committees, which then became part of Caribbean and predominantly West African groups too. Members of the community would pay into a little pot to build up a downpayment on a home, if ownership was the goal. But these little mortgage committee pots were also used for things like translation services and transport and various other things. There are these models in which marginalised groups who had such precarious housing because of racist housing policy and racist initiatives were really able to build something for themselves.

I explored the archives a lot looking at these stories, but this is always happening: when I was writing about bailiff resistance, I read about what is happening now with Migrants Organise and groups who are resisting bailiffs and resisting the Home Office. So at every corner of the crisis that I talk about, there is some kind of resistance, and this has been a persistent historical undercurrent. What I learned is that policy is not the place to solve our problems, and actually, it’s those community networks and grassroots resistances which are going to save us. 

All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In is published by Simon & Schuster on April 27.