Since the Brexit referendum to leave the European Union, my home in South London has lost value. So why am I happier than if it had gained?
They say that buying a house is one of the most stressful things you can do in life. In London, in the week that Britain voted to leave the European Union, an aphorism had seldom rung so true.
My partner and I had been renting for 15 years by the time the stars aligned for us to buy a place of our own, in the last days of June 2016. When the Brexit referendum vote dropped, shaking the British economy to its foundations, we hesitated. The London housing market, long buttressed by the globalizing forces that a majority of the country had just rejected, felt on the precipice of a reckoning. But, after a couple of days’ reflection, as it became clear that no one—least of all its architects—had the faintest idea how this Brexit thing would play out, we decided to trust to fate and press ahead.
The house we bought that summer was a slim terrace in an area called West Norwood, on the southern rim of Lambeth borough, a half-hour bus ride south of the River Thames. Built in the 1970s as a council house—a form of public housing—it was later sold into private ownership, like much of London’s social housing stock, as part of Margaret Thatcher’s “Right-to-Buy” policy. By the time we moved in, paint flaked from the walls and windowsills. There is dimpled artex on the low ceilings, and twee diamonds of fake lead in the cheap double-glazing.
Nonetheless, it works for us. I love the narrow garden, with its scraggy lawn and southern aspect, and the limbs of a colossal eucalyptus arching over from next-door. But I also love it because, for the time being at least, it exists in an oasis of community stasis. In this, surprisingly, we are accidental beneficiaries of the divisive vote that upended British politics and society three-and-a-half years ago.
When I suggest that I’ve found an unexpected silver lining in the U.K.’s Brexit fiasco, people often start looking over my shoulder for an exit of their own. London’s outer suburbs may share some of the cultural resentments of the Conservative heartlands that surround the capital, but neighborhoods like mine are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit. My borough registered the highest “remain” vote of anywhere in the country. In these parts, any apologia for Britain’s departure from the European Union is liable to make your interlocutor pall.
But raising the notion that Brexit had at least one local upside is not my preface to a golf-bore’s disquisition about the invigorating prospect of commemorative Brexit Day coins. Instead, it’s about the inscrutable currents of globalization, and the emotional incentives that have sustained support for Brexit even as its material benefits remain hard to divine. In my case, they can be captured in a single paradoxical contention: Since the referendum, my house has lost value, yet I am happier than if it had gained.
This statement requires some unpacking. After all, it contradicts one of contemporary Britain’s foundational myths—that the property ladder is a mechanism for self-betterment. In the decades since Thatcher announced her vision of Britain as a “property-owning democracy” in her maiden speech as the Conservative Party leader in 1975, the idea of real estate as the ultimate signifier of dignity, and the supreme engine of social mobility, has become axiomatic on these islands. This has been encouraged by subsequent governments, not just because a nation of indebted mortgagees oils the wheels of the banking sector, but because the mythos compensates for (and obfuscates) the frailties of an economy predicated on low wages and spiraling levels of wealth inequality. But in London, more so than elsewhere, this fetishization has exacted a price.
It’s no secret that, in recent decades, a collapse of social housing stock and a deluge of super-prime foreign investment has supercharged home price growth in London far beyond rates of inflation. This has long been the London route to easy prosperity. But it is an atomizing model, one that commodifies each neighborhood according to its bourgeois desirability, and pits individual financial interest against the broader public good. For renters and social housing tenants, it has meant rent hikes, displacement, and evictions. But for homeowners in gentrifying areas, it has meant winning a lottery. Property in Dulwich, an area of south London not far from where I live, gained in value by 1,150 percent between 1995 and 2017, more than anywhere else in the country.
Since Brexit, however, as overseas investors have grown leery of London property, house prices in my area have flat-lined or fallen.
What the figures don’t tell you is that London’s real estate boom also precipitated a relentless demographic churn that eroded existing communities, and left people across the city living under a miasma of dislocation.
When it comes to these more universal and emotional metrics, the last few years of circumspection and financial stagnation have yielded subtle gains. In neighborhoods like mine, the disorienting social volatility has dissipated. The notion that property is just a unit of investment, and a stepping-stone to a bigger house, has faded with it. Instead, the months after Brexit have forced Londoners to walk out of their houses, blinking into the sun, to look around. Some of us have even talked to our neighbors. The city’s cosmopolitans, liberated from the cold gospel of market maximalization, are learning what it is to put down roots.
The local manifestations of this community equipoise are amorphous and difficult to quantify. But you can see it in the project to transform a triangle of wasteland into a community garden, in the absence of estate agents’ placards on my road, and in the new playground in the estate quadrangle around the corner, the result of neighborhood lobbying. And I feel it in my own sense of ease—in the daily reassurance of stepping out of my door, nodding to the taxi driver who scrubs his minivan for three hours each day, sharing local gossip with my neighbor as she comes back from the supermarket night shift. I don’t worry about when this scene might fracture or homogenize.
Fragile and temporary as it may be, this stasis has stymied the sense of loss that accompanies rapid social change, and it has betrayed this city’s idolatry. It is a reminder that the things that capitalist society promises will make us happy—like a bigger house, or proximity to the latest cultural trends—don’t cut it. That such counterintuitive considerations are seldom invoked in public discourse over housing affordability and gentrification only demonstrates the extent to which free-market orthodoxy holds us in thrall.
It took me a while to find this small solace lurking in the box of polystyrene that is Brexit. I don’t want to pretend that this is anything more than a microscopic boon in a bleak macro-picture. Even as it calcifies into law, Brexit remains an object of utter perplexity for the majority of those who oppose it. Walking around these becalmed streets now is not enough to persuade me that Britain’s withdrawal from Europe is anything other than a long con perpetrated by political opportunists for whom any cross-societal benefits are largely accidental.
Still, as our departure from the Union becomes a fait accompli, and in the wake of their rout in December’s General Election, Britain’s London-centric progressive coalition must take its lessons where it can. Because if even here, in one of globalization’s great palisades, we share the intuitive Rousseauvian sense that what our leaders call “growth” and “progress” has been inimical to aspects of our well-being, perhaps the national rancor doesn’t cut quite as deep as we suppose.
In the northern towns of the fabled “Red Wall”—former Labour Party strongholds, many of which turned to the Conservatives last month—the Brexit malaise might manifest in abandoned industries or shuttered high streets. Here in London, it is more likely to be evinced in the cultural desertification of the luxury flats still erupting along the Thames. Yet the origin of this dislocation is similar. This sense—that even as the technocrats’ charts turned upwards, we were hemorrhaging something supremely precious and yet almost inarticulable—is one of the country’s few notes of accord.
One Thursday night in December, at 1:30 a.m., a series of explosions detonated above a house down the road, and I woke to see phosphorescent flashes leaking out from behind the bedroom curtains. This was several weeks after Bonfire Night, when British people traditionally set off fireworks to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament (an annual reminder that our present ferment is nothing new). But someone had held some pyrotechnics back: On it went for a good five minutes, as the windows across the road filled with bleary faces changing color in the neon light.
The next morning, on the school run, some parents were indignant about the surreal nocturnal interruption. Others thought it was a benediction. But everyone was united in sheer wonder that someone somewhere thought it was an acceptable thing to do. And in those moments, in which the multiplicity and unpredictability that keeps us in this flailing city seemed temporarily replenished, I sensed something more valuable than any loft conversion or new Tube station: a sense of home.