Professor Ruth Chang: Home is where your house is

Professor Ruth Chang

Professor Ruth Chang is chair and professor of jurisprudence at the University of Oxford and a professorial fellow at University College, Oxford. Professor Chang will speak at this year’s Scottish Homelessness Conference this Thursday 7 October, day three of the event, about choice and commitment in housing policy.

George Bernard Shaw said: “Life isn’t about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself.” This ability to create ourselves is what makes us distinctively human. Having a home, a place where one can live, laugh, and learn, is a sine qua non of the possibility of self-creation. You may make yourself into a loving parent who spends her days helping those in need, while I may make myself into someone who tries to nurture the next generation of thinkers grappling with foundational questions about the human condition. We make ourselves who we are from the spaces of safety and security that we call ‘home’. Without a home to call our own, the spark of self-creation inside each of us is smothered by precarity and fear.

Our governments and social institutions don’t have an obligation to provide each of us with a home in this deep sense. They couldn’t because homes are made by us, not for us. But we cannot make homes without houses, safe places where we can shelter and separate ourselves from the rest of humanity. Home is where your house is. And it is here that the work of organisations focusing on housing those in need is profoundly vital.

The work that you do is not easy. You may find yourself overwhelmed by the complexity of factors and the uncertainty of outcomes that accompany every decision you face. You must juggle the preferences of users for a certain type of accommodation and location against the scarcity of supply and risk of harm to users and their neighbours, all while navigating rigid, byzantine governmental systems seemingly designed to thwart your aims and good intentions. In such hard choices, the factors that determine what you should choose fail to come together to favour one path over the others. And so how can you make wise decisions when mired in such complexity and uncertainty?

Social science offers one answer. Many economists, business managers and policy wonks maintain that hard choices about housing, health, and employment – the basics of human existence – can be made simple by applying a numerical formula or algorithm to the problem. Assign numbers to each of the factors in choice and add up how well each alternative fares on each factor; the option with the highest score wins. This numerical approach to decision-making has a long history and is now established in many government agencies as unquestioned orthodoxy.

But the social-scientific model is deeply problematic. For one thing, it assumes that what is at stake in hard choices can always be numerically represented. Can you really assign a numerical value to the safety and security that housing provides? What about the value of dignity and the capacity to make oneself into one kind of person rather than another? For another thing, it fails to respect the nature of hard choices; hard choices are ones in which the relevant factors don’t come together to determine a single, right thing to do. Adding up numerical representations of the competing interests at stake presumes otherwise. So, the social scientific model crams a messy reality into a neat mathematical box, thereby distorting how things are on the ground.

We must instead recognize that sometimes in life, we are faced with choices in which there is no right answer. In such hard decisions, our reasons to choose one path over another run out. This does not mean that we can’t make a wise choice; it only means that the world has left what to do up to us. So we should commit. And make reasons for yourself. In the hard decisions we make, there is no right answer. Instead, there is only what we can commit to doing.

If you must weigh the less-than-desirable type and location of housing against the imminent availability for the user, how do you assign weights to the factors? Housing decisions are not mathematical problems, but distinctively human ones. Sometimes weighing factors will be easy; if the type and location is close to perfect but not quite and the lead time to desired housing is otherwise decades away, one should probably just go with the close-to-perfect option. But rarely are choices easy in this way. Instead, the choice is often between immediate availability of less desirable housing in a location that appears somewhat sketchy, on the one hand, and a long and uncertain wait for only some probability of success in meeting user desires, on the other.

In such hard choices, the reasons to choose one option over the other have run out, and all you can do is to make new reasons for yourself by committing – really committing – to one option over the other. By committing to one option over another, you make yourself into the kind of person who has more reason to pursue that option. Someone else may commit differently. In this way, hard choices are themselves opportunities for self-creation.

Scotland’s annual conference looking in detail at the causes of and solutions to homelessness takes place from 5 – 7 October, presented by Homeless Network Scotland. This year’s theme is choice, covering topics from the housing we want to live in, to the area we want to settle and the support we want to tap into as Covid continues to have an impact on housing supply, allocations and support services for those already in tenancies. More information and booking here.

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