Why 'Get a House for Free' is an unintentionally important watch
We can't solve the housing crisis by giving away flats on television
Around the age of 15, a girl at my school gave birth to twins. It was soon discovered that she was trying for a third in order to be prioritised on the waiting list for a local authority home, and the response was venomous, as though she were pulling some heinous scam. The truth of the matter was that, having come from a deprived background, she felt her options were so limited that her best chance at achieving some security for her family was to put herself in even more risk - to become more ‘deserving’ of a home than the other single mothers waiting for one. This is not an even remotely unique anecdote.
This week, Channel 4 aired a programme called Get a House for Free, in which property magnate Marco Robinson gives away a three bedroom flat in Preston to the person he can find who “deserves” it the most.
It was meant to make for heartwarming television, but the concept is plainly wretched and exploitative to anyone that thinks about for longer than a few seconds. Marco and the show’s producers dangle the carrot of a ‘free’ flat in the faces of the desperate, and they have to prove they deserve the keys more than anyone else, for our entertainment. Even from the title alone, Get a House for Free is a show which barely even attempts to conceal the fact that it’s not really a documentary about an act of altruism, it’s a game show in which people compete for the prize of a flat with their misery. And yet, almost completely by accident, it actually serves as a useful document of just how pathetically inadequate the current approach to the housing crisis is.
What’s immediately striking is that the flat (already not the ‘House’ promised by the title) would not be worth £120,000 in any sensible world. The open plan lounge and kitchen don’t offer much space for anything beyond a sofa and a table and one of the three ‘bedrooms’ is a glorified cupboard. Where television giveaways had once centred on lottery jackpots and multi-million pound recording contracts, our grotesquely distorted housing market has conspired to make the idea of homeownership so inconceivably unattainable that the chance to live in a modest three bed flat in Preston can now be touted as a spectacular prize.
Marco constantly refers to his desire to give the flat to “the right person” (he is deeply troubled by the notion that he might inadvertently give it to the “wrong person.”) So a prospective tenant doesn’t simply qualify in terms of need, they have to have the right “attitude” and a willingness to work. “It’s about a leg-up, not a handout,” Marco explains “I don’t want to give them a handout, and for them to take it, and it’s gone. It’s a leg-up so they can get to a better place.”
Having whittled down the 8,000 initial applicants, Marco hosts an ‘open day’, in which a gaggle of the right people are shown around the flat. This is one of the most distressing parts of the show, as the children of clearly struggling families exclaim with delight at the sight of the flat’s rooms and a furniture, allowing themselves to fantasise about living here, only to be never seen again - clearly having been deemed to be the wrong people in some way.
Marco decides on a final three: an emergency services worker who has to work 60 hours a week in order to keep up with her rent; three Syrian refugees who have found themselves homeless and a young single mother who lives in a damp-ravaged council flat, surviving on just £50 a week for both her baby and herself. Marco visits them, witnessing their struggle for himself, before coming to his decision. He gives the flat to the mother, but promises to pay for a deposit on a house that the emergency service worker can work towards and provides the Syrian family with a rent-free place to stay while they sort out their application. All three are overwhelmed with sincere gratitude, and Marco becomes emotional himself. It’s always been a dream of his, he explains, and now he feels as though he has “fulfilled his purpose in life.”
You see, Marco’s intentions aren’t actually as sinister as you almost want to believe. He grew up with very little, being shunted from pillar to post with his own single mother, having to lay their hat wherever they could find - having to spend one particularly galling night on a park bench.
Having made a success of himself, the essential purpose of his giveaway is to give someone else - a surrogate for his mother and his childhood self - something he never had.
He is genuinely compassionate, too, listening to people describe the sort of dire situations with sensitivity, solemnity and understanding that is all but absent in mainstream conversation. You believe that this gesture comes - for Marco at least - more from a place of altruism than exploitation. What’s most frustrating is that, at various points in the programme, Marco comes dangerously close to an epiphany which would allow him to see just how perversely warped his whole enterprise is. Helping him sift through the sheer volume of pleading applications, his mother announces “all these cases… you’d like to give a house to them all,” and he sighs and slumps in his chair in something resembling resigned agreement.
Marco Robinson is effectively acting out his own Willy Wonka fantasy, only instead of handing over a chocolate factory, it’s - all things told - quite a dingy flat in Preston. For all his good intentions, there is undeniable vanity to his actions. He could have sourced the recipient himself, in private, but instead he chose to invite a camera crew to follow his journey. Here, the act of philanthropy is just as important as being seen to have committed it, and to have identified exactly the right recipient, too. It is better to be identifiable as personally improving the life of one person (the right person) than the anonymity of the tax-paying collective.
This idea has seeped into the fabric of our conception of state provision. During the last election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour re-opened the debate around universalism. The level of opposition to their relatively mild policies (free tuition fees, free school meals for the under 11s, for instance) is fairly emphatic evidence of how entrenched the idea of means testing has become.
Means testing, it is argued, is far more cost-effective and efficient - it prevents resources and funding going to people who don’t need them, so only the most deserving are cared for. It seems sensible enough in theory; ensuring the most vulnerable are prioritised ahead of those who could otherwise survive. You can feel better about paying your taxes, because they are going to the right people. What is less discussed, however, are the terms in which people are deemed ‘deserving.’
Austere thresholds are set, rarely (if ever) raising in line with inflation, erring on determining whether people are ‘deserving’ according to increasingly loose definitions of being able to ‘get by.’ This is how the conditions for reducing welfare are created. Those on the wrong side of the threshold - deemed ‘undeserving’ by the system, regardless of how much they struggle to get by - are encouraged to feel resentment at having to contribute towards a system they personally derive no benefit from in order to subsidise those whose material conditions may not be obviously distinguishable from their own. The less people invested in a state service, the easier it is to erode.
If we accept the premise that services can only be provided for a few, then we are encouraged to want those few to be the most Deserving. We look to reward those who ‘earn’ their welfare with the requisite levels of poverty, and as Marco desires, a willingness to work. They must be completely immiserated and stoically enduring it.
As Get a House for Free demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, this system does not work, particularly with regards to housing. With such slim pickings available, the programme, like the means testing system, incentivises being the worst off. This is an unbelievably unhealthy behaviour to encourage - to deliberately plunge yourself into further poverty in the hope you might have some of it ameliorated - and yet it is a perfectly logical response.
This was the response of the girl at my school. Because her method of attaining a house didn’t seem evidence the right ‘attitude’, she was vilified by our school, as many others like her are vilified more by society. These are the people who are seen to be, as Marco puts it, “taking handouts” not “leg-ups.” These are the people labelled ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ and ‘benefits cheats.’ These are the apparently ‘undeserving.’
The plainly obvious truth of the matter is there simply aren’t enough homes being built, and that means Marco doling out a house on a whim is actually and pointedly a significant act: he is doing more to help than our present system, which is happy to allow charity to take precedent again. But it wasn’t always like this.
Appalled by the conditions of the Victorian slum and exasperated at society’s reliance on the donations of the wealthy as a wholly insufficient solution to addressing poverty, Clement Attlee was moved to write: “Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.” His rejection of charity was borne of a belief that state intervention had to be paramount in concerted attempts to alleviate inequality. This sentiment was at the heart of the Labour and Conservative governments which comprised the post-war consensus that lasted from 1945 until Margaret Thatcher. Without wanting to put on the thickest-framed glasses with the rosiest tinted lenses idealising this era, these governments pursued policy and achieved what would now seem implausible in today’s political climate: widescale investment into the welfare state, a universal health service free-at-the-point-of-use, and an aggressive commitment to building local authority homes.
During the fifties, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government committed to building a then unprecedented 300,000 local authority homes a year. Not only was this achieved, but it even rose to around 350,000 by the mid-sixties. This commitment ended with the abrupt end of the consensus and the arrival of Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme.
The number of local authority homes built has fallen ever since, Last year, only 1,900 local authority homes were completed, with even fewer - 1,500 - started. Thatcher gambled that private enterprise would step in to meet the demand for houses in the place of local authorities, but these private companies swiftly realised that their properties would exponentially accrue value if they increased demand by limiting their supply.
Even in total - included houses built by local authorities, by housing associations or by private enterprise - only 140,000 houses were completed last year. This is a third of the number that Wilson’s government achieved in local authority homes alone. Since 1965, the UK’s population has risen by 20%, from 54.65 million to 65.64 million. The swell of people has been met by a calculated decision to build deliberately fewer homes. In such conditions, a three bed flat in Preston does become genuine gold-dust.
This is the crux of the problem - not just with the show, but with our wider housing and welfare system - that Marco Robinson can only give one house, even though - as he and his mother acknowledge - all of their applicants really deserve their own. It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the failures of housing provision than a property magnate having to personally turn away the impoverished, those seeking asylum, the disabled and the homeless, all for not being deserving enough.
Having shelter is a basic, essential need of life, and in this sense everyone is deserving of a home, regardless of their situation. But it shouldn’t be on individuals like Marco to rectify the system according to their whims. Britain has built homes for its people before, and if we pay our taxes gladly, it can again.
(Images: Channel 4/Rex)