A Tale of Three Cities

David Harvey traces our changing relationship to housing through the city of use value, the city of exchange value, and the city of speculative gain.

Illustration by David Biskup

A house is a simple enough thing. But it is also a commodity, which means it abounds ‘in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’, as Marx once put it. I grew up in a house in a safe, secure, and respectable working-class neighbourhood in Britain after 1945. The house was a use value — stolid in its ordinariness. It constituted a secure, albeit rather repressive space in which to eat, sleep, socialise, read stories, do homework, or listen to the radio; a place where family, with all of its inner complexities and tensions, could dwell and relate without too much outside interference. Relations with neighbours were cordial and supportive but not intimate. This was the city of use value.

I do remember, however, the day the mortgage was paid off. There was a mild celebration. The house, I then realised, had an exchange value that could be passed on to future generations (like me). But that was never a topic of conversation. Not far away there were estates of social housing. They looked OK to me but when I dated a girl from there my mother strongly disapproved — they were feckless people not to be trusted, she said. But they too seemed to have secure housing in a not too bad — though somewhat bland — living environment. We listened to the same radio shows and the kids played the same games on the street. But at election time they supported Labour. In my neighbourhood there were a few posters, some Labour but also some Tory. Working-class homeownership, promoted from the 1890s onwards in Britain, had always been an instrument of social control and a defence against Bolshevism. In the United States they say: ‘debt encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike.’

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