Allow me to introduce you to one of the most annoying phrases in the modern English language: house hacking. What’s that when it’s at home? It’s when you rent out a room in your house – or a unit in your multi-unit building – so that your mortgage is covered by your tenants. Hang on, you might say, isn’t there already a perfectly good way to describe this? Isn’t that called being a live-in landlord?
Yes, precisely, but don’t tell the house hackers that. They think they have discovered something new. And not only do they think they are property pioneers, they can’t stop boasting about their financial prowess online. TikTok is full of viral videos in which house hackers explain how you too can get other people to pay your living expenses. Not all these videos, you will be amazed to hear, have been well received. There’s something about people crowing about raking in rents during a cost-of-living crisis in which rents have rocketed that doesn’t go down particularly well.
Why has landlordism, an ancient concept, been given a modern rebrand? Partly, I think, it’s due to a modern urge to try to put the word “hack” in absolutely everything. Productivity hacks, life hacks, food hacks: “hack” may be one of the most used and abused words in recent memory. (I’m guilty of abusing it myself, I’ll admit; a hack’s gonna hack.)
In addition, I think there’s a compulsion, driven by Silicon Valley, to reinvent old ideas to make them seem more exciting. Having housemates for example? That has been rebranded as “co-living”. And then, of course, there’s the fact that “house hacking” doesn’t have ye olde feudal connotations that “landlord” does. It doesn’t sound elitist and exploitative, it sounds tech-driven and cool.
I’m not trying to go all Chairman Mao on you here, by the way. I don’t there’s anything inherently wrong with being a landlord or house hacking. But I do think the process by which the vocabulary of capitalism is being sanitised is pernicious and deserves scrutiny. The concept of “tiny homes”, for example, is one particular bugbear of mine. They’re spruced-up caravans! The reason they have become so popular in recent years is because normal housing, the sort of housing big enough to swing a cat in, has become increasingly unaffordable. Yes, you can (and should) argue that we all need to consume less and tiny homes are ecologically advantageous, but you also need to make sure those arguments aren’t providing cover for the normalisation of poverty.
House hacking may be an irritating phrase, but you know what the absolute worst property-related modern buzzwords are? Nimby-ism and yimby-ism. You’ve doubtless heard of the “nimby”, an acronym for “not in my back yard” to describe people who oppose undesirable development in their communities but don’t object to it elsewhere; it has been around since the 1970s.
Nimby used to be a useful term but, in recent years, it has been co-opted by the property industry to demonise anyone who thinks that developers shouldn’t have free rein to do whatever they want. Property developers desperately want everyone to believe that they’re the good guys; that they’re trying their hardest to build affordable housing but they keep getting thwarted by nimby neighbours. They want you to think that the housing crisis isn’t caused by Wall Street types who are financialising housing, but by Martha down the street who doesn’t want the community allotment to be turned into luxury high-rises. And, of course, there’s nuance there. Sometimes that argument is true; often, however, it’s not.
The opposite of a nimby is a yimby – “yes in my back yard”. The yimby movement, which thinks we need to build, build, build and get rid of all regulations that prevent developers from building, has ballooned in recent years. Arguably that growth isn’t entirely organic but has been fuelled by people with deep pockets and a vested interest in deregulating housing. It’s not a grassroots movement, in other words, it’s Astroturfed. Again, all this is very nuanced. But one failsafe life hack? Always take property developer’s views on housing with a very large grain of salt.
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