Q&A with Peter King, author of "The Principles of Housing"

Peter King, author of The Principles of Housing, discusses the key points of his newly published textbook.

Why did you want to write The Principles of Housing?

I had previously written a textbook with Routledge called Understanding Housing Finance (UHF), which has gone through two editions in 2001 and 2009. I have used this book for my own teaching and even though I still liked the book – and students seemed to like it too – I was beginning to feel that it needed updating. However, I also felt that the book needed a complete overhaul so that it focused more on key principles rather than particular events and policies. Inevitably, the two editions were Anglocentric, but more fundamentally I found that as policies – and governments – changed – the material became out of date and I was constantly having to warn the students about things that I said which no longer applied. I had also moved away from a focus on finance and I wanted the book to take this into account.

So I started thinking about the possibility of writing an accessible housing text that was not dependent on time and place. I wanted a book that could be used without regard to specific policies, but which was still an essential text for students. At first this seemed an impossible task, but the more I thought about it the more possible it became.

But I had a further aim. Over the years of teaching housing my style has changed from one that very dependent on detailed handouts and formal presentations to a much more informal and conversational approach. I would go into a class with just a few notes and explore an issue through debate and discussion. When I became to think about doing this book it also occurred to me to try to replicate this informal conversational approach.

In speaking with your editorial colleagues it became clear that this should actually be a completely new book rather than a third edition. So the book is not just on finance, but on housing more generally. It is a completely new work.

So this book is rather different from other housing textbooks?

I think it is. When planning the book I began idly thinking on what sort of housing book I would write if there were no restrictions placed on me: what book would I write if I was being completely indulged. This would be a book made up of many short chapters taking the form of discussions around fundamental topics that applied almost everywhere. The book would make little or no reference to specific policies but would be one that could have been used 40 years ago, but which would also still be useful in 40 years time. It would also be a book that would be truly international. Having thought about it I now found I really wanted to write this sort of book and so starting doing so. I also found, because it linked so closely to my teaching, that the writing came very easily. At this point I really need to thank Helena Hurd and her colleagues for being so supportive of a book that I thought no one would ever let me write.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Clearly I hope that students and researchers will enjoy reading it and that they find it interesting and useful. It is a book that need not be read from cover to cover or in any particular order. There is no over-arching narrative, but instead a series of short chapters on particular issues on and around housing. Readers can dip into the book to find a specific issue, say on housing need, development or owner occupation. But each chapter contains links to other chapters as well as further reading and questions for further reflection to act as the basis for a class discussion. I have also set up a website to support the book that can be found at http://principlesofhousing.our.dmu.ac.uk

But I also hope that readers will see that there are some substantive points about the nature of housing in the book.

What are these key points?

My key point is that we can state that there are enduring principles of housing, and that these do not change. Everyone likes to innovate and to be seen to be moving forwards. This applies in housing as is it does in private business. We must never, it seems, be caught standing still. But despite the rhetoric of constant change and the apparent permanent flux of new initiatives, all with their own new jargon, the reality is that most of what we actually take to include housing has not changed much and will not change much either in the future. It is therefore entirely possible to say what housing is. We can identify some principles of housing.

Much of what we call housing is relatively stable and does not change. We tend to lose sight of this stability by focusing instead on small innovations and developments which enrapture us for a time before we turn to the next fad. With each fad we maintain our enthusiasm hoping not to be caught out by the latest thing, not be seen as cynical, divisive, naïve or, God forbid, old fashioned. The fact that these little innovations follow each other so quickly present the illusion of constant change, and that we have to be constantly running to keep up. However, the real basis of housing remains unchanged and we need to appreciate this.

I wish to suggest that there are indeed a number – actually quite a large number – of principles of housing and these will form the basis for any attempt to understand housing. They will apply almost regardless of context. They are not policy or path dependent and they do not need to be frequently up-dated.

The aim of my book is to show that these principles can be understood without any prior knowledge of housing systems, policies or practices. Accordingly, what I write is not dependent on one particular system or set of policies. This is not a book on the housing policy of country X in time period Y. It has been written to be very general without being tied to any particular time or place. I have done this so that we can consider what housing actually is and what it actually does. The book is as relevant to South Africa, Chile as it is to the UK and the USA.

Do you think you have achieved what you intended?

I would like to think so. I am aware that my ambitions with this book might open me up to at least two criticisms. The first is that despite what I say, the book is actually ethnocentric and actually still speaks to the concerns of Anglo-Saxon countries with strong regulatory frameworks and large housing markets. It might be said that I am deluding myself if I think the principles in this book are as universal as I claim. In answer to this I would admit that I have not been exhaustive in my list of principles: there may be things that I have not included or have only treated as part of other issues. I am also happy to concede that, as an English academic, I have a particular slant to what I know, what I have worked in and what I have studied. But, what I would claim is that this is a substantial step towards a universal approach, and even if it might be criticised it is remains a worthwhile approach in that it does provide principles which can, in the main, be applied to most situations. This project does not fail just because it does not provide the last word on housing.

The second potential criticism is that my approach is reductive. I am seeking to reduce a whole lot of complexity to a relatively small number of points. But I would readily admit to this. Indeed, I would even go so far as to admit that my aim in developing a series of principles was precisely to be reductive. My aim here has been to reduce housing to its essence. Yet this does not mean that my approach is limited: after all, I have only been able to reduce housing to just under 40 principles, and there is still an enormous amount to talk about and ponder over. The important issue to bear in mind is that once these principles have been established and appreciated we can then build the specific onto them. Once we know what housing is and what it does – what the practice of housing actually involves – we can then get on with the detail of particular tenure patterns, institutional arrangements, policies and practices.

The statements ‘what housing is’ and the question ‘what does housing do?’ have engaged me for more than 25 years. I wanted to entitle my PhD thesis ‘What does housing do?’, but was dissuaded by my supervisor (it was, he felt, ‘a bit too tabloid’). Subsequently, I intended to use this very same title for my social philosophy book published in 2003, but again my editor vetoed the idea as being too general and uninformative. Perhaps I will never get to use the title, but much of my work on housing over the last 25 years has been centred on attempts to answer these two quite beguiling questions. For many years, I had assumed that I needed to take a theoretical approach, and like many researchers I was opposed to a reductive approach, feeling it inimical to work in the contemporary social sciences. However, after a lot of reading, thinking and, most importantly, teaching, I have concluded that the way forward is through a descriptive approach that seeks to outline a series of principles.

So my approach is undoubtedly reductive. But it is also very ambitious in its scope and purpose. It is a textbook, aimed primarily at students, but it seeks to change the manner in which housing is discussed by starting from the ground up, to discover the fundamentals of what housing is and what it does. In other words, the book seeks to define the essence of housing; to set it onto a sure footing that does not flit from one particular fad to another as fashions change. If we can accept that there are such things as principles of housing, and then come to some agreement on what those principles are, then we have a common base on which to build and a common language in which to discuss what we have done and what we wish to do.

  • The Principles of Housing

    1st Edition

    By Peter King

    The Principles of Housing is an engaging and discursive introduction to the key topics within housing studies. Whereas many books get bogged down in country-specific policy or small innovations, this book argues that the fundamental concepts of what we call housing are relatively stable and…

    Paperback – 2015-11-19
    Routledge