Sharing Economy and the Transforming Landscapes of Ownership

Author: Ioana Petkova

How the financialization of home ownership has changed the individual’s relationship with the domestic interior.

In Britain, homes are widely regarded as safe investments. The word “investment” itself reveals the extent to which the ontology of financialized capitalism has entered the domestic domain. Understanding the home in financial terms not only affects house buyers. It also affects residents—and their notions of domestic space. Home interiors—representations of personal spatial agency—evolved with each economic transformation, and were reshaped by the drive towards individual home ownership.

According to the Nationwide House Price Index, UK house prices have grown on average by 800 percent since the 1980s. One of the more significant increases in prices started in the second half of the 1990s. This period would be decisive in the formation of today’s housing landscape. And it accompanied a broader economic shift from industrialization to financialization, with financial institutions and intermediaries taking on an increasingly important role in all economic sectors—and devising new tools for extracting value from the economy.

One of these tools is known as “securitization”—a process of pooling loans into new financial instruments for sale on secondary markets. If one loan fails, the other loans in the securitized product absorb the losses. This technology allows banks to distribute and thus mitigate lending risks and transfer the liability to someone else. As such, loans are no longer on their books and the banks are free to give out more loans—which can also be securitized and sold off. More loans means more house purchases. These drive higher asset prices and, in turn, attract wealthy investors who want a cut of the profits.

This system has generated a vicious cycle: as house prices increase, so does household debt. This magnifies poverty and inequality—and drives homelessness. At the same time, the number of people owning homes decreases as financial institutions and private investors buy increasing numbers of homes as investments. In the UK, a generation has become trapped by high rents and low wages, rendering home ownership a distant dream.

This system of financialized capitalism collapsed in 2008, when the US housing bubble burst and sparked a global economic crisis. In the aftermath of the crash, a new economic culture emerged as people searched for more democratic, environmentally-friendly, and convenient alternatives to private property. We call this culture the “sharing economy,” and it found its embodiment in a range of platforms that profited from what was sold as a generational preference of access over ownership.

Ironically, these platforms—Airbnb, HomeAway, One Fine Stay, etc.—did little more than capitalize on the existing, heavily-financialized housing market. Initially billed as peer-to-peer bed and breakfast experiences, they soon became an infrastructure for large-scale hospitality schemes featuring tens of properties under fictitious host stories. This converted housing stock into hospitality infrastructure, exacerbating housing crises around the world, and pricing local residents out of their neighborhoods by facilitating the inflow of foreign capital—a phenomenon known as “gentrification without redevelopment.”

Airbnb live map. Courtesy Airbnb.

London was no exception to this global trend. According to independent research, Airbnb alone uses up to an additional 1 percent of the city’s existing housing stock. This happens through so-called “multiple listings”—houses bought by investors and entrepreneurs for short-term rentals.

Rather than mitigating the effects of financialization or opening new horizons, then, the sharing economy has had disastrous consequences for the British housing market.


Home ownership in Britain

Unlike land, homes in Britain were not always seen as investments.

Private land ownership emerged in seventeenth century England, with the enclosure of the “commons.” Until that time, all land was owned by the monarch, managed by lords who presided over manors, and worked by peasants. For most of the population, housing served a purely utilitarian function—shelter.

The Cobbler’s Home. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851. Courtesy Tate.

Economic factors and a series of legal changes led to the enclosure of land and its re-conceptualization from a mutual contract to an object of exclusive ownership. As a result, a newly-formed class of wealthy “merchants, careful farmers, government officials, even tenants on fixed rents” was for the first time able to acquire individual possession of land. Shortly after, a sequence of legal changes enabled the exchange and inheritance of land. By the end of the seventeenth century, 70 percent of England was owned privately.

This radically changed the concept of the home and, with it, of the domestic space. The interior became the locus of privacy and comfort—but also of accumulation. The single room where one used to sleep, cook, dine, and work became increasingly subdivided and specialized, accompanied by increasing amounts of household possessions.

View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex. Jan Siberechts 1696. Courtesy Tate.

The domestic transformation continued as individual private ownership became more established. During the emergence of the class system in eighteenth century England, social status was both reflected in and shaped by ownership through the domestic interior. The size of the home grew dramatically and led to increased demand for housekeeping. By the end of the 1700s, one in eight Londoners was employed in domestic service.

Inequality rose. Just before the First World War, only 10 percent of the population owned homes. In the interwar period, the British government embarked on a large-scale project to deliver “Homes Fit for Heroes.” And in 1919, the British Parliament passed the Housing and Town Planning Act. The Act subsidized the construction of new homes and, for the first time, social housing was conceptualized as a welfare service at scale. The floorplans of the interwar period seem to have focused on infrastructural matters such as water, electricity, and gas supply. These plans combined the kitchen and bathroom into a single space with changing function, provided for toilets, and replaced the fireplace with central heating.

Compared to the privately-owned homes of the wealthy, social housing units were small. But this government-led intervention proved to be very successful in increasing housing accessibility. And it helped combat both the scarcity of housing stock and high unemployment.

Book cover: Homes Fit for Heroes: Photographs by Bill Brandt 1939-43.

After the Second World War, housing design adopted a different approach. As the state provided and owned social housing, new domestic spaces were completely in line with its vision. A 1961 report by Sir Parker Morris titled “Homes for Today and Tomorrow” became a guideline for this vision. The document had a functional approach. It regarded housing design in terms of efficiency maximization. This document served as a reference for “Design Bulletin 6—Space in the Home,” a 1968 report by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which included a schedule with proposed daily routines: “0830 Father and school child are off. Mother gives the other children some food and has something herself. A place where food can be eaten near the work area is useful.”

Even if public housing was successful in battling the inequalities of pre-war Britain, by the 1960s space standards and guidelines became more prescriptive and constricting; their understanding of domestic routines and who should be involved in them was highly gendered.

Riverside Gardens was part of the homes fit for heroes building program as slum clearance by the Council and completed in 1928. Courtesy flickr user habeebee.

As the counterculture movement started to gain traction, a new generation of communards saw both private property and marriage as problematic. London, especially Brixton, was the center of a rising squatting culture. Many vacant council properties were emptied of their residents through the use of “Compulsory Purchase Orders.” These buildings were due to be demolished and replaced by high-density housing schemes which were planned by Lambeth Council as a better alternative to the overcrowded Victorian townhouses that came before.

The empty houses were appropriated by squatters, often as a sign of activism and direct action. One of the most popular examples was the occupation of Villa Road in the 1970s. The Villa Roaders, known for their primal scream therapy experiments, included young, well-educated, and radical political activists. Many of them were leftist Oxford and Cambridge graduates who advocated for social change and identified with the struggles of the working classes.

The squat itself was in a block of empty terrace houses. These were entirely reshaped by the communards, who tore down partitions, doors, and any other thresholds of ownership and privacy. After multiple conflicts with Lambeth Council, a deal was reached in 1978 to retain the north part of the squat while the south part was demolished. What remained of Villa Road turned into a housing cooperative. After that, the community slowly disintegrated.

Even though social housing was made more accessible, individual ownership was still regarded as more appealing. The growing desire for individual private home ownership was met with a decisive piece of policy introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986—the “Right to Buy.” This allowed council housing tenants to buy the properties they were living in. The policy brought nearly half a century of state-led social housing projects to an end, which at that time comprised a third of UK housing stock.


Financialization and the performative interior

By the end of the 1990s, financial deregulation and the new possibilities of securitization caused house prices to grow at unprecedented rates, setting the stage for today’s housing crisis. Entrepreneurial owners began to capitalize on real estate, while those who could not afford homes were left behind.

A new residential typology emerged at that time: the loft. Originating in the 1970s in New York as a byproduct of deindustrialization, this new housing model was embraced in London, too, in the 1990s. The new typology reflected both the financialization of housing and post-industrial economic restructuring.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, new channels for monetizing domestic space emerged as part of a new sharing economy. These new markets enabled the use of local homes as hospitality infrastructure. Digital platforms like Airbnb facilitated temporary access to housing on a peer-to-peer basis, carried out security checks, insured the properties, and managed the online booking system in exchange for a commission.

Home ownership was commoditized: it was not just the physical home that generated value, but also the identity of the owner. The interior became a means for hosts to construct and monetize this identity. Today, in the context of home-sharing platforms, it is not uncommon for owners or even renters to have multiple online personas for multiple properties. In this model, ownership is performed by the host and consumed as an experience by the guest.

The British notion of home ownership changed throughout history—a house was variously a shelter, storage, a social signifier, a welfare service, an object of political activism, a place of consumption, an investment asset, and finally, a construct reflecting the identity of the homeowner. These shifts in the culture of ownership were accompanied by changes in interior design.

The Carved Room, Petworth House, Sussex (c1856). Verso: Sketch of a Seated Male Figure in Van Dyck Costume (1844). Charles Robert Leslie c.1856. Courtesy Tate.

In the Georgian era, homes were places of extremes and segregation. They had a “front” for entertaining guests and exhibiting personal possessions to assert social status, but also a “back” for staff. With homes growing in size, household work became a managerial task. Even though it was necessary, housekeeping was regarded as increasingly unappealing, so it was relegated to its own domain in the back of the house. The housekeeping staff mostly resided in the vicinity of the servicing spaces such as the cellar or attic. Those were connected to the “front” through an elaborate circulation system, often concealed within the poché.

When social housing first appeared in the 1920s, tenants had limited to no possessions. In fact, the first social housing policies also introduced installment plans for furniture. With the increased standardization of housing, a strong desire for the individualization of interior furnishings emerged. By the 1960s, interiors were designed not only for utility, but also to assert personal preference. This began to conflict with the social housing design guidelines of that time; space standards such as the Parker Morris report focused mainly on efficiency. This clash was perhaps one reason for the popularity of squatting culture.

Squatters had exceptional individual agency in shaping the interiors of their homes. One of the reasons was that in the 1960s and 1970s, during the heyday of the squatter’s movement in London, it was not uncommon for local authorities to vandalize empty council properties. The practice was known as “gutting” and involved destroying building services or structures to make empty units unlivable. This was intended to put off squatters from occupying vacant properties. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Communities such as the Villa Roaders welcomed the changes, as they provided an opportunity for personal agency and artistic expression.

By the 1980s, the home had established itself as a place of comfort, leisure, and individual expression. As the purchasing power of households continued to grow, the domestic space became increasingly enmeshed in the culture of material consumption. Television sets, previously enjoyed collectively by entire families, became increasingly common in individual rooms.

The loft emerged at the juncture of 1980s de-industrialization and 1990s property entrepreneurship. Factory spaces were rendered obsolete. The post-industrial real estate boom absorbed these vacancies and converted the former spaces of production into valuable residential schemes. The remains of the industrial space, a reminder of a bygone economic era, would also be embraced as an interior feature with their exposed brick, Crittall glazing, and open space living.

Superhost Melanie’s designer loft in downtown LA. Courtesy Airbnb.

The final step in shaping today’s domestic condition was the emergence of the digital sharing platform. With this shift, the idea of individuality and personality of the domestic space, which started developing in the 1960s, could now be commodified. Communication technology, previously physically present through tools such as the radio, the phone, or the television set, was now the means of exchange in the new commodified property market. The host’s identity—now an object for consumption—turned domestic spaces into elaborately constructed realities.

Once a signifier and source of wealth, ownership has now become performance. Are we pretending to own because home ownership is increasingly out of reach? And can we reclaim current digital tools to facilitate the emergence of alternative collective housing economies? As a generation faced with the last remnants of the welfare state, what legacy do we want to leave behind for those who come after us?

Ioana Petkova

An architect and a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. Her thesis, supervised by Dr. Maria Shéhérazade Giudici, explores established home-sharing practices and their influence on the domestic interior. Ioana received her MArch degree at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Studio Greg Lynn. After her graduation she worked as an architectural designer at WORKac in New York and continued practicing with ACME architects in London, where she is currently based.

Cover image: Stay Like a Local in Roma Norte (Mexico City, Mexico). Courtesy Airbnb.

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