Many years ago, as a teenager, I recall talking to an elder in my local church, prior to the 1987 General Election. Pondering on the choice the UK had, his outlook seemed driven by naked self-interest: “I really don’t care who gets in, so long as I don’t have to pay more tax.”
He was a good man who was a positive influence on me for many years, and I looked up to him and thank God for what he did for me. He had deeply held convictions about personal salvation and yet with the hindsight of decades, his faith in Jesus didn’t seem to affect his outlook on social issues or the deprivations of those less well off than himself.
Recently I’ve been wondering if this attitude also underpins Christian attitudes to buy to let mortgages and owning rental properties. I’d hazard a guess many of us go to churches where a small handful of members have built up useful portfolios of at least three to four homes.
But what are the consequences of this? Many people, particularly those under 40, have become effectively locked out of the housing market. They are trapped in a vicious circle, paying so much out in rent that they can’t afford to save for a deposit for a mortgage, and in addition face house prices inflated by the number of properties bought by buy to let landlords.
And whilst that’s just one of many aspects of generational unfairness we could reflect on, buy to let is meanwhile seen as clever and savvy, and those who have become landlords are to be admired.
Dig into a concordance and you’ll find no Scripture that specifically teaches not to buy to let. But Jesus told us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Jesus said to do unto others as we’d have done unto us. Where should that take us? Who of us if we’re honest and had any choice wants to be on the tenant side of rental contracts?
Given most churches will have members on both sides of this divide, why is this such an ignored topic in the community of faith?
Truth be told, is there some weird kind of pseudo-Calvinistic thinking that goes unspoken by evangelical Christians and says some people will be landlords and some will be renters and that’s just how life’s cards are stacked? And hey ‘God helps those who help themselves’ so that a certain pulling themselves up by their bootstraps can get these people on the mortgage ladder one day, so long as they want it enough?
In a similarly unspoken way do some of us simply see some people as ‘other’ and ‘less than’ and not as entitled to the home ownership that we’ve enjoyed and aspire to for our children?
And are we so fixated with sin as personal and salvation as personal that we lack the imagination to see that some sin is systemic, and there is certain social disadvantage that is systemic? Are our eyes blind to the fact that our good middle class lives - including the seemingly benign goal of a nice buy to let portfolio - can be contributory factors to other peoples’ hopelessness and injustice?
Buy to let can be a means to a proverbial pile of wealth, but the only way to get to the top of a pile is to have people below you in said pile, and the moral challenge is that one person’s wealth is made off someone else’s grind of paying the rent on the first Monday of every month and knowing they’ll never quite get ahead, and never get off the renting wheel with all the consequences that prompts; postponing starting a family; dispiriting requests for small repairs; not being able to decorate without permission.
Jesus said that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He was an itinerant Rabbi who lived in a society two thousand years but a million miles from the UK in 2017, but I wonder if he wants us to know today that maybe loving our neighbour as ourselves, and submitting all of our lives to Him, means one person owning one house is…
I wonder if Jesus wants to remind us there’s more than enough room in our Father’s home and he’s gone there to prepare a place for us: that’s the hope that really matters and that’s where our security comes from.
Colin Neill is the author of Turas – A Story of Strangers in a Strange Land – and a Contemporary Christianity Board Member.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.