Let’s Talk About Ethics

Old houses in Notting Hill, London

…because I think I need a reminder.

A few years ago I published this post. In it I described the feeling I’d had when the company I used to work for was bought by the devil*, and how I’d stood there in my living room surrounded by a flat that was literally falling down around me, buying my food from the supermarket’s most basic range and getting my furniture off freecycle.

That feeling was one of the best I’d ever had, because the reason I was in that situation was because I’d gone along with what I believed in. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy with who I was as a person. 

Ethics are hard, though, and you have to keep thinking about them and working out knotty bits of your own personal moral code and figuring out how to apply it to whatever situation you’re in currently.

Which brings me to now, and a decision I’m half-making and is half being made for me.

It’s about my flat.

picture of old buildings in Kensington, UK
This is not my flat.

I rent from a social housing landlord. I have this opportunity because I had a terrible childhood. We were very poor, so when we weren’t homeless or living in tents and caravans, we were living in council estates.

A few years ago, when I lost all my money and my life went to shit, my need for a house coincided with my mother’s desire to move up north to live in a commune with some other members of her cult. When you rent a social housing home, you’re allowed to sublet it for a year to a ‘caretaker’, who looks after it for you while you’re away. So my mother did that to see how she’d like Blackpool, and it turned out she loved it and didn’t want to come back, so she passed on her tenancy to me.

This meant I had a nice cheap rental, but (1) it was bigger than I needed and (2) it was in a crappy council estate in Brighton, and I had aspirations to be back in West London among the beautiful Georgian architecture and all the Francophones. So I did a four-way swap, which took over a year to arrange, and I moved into a falling-down one-bedroom flat in which a family of five had been living. Happily, they moved into a bigger place which was better for them. Everyone was thrilled.

When we swapped, all four parties were talking about the government’s Right To Acquire scheme. This means that if you’re renting certain council or housing association properties, you can buy them at a discount. The idea is ostensibly to help people onto the housing ladder and off the council housing list. It’s a very popular option and at the time I thought, well why not?

The glaringly obvious answer being ‘because I strongly disagree with the privatisation of the social housing sector’, but I ignored that little voice in my head because it sounded like a good deal, and hadn’t I been through enough already? Couldn’t I have this one nice thing that was being handed to me on a plate? Admittedly a plate I’d have to pay quite a lot of money for, but a below market value plate?

Old houses in Notting Hill, London
Look at all the beautiful houses! Ignore the ominous skies.

So when I moved in (and especially after the flat started falling down), I told everyone that was my plan. Rent the flat, buy the flat, sell the flat, buy a little place in the highlands, retire from the internet, become a recluse there for the rest of my life.

People seemed to be fairly on board with this plan, except the bit where I left society and went to live as a hermit. But even that bit didn’t surprise them.

For the first three years I lived here without needing to think about it, because you have to live in a place for at least three years before you’re eligible to buy it. Last year I was completely incapable of even thinking about buying a house, obviously, but this year I felt like maybe it was time. But I seemed to be holding back, and quite often when I’m holding back it’s because my brain is trying to tell me something.

“Scar, you strongly disagree with the privatisation of the social housing market”, for instance.

I spoke to a few people who have bought properties before, and they all urged me to do it. Now is the time to buy in London! they said. It’s a great way to get your foot on the ladder! they said. You definitely won’t regret it! they said.

So I called my landlord’s sales team and asked about buying the flat. Which was when they told me I couldn’t, because it wasn’t for sale.

I should have been disappointed, but when I hung up I found I felt relieved. Now I had a legitimate reason not to buy the flat, and a reason other people would agree with, as well as my own reason for being reticent to do so, whatever that might be.

Oh, I dunno, maybe that I strongly disagree with the privatisation of the social housing market.

I spoke to a few friends about this, and most of them said “Yeah, but you could be a nice landlord. You could buy the flat and then rent it to someone who needs it, at less than the market rate.” Sure, but I couldn’t afford to rent it to them at a social housing rate, because it wouldn’t cover the mortgage, so…

Anyway. This isn’t on them. This is on me. Because when I hung up from calling my landlord, I found myself thinking I hope if they’d said the flat was available, I’d have decided not to buy it anyway.

How interesting.

I’d love to say this thought was completely selfless and all about how other people would benefit, but realistically it was about me too. I felt so good when I realised I’d stuck to my principles and not ended up working for the devil*, and I felt good even though I’d literally given up hundreds of thousands of pounds to do so. Suddenly I didn’t care that I’d been eating instant noodles for the past year, because at least I still had myself. At least at the very core of my being I didn’t feel rotten.

Georgian houses in Kensington, London
More flats I don’t live in.

And I don’t care if that sounds like an overexaggeration, because it’s not. I spent so many years when I was working in advertising feeling like I was being a terrible person. Like my own existence was making a negative impact on the world. Since I left I’ve tried to take on jobs that are at the very least morally neutral; ideally positive. And I feel so much better about myself because of it.

It’s really easy to do this, though: to be ethical when it’s simple, but to throw your personal moral code out the window when presented with a tempting opportunity everyone else thinks you should take. Which is why it’s so important to know yourself well, and to examine the big decisions you’re making and find out what’s behind them. When the landlord said I couldn’t buy the flat, I wasn’t surprised to find myself relieved. I’d known deep down – not even so deep, actually – that I didn’t want to because I disagreed with it, but I’d been willing to set aside my principles anyway, largely because other people thought I should.

And I’m someone who generally doesn’t give a lot of fucks what people think of my life choices. But because this is a big one, and I don’t know a lot about the housing market, and it’s an area in which I’m inexperienced, it was easier to set myself aside and listen to other people instead.

Then the decision was taken out of my hands, and that in turn led to me being able to make a better decision: one that aligns with my own moral values.

So I’m not going to buy my flat, because it’s not for sale. But I’m also not going to apply to buy another social housing flat (which apparently I could do), because I’m happy where I am and I don’t want to move, and also…

I strongly disagree with the privatisation of the social housing sector.

*not the actual devil, who does not exist, but about the closest it’s possible to come in human terms.

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