Sweat Equity

I’d like to draw attention to something we saw in This Old House on Friday. The show’s host used a phrase that immediately set off a ‘course themes’ alert in my brain: he told one of the participants they were about to earn some ‘sweat equity.’ According to Investopedia, sweat equity is a “contribution to a project or enterprise in the form of effort and toil. Sweat equity, in the context of real estate, refers to value-enhancing improvements made by homeowners to their properties.” When I Googled the phrase, I also found that Habitat for Humanity buys into the concept: “Habitat affiliates require only a small down payment because few low-income families can afford more than that. Instead, partner families are required to contribute sweat equity.”

I found this concept to be fascinating from several perspectives. The first thing I thought of was Locke—in the Second Treatise on Government he writes that in the state of nature, one can claim property by putting effort into it. He was writing in the context of European overaccumulation, the discovery of the New World, and the beginnings of forays into Africa, and his ideas were used to justify several centuries of imperialism and enslavement. If one goes to a new place and begins working the land, after all, one has begun to accumulate sweat equity. To Europeans, that was the beginnings of ownership, regardless of those who were already housed there.

The second place this phrase took me was Dominion. Sweat equity seems a massive understatement compared to the novel’s description of Jasper Merian’s efforts, but the idea is the same. Dominion consciously drew on the founding myth of America of the pioneer conquering the wilderness and forging a home out of it, and in this context sweat equity is portrayed heroically.

Lastly, the phrase brought me back to the first principle of Take Back the Land and the question Beth drew from it: is housing a human right? It seems to me that following the principle of sweat equity would imply that it isn’t—how can something be a right if you have to work to acquire it? Sweat equity might also exclude those who are differently abled, although an inclusive definition might ameliorate that problem. One thing is clear—sweat equity is fundamental to how we in Western cultures think about property, and seeing it erupt from a reality TV show is proof of the salience of the things we’re discussing this semester.

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