I don’t want to die in an attic, but what choice does a member of Generation Rent have?
There are too many people and not enough houses, and that the houses that do exist are either unaffordable or occupied by elderly people who, thanks to medical science – and, I should add, through no fault of their own – aren’t going anywhere fast.
I can’t remember when I realised I would never have my own property. Perhaps, like the fact that human beings cannot fly, or that the man I lost my virginity to was unlikely to be my future husband, it is something I have always known. And yet dapples of hope must have broken through my stoic resignation and allowed me, if only for a moment, to dream. Maybe I was drunk at the time.
We are in the middle of a “housing crisis”. This means, put simply, that there are too many people and not enough houses, and that the houses that do exist are either unaffordable or occupied by elderly people who, thanks to medical science – and, I should add, through no fault of their own – aren’t going anywhere fast.
This crisis hasn’t taken anyone by surprise, and yet no one, at any point throughout my adolescence, when phrases such as “housing bubble” and “property ladder” began to seep into my consciousness – before being discarded in favour of other concerns (“Should I buy a thong? Sisqó seems to like them”) – did anything about it. The result is a “squeezed generation” that has no hope of affording the average £252,798 cost of a home. If they are lucky, they will find themselves living in a perpetual flatshare or bunking up with their parents, and, if unlucky, on an interminable waiting list for social housing, or homeless. I won’t talk about the other stratum of people, those who can rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad for a deposit, because I hate them. Passionately.
(It could be that the unfairness of life struck me even before my university course-mates were bought their own flats in central London. Perhaps it was when I saw that my cousin’s doll’s house had electric lighting and real windows, while mine was roofless and inhabited by a potato with a face drawn on it.)
Having done some vague calculations, I have concluded that in order to succeed in finding a non-rented roof over my head, one of two things must happen. Either the book that I am writing with my best friend must sell millions of copies – something that is unlikely, considering how it in no way describes a naive virgin’s voyage of sexual discovery at the hands of a wealthy tycoon with a spanking fetish – or I must resign myself to living in a hovel that is completely in my boyfriend’s name. This is assuming that he is able to get a mortgage, which is unlikely, and that he will invite me to come and live with him (also touch and go, to be honest).
I am not alone in this but I am lucky in one respect, which is that my rented flat contains a living room. This is regarded as something of a luxury in my circle. Forget Elle Decoration, with its Le Creuset cookware and fairy light-festooned lifestyle porn: a living room is where it’s at. That’s prime housing space that could be filled by a warm, paying body, after all, and it means that you don’t have to eat your dinner standing up in a poky galley kitchen, or in your room, in bed.
Rents in London have become so preposterous that people are audaciously letting out spaces that push the very boundaries of habitability. A couple of years ago I went to look at an “attic room” in Kentish Town that turned out to be less room and more attic. Granted, the owners had resourcefully used some draped chiffon to conceal the loft insulation and the boiler, giving one the feeling of a sort of harem tent, but even a small person would have had trouble standing up, and my bum barely fit through the trapdoor.
So yes, we need to build more houses, certainly, but there also needs to be some kind of rent control, because private landlords basically own our asses and people are living in airing cupboards, nesting next to immersion heaters. In the Times of 24 June, Tim Montgomerie rightly pointed out that what’s missing from this debate is a political party that speaks for my generation. He then went on to claim, wrongly, that the Conservatives could still become that party.
The Conservatives will never become that political party, because they have never not had living rooms. They expect the poor to pack their children in or pay the price in benefit cuts. Rather than capping the extortionate rents charged by private landlords, they top up the difference, encouraging the hiking of rates. They have made squatting a criminal offence. The Tories are a party of old fogeys (and that includes the young ones). This debate is dominated by a disconnect – Generation Rent v the Baby Boomers – and the Tory party represents the latter with panache.
Montgomerie went on to suggest that the government create “five or six new garden cities . . . situated between London and the Midlands”. Why not just put all the young people on an island and be done with us? Our big cities will become like Paris, populated by an ageing bourgeoisie with a direct line to the noise complaints department.
I was born into a flatshare but I’m not sure I’d like to die in one. (Then again, I’d rather that than some kind of suburban holding pen for alienated young professionals.) The place I was born into was an ex-squat that had been let by the council to stop the building from crumbling, and one of my earliest memories is of falling down the stairs there.
So, actually, I did once try to fly. It did not end well.