Who lives in a house like this? Not you, pauper. Photo: Getty Images
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What hope is there for Generation Rent when a third of MPs are buy-to-let landlords?

It’s no secret that, as far as the housing market goes, the millennial generation have been (and this is the technical term) royally screwed over. While members of previous generations appear to have bought houses for the current price of a packet of crisps, lounged around inside them for a couple of decades and then sold them for around a 500 per cent profit, we now wring our hands at the news that not a single area in the country has seen wages and house price inflation remain aligned. In the London borough of Hackney, the average salary should be £131,924 if it was to match up with property pricing, according to Shelter (Spoiler: it isn't). Needless to say, very few of the twentysomething interns working their bollocks off for free lunches that we know are expecting to make that sort of money any time soon.

Amelia Gentleman's dispiriting Guardian piece on the Hackney house price bubble gave a snapshot of how galling it is to search for a house in the borough even when you have large cash reserves thanks to the bank of mum and dad. For those of us without that privilege, our hopes of owning our own homes, especially in London but also in many other areas of the country, have gone from measly to non-existent. As the newspapers have been doggedly making us aware for the past five years or so, we really are becoming 'generation rent'. Not that rent is particularly affordable for young people either, you understand. That would just be silly.

Skyrocketing rents and housing ladders with the first rung sawn off have led to what we might euphemistically term ‘innovative living’. Innovative living - especially in London, where the cost of living as a student now outstrips the cost of living like a king in our respective hometowns - takes the form of situations like couch-surfing, room-sharing and cupboard-inhabiting. One of us genuinely lived in the other’s airing cupboard for a month when awaiting enough salary to accrue from her full-time job to pay a rental deposit, and that was the best option of three. Mere months before, we had lived together in what could kindly be described as a Kentish Town hovel, complete with mouse infestation, missing windows, peeling salmon-coloured wallpaper and a bathroom shared with the flat below which sometimes contained dog poo. This was hardly unusual by the standards of our friends at the time. More than a handful genuinely described the place as ‘charming’.

Yesterday, we were on Twitter moaning about a mould problem that one of us is currently experiencing due to poor outside guttering and porous brick walls. It has taken the landlord three months and counting to respond to the problem, but the overwhelming response online was that three months is nothing. We spent all day being regaled with tales of unsympathetic landlords who told tenants to open their windows, buy a dehumidifier, or simply stop "breathing too much".

 

@VagendaMagazine More mould for collection! My bedroom in last place. Landlord did nothing. Health risk right? pic.twitter.com/f1iaplBuMw

— frankie mullin (@frankiemullin) February 18, 2014

 

We were inundated with horror stories and photographs of people's damp and mould problems (one wall even had an actual live mushroom in it), all of which were occurring in rented accommodation and which their landlords were failing to sort out. Then an irate landlord chipped in to tell us to open our windows and that 'you are the sort of crap tenant that every landlord dreads'. If pointing out poor living conditions doesn't make you a crap tenant, then telling your landlord that they're everything that wrong with this country certainly does, but it was difficult after that not conversation not to consider buy-to-let landlords the scum of the earth. Such was this particular one's lack of concern at our breathing problems.

 

@VagendaMagazine I slept with a ring of salt around my bed at uni as our house was infested with damp loving slugs

— emma (@me_emma_t) February 18, 2014

 

In describing such living standards, we don’t intend to beg for sympathy. Instead, we hope to illuminate how dangerously normalised this sort of situation has become. One London renter said that she hadn't lived in a single flat that hadn't had significant mould issues, despite having moved seven times. Space-wise, living rooms have become a rarity in the capital, where they are now routinely converted by money-grabbing landlords into extra bedrooms, sometimes with the use of paper-thin plywood partitions. Young people - and that includes people in their thirties - are shoved into these overpopulated, under-maintained enclosures like so many sardines in tin cans. Often the landlords know they don’t have to clear those growing patches of damp, mend that cracked piece of glass, fix the dodgy electrics or install proper fire alarms. There will always be another desperate tenant willing to fill the previous one’s place. In fact, the owners of these buy-to-let places can afford to be choosy: just cast your eye over the number of rooms going on Gumtree that specifically stipulate ‘NO DSS’.

 

@VagendaMagazine @ElleEmmie @toni_oni My 10 yo son has lived in 7 diff houses because landlords keep selling from under us.

— Aoife Walsh (@AoifeMPWalsh) February 18, 2014

 

It’s difficult to believe that this state of affairs won’t go on for ever, but clearly something has to give. We are in the midst of a housing crisis and yet little is being done to help those trapped in rented accommodation with no hope of becoming first time buyers. All that Help to Buy - a scheme overseen by a parliament of which a third are buy-to-let landlords - seems to be doing is creating a housing boom. Meanwhile, we are forced to look at broadsheet lifestyle articles in which minted property developers show us the design potential that exists in former social housing. 

As even the right-wing media begins to highlight empty properties left to rot throughout the UK - either abandoned by ridiculously wealthy owners or deliberately kept unoccupied to drive up rent prices nearby - it’s clear that the tide is turning, however slowly. These were of course the same newspapers that campaigned against squatting, but even they seem to be finding the horrific waste of valuable housing space distasteful. Meanwhile, among the younger generation, the anger is building and festering, the dry rot is setting in, and eventually it's going to burst through the wall. 

"I've never had somewhere that was 'home'", said one twentysomething, and God do we empathise. But we all need to remember that the sadness at not having somewhere to really call home, that tight little knot of anxiety about the future that resides in our stomachs, can be incredibly powerful when effectively channelled. We need to stop behaving as though we're resigned to living in mouldy shitholes, and get angry and stay angry, because, in their big houses with their buy-to-let incomes, the people in power realise how angry we are. 

PS. Here's the mushroom:

 

@VagendaMagazine surely this HAS to be the winner? Fully formed mushroom.. pic.twitter.com/SmAiLjsejc

— Ellen (@EllenRhian) February 18, 2014

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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