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".
— 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’.
— 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:
— Ellen (@EllenRhian) February 18, 2014