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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear