Britain’s housing crisis is a peculiar sort of madness. Photo: Getty
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How I fell onto the property ladder: a journey from rent boy to a housing millionaire

Almost by accident I’ve become property rich, cash poor, and without producing anything of use to the economy.

I’ve moved from being a rent boy to a housing millionaire. Back in 2004 I published my book Rent Boy, subtitled How One Man Spent 20 Years Falling Off The Property Ladder. It detailed my rented housing struggles in London from 1980 (the year of the first right-to-buy) via 11 homes and included living in an asbestos-ridden council tower block in yet-to-be-gentrified Westbourne Park with a – possibly quite literal – short-life house association. We were told that as long as we didn’t knock nails into the walls then we’d be fine. Now I’m not so sure.

My other rental experiences included landlords changing my locks in Fulham, a neighbour with mental health issues throwing a vase through my window and then posting pink knickers through my letter box, cockroaches in the kitchen, rows over housing rotas, withheld deposits for “washing curtains” in West Kensington, overflowing loos in Hammersmith, dodgy electrics in Elephant and Castle, £70 bills from an estate agent for changing a light bulb after I left (the minimum call-out fee apparently), and many more tales of housing woe. 

It wasn’t all bad; there was even a nice place in a Georgian house in Camberwell which had a chandelier and spiral staircase and the tenancy lasted two years. I made some good friends (mainly the people who didn’t mark their shampoo), had some great parties and got to know a lot of new areas.

But there was always that gnawing sense of insecurity and the fear of the latest eviction notice. Had I, as David Cameron now advocates, been allowed to buy a housing association flat I’d have done so through desperation. House prices were rocketing and as a freelance journalist mortgages of the right size were nearly impossible to get.

Then in 2004, having met my future wife Nicola (who had her own flat) we finally moved into home ownership in London for the then colossal sum of £330,000, aided by an inheritance from selling my aunt’s house in Stoke and selling Nicola’s existing flat. It wasn’t always easy even though we put down a decent deposit. In the digital age my writing income tumbled with the decline of print and at times we were struggling to pay the mortgage.

My parents died in 2006 and 2007. One of the most dehumanising aspects of the current market is that the death of your parents becomes good news property-wise. We managed to pay off the mortgage on our house after selling my mum and dad’s place in Norfolk. And as my income has gone inexorably down, so the value of my home has gone up to around £1m.

Almost by accident I’ve become property rich, cash poor, and without producing anything of use to the economy (bar keeping a few window fitters busy). My wife and I have written some half-decent articles and done a bit of teaching, but really we haven’t done anything to earn £700,000 in 11 years bar sit on our posteriors in the same house. And if we want to stay in London it’s a useless gain as every other property has gone up too. I wouldn’t mind at all if my property had stayed the same price since 2004.

What’s striking is the volatility of my housing history. Oh for something a bit more Germanic, years of steady renting at fixed rates and then perhaps buying a house that retained the same value.

Yet Britain remains addicted to property inflation as books such as Danny Dorling’s All That Is Solid have emphasised, while home ownership has become virtually impossible for those not on the property ladder. The Conservatives are going to inflate the bubble even more through selling off housing association flats without replacing them and encouraging splurging of pensions on buy-to-lets.

Ed Miliband’s promise to have three-year tenancies for renters is something and it’s encouraging that the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett actually suggested that homes are for living in and not an investment. But it will surely need more and someone to say the unsayable, that property prices and rents both need to go down and more affordable houses need to be built.

What I haven’t forgotten is the hell of not knowing where I’ll be living next month and measuring out my life not in coffee spoons, but in endless boxes humped up endless stairs to endless top-floor flats. Now my children will in a few years be out there in the rental cardboard jungle, their only hope of buying being the Dickensian hope of an inheritance from the death of an aged parent... It all seems a peculiar sort of British madness where endless property inflation, not building social housing and no rent controls are seen as a great triumph.

Pete May is the author of Rent Boy: How One Man Spent 20 Years Falling Off the Property Ladder

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war