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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue