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13 January 2024

The housing crisis outrage machine

The UK press has only one solution for the broken rental market: clickbait.

By Jonn Elledge

At just £68 a night, the Airbnb in the heart of London’s buzzing Soho sounds like a bargain. It is “very well located and easily accessible”, notes one review. “You won’t forget your time in this romantic, memorable place!” promises the listing (average rating: 4.45 stars). 

This romantic, memorable place is, it turns out, a tent. In fact, it is one of a trio of tents, lining a room above a Chinese restaurant, and to really ramp up the romantic and memorable vibes, other reviews warn that your neighbours may wander in and out at all hours of the day or night “without worrying about being discreet”. The property does offer air con (perfect for mid-winter), a dedicated workspace (a table), and a shared bathroom (a fair few cigarette butts in that, according to the photos, alas). But it remains – there’s no way of getting around this – a tent, next to two other tents, inside a room above a restaurant. 

I don’t want to over-interpret this listing, which was first reported on by Independent this week. The market for this is not family holidaymakers or business travellers, but backpackers, of the sort who can and will sleep anywhere, who will spend most of their time outside their accommodation and really just need somewhere to pass out pissed. But the fact you can charge £68 a night for, at best, a third of a room, feels nonetheless like a damning comment on the insanity of the current property market. 

Worse: it is not the first time this has happened. In December 2022, newspapers reported on a “glamping” opportunity in Brighton, that came with a hot tub and the option of a “firepit soirée”. That, too, was a tent, in someone’s back garden, and the hot tub looked suspiciously like an inflatable paddling pool. Brighton in midwinter can record average daily lows as cold as 3°C. All that, for £65 a night, plus £11 “service fee”. 

This is the mark of a housing market gone mad not merely because it is possible to make money from such horrible conditions – a sign that merely existing in our most expensive cities will now set you back a fortune. It’s a tell, too, because journalists go looking for these stories, safe in the knowledge that there will always be a market for housing outrage. Beds in sheds. Garages or parking spaces on the market for six-figure sums (because the value lies in the land, more than what’s on top of it). The three-bed property with a tree growing through it (residents had run a cable through the middle of the tree, for convenience). Vice’s Joel Golby wrote a long-running column entitled “London rental opportunity of the week”, detailing the miserable offerings of the capital’s rental market, and I will never not be furious that he had this idea first. 

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And these horror stories are merely one sub-genre of the anger-making housing coverage which reliably litters our papers every day. Another hardy perennial can be found in the Bricks & Mortar property pullout available with Friday’s Times: “How I added £180k to the value of my flat,” reads the strapline, besides a photo of a woman looking pretty pleased with herself. The answer turns out to be by spending around half that on renovations; this surprised me, because literally just waiting would almost certainly have had the same effect.  

Then there are the weekly variations upon the “How I, a millennial, stopped whining and bought my own house” theme. Here the game is to see how many paragraphs about cutting out luxuries such as Netflix and avocado toast you have to wade through before the inevitable admission of inherited wealth, or kindly parents who allowed their fledgling first-time buyer to live rent-free in the East Wing. So reliably does this happen now that I’ve long since suspected that the people who publish these stories know exactly what they are doing and that the hate-clicks on social media aren’t a by-product, but the point of the exercise.  

And then there are the tales of the increasingly unhinged things Nimby campaigners have banded together to protect. A used car dealership. A derelict power station. An empty riverside site right opposite a major London tourist attraction. My personal favourite of these is the group in Richmond who campaigned to prevent high-rise buildings in Stratford, around 15 miles away across the capital, on the grounds it might, on the very clearest of days, be behind their view of St Paul’s and thus, one assumes, render their lives simply not worth living.  

These things deserve attention because we should shine a light on quite how greedy well-housed people are capable of becoming, when the need to provide for the next generation arises. But the interest in all of these types of stories derives from the same thing: their shock value, their ability to make you go, “Bloody hell, have you seen this?” In a better world, perhaps, news coverage of our housing market would feature less shock content, and more on why it’s become plausible to charge £68 a night for a tent next to another tent; how the cost of physical space is driving down living standards, driving up prices in cafés and shops, making our economy less vibrant and our cities less interesting because only giant brands can reliably afford to pay the rent.  

Then again, in a better world, we wouldn’t be able to run any of these stories at all, as they wouldn’t exist. It might make for less outrageous headlines. But it’d improve literally everything else. 

[See also: We don’t need a British West Wing – we’re already living in it]

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