There is a rat in my flat. I hear it before I fall asleep, munching its way through the pile of stolen socks and apple cores it has stashed behind the washing machine. I have tried traps and poison but I’m informed that this is simply one of the hazards of living underground.
My little basement flat is full of mould and spiders and is accessible only through somebody else’s front hall, yet despite the recent rodent invasion, it is still by far the nicest of the nine different places I have lived in since I came to London six years ago. During that time, I have lived with drug addicts and violent strangers and with the constant stress of insecurity, knowing that at any point my friends and I might be turned out with minimal notice. I’ve not been in one place long enough to get to know my neighbours. I have shared space with roaches, rodents and flatmates’ stoner boyfriends, all of whom will eat your cheese if you don’t hide it. Now, for the first time, I have my own front door to shut and for this unutterable luxury I am paying well over half of my wages.
When I say luxury, I mean it. Unusually among my peer group, I will probably not have to move again to a smaller, more expensive place in the next six months. For “Generation Rent”, this is the equivalent of a penthouse with a chocolate hot tub.
To most people who are young, unemployed or living precariously from payslip to payslip, the housing crisis is not abstract. It is horribly real. It’s about whether you can afford to turn on the heating as the nights get colder. Until recently it was about choosing whether to live in awful, cramped conditions closer to work, or to trade a two-hour commute for enough space to swing an anarchist tract. But a great many people no longer get that choice.
With rip-off landlords raising rents and unscrupulous politicians cutting benefits, vermin is the least of a renter’s worries. Rents are rising uncontrollably across the country, especially in the capital, where the price of a roof over your head rose by 7.6 per cent last year alone. But those who rent know that landlords have us over a barrel and we have no other options. For most, a mortgage is a vanishing dream and, because of the combination of rising rents, falling wages and benefit cuts, many are being forced out of their homes –moving elsewhere if they can afford it; if they can’t, squatting on friends’ couches, or in hostels, or on the street.
As well as the rat, which I have nicknamed Stanley in the hope that humanising it will make me less likely to lie awake listening to it methodically eating the skirting board, my conscience has obliged me to share my home with a rotating cast of friends with nowhere else to go.
As wages have stagnated and millions languish in underpaid or unpaid work, rents have continued to rise, because the government refuses to impose controls on private landlords. Instead, housing benefit has covered the shortfall between wages and rent – in effect, a state subsidy for the property-owning classes, which is rising year on year despite the benefit cap. In 2013, the state will pay £23bn directly to landlords. Most new claimants of housing benefit are working; they just can’t earn enough to cover basic housing. Instead of reforming the system by imposing rent controls, the coalition is telling ordinary working people that they are lazy and grasping and turfing them out of their homes if they happen to have an extra room, under the terms of the punitive “bedroom tax”, which its dwindling number of advocates insist we call the “spare room subsidy”.
So who is it, in these desperate times, that the coalition has decided to help out? Secure property owners or desperate renters? Can you guess? Are you sick of the rhetorical questions yet? Instead of supporting ordinary people to stay in their homes, the coalition is providing another boost to the property market by subsidising first-time homebuyers under its Help to Buy scheme.
This would be a stupid way to manage the housing stock even if we weren’t at serious risk of another property bubble. As it is, one has to wonder if there were some funny fumes in the Chancellor’s constituency home, the sale of which made him a £400,000 profit last year. Even Lloyds Bank has warned of dire consequences if steps are not taken to reduce housing inequality.
Property, however, is no longer primarily about keeping people warm and dry. Britain’s financial recovery has been based on rising house prices, particularly in London, where the global super-rich are buying up mansions, leading the New York Times writer Michael Goldfarb to suggest London housing has become “a global reserve currency”.
The most common centre-left response is a call for more houses to be built. It’s a fine idea – a house-building programme would create jobs and make it easier for the lowwaged and unwaged to live with dignity in one of the richest nations in the world. But building houses takes time and re-electing a Labour opposition that has shown little willingness to stand up for the immediate needs of the British working class will take longer. The hundreds of thousands of homeless and “hidden homeless” in Britain need places to live in right now; the millions more who are living in overcrowded, unhealthy, insecure homes with no prospect of anything better need a lifeline. The wealthy investors who own the million homes that are standing empty in this country at any one time do not.
You can only put up with so much freeloading vermin. The rat and I were getting on tolerably until two nights ago, when it decided to climb into bed with me for a snuggle. At which point, I indulged in a scream worthy of a Hitchcock blonde and spent the rest of the night shivering with the light on, googling the price of cabinet members’ second homes and wondering how keeping yourself off the streets in one of the most prosperous cities in the world got so hard.