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26 July 2023

With its impossible rents, London is trying to spit me out

In June I replied to 22 adverts on SpareRoom and made it through to five viewings. The competition is wild.

By Pippa Bailey

The only thing worse than looking for love online is looking for a home online. I know this because I have spent a great deal of the past decade engaged in both.

Over two days in June, I replied to 22 adverts on SpareRoom, a website where people list rooms to rent, each message tailored as if I were applying for a job. The competition is wild. Some adverts state that, due to the number of replies anticipated, they will only be writing back to those who are “successful” in their bid merely to lay eyes on the room.

I made it through to a viewing for five properties. Odd as it is to audition to bankrupt yourself for a bedroom, it must be far stranger to be on the other side. It is like dating, only more intense: to take ten, maybe 15 minutes, to decide whether a person is your kind of person – not just to see for another drink, but to live with. One woman tells me she has been forced to look for a flatmate after a break-up; she can’t afford the rent on their two-bedroom flat alone. The room is £1,112 a month, and has no natural light. At another, the tenants received nearly 300 messages in a week, which they whittled down to 20 viewings. I am honoured, but the flat is a hovel.

When I moved into my previous rental flat in September 2020, a one-bed in Finsbury Park, north London, the market was suppressed because of the pandemic. Even then, I could barely afford it. At £1,452 a month (excluding bills), my rent was just over 60 per cent of my income. Unsurprisingly, I did not pass the estate agent’s affordability tests, and had to provide evidence of savings that I could use to pay the rent if needed.

Two years later, I was informed that my landlord wanted to “achieve the market value of the property”, a rise of £200. It was money I simply did not have. I was issued with a “no-fault” eviction, but really my fault was: you are not rich enough.

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The couple who moved into my flat after me had in turn been priced out of their home when their landlord raised the rent by nearly 40 per cent, from £1,400 to £1,950. With mortgage rate increases, the rising cost of repairs and, since 2017, less favourable tax relief, landlords are choosing to sell rather than continue letting, constricting supply and pushing up prices. The number of rental properties is down by a fifth this summer compared with June 2022, according to the estate agent association Propertymark. Of the landlords who don’t sell, many simply pass the cost of mortgage hikes on to their tenants.

[See also: A generation locked out]

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The Office for National Statistics has reported a new record high in UK annual rental price inflation every month for the past 14 months. According to the listings website Rightmove, in the first three months of 2023 the average asking rent, excluding London, was 9.4 per cent higher than the same period the previous year, and 14 per cent higher in London. And the rental market is not just young people who eat too much avocado on toast (though it does skew young): one in five households in England lives in a private rental, many with children.

This summer, even after extending my search by four miles, I found just seven properties, all studios, that were affordable based on the received wisdom that rent should cost no more than 30 per cent of your income, and that did not look as though a murder had been committed on the mattress. Four were let by the time I rang the estate agent; there was no response from the others. Repeating that search today produces 23 results. One is a hotel room; 12 are parking spaces.

I recently spoke to the couple who moved into my flat, curious as to how they got there. They said they had viewed ten or more flats, always at open house viewings and at fixed times, so “we had to take time off work, otherwise no chance”. There were sometimes six or eight people viewing a small flat at once. If you wanted it, you had to make an offer almost on the spot.

This word, “offer”, is relatively new to the rental market. A few years ago, a prospective tenant still had some power, enough to request conditions of a tenancy: the removal of a certain piece of furniture, or a wall being repainted. Today, demand is so high that it is no longer enough simply to say you will pay what is asked. The tenants in my former flat are paying £70 a month more than advertised (making the total hike between my tenancy and theirs 17 per cent), and were advised to offer a two-year contract, rather than the standard year, to sweeten the deal. They tell me one flat they enquired about, on the market for £1,450 a month, went for £1,750.

London, the city in which I was born and have lived all my life, is trying to spit me out. I have moved 11 times – soon to be 12 – in my adult life, and I am bone tired of boxes, of always knowing that whatever life I build for myself is only ever temporary. Such complaints may sound lachrymose and quixotic, but a home is not just a practical arrangement, it is an emotional bond – as any homeowner who has considered selling in the face of rising mortgage costs knows.

Many of my friends are among them: hostage to uncontrollable price hikes, wondering just how much they will have to compromise. I empathise, but want to say: you at least have had the privilege, even for a little while, of having ownership over your home, of having the freedom to drill a hole in a wall or to get a cat, of investing your money in your own future rather than a stranger’s. Your life is an impossible dream for the majority of renters. I don’t say any of this, of course. I tell them it will all be OK, though I know it won’t be.

[See also: Why is my rent so high?]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special