Just off the bustling Peckham High Street in south London, construction workers were finishing off 33 new houses on a quiet residential road.
Yet unlike the usual glossy new developments in this rapidly gentrifying part of the capital (house price growth in Peckham outstripped everywhere else in the UK in 2019), these homes will be rented out at no more than a third of the tenant’s income. They are part of a project to help young people live affordably in London.
Londoners pay an average £732 per month on rent. Across the UK the number of young people unable to afford a place to call home has risen by 40 per cent since 2016, and in the early stages of the pandemic 15,200 young people in London approached their council for help finding accommodation.
The days of house prices being anywhere near in line with wages have well and truly passed, meaning that millennials and generation Z are stuck in a perpetual rent chasm unless they have a generous inheritance or major financial help. And, contrary to the comments made by the TV property show presenter Kirstie Allsopp, giving up holidays abroad and Instagrammable brunches or cancelling your Netflix subscription will not magically save you enough for a deposit (unless you wait 450 years).
Peckham’s new compact but modern studio-type homes, painted black and currently laying in a bath of sand and rubble before their spring opening, are part of the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint’s Independent Living Programme. This offers accommodation to tenants at no more than and third of their income, as well as providing mentorship. The scheme is for young people aged 16-25 in employment or doing an apprenticeship, and tenancies can last for up to five years.
It is a rare genuinely affordable housing project, which the charity notes should really be the work of central government or local mayors. “It does indeed feel like sometimes we step up [in place of the government],” Orla Constant, relationship director at Centrepoint, told me in the living room of one of the new modular homes.
Each flat is 21 square metres and has a sleek, modern aesthetic: fresh white walls with a cool grey laminate floor, a partially separated bedroom and a small but efficient kitchen and living space. A generously-sized bathroom houses a shower and toilet.
“The government managed to actually get everyone off the streets in the pandemic,” Constant recalled. Under the Everyone In programme councils put those who were or at risk of being homeless in hotels during the early days of the pandemic. The scheme is estimated to have helped more than 30,000 people, but funding was soon pulled. Councils were told that they must close their individual programmes last summer to receive the latest round of rough sleeper funding from central government.
There are now so many young people without housing in the capital that the first accommodation especially for young people sleeping rough was opened in west London last year, to sleep 40 people, funded by the mayor and councils.
Even for young people who are not yet facing homelessness or sleeping rough, the problems of the housing system are affecting their future prospects.
A report by the Entrepreneurs Network think tank says that high housing costs are preventing people from starting and growing businesses. The cost of renting a one-bedroom flat in London is 63 per cent higher than in Paris, 30 per cent higher than in Amsterdam and 90 per cent higher than in Berlin, the research finds. Rents in other UK startup hubs such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Bristol are also high by international standards.
Housing inequality damages productivity by discouraging workers from moving to the places where their earning power would be highest. As a result British businesses suffer, as do young workers at the bottom of the career ladder.
From youth homelessness to dented job prospects to a lack of savings and disposable income, the bleak reality of housing for young people often doesn’t appear to register with older generations. “I think there are definitely a lot of older people who don’t understand quite how dire the situation for housing is,” Aria Babu, senior researcher at the Entrepreneurs Network said.
Allsopp’s comments were “unfair”, she said, “and the kind of thing that someone would say if they had managed to get on the housing ladder at a time when housing was much cheaper, and when people’s incomes were more able to stretch to it.” Last year, lest we forget, the average house earned more than the average worker.
At least a handful of young people won’t face that trap in Peckham.
“It’s a great opportunity to save. My dream goal is to save for a mortgage, which was never possible when I lived in a hostel, or even if I privately rented,” said Katelin, a Centrepoint resident who was refused accommodation by her council several times during the pandemic.
The stability of having housing and — God forbid — a bit of disposable income has allowed Katelin, a teaching assistant, to transform her life. “I can travel, go on trips with my friends and do things I never would’ve been able to do before.”
Yet for every young person like Katelin, another is paying over the odds in the private rental sector, another is holed up with their parents, and another is slipping through the net.