The London (and UK) renting crisis

The housing crisis in London is big news at the moment, with the London Mayoral election only a week away. This issue is particularly close to my heart at the moment as I have lived in London for the last ten years and, in the last couple of weeks, I have been looking to to move into a flat that isn’t a house share for the first time in several years. I am used to the idea of letting agents being bloodsucking arseholes but I have been shocked by the changes that have occurred in a very short space of time. The new rules on how to rent, as well as who can rent, have seriously surprised me. It seems that at a time when more and more people are looking to rent long-term, it is becoming more and more difficult and even unsafe to do so.

You are now interviewed over the phone to see if you’re eligible before you are even allowed to view a flat. You are asked your salary and occupation, because to rent somewhere for E1,400 in London – the median rent for a property in the capital is now £1,350 – you need to be earning £50,000. For a couple looking together, this might be fine, but it shows you how few Londoners will now be able to afford to live alone. We are, apparently, turning into a generation of people who will share with housemates indefinitely. This has been made worse by new rules on how many people can share somewhere, put in place to stop a lot of people sharing a place together. Two friends wanting to share a two bedroom flat are now going to struggle, as letting agents are frequently only being allowed to let places to couples or families. And these places are not at all spacious. My partner and I were looking in Stratford, which Shelter described in a recent article as “difficult to afford” (whereas the whole of central London was “impossible to afford”) and where £1,400 might just about get you a small two bedroom place, but most were still one bedroom. We saw a flat for £1,200 which was basically uninhabitable. But someone will take it because competition is so fierce that estate agents no longer bother calling you back when you express interest, and the number of people fighting over these dreadful hovels is growing by the day.

A friend of mine has it even worse. Several years ago, I rented one flat while I was a student and another while I was unemployed. The letting agents were fine about it because my parents could be my guarantor. But if you don’t have a property-owning resident of the UK who can be your guarantor, then you have to have large stashes of cash ready to give away. My friend works part-time and her boyfriend is a student, and they have been asked by letting agents to pay six or even 12 months of rent in advance, on top of a deposit of around £2,000. Many landlords won’t take students at all. There are serious questions about where anyone without a very well-paid job is going to live. Everyone talks about how this generation is never going to be able to afford to buy, but for most people I speak to this is about as realistic as saying they’re going to sprout wings and fly to the moon one day. It simply isn’t part of the conversation. The more immediate question for us is, how are we even going to be able to rent?

Like so many people, I took the get-out-of-jail-for-an-astronomical-rail-fare-card, and I’m moving out of London and commuting in (a story for another blog post). But the problems don’t really stop there. I’ve had brought home to me the fact that one of the biggest issues with renting in this country is that renters have virtually no rights. This will not come as a surprise to many people but I am shocked by how much worse it’s got in such a short space of time. Estate agents can now basically charge whatever they like and call it an admin fee, and there is sweet bugger all you can do about it. £140 to ‘check out’ and have an inventory made – a blank inventory, because the flat has no furniture. £60 for leaving before the end of your contract (in a house share) even though you’re finding someone to take over your share of the lease. A charge for giving a reference over email instead of over the phone. £150 to copy and paste your name and address into a contract and ask another agency to read all the bills and payslips you send over to prove you’re a valid person. Oh, and speaking of proving you exist, you now need to show your passport to put down a holding fee on a flat! We finished looking at one we decided we wanted, and the estate agent said: “Do you have your passport?” Of course not, I’ve taken a Southeastern train to get here, not a BA flight.

And then there’s the insane things that landlords now feel they can put into a legally binding contract. I’ve had tenancy agreements which try and tell me what shoes I can wear indoors and where I can hang my laundry, on top of making me liable for pretty much everything except making sure the house exists for me to sit in. Even with all this nonsense, it seems I’ve been very lucky with my renting experiences (to date – touch wood!). #ventyourrent has been a popular topic on Twitter in recent days, with people telling horror stories of London renting like a ceiling falling in due to a flood, and then being evicted for complaining to the landlord about it. Or paying £1,000 a month for a flat with an unsafe boiler, and nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. With so many more people having to rent long term, or even for life if current predictions are true, it is astonishing that some simple rules haven’t been put in place to protect people. Even without a housing crisis, how is it possible that some of these things are legal?! I’m fairly sure it’s not legal to evict someone for complaining that they no longer have a ceiling, but it also seems to be a surprisingly common problem. Shrugging these things off with: “Well, landlords/letting agents are shits” just isn’t good enough. Young people in particular are being backed into so many corners, especially in London, that it’s no surprise that so many people I know are talking longingly of Elsewhere (not the alternative universe in Laini Taylor novels, just, anywhere but here). The future seems bleak, in so many ways, and it is time for someone to start making life a little bit easier for people who simply want a roof over their head.

Of course, none of this is even touching on what happens when things are really desperate, and you can’t afford a home of any kind. Shelter are working hard for more legislation to protect the homeless, and it can’t come soon enough. How having somewhere to live isn’t a basic human right is completely beyond me, and we need large-scale change as soon as possible to simply have a system that makes basic common sense.

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