Once upon a time I enjoyed an above-average salary and life was affordable. I was married and the main breadwinner; my wages alone were sufficient to cover rent, bills and food. I didn’t actually enjoy the lifestyle, because I never got to live it – I was always working and there was never any time or money left for me. These days, as a freelancer, I don’t earn anywhere near as much as I used to before I ‘went it alone’ in both work and life, so life is significantly tougher in a financial sense. But I feel a happier person for it, so I’m not complaining. Not yet. But I fear what the future may hold.
My first eight or nine months as a freelancer went well, then the global financial crisis hit. Around the same time my marriage fell apart. After my separation and subsequent divorce, I spent some time working three jobs – two part-time minimum-wage jobs and my freelance biz – in order to be able to continue living in the one-bed flat I’d lived in throughout my marriage. That was unhealthy, to put it mildly; it would have been for the healthiest of people, let alone me and my obnoxious health issues. So after 10 years of having a reasonable amount of living and home-working space I moved to a tiny basement studio flat that wasn’t much cheaper than the one-bed place, but in a better location to commute into town, and besides, every little bit of saving helps, I thought; little did I foresee how cold, damp, dark and utterly depressive a basement could be, and combined with everything else about that place and its owner that turned out to be very, very wrong, I didn’t stay there for long.
Sharing the burden
Nowadays I live in a flatshare. The threshold from having a home entirely to yourself to a place where everything bar your bedroom is shared with others seemed very high beforehand, but as it turned out it wasn’t; in fact, I feel more at home where I live now than I’ve felt in the aforementioned places.
Non-Brits and even non-Londoners usually react with surprise when I tell them I live in shared accommodation; they tend to associate house-sharing with students. But the average flatsharer in London is not a student in his or her late teens or early twenties, the average London flatsharer is a thirty-something in full-time work (source: The Essential Guide to Flatsharing by Rupert Hunt).
An average UK wage would – after tax – just about cover an average London rent plus council tax and utility bills, and might just about stretch to cover the cost of commuting into work to earn that wage (though that would be pushing it), but it wouldn’t leave you enough money to then feed yourself. So unless you qualify for housing benefit, the only way to live in London is through sharing accommodation. (Of course one could choose to move out of London, but there just aren’t the jobs in the areas where rents are affordable – that’s why rents are so much lower there.)
London needs homes, desperately, and within London there is plenty of space available to build new homes without the need to cut trees or concrete over parks, but in a free market without rent controls they are just not going to be built because there is more profit to be made in London’s housing crisis. And rent controls aren’t going to happen as long as the powers that be are among those who would be negatively affected by them.
In the meantime there are plenty of new structures being built everywhere throughout London, but only very few of them are homes. Some of those few homes are even labelled ‘affordable’, but ‘affordable’ means 20% below market value and for average and lower earners that is anything but affordable. Most of the (too few) homes being built in London serve the high-end market and a staggering 75% of them is sold overseas without even being advertised for sale in the UK. The vast majority of building projects visible in London, though, appear to involve office space, and as with residential properties most of it owned by overseas investors.
I have no objection against office buildings being built, provided new offices would bring new job vacancies to London for jobs that pay above-average wages sufficient cover the cost of living within commutable distance and commuting to said offices… and I am just not convinced that is happening. Moreover, while sources state that only 7-10% of London office space stands vacant, everywhere I go in London I see empty (often ugly) office buildings featuring unsightly signage offering office space to let; if indeed that is only 7-10% of all office space in London, London has far more office space than I could ever have imagined.
It doesn’t really matter whether the 7-10% figure is genuine or not, every and any Londoner will have seen plenty of office space standing empty for months if not years, and I don’t see why this couldn’t be temporarily or permanently converted into living spaces that are truly affordable to people on average and below-average incomes. Right now, London’s housing crisis is so acute, I don’t even see how private landlords would be financially disadvantaged if we took pressure off waiting lists for social housing and curbed homelessness in London.
Aside from the odd vanity project not enough is being done to ease London’s housing crisis and curtail London rent levels. London needs middle and lower income workers but said workers are being priced out of London. There is government money for over-the-top weapons programmes and infrastructure projects, but no money towards housing? I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that; I think it’s time the powers that be reveal their own personal and business interests in these matters, because they clearly don’t think or act in any interest of the greater public.
In London rents continue to rise and house and flat shares are making way for room shares. That step seems a hell of a lot greater to me than the one from living independently to sharing a home… and personally I am not sure I’ll be willing or able to make that step when the need arises, even with inventions like bed tents. Which probably means that within the next ten-or-so years I, too, will be priced out this city I love so dearly… unless, of course, something is done about the housing crisis. Can you see that happening? Sadly, I don’t.