Life

The Grim Reality of Renting in London With No Safety Net

I've moved four times in three years, have a full time job, yet don't feel secure and am constantly in debt. I'm scared things will never change.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
June 15, 2020, 8:00am
Dirty washing in rented London flat
Photo by Emily Bowler

About nine weeks into COVID-19 lockdown, my housemates texted and said: “No easy way to say this, but are you able to start thinking about what’s next for you living-wise?”

I've been living at our flat in London for a year and a few months. As far as I could tell, things had been alright. We had our differences: I like skateboards, they ride bicycles. We had a few moments together, like hanging out in our garden and watching a few films. But this hasn’t worked. Enough, they say, is enough: “We want a community.” So I’m out, looking for a house again, for the fourth time in three years.

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Between 2017 and 2020, I’ve lived in south east London (Surrey Quays), west (Notting Hill), south east again (Greenwich) and east (Forest Gate). Grand places, high ceilings, lots of space, many plants – that was the vibe in west. Greenwich was lonely. Surrey Quays had a huge Tesco superstore and Forest Gate was calm. No one should move that much, though. Packing up your life again and again takes a huge toll.

The fact is, unless you're financially supported by your parents or hold a decent well-paying job (i.e over 35k), living in London is very, very hard. The renting market has been fucked since before I arrived here in 2013, and no one seems to care. I can't help thinking that it's a ticking time bomb.

Coming from my family background, being able to live in London is a huge achievement. I’m the first person in my family to go to university and moving straight out to London into a job was a feat to be celebrated. I am proud.

But seven years on from unpacking my bags in the room I rented when I landed in London, I’m wondering what comes next and whether anything will change. Will I achieve the holy grail of living in a place of my own, or will the life I keep on rebuilding over and over be snatched away from me in an era of economic uncertainty?

SOME (GOOD?) THINGS ABOUT THE PLACES I'VE LIVED

There are some positives to living transiently in rental properties in London in 2020. Compared to my friends who have lucked out and landed on a fixed rate term or been handed parental cash to put toward a deposit for houses they now live in, I feel like I’ve lived more of London. Even if it’s only a by-product of waking up on different streets in different corners of the map, I can pull up the temperature of an area via lived experience.

The first weird place I moved to was Notting Hill. Before then, I’d been living in a good house share in Surrey Quays, but the landlord sold the place because he wanted a good deal before Brexit. The speed of the sale meant I needed to find a new place in a few weeks. When something came up, I took it.

Notting Hill is strange when you’re not a member of the elite. We lived in a guardianship property two doors down from Stella McCartney’s house; I remember complimenting her husband, Alasdhair Willis, the creative director of Hunter wellies, on his vintage velour Adidas track bottoms as he popped out his Jag while I was en route to Tesco to pick up reduced items before closing time. It seemed mad that an internationally renowned boujee couple lived so close to us, in a house shared by 20 people with varying degrees of mental and financial issues.

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I watched Notting Hill three times after moving in and loved the bit where Hugh Grant walks down Portobello Road. I imagined myself living that same life. In reality, the market is mad expensive now, and the streets around Pembridge Gardens and Chepstow Villas are packed with Instagram influencers. I was a voyeur in everyone else’s lavish life and spent weekends walking the roads. Who owned the house on Westbourne Grove that was painted entirely black, with a black Range Rover to boot? What was Jack Whitehall doing at Granger and Co?

I moved into the Notting Hill place in October 2017, but by the time the 2018 World Cup rolled around, it had been sold. (To my knowledge, it’s still behind building work boards.) Once again, I had four weeks to find somewhere new. The stress of being potentially homeless meant I leaped at the first opportunity that arrived.

Greenwich maritime living it was. I moved in July 2018. Plenty of tourists travel to Greenwich to experience the metal prime meridian line on the ground at the Royal Observatory and to see the Cutty Sark. I’ve never been in the Cutty Sark, but I walked past it on on the way to Nandos. The privilege of living next to a Royal Park of London wasn’t lost on me, even if the dilapidated police station guardianship I lived in with 30 other people was gross and loud.

Forest Gate came next in December 2018. I was desperate to live somewhere with working toilets and water, so I moved as soon as I could when somewhere in my budget came up. In zone three east London, I walked the streets Kano rapped about on his album Made In The Manor and bumped into grime legend D Double E several times in the local pub. Last summer, he was shooting a music video near my house, meaning wherever you went in E7 that day you were bound to see D Double bombing around in a white Ferrari with a D Double E registration plate. If I headed further east toward Wanstead, I'd arrive on the soothing fringes of Epping Forest. I liked it here.

SOME BAD THINGS ABOUT THE PLACES I'VE LIVED

But several brain-wrecking stresses came with every brief moment of peace I found in a previously non-encountered part of London. Living in a guardianship property with tens upon tens of people, you’re likely to live with a few nutters. Paul – which definitely wasn't his real name – was a scam artist. I know the tricks now: building up an initial rapport on moving-in day, offering to help with stuff, always being around to give whatever you need, whenever you want, then asking to borrow some money a month or so later.

“Would you find it strange if someone in the house asked to borrow £1,000,” someone whom I lived with asked me. “Yes”. “Ah, OK – because I’ve leant it to them. Shit.” Turned out Paul had asked a few people for money, so someone took one of the bikes he was “selling” as collateral. Five months later the bailiffs came round and dragged him from the room. He hadn’t paid rent once.

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In another guardianship, someone I’m going to call Jack managed to convince half the people we were living with that he was a lord, because the title appeared on his credit card. In reality, he was a 50-ish year old man preying on young vulnerable women. I'm guessing he bought the title for a small fee off an online website like this.

A few people had their suspicions, too. When we looked Jack up on Facebook, there was a post from someone who knew him back when he lived in South Africa, pleading for anyone who had come into contact with him to get in touch immediately as he had ran away with their money. Like Paul, Jack was always around to help. Three months into the tenancy, he shacked up with a woman in her twenties with thousands of pounds of credit card debt. One night the police were called to the room they were staying in together; they had a fight, he took her phone, then she reportedly punched him and spent a night in a cell. A few weeks later they both moved out with a plan of travelling the world together in a caravan he'd bought just a few weeks earlier.

When you’re living in temporary accommodation, you’re very vulnerable. People like Jack and Paul preyed on that vulnerability. The places abound with drugs too. Someone down the hall was shotting xannys and coke they bought off the Dark Web. Another housemate popped up as the first result on Instagram when I typed in something like "ket fiend" while researching a trend piece on ketamine use among young people. His girlfriend never spoke, so we were surprised when they both got married on a whim. We only knew because we spotted them cooking together; him in a suit, her in a dress. “We got married today,” they said by the stove.

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Moving house again and again sucks. There’s no other way to put it. But when you’re not able to afford your own place in London and have to live through temporary or shared accommodation, it’s inevitable that you will one day receive the notice from your landlord or housemates that it’s time to pack up and move on.

Beside the psychological impact of packing up and unboxing, the difficult thing to stomach was the fees. Fees upon fees. Continually paying out for deposits I wouldn’t get back. Putting up a first month rent payment while I was still paying for somewhere else, because of crossover. Hiring vans. The experience landed me in thousands of pounds of debt. It shouldn’t be like this, not when I have a job.

LESS MONEY, MO' PROBLEMS

The average monthly salary in London is between £2,000 and £2,500. This just about covers moving fees, which is usually first month’s rent (average cost: £902) and a month’s deposit – usually the same price as the first month rent payment. This means you need, at any given time, a safety net of at least £1,000 to feel secure and not like you’ve taken up residence on a cliff face. Coming to London without any savings and then moving again and again, I struggled to build any support. I’m not alone here. Forty percent of 22 to 29-year-olds have less than £1,000 in savings.

There are 25,000 empty homes in London, with every street corner seemingly occupied by billboards for the latest Ballymore high rise apartment complex. Seventy-four percent of landlords say they have been contacted by tenants who say they are going to struggle to pay rent, due to job losses and furlough from the 2020 COVID-19 crisis. It is clear the renting problem faced by young people in London, and by extension the UK, will get worse. I am scared.

I am a professional adult in a secure job. I have been working full time for six years. Yet I still do not have a secure home. I know it could be worse, but often, it feels like I’m slipping through the cracks of society, watching on as my peers move into their thirties with houses and partners to boot. What will become of me, and people like me?

I’m moving house again in July, back south. My girlfriend lives there and a couple weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, her two housemates announced they would be leaving the tenancy with immediate effect. One figured there was no point staying in London while it was in lockdown and wanted to save money on rent “because what’s the point in paying it”, so moved home. The other decided that she would leave too, because now was a good time to buy a house. This is privilege in action. Those with money already can duck out when they please, leaving those without it in the lurch, trying to put the pieces back again.

Right now, my girlfriend and I are prepping the house. It’s another month of fees. Another month of deposits. Another month of moving vans. I’m hoping this one lasts. We just need a third housemate. Do you want in? We’re two young, clean professionals, who like a glass of wine in the evening, but also our own space. We have a garden too, which is a bonus. DM if interested!

@ryanbassil