The year is 2013 and you are renting in London. The rent is slightly more than you are technically comfortable with every month – your parents always told you that about 30 percent of your income should go on rent, but they bought a house in 1990 and then bought a much larger house in 2008, and they still think the way to get a job is to just go into shops with a copy of your CV, so frankly their brains and their lives and their lived experiences are entirely irrelevant because contextually they have elapsed – but you’ve been here about four months now and you’re just about keeping your head above the water even though the last five days of the month are spent exploring the outer limits of a NatWest overdraft.
This, of course, would be fine if your room was nice, but it isn’t – the smallest box room in a house that smells (of what, exactly? Sour milk? Stale air? Why is the smell always the same, even though there are no clear sources of it?), and you share with three strangers, one of which you fully hate and two you only half-like.
This of course would be fine if the house was in a desirable area, which it isn’t: It is a brisk 12-minute walk from the nearest train station, which is situated in a postcode of an area that, up until a decade ago, was considered a panic zone of crime and filth, until some graphic designer couple with a three-year-old and one on the way realised there were a couple of streets of really nice Victorian terraces back there and bought them all for a song.
Now the residential roads are pedestrianised at weekends for street parties, the pubs all have toddlers running around them and serve modern versions of scotch eggs, and there’s a Franco Manca. You are nowhere, nowhere, nowhere near the centre of the city, and yet you are paying a premium to be here. That doesn’t really make sense, to you.
But then this is what being young in the capital city is like, isn’t it? You don’t have to live here, in London. There are plenty of cities, or towns, that you could go and live in instead. But this is where it feels like it’s all happening for you – you are adjacent to the money, the parties, the fame (you saw Richard Bacon on the tube!), the food, the people, rooftop bars where you can smoke cigarettes deep into the blue-blush of the night and watch the city sparkle out huge beyond you.
It sort of doesn’t matter that your room is small because you don’t have much stuff, anyway. It sort of doesn’t matter that this is a transient base because you might move in with that person you met on Tinder three months ago. It’s the 28th of the month and you are sitting still in your room trying not to spend a single penny until payday on the 1st, and you know that you are briefly holding a torch that has passed from generation to generation to generation: Look at you, the bohemian youth of the city, with an old pizza box on your bedroom floor and a poem in your heart! You’re really doing it!
The year is 2018 and you are renting in London. You were walking near that place you used to live the other day, and walked past the house you stayed in out of interest, and noticed a “For Sale” sign outside. The landlord started the renovation works while you were all still on the end of your contract – the builders had left the front door open and your cat went missing, but you couldn’t complain because you weren’t meant to have a cat anyway, and sometimes you wonder about Chips, hope he found a nice family – and you can see how they have scrimmed the frontage of what used to be a very beautiful building clean with grey plaster and fitted it with a darker grey front door and a Ring doorbell. You look up how much the house would cost, out of interest, and laugh out loud while queuing in that Sainsbury’s Local that smells of shit: £1.2 million. £1.2 million!
You, of course, have had to move two postcodes further out of the city. Franco Manca just put posters up in the window of the old community centre so you sense your rent is about to go up. The venue you like to go to every other Saturday or so is locked in a bitter squabble with the council because of so many community complaints about the noise, and there’s a chance their license will be taken away. You have signed the petition with both your work email and your normal email.
You now have two housemates (one you hate, one you only half-hate) and your room is a bit bigger and nicer, but you’ve switched jobs twice in the last five years and lied about your previous salary each time to negotiate a technical pay rise with your new salary and it’s still getting eaten up by rent. Your private landlady keeps sending you all very insane emails at 2AM.
Is this better? You sort of feel more adult: you’ve got a succulent, you’ve got a £45 cushion you bought because you got flustered in a boujee shop that didn’t have the price on anything and you took it to the till thinking, ‘How much can it be – it’s a cushion?’, you have a couple of mates that are looking to buy a place (Jake’s doing well at the ad agency and Lara’s dad is “in property”).
You haven’t been to a house party in a squat and taken ketamine for ages, for weeks. You’re an upstanding, decent member of society. So why does it feel like the city doesn’t want you here?
The year is 2020 and you are renting in London. You got lucky because you and your old flatmate and your old flatmate’s new girlfriend negotiated the rent on this place just before lockdown hit and so now, at least, you’re here for the next 12 months, safely huddled up.
Your old flatmate’s new girlfriend has lost her job and keeps taking up random, messy hobbies – there’s a lot of yarn everywhere, for some reason, there are a lot of jars of artisan flour in the kitchen even though she never bakes any bread, she is convinced she can make a business putting crystals in the bottom of candles if she bulk buys a load of jars (in your shared living room), wax melts (in your living room), wicks (hallway) and crystals (propped up in front of your bike).
Your flatmate, who is on furlough, is doing something that means all of the broadband bandwidth goes to his room and you keep appearing all shonky and robotic on Zooms, which go on all day. Three months into the first lockdown, you sent a pleading email to your landlords asking for a reduction in rent, which they ignored, and then four months in you send it again, and they agreed to £100 off, for the whole flat, per month. Now they’ve just emailed to say the rent is going up £200. You’re still not legally allowed to for two walks in one day.
You haven’t had a pay rise for 24 months, in a way that, actually, is technically a pay cut. Your job has only got harder and the city is locked off to you in every way possible but somehow, the property you are staying in has become actively more valuable, and as a result you have to pay more to be there. The property, that doesn’t move, and hasn’t been improved. In a city that is silent but for Thursday night clapping. Is now worth more than it was 12 months ago.
This is the last London Rental Opportunity of the Week column, and it is supposed to be a fun list. I started making a fun list, actually. We can still do the fun list part. But then I made the grave mistake of asking people how their rents had been during and after COVID – whether it went up, went down, or stayed the same – and was bombarded with horror stories and then got depressed. (This column has been depressing to write; it has depressed me).
You have to understand that renting was already bad before COVID even started. You have to understand this column always focussed on the absolute worst properties in London – the unfit for habitation one-beds! The studios with showers in the kitchen! – because, aesthetically, photos of those places (with the absurd rents being charged for them!) were easy to goof on and made sense as a spectacle of illness.
But what those studios and stupidly laid out new-builds and refurbished HMOs were were a symptom of the wider disease, which is, like, the room you sleep in now. How many places have you rented in London where the bedroom you slept in was actually good? I’ll tell you my hit rate: I think I’ve had two good bedrooms out of ten (but one of those took up an absolutely wild amount of my income, so it wasn’t worth it). That sucks!
There shouldn’t be this much mould in this city, or windows that don’t open, or showers that don’t go high enough, or doors that don’t close or aren’t there, or bedrooms that you have to walk sideways around because the bed takes up almost all of the available space in. Paying rent to live in a house or flat shouldn’t be prestige! And it is insane that an already unworkable system, that punished the users who weren’t automatically rich enough to get out of it, again and again and again, didn’t get reformed over COVID, it got more lawless and even worse!
Alright, we’ll do the fun list for a bit. I have been looking at this city through the lens of Gumtree and Zoopla and Rightmove for too long. I have seen the tricks that landlords have used to try and gussy up unfit flats; I have seen the strange refurbishment trends that have gone on.
THE LIST: 1) Mezzanines
This is what the list is: the trends I have noticed, the things like that. The most notable of these was the three-year period where mezzanine flats were in vogue – either legacy high-ceilinged rooms that had been half-split into two floors (I am typing from one of these right now! It gets phenomenally cold in winter and I don’t have a single door for privacy in the whole place, and yes obviously our landlord tried to up our rent this year despite absolutely zero material improvements to the property in the 26 months that we’ve been here!), or just a bizarre wooden structure hovering above the kitchen like a treehouse or a bunk bed.
What has been evident in the long years since I started this column is the slow creep of what facilities we take for granted in a flat – for example, a bed that is actually on the floor, in a bedroom – and what can be slowly ameliorated away in front of our eyes without the rents changing in any way to reflect that.
Mezzanines were the greatest example of that: What if we split a small room into two, horizontally, so you don’t really have a living room and you don’t really have a bedroom, and you can’t really stand up, ever, but you sort of have half of both? What if 10 percent of the available rentals in the city were configured like that, for some reason?
The year is 2021 and you are renting in London. You’re just about clasping on to this same place by your fingernails, but you know the contract is up in three months and have heard horror stories from friends who are currently looking for places. They are being forced out of flats for not agreeing £400-a-month price hikes (where is the regulation on the rental market, by the way? Why is there not like, one atom of regulation? Great question, good question) but the flats they are looking at are more expensive than the price hike would be, anyway, despite being worse (bills, of course, have also gone up, but because that threatened to affect people who already own property, we heard all about that).
People are queuing up for viewings. They went to a flat where 30 people had looked at it one day and there were two housemates there, huddled in a bedroom with the windows open and their masks on, trying desperately not to catch COVID before they moved back home for a few months to try and get their stuff together again. They were in the running for one place but then the other party offered £200 a month over and the first years’ rent cash, up front, so they lost out on that and now they’ve only got nine days to find a place. Panic and terror is already piercing the air, and now the low churn of stress you always get when other peoples’ decisions force you to have to move house is starting up in your stomach again.
You are an adult in your low thirties with a job. It shouldn’t be this hard to find shelter to live in. Renting a flat in a city where the population has been broadly fixed for decades shouldn’t have the potluck adrenaline-without-the-payoff stress of bagging Beyoncé tickets.
Idly you think about starting your entire life – your career, your social life, your place and feeling in a community – in another city. Other friends have done this already (your friendship circle is splintering out into the wind – the great gears of circumstance meaning connections that had the potential to be lifelong friendships are fading down to just liking each others’ stories on Instagram) but tell you it’s just as bad out there. Manchester is basically only £100 cheaper than London, they say. Don’t get me started on Liverpool.
You know some people in Edinburgh but that really is a long way away from everything and everyone you know and also you are too keenly aware that you would be the great wave of people ruining a city instead of augmenting it. Margate, no. You could go to Nottingham, maybe, but you don’t think you’re really ready to live in a polycule. London is your city and you shouldn’t be afraid of that – yeah, sorry, but I am in love with one of the greatest cities on the planet and it’s just a place that feels like home to me – and you shouldn’t have to hurdle around the rest of the country just to exist.
You could go and live in Sheffield and become a completely different person, sure. But is it really worth changing your entire life around just to save a few hundred pounds a month? Would security offer you happiness, or just security?
2) Bad ceilings
We’ll go through these faster now, I promise. “Insanely angled ceilings”, is one. We used to have attics, when I was a kid. Our house just had an attic with a load of old suitcases in and paperwork from his past life that my dad couldn’t bear to look at. Some old coats, every report card I ever got from school. That’s sort of what attics were for: a utility-cum-storage room that nobody ever really went in after that time dad went up to try and find an old pair of binoculars and put his foot through a wad of fibreglass and nearly came out through the ceiling.
Now London has no attics. They have all been painted and plastered and turned into low little rooms. A kitchenette with a fire blanket. A low sofa that you can’t really stand up from, you have to crawl off. A bed in the same room as everything else. A single window, too high up to really comfortably look at, offering a gorgeous glimpse down the rolling hills of deep south-east London. You crack your head very hard on a piece of structural roofing that makes up the divide between your kitchen and your bedroom. You only have to live here for 11 more months, you tell yourself, paying £1,100 each time you do that. Just learn to walk on your hands and feet.
The year is 2023 and you are renting in London. Quietly, without you noticing, you have got to the age where friends the exact same age or younger than you are buying places.
Every time this happens – they tell you, expecting sympathy, that they looked at 12 places this weekend, yeah god no yeah I know – it feels like you’ve been punched in the diaphragm. How is everyone doing this? It’s not just hard work and saving. It’s not just that. That used to be it, but it’s not that anymore.
Oh, they say: their grandmother is still alive and just gave them £30,000. Oh, they say, work’s been going well and they promoted me in a way where my pay rise is your annual salary (you realise you entered the wrong career at 21, dilly dallied for too many summers in your twenties, and now you’ll never make the pace back). Oh, they say, well when we were renting all those years we were actually staying at a friend of James’ mum’s.
More people than you realised were staying in a flat their dad bought them after university. They hadn’t been worrying about rent for years. That was just a you thing. A little quirk you have, where you carry financial dread around with you every single day of your life. No, god, the – pfft, the last time I paid rent was probably second-year uni. No god no god, no. No. Renting just doesn’t really make financial sense, you know, when you could just buy. Sorry babes: Did you remember to bring the Perelló olives? I did ask –
3) Tiny sinks and toilets
Growing up you had a set size of toilet you were comfortable with, and a set size of sink. Forget those. Not for you anymore. Landlords have figured out – streamlined, you could say – the old laws of toiletry. Toilets were too big and you only need a little one, angled insanely in a small tiled room, often at an angle. Sinks can either be mounted into the toilet cistern – which feels wrong in many ways, doesn’t it, not only using toilet source water to wash your hands but the act of leaning over the toilet you just mucked in to wash them – or can be tiny, separately-mounted sinks that you cannot fit one hand into at a time, and who knows how you’re washing your face in it.
The rental class, these tiny sinks and toilets say, do not deserve full-sized sinks and toilets. If you want to shit in a normal toilet, earn it.
(It is of course gauche of me to compare, say, Victorian poor houses that barely had outhouses to the amelioration of modern London toilet standards, but also I think it’s gauche to not give someone a normal toilet to piss and shit in, so I’m calling it a draw.)
4) Two hobs
Hobs used to have four rings, but now they very often have two, and are frequently built into a surface top combi-oven or microwave (very often houses just “don’t have gas”, now. Fitting the pipes, presumably, is too expensive). “Who you cooking for, anyway?” the two-hob seems to sneer at you. “No one’s coming round here.” It would be good to just have the option to cook an extravagant meal like a normal person might, though, wouldn’t it. Wouldn’t it just be nice to have access to the very fundamental basics of modern life.
5) Fold-out beds
At some point over the past five years, “having a bed” became technically a luxury in London. There have been a proliferation of fold-out beds in the flats I’ve seen, either sofa-beds that clunk out every night and you have to rearrange them again in the morning (and, being a sofa-bed chosen by a landlord, I know that is the cheapest possible sofa-bed on the market, so it’s both uncomfortable to sit on in the sofa configuration and so deeply uninhabitable that it’s dangerous when in the bed configuration), or built-in fold out beds, often in la-di-da areas in west London, where high ceilinged with ornate plaster cornicing have been rammed full of a kitchenette and a tiny wall-mounted TV and a complicated fold-out bed apparatus, completely ruining the vibe of the room that was built by craftsmen over a decade ago, so a 2023-era landlord with three mobile phones and the worst jeans-and-shoes fit you’ve ever seen in your lifetime can net £300 a month off the top of it.
The year is “any year in history” and you are renting in London. There is no such thing as a good landlord. There is no such thing as an alright landlord. The best landlord of your life is the one that didn’t raise your rent that one year, but then your salary didn’t go up, either, (it never does), so nothing changed and everything stayed the same. The best stories I’ve heard about COVID landlords are ones that briefly cut rent then raised it over market as soon as things opened again to recoup their so-called lost costs.
Too many of you are living with friends who are also your landlords. Landlords came to me, pleading – ”I was good! I was the good landlord! I suspended rent for four pathetic little months in the midst of a global pandemic! But then restarted rent again, also in the midst of a global pandemic! Oh awoo, awoo! Be nice to be! I’m just a whittle wandword!”. We only have to kill ten to 15 landlords to make the rest of them afraid.
6) So much glass
The current trend, a cutting-edge 2023 trend, is glass cages instead of walls. This is an extension of the mezzanine bed apparatus – dividing a room in a way where it sort of functions as a flat, but not really – and, again, is more replete in expensive one-beds or studios in Canary Wharf or the postcodes around Canary Wharf that think Canary Wharf is good for some reason.
Done chicly, in say a Selling Sunset mansion or a five-star hotel suite, I can see how a frosted glass divider would actually be very aesthetic, practical, and elite. Rammed into a tiny room where you need the wall to be glass if you’re ever going to see daylight, it loses a little bit of the allure. Watch out for these cages as you go about your endless rental journey in this city. They are two steps up from what that book freak does to the women he kills in You.
7) Fridge creep
Maybe I grew up too privileged, though it didn’t particularly feel like it at the time. I grew up with an attic and four rings on the hob and my bed was on the floor instead of hovering above my living room. I grew up in a place where my fridge was in my kitchen. That was normal, back then.
Now, London fridges are creeping – to living rooms, to odd little cupboards with washing machines in them, to bedrooms, covered in cloth and working double as a bedside table. They are getting smaller when they are in kitchens and huge and ugly and foreboding when they’re in any other space. I guess… I guess I just took my childhood for granted. It taught me to expect too much. It taught me to expect that maybe my fridge would be in my fucking kitchen, where it obviously should be, because that’s where the fucking food is.
It is strange that you never hear from your property agent unless it is bad news, isn’t it? They are telling you four months ahead of time that your contract renewal is up and you need to sign it, sign it now, agree to the rent increase because your landlord could achieve more if they put it on the market, sign now, sign it now, and then you do not hear from them for another 12 months.
Or: They have pre-decided you cannot afford the increase, or the landlord has decided to sell the property (and the landlord always tells you what they will do with the money: put a child through university, move out of the city, build an extension on their own home. I don’t care!). Now you have to keep the house spick and span for a period of months, and agree to short-notice inspections and viewings, and get a chiding email about how much washing-up was left out last time they used their key and let themselves in and took a meter reading and showed a couple who are younger than you around your house because they are thinking of buying it.
All those times you told them the boiler wasn’t working… nothing. The oven blew a fuse and didn’t get replaced for two months (the oven was delivered, on a day you had to stay in for eight hours and wait for the delivery, but they didn’t pay for installation, which the delivery guy was very arsey about, so you have to wait ten days and stay home and wait again for a separate person, who is A Guy Who Knows the Landlord, to come around and fit the oven in. There are huge gaps in the work surface now and water will seep into them whenever you wash or cook, which will bloat the wood, which will all come out of your deposit at the end of the tenancy, in a way where it would have been more cost effective to pay for and install your own oven).
One of the radiators simply stops working, in winter, and you are shivering in jumpers and blankets and your energy bill is still steaming up to 100, for some reason, then you get an email in March telling you they’ll fix it next winter, when you know you won’t be in the property anymore. All those emails get ignored, obviously. But then you have five missed calls when you’re obviously at work, telling you there’s a viewing at your flat right now, where are you to let them in?
Why do they assume we’re never at work? Why do they call at 10AM and expect an instant response? They ask us what our jobs are. They check our salaries to make sure we can afford our egregious rents. But whenever they call us at work, they are always surprised to find us there.
When you mention the oven thing they say, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah: Is there a mate you can send over to let them in?” And it’s like: What exactly is your fucking job, mate? What the fuck do you actually do, then?
The Airbnb-fication of property has ruined a number of towns – traditional tourist destinations, most of Britain’s beach-adjacent towns or villages in the Cotswolds – Airbnb, which isn’t even good because you have to do your own tidying and it costs more than a hotel and the properties aren’t even interesting or nice, and is a scourge on community, has helped to ruin London, too.
Over COVID, when a lot of Airbnbs were empty, these flats dropped down onto the monthly rental market, and you could tell because all the photos of the places were staged with a plastic pot plant and a rolled up towel on the end of each bed, and the rents were many hundreds of pounds more than they should be, because all the Airbnb hosts did was calculate their nightly fee and extrapolate it across a month and went, “There: people will pay that, won’t they?”
The annoying fact is not that people did, exactly, but that other landlords saw these insanely inflated fees and assumed that’s what the market rate was – an artificial number inflated and invented by morons – and matched their prices accordingly. So then the AirbnB hosts saw those waters rising underneath them, and then raised theirs. Again: I am on my knees, I am begging you, please just regulate it a bit. Water is regulated. Air quality is regulated. The banks are regulated, our jobs are regulated. Trains, cars, buses. Food standards are regulated. Why is the quality and cost of our homes just run by a load of lads who buy their jeans at Next?
9) Terrible wardrobes
Think about every wardrobe you’ve had in a rental place: It was ugly and it didn’t work properly. You are thinking: ‘How can a wardrobe not work properly?’ Because one hinge on one door has slewed off and now opening that door is a nightmare, so you don’t. Because somehow this rectangular box is completely off-kilter and creaks as if it's going to fall over whenever you walk around your bedroom, so you have to prop it up with a wad of cardboard torn out of a crisps box. Because the chipboard at the back has somehow been punched through in a way where it keeps collapsing into your clothes and dragging little tiny pin-nails through your favourite coats. Because the wood is the most knotted wood you’ve ever seen in your life, and the whole huge creaking thing is appallingly ugly, but you can’t move it and you can’t buy your own wardrobe to replace it, so you’re stuck with it.
This goes for other furniture, too: bed frame, an unnecessary dining room, a low uncomfortable sofa, ugly curtains. I think a lot of the millennial zeal for creating small temporary moments of calm – we all had a laugh at hygge, didn’t we, but there are trends on every platform for carefully arranging and setting a home to make it feel, well, homely – is a reflexive response to just how much ugly, unworkable we’ve had to live with.
Everyone in London has had an IKEA bed frame break beneath them while they fucked, and had to prop it up for eight months with a box of clothes stored under the bed. Everyone’s had a chest of drawers where the top drawer has collapsed into the bottom drawer where technically you can get them all open but it’s easier not to. How many kitchens have you rented where every cupboard actually opens all the way? Did you even know bathtubs could come without cracks in them?
How do I feel knowing I do not have to look at Gumtree for property anymore (Well, except for when my landlord negotiates my rent up, and I have to move again; the endless loop, the endless cycle)? The answer of course is: bad. This column has been running for about seven years and I have been renting for all of them. The number of times I have accidentally stumbled across an actually nice, actually affordable rental property, in all of that time, that I have sent to friends who are looking for places to stay (a London law: You always have a friend looking for a place to stay)? Three.
That’s pathetic, and it’s a slight on a city this great. All I’ve done is watch property standards get worse. All I’ve seen is rooms get smaller, with more crap stuffed into them. All I’ve done is seen prices get higher, and people tell me more heartbreaking and desperate stories about how hard it is to get them, and then once they get them their landlord does everything possible to make them feel insecure in them. All I’ve seen is the rot of this city spread out to the rest of the country. All I’ve done is hate landlords more and more violently. But it’s not just them: this is a housing crisis. It is insane it’s been allowed to get to this stage, with nothing on the horizon that’s ever going to be done about it. And the very few, scant, expensive new-builds in this city are horribly angled pieces of shit that further smash apart the communities they are being raised in, with cheerful billboards among the years of brick dust saying “PRICES STARTING AT £750,000!”
This requires serious journalism, now, from serious people, not me logging on every week to say, “That mirror doesn’t need to be there, does it. And what’s with the size of this sink?!” The only advice I can give you, as a person trying to exist in either London or the rest of this mangled-up mess of a country, is always ignore your landlord when they tell you something they believe to be the truth. Query every deposit deduction. Make sure that deposit is in a protection scheme. Take them to small claims if it isn’t. Make yourself a nuisance. We shouldn’t worry about being a “good tenant”, because we pay them thousands of pounds a year (keeping many of us on the recurring loop of the rental market long after our jobs and lives would suggest we might buy – how we’re meant to save 10 percent when spending 30 percent is close to impossible is beyond me), and asking for things to be fixed is the bare minimum.
Email about everything. Drive the cunts mad. And, most of all, never accept a rental increase without a fight. Landlords take an astonishing amount of money off us by just assuming authority over it. Look up the Land Registry details if you have to. Search out a template letter to reply to any proposed rise. Landlords are a scum class that are somehow allowed to hold prohibitive power. Until we’re allowed to kill them – listen, Chairman Mao had some spicy ideas but he was right about one thing, at least – all we can do is make ourselves annoying to them.
Unless the government comes in with literally any tool beyond that – hello????? anyone?????? – that’s all we really have. It’s cool how we built society like this. Some dumb fish gasped on the muddy shore of some prehistoric lake, monkeys stood up, we roasted mammoths over spit-fires in caves. We generated the colossal intellectual achievements of language and thought, accelerated technology from primitive tools to landing on the moon. We built pyramids and palaces and roads and skyscrapers. And we used all this to… let landlords charge £1600 a month for a one-bed in Edmonton. Cool stuff. Really good stuff.