What is it? The economic aftershock of an over-hyped Airbnb market decimated by COVID and the brain worms of buy-to-let landlordism deciding they want the exact same profit they signed up for anyway, inflation and cost of living crisis be damned, and the entire property market backed to the hilt by the government saying: oh go on then—
Where is it? As if to say: It’s a fallen holiday rental studio in Stoke-on-Trent.
What is there to do locally? I have only been to Stoke-on-Trent once and it was to meet Eddie Hall, then-World’s Strongest Man (though I do personally think if you ever win World’s Strongest Man you get to call yourself “World’s Strongest Man” literally forever, because come on. You don’t stop being one of history’s most freakishly overburdened power engines just because someone pulled a truck a bit faster than you a year later. Can you imagine, as a six- or seven-year-old boy, being able to play “my dad is harder than your dad!” in the playground when your dad is Eddie Hall, World’s Strongest Man? The untouchable energy must be as close as a mortal has come to feeling like God).
As best I could tell from my brief time there, the entire town circles around Eddie Hall, World’s Strongest Man. There is a big gym there where he works out and a hairdressers underneath it where he gets his undercut topped up. All of Stoke’s roads are for Eddie Hall to rev giant, custom-made motorbikes around and occasionally a big well-suspended truck. Every restaurant has a 64 oz. steak and a big cheesecake in the fridge at all times in case Eddie Hall creaks in through the double-doors. And the townspeople, all, flock to Eddie Hall: They buzz around him in groups, they turn and gasp at his size and his power, they talk to each other only of Eddie Hall, how they saw him in Tesco doing a big shop, how close their house might be to his. Then Robbie Williams turns up once every decade and they just do all that but with him.
This is all Stoke is, to me: the home to two men, one a generational entertainer and one the third-most powerful man to ever live, and nothing else. There is nothing else in Stoke. Which makes me wonder: Would you accept your town being a dreadful grey mass of nothing if it could birth two such world-changing sons? Does the anodyne nothingness, the weird in-between accent of Stoke, have power to it? If you wanted to give birth to a child who is going to go on to touch the face of greatness: is there a statistical probability of doing that in Stoke (pop. ~256,000) than anywhere else?
In London, a Robbie Williams might get lost in the noise. In Manchester, an adolescent Eddie Hall might get distracted from his weights, from his cardio routine, from his precocious eating. Perhaps there is something alchemic in Stoke. Perhaps there is something brilliant and inspiring in its nothingness. I do hope I never have to go back there to find out
Alright, how much are they asking? You don’t want to know.
I do want to know You don’t want to know.
The entire point of this column is: I want to know I just don’t— I don’t think you can comprehend this number.
Tell me the number Remember it’s in Stoke, OK?
It’s in Stoke I know but: I really need you to know it’s in Stoke. Say the words with me: “It’s in Stoke”.
It’s in Stoke. I acknowledge that it’s in Stoke £1,229 p.c.m.
Fuck off! Yeah.
In Stoke? In Stoke!
IN STOKE? I know.
IN STOKE? IN STOKE? …
STOKE! I know, I know. I know. Stoke.
Remembering, of course, this, from the start of the pandemic, when a real “magician-with-dark-ties-to-the-pick-up-artist-industry”-looking Airbnb landlord ranted about how the company had let him down by allowing a global pandemic to happen that stopped him from his god-given right to have empty housing stock make him passive income even though it was literally illegal for everyone on the planet to travel at the time.
I, obviously, enjoyed this: in the dark, early, “what will happen and for how long?” days of the pandemic, seeing a community of the worst end of the gig-and-app economy – people who have ruined towns and cities the planet over with their stupid get-sort-of-rich-sort-of-quick schemes! People who have stolen even more housing stock from the already scant supply just to offer an experience that is in no way even 1 percent as good as just going to a hotel! – have huge meltdowns because their “businesses” were under threat was enormously spiritually nourishing for me. It was a dark time for all of us: seeing this guy who looked like if Jhonen Vasquez illustrated the storming of the Capitol go crazy on main was just the pinprick of light I needed.
Sadly, of course, as it ever does, things soon reverted to mean, as in: The great grinding gears of government and capitalism moved quickly to protect those who owned property and literally nobody else. The sudden months-long vacuum in the holiday rental market caused an irreversible problem for the actual domestic rental market: a lot more of the skimmed-clean, kitchen-in-your-bedroom-because-it’s-convenient-when-you’re-in-a-new-city-! flat and housing stock dropped into the already dirty pool of properties for rent for all of us, and all of them had this bizarre inflated sense of how much they were worth because they were normally rented by the day or the weekend.
Essentially: renting a property in the UK is even worse now than it was before the pandemic because all of the shitty Airbnb stock they couldn’t rent to tourists when tourism was forbidden from even existing is now in the housing supply, and all of those flats are listed at an insane high price because they are owned and operated by idiots and charlatans, and the idiots and charlatans who run the existing rental market (estate agents, landlords) see those numbers and think that it indicates not a foolishly aspirational number invented by a moron, but actually the “market rate”, and so they up their rent accordingly to match it.
So in short: the reason your landlord thinks you owe them more rent now after two years of scattered employment and a generational cost-of-living problem coupled with years of stagnant wage inflation is because the Airbnb in your postcode is charging too much, and it’s charging too much because no one wants to rent it. All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: Here’s a £1,229 studio flat you can rent in Stoke!
We know this is a fallen Airbnb from the telltale money shot: a close-up of two towels and some one-use toiletries rolled up at the bottom of a made bed. This is how you differentiate would-be holiday rentals from 12-month contracts: Landlords of 12-month contracts don’t care if you see a raw mattress, a set of empty shelves, a single-sheet toilet roll on the holder. Airbnb ‘‘‘‘hosts’’’’ do a bare-minimum amount of grey, soulless scene-setting so you can imagine what it’d be like to live in a kitchen that is also your front room for a night or two in Stoke.
I am wondering what the tourism industry of Stoke is like – how many people are going there, solo, for anything? Even when I went to see Eddie Hall and marvel at him eating a burger before lifting me over my head, I still got a train back the same day – and thinking that whoever owns this property might have overextended themselves getting a buy-to-let mortgage just to run this Airbnb for 20 nights a year, so now they are offering it up for general rent. Only… it’s a bed, in a kitchen, isn’t it. They’ve forgotten that. It’s a bed in a kitchen on an anonymous road in Stoke. Like look at the TV placement. I’m going to just put the picture of the TV placement, here, again:
That was put there by a psychopath.
There is a lot bad about this flat – the bathroom door opens just, like, directly into the bed; you have to navigate a badly-placed desk to even get in to the property after that; the size of the kettle is uniquely depressing; down lighters, an anaemic black-and-white canvas print of a flower, grey on white, the usual landlord-issue unaesthetic. But most depressing is just the sheer fantasy of the price: that someone, somewhere, thinks this bed-in-a-kitchen is worth £1,229 a month (such a precise figure, that they must have literally calculated on a little spreadsheet!), and they think someone exists out there who can both afford that per month and also wishes to spend that on living in a dreadful kitchen in Stoke, and also that the person who owns this still owns more property than me, and probably you.
This country delights in rewarding the people who contribute to the worst parts of it. Look at this kitchen in Stoke and wonder: maybe just give it all up and embrace becoming one of those Newsnight audience members who secretly donates to the Tories. It really does seem to be the only way forward in this hellish little pigsty.