Chances are, this will be a familiar tale to you. Since I moved to London four years ago, I have rented in six different properties. Sometimes I’ve changed homes out of choice – like when I decided to move out of the place where my flatmate made me tell her every time I had a shower – and sometimes I was pushed, either by a changed financial situation, or the end of a contract.
There are, obviously, loads of reasons to move house, few of them convenient or even pleasant. As a result, moving house when you’re renting is fundamentally terrible (I have this idea that when I inevitably arrive in hell I will be condemned to an eternity of packing my possessions into the same pink IKEA moving boxes I’ve had since uni, and then unpacking them again in different rooms). It’s expensive, time-consuming, and unsettling.
Irredeemable as these experiences may be, you can also broadly class them as very annoying personal inconveniences. Moving doesn’t suck for anyone but the person doing it – that is, until you zoom out. Then, you see another dimension to the awfulness of the rental economy in UK cities: it’s absolutely dreadful for the environment.
The average house move generates CO2 emissions of about 17 kilos (about the same as leaving a light bulb on for almost eight weeks) – this is when you take into account the energy required to pack and transport your stuff. If you’re a homeowner, you won’t tend to worry about this too often. In the UK, the average homeowner currently moves house every 23 years (compared with a figure of every 8 years in the 1980s).
If you’re a shit-eating renter, however, the story reads a bit differently. In 2017, research showed that, on average, UK tenants spend 20 months living in any one property, with London on par with that national mean. At the very least, then, renters are having to move just under once every year and a half. In reality, some may move more often than this – though most contracts forbid subletting, it’s becoming more common (as a brief look at any local rentals Facebook group will tell you).
A 2016 survey of 1000 renters across the UK by insurance company AXA stated that the top five reasons for tenants choosing to move house were: shitty kitchen facilities, disrepair, annoying neighbours, damp and high rental prices. Obviously the landlord can’t really be expected to go round next door and ask them very nicely to please not play “Satisfaction” by Benny Benassi on repeat at 2AM on a Wednesday, but the rest of these issues are very much in the ballpark of Things That Aren’t Really the Responsibility of Someone Paying £750PCM to Live In a Bedroom That Is Actively Giving Them an Ongoing Cold. The fact that these problems are causing people to move out suggests that landlords aren’t particularly arsed about fixing them, opting instead to continue letting the properties where they persist, just to new tenants.
A rental economy that doesn’t work for renters, then, doesn’t work particularly well for the environment either – because it means more house moves and thus more emissions. Having to move so frequently might, for example, mean pinging between downsizing and scaling up, due to differences between rental situations (you may know all about moving into an unfurnished shell, only to next find a suitable property that’s both furnished and crammed full of all the landlord’s cutlery, crockery and coat hangers). And so when you’d need to rapidly shed excess ‘stuff’, you’d certainly have valid, environmentally-friendly options to recycle items on Freecycle, sell them on sites like Gumtree, or donate to charity shops instead of chucking stuff away. But often all of these options rely on someone having access to a car, which isn’t ideal when it comes to emissions either.
The best personal solution to the problem of moving house is obviously just to live more sustainably: buy less stuff, buy it reusable as much as you can, recycle what you don’t need and try not to have to throw things away when they might end up in landfill. All of these are good habits to get into when, you know, rainforests are on fire, certainly.
But asking individuals to change their ways when the real problems are systemic does speak to the contradiction at the heart of the climate crisis. We can go vegan and get rid of plastic drinking straws all we like (and again, both of these are valuable choices in and of themselves), but until real change comes via legislation, things won’t improve on a wider scale.
In this case, improvement probably comes down to longer-term rental contracts as the norm. Indeed, Richard Waind, director at letting agents Your Move, who’ve researched UK tenancy lengths, said in 2017, “Our research has shown that tenants want to feel settled and if landlords can provide a suitable living space and service, tenancy lengths may increase across the UK.” In other words, renters want to stay in the same places for longer than they currently can. Policy to make that happen more often could include generous minimum contract lengths for renters that, as well as offering stability, would also translate into fixed rent for longer periods; tougher enforcements on landlords who refuse to make fixes (though as of March 2019, the Habitation Act requires landlords to ensure that their properties reach a certain standard for habitation); or – fucking hell, the unthinkable – just making it more accessible for us to buy our own homes, through help-to-buy schemes that actually work for people other than those who could already afford a house or flat in the first place.
We live in an imperfect world, where damaging the environment is a grim inevitability of industrialised life. But in situations like this, where we repeatedly ignore clear, easy political solutions – like a few further requirements for landlords, who already make huge profits from renters – we find ourselves yet again in a position where the needs of the youngest and/or most precarious members of society, along with the environment, are fucked over in the name of money. Which sounds about right, actually, doesn’t it?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.