The Real Reason Millennials Complain About Housing
I just want to set something straight, because the response to an article this weekend made me realise a whole lot of people don't get what's actually going on.
Photo: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
"We lived in this place that we used to call 'Maison Crap'. When my mother came to visit me she was astonished I was paying rent to live there – it was top floor and there were floors of derelict flats between, with pigeons living in the flat below us," says 63-year-old Lindi. Maison Crap was between Finsbury Park and Seven Sisters, an area of north London now pricey (like the rest of London) to rent. But when Lindi lived there during her early twenties, in the 1970s, it was very affordable.
"I had a great time living there," she says, "but looking back on it, I can't understand how I lived there as long as I did."
Renting in Britain has always been a lucky dip when it comes to quality, while horror stories are part and parcel of dealing with landlords. In the 1950s and 60s you had infamous slum-lord Peter Rachman, whose exploitation of those who rented his many properties – mostly recent immigrants – was so unjust that "Rachmanism" is now a term used to describe exploitation and intimidation of tenants. Ever since then, there have been plenty of landlords justifiably described as such.
All current or former renters know this, regardless of what generation they're from. So it came as a surprise to see that the latest addition to the "entitled millennials" discourse is the idea that our generation is believed to think, 'We are surely the first renters to have felt this suffering.'
Over the weekend, the Guardian published an article titled "'Slugs came through the floorboards': what it's like to be a millennial renting in Britain." The commentary – below the line, on social media – was predominantly from older generations going, "Renting has always been shit – why do you lot think you're so special?" See also: "it's a rite of passage" and "we all did it" – standard examples of the older British mindset that suffering must be inherited and endured.
Besides the fact that struggling to meet basic living conditions in the world's fifth biggest economy should not be a "rite of passage", what these commenters seem to be wilfully ignoring is that the price to live in those same shit-holes has skyrocketed. Case in point: one tweet in response to the article read, "My first [flat] was in Camden Town, 3.50 a week early 80s. Cockroaches, bedbugs, the lot. Loved it. What do these people expect?"
In the early 1980s, £3.50 was the equivalent of about £12 today. Renting at the bottom-end of the scale has always been grim, only the bottom-end now costs £550 a month. If you spent two-thirds of your wages on rent – as many Londoners now do – you'd be entitled to expect a certain level of quality. We pay more; why should we not demand more?
Paying excessive amounts to rent a shitty place is absolutely a new problem. Official averages suggest we pay three times more of our income on housing than our grandparents did. "It was nothing like today, when people say, 'My rent is two-thirds of my salary.' I think it was less than a quarter of my salary," says Lindi. "I was able to go out and eat and drink and smoke cigarettes, and not have to think, 'Oh, I can't do something because I need to pay my rent.'"
Margaret, 75, was renting a big room in a house in the Midlands with her husband and child when she was in her twenties. "There was never any problems meeting rent – yours today are astronomical," she says, estimating that her rent was about a fifth to a sixth of her husband's salary. "We had things break and landlords who'd say they'd fix things, and you knew it was never going to get fixed. The thing is, if we didn't like it, we'd always get out eventually."
By "get out", Margaret means the ease with which a house could be purchased. When her husband was made redundant he was given a £7,000 severance pay packet – the exact price of the property they then paid for outright. She still lives in it today.
When I verbalise the average journalist's salary to Mark, 68 – who rented a crummy flat briefly in south London in his twenties while he saved for a property nearby – he laughs. "You, back in 1970s, would buy a house in a couple of years, but you can't now. It's supply and demand, and obviously not enough houses are being built. At the end of the day, the rent you're paying is lost."
Home ownership in England is at a 30-year low. The private rented sector has doubled in size since 2004, with almost half of all people in England aged 25 to 34 paying a private landlord for their accommodation. In 2005-06, 24 percent of those aged 25-34 were privately renting. This figure has now leapt to 46 percent. We are aware we might never "get out". If you don't have wealthy parents or a relative who will die and leave you their property, your membership of Generation Rent could be lifelong.
"It pains me to see people in their twenties not enjoying life as we were," says Lindi. "A lot of people of my generation were lucky enough to be carefree."