My renting life is now on the verge of eclipsing my non-renting life: I have been paying monthly rent for 17 years. As a millennial, I am of the first major generation to get to this age and not be even close to a mortgage, and it’s not just me being a bit all over the place and bad at credit cards. To crib stats from a new book, All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In, by Kieran Yates: “In the 1980s, it would have taken a typical couple in their late twenties around three years to save for an average-sized deposit. Today, it would take 19.”
And so I continue to live in a very strange mezzanine flat with a tin foil-effect, orange, dappled wall we are not allowed to paint over, praying they don’t raise the rent next year because there’s not much further east in this city I can go.
Problems with the housing system in this country track straight back to Thatcher’s “Right To Buy” Housing Act in the Eighties, which offered such irresistible purchase terms to council tenants that a huge amount of the country’s public housing stock went private almost overnight, and there it has stayed. We are not building enough homes, and the ones we are building very often loophole their way around the wet tissue paper of affordable housing regulation, to create stacks of dizzyingly expensive grey newbuilds — often over the exact same spot where thriving community blocks once stood.
A buy-to-let boom in the early Aughts winnowed the housing stock even further, and now look where we are: people are queuing for rental viewings, outbidding one another on houses for sale, writing earnest letters about how wholesomely they will live there. Housing prices stay high and stable, justifying the mythical “market rate” — a number made up, and reinvented every six weeks, by estate agents — which means rents go up in turn, which means people renting save less, which means their buying power diminishes even further. Then came the pandemic. I don’t know a single person whose rent hasn’t gone up since, and gone up drastically.
So those are some of the problems. But the main one is inter-generational communication. It’s in the mud. How do you explain to a generation who saved for a deposit for three years that cutting back on brunch isn’t going to be enough? All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In threatens, at least, to close that communication gap. Like me, Yates has lived in a lot of buildings (25, to my lowly 13): flats, houses, temporary accommodation, studios above car showrooms. Like me, Yates has written a lot about housing — as well as youth culture, politics, and music (an early chapter details how the thin walls of the since-demolished Green Man Lane estate meant you learned about music based on what your neighbours like listening to). Unlike me, Yates maintains her cool. I recently ruined a polite lunch with an elderly relative with one of my “landlords are scum” tirades, which went on far too long and changed absolutely no one’s mind.
Renting used to be a viable way to exist in this country. Figure out which parts of the city or country you actually like. Have 10 housemates and live on the cheap and pursue something dumb and creative for a couple of years. Don’t move in with that boyfriend you’re not sure about just because your tenancy agreements are both up at more-or-less the same time. It now just means paying the most money you’ve ever paid for anything, every single month, for something that mostly sucks and is actively stopping you getting on the fabled British dream, the housing ladder. And then you get an e-mail in January saying: rent’s going up again.
It would have been easy for a book about the bottom-to-middle unfairness of the housing system to turn into a manifesto shouted into an echo chamber, but Yates remembers to be funny while explaining how messed up it all is. She takes in the wonder of having a plant in your house, for a generation who rarely gets to actually plunge one into the soil of a garden; the small beauty of that one trinket that when you unpack it makes a place feel a little like home; the frequent movers’ aversion to collecting too much stuff. These details are important. The strange rift between those who rent now (in hell) and those who rented then (during the three years required to save a deposit) often strips out the sheer reality of being alive — of the comfort of home, of peace and quiet, of making friends with your neighbours, of forming stronger and more useful communities with years-deep bonds.
Those who float above the rental market have forgotten what it’s like to come in from a long day of work to find three random people in your front room because your flatmate says so. Or: how one person’s decision to abruptly move out and give you all only 20 days’ notice threatens to ruin the next month of your life and potentially bankrupt you. Or: not telling your GP you moved because you like them and getting a new one is a nightmare. Or: how renting feels like moving a cardboard box from house to house, never fully unpacking, because your role in the system isn’t to live a life and steal some peace at the end of the day, it’s to keep the value of the property you’re in nice and high by making it look like you were never there at all.
In the chapter on her time in halls at Goldsmiths, Yates describes coming home from an exhausting catering shift to one of those pounding pyramid-of-tins parties that only students can throw. Her anecdotes always have a point. She makes it clear that, though the cheap furniture is the same for every student, the experience for those from working-class and middle-class backgrounds is vitally different: The Best Years Of Your Life don’t apply to everyone. These details, again and again, help push the central thesis of the book: living with a roof over your head shouldn’t be this hard, exhausting, and expensive.
This book is one that needs to be pressed into a lot of hands, then. Because we only hear about the housing crisis when mortgage rates go up. There is still a generational divide between what rent means as a system, and what it actually is now. Twenty years ago, my sister was able to rent a flat for a year on her own “just to see how she liked it” — this is fairly unimaginable to me. But the theory of renting still works — and the practice of it did for a long time in this country. Something has broken, though. Why can the fabled German rental market — with its infinite tenancies and rent-hike regulation — work so normally and so relatively well, while ours is just an Old West shoot-out? Because everyone still thinks the problem lies with avocado toast. The communication here has to change.
All The Houses… wouldn’t work if Yates didn’t finish up by making sensible, workable, viable suggestions on how to fix things, which she does: rent controls, “Right To Return” policies for communities dislodged by tower block regeneration, annual housing MOTs written into law and adhered to before a landlord can raise rent — which should be capped, by the way. We should actually enforce affordable housing targets, build more and safer social housing, and write housing administration lessons into the curriculum. There are radical solutions and there are community-driven ones, but there isn’t a clear one, and when the system is working so well for a privileged few, there’s not enough agitation to change it. This is why “stop going on holiday!” is somehow the dominant form of housing ladder advice.
If you’re living in a mortgaged property right now, and feeling fairly safe and secure about it, go kiss your doorframe for me. Pat your stairs and look out of your windows. Refresh your e-mail inbox and enjoy the fact that it didn’t just tell you that you’re being evicted. You’re one of the lucky ones. But don’t you think having a home shouldn’t be based on luck anymore?