Harriet Walker: Want to own a home? You'll need a man first

Women are remaining in relationships that aren't working because they can't afford to live alone

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The Independent Online

If an Englishman's home is supposed to be his castle, what is an Englishwoman's? Not a right lot, apparently. In the good old days, we were picked up on white chargers and prancing steeds, or dragged by our hair to some Prince Charming's turretty pad and we didn't need to think much more about it.

But a segment on the BBC's Woman's Hour earlier this week revealed the depths of discontent, anxiety and resentment among young women who are being cut out of the housing market, and for whom the rise in house prices – not to mention the disproportionate stagnation of salaries – has a real bearing not simply on their living conditions, but on their happily ever afters more generally.

The average age of those grabbing the first rung of the housing ladder in this country is 37. The average deposit needed for a first-time property is £27,000 and the average salary in the UK is £26,000. Rents are raised arbitrarily and indiscriminately, unchecked by regulatory guidelines or systematic policing, and most of us spend more than half our monthly incomes on paying our room and board.

In itself, renting and sharing a property is no bad thing. It allows us to stretch our fledgling wings among friends, to practise at being grown-ups without the nagging worry of defaulting on a mortgage, to meet weird and (often not so) wonderful people that we may never want to speak to ever again. I have a friend who once lived with a role-playing civil servant who was obsessed with fantasy books and bondage; dinner party anecdotes would be much duller had their paths never crossed.

Rental culture is more entrenched across the rest of Europe than it is here; in Sweden and Denmark, those who buy are the odd ones out – owning one's home is far less important there. But they have rent control and residents' associations that look after tenants, and we do not. I know half a dozen people, for instance, for whom the Olympic Games haven't meant national pride or tears of joy so much as near-double rent increases, potential homelessness and moving into affordable flats that are either disgusting or so far out of town as to mean their transport costs have been hiked up too.

All young people are subject to this problem, not just women. But women are, in general, paid less. And many tend to work in jobs that offer less stability and financial security. Time was when buying a house was not part of the female prerogative; we just had to work our wiles in order to be installed in one. But we're equals now, remember. We're coming out of the kitchen and we're doing it for ourselves. Except we're not, because we can't.

The problems and difficulties with renting and the housing market as it stands are among the last and most monolithic barriers to gender equality for this generation. There are countless young women at the peak of their earning potential and their chosen industries who can't make the single investment that would give them the future stability and independence that they need to exist in their own right. We can rise and rise; we can break records and glass ceilings, but we are still either tethered to our parents, or waiting for some mythical prince to come along and allow us into his castle.

Kay Boycott, director of communications for the homeless charity Shelter, cited examples on Woman's Hour of couples prematurely moving in together to share the cost of renting. She spoke of women who remain in relationships that aren't working because they can't afford to live by themselves.

"Not so young any more," one listener tweeted. "I earn more than 96 per cent of the population, but you need a dual income to buy."

"You have to do it with someone else," said another. "If you choose to live alone, you pay the price."

This puts pressure on young women and young men alike; it makes relationships unequal, unfair and unnatural. And, at the risk of sounding like your friend's dad when he's been at the sherry: tick tock. Biological clocks don't understand that you need at least six years to save for your deposit; they don't realise that having children in rented accommodation owned by an unregulated landlord primarily motivated by the general avarice of the property market isn't ideal.

The problem is, of course, that there is not enough housing for the amount of people who want and need it. Were there more properties available, we'd be less in thrall to greedy landlords. And the need to buy wouldn't feel quite so urgent, were it not for the fact that the astronomical amounts we shell out for the roof over our heads are paying someone else's mortgage for them. This seems the most unfair part: what I pay in rent every month is probably more than I would pay on a mortgage. But the lack of a deposit and of savings, and the impossibility of ever being able to summon the amount of money needed, means I'm stuck with it.

So, for the time being, my friends and I will just have to carry on kissing frogs and leaving our glass slippers lying around at parties.

h.walker@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@harrywalker1