When rents are so high that you have to share a bed with a stranger, surely the revolution can’t be far off

London’s affordable-homes crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights

Grace Dent
Monday 26 January 2015 17:07
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London

I have woken, grumpily, from my slumber over housing, and am ready for revolution. Forgive me for taking a backseat, but as a nation we’ve moaned so hard for so long about the affordable homes shortage that I’ve been guilty of snoozing through debates in which us everyday joes are utterly impotent.

Moaning words butter no parsnips. We’re not the ones snaffling up every jaded pub, once beloved church and underfunded youth centre to gut and hammer them into flimsy, ugly, “luxury” flats starting at £495k.

We, the hoi polloi, are not the absentee multi-home hoarders responsible for what’s being termed “Lights-off London”: rows of dark deserted buildings filled with fourth homes, crashpads and never-to-be inhabited collateral.

No, instead it was umpteen levels of capitalist greed and bureaucratic slipperiness which trudged us into this mess, and no amount of quacking from the man in the street makes the merest mark. First, “Lights off London”, and then – inevitably – “Ghost-town Glasgow” and “Mary Celeste Manchester”.

Let the next generation – the plan seems to be – live with its parents. Let them sleep, aged 39, in their childhood box bedrooms, hearing their fathers fart through MDF partition walls. Sod them and their dreams of a little piece of privacy, a front door to shut firmly and stave off the world, and the abject pleasure of a set of Dulux Matchpots and some rooms to daub one’s print on. Britain no longer allows this. In fact, it’s damn uppity of the non-rich to even want it.

Can’t the non-wealthy just use some sort of pay-as-you-go App to pre-book a series of places to mooch or loiter when the’re not at work? And why sleep horizontally anyway? Vertical would be thrifier. Surely we could stack key workers, between shifts, in large boxes like Cadbury’s Fingers? These are the sorts of ideas I imagine think tanks present to George Osborne, ones which he fails to reject outright and even if he put in place, we’d all grumble then let him. Russell Brand might make one of his videos about it — like when he tried to help the Focus E15 Mothers — and we’d all laugh at him for being a crazy messianic fool.

Still, revolutionary sparks come from odd places, and my personal reawakening of housing crossness came this week from reports that room sharing is on the rise in London. That is: working people now forced to share a bedroom – sometimes bunk beds – with a complete stranger because rent is unafforable to go alone. The website Spare Room has reported a 71 per cent increase in searches over two years from people deigning to accept what to my mind is living hell.

The only instances when a civilised adult should sleep platonically three feet from a complete stranger are a) the very first night in prison; b) in a makeshift marquee helping out after a humanitarian disaster, and c) as a character in a very harrowing Mike Leigh film. Any other situation should be a breach of European human rights.

I had the misfortune to share a room briefly with another girl when I was in my early 20s. She was a sniffer, a snorer, a skinflint, a chronic non-stealth masturbator and — worse than any of these things — a wearer of Body Shop White Musk. It is no accident that, 20 years later, we cannot be in the same post-code. But, joking aside, is this lack of basic privacy the lifestyle that key workers should just get on with and stoically accept?

How odd to think of future generations of thirtysomethings clocking off from work, trailing down dark streets filled with the deserted London crash-pads of Russian and Chinese investors, before returning to their flat, jam-packed with shared rooms, to climb the little step-ladder to the top bunk.

Of course, a shared room will only be an option if you’re fortunate enough to be absolutely employable. The Focus E15 Mothers — many of them single mothers on extremely low incomes — found that their only option for housing in Newham, London was, paraphrasing council advice, to bugger off to Hastings or Manchester.

Meanwhile, across London, the land-grabbing, the drilling down, the cement mixing and the luxury block “Open Days” are ceaseless. Buildings, buildings everywhere — but not a normal flat for a do-able fee in sight. Monstrous 40-floor-high offices and urban living towers chucked up in months, regardless of local objection.

Some 230 new London skyscrapers are in the pipeline. Can you picture all of those empty rooms in the sky, while millions struggle for space and privacy? The vulgarity and inhumanity of “Lights off London” is odious.

It makes me wonder what is less morally obtuse: building homes for billionaires to snap up off-plan and leave empty, or breaking into the homes and occupying them – “squatting”, as we called it. In coming years, if gangs of key workers and single mothers have the gumption to sneak into these skyscrapers, force the doors on unused homes, use the hobs to boil eggs and the showers to wash their hair and the bedrooms to enjoy small moments of unbroken sleep, I will find it very hard to resent this.

In fact, I’ll cheer them on. I’ll have no sympathy for the mega-rich when Generation Bunk Bed finally climb down their ladders and get angry.


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