Welcome to the ever-worsening Housing Crisis! Want to rent a room that’s relatively comfortable with working appliances for a price that you can actually afford? Don’t be ridiculous. Kate Bradley reports from her recent house hunting.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne recently introduced laws to help new home-buyers get their ‘foot on the ladder’ (when in doubt, copy Thatcher!) but he neglected to mention that the first rung is way above most young people’s heads. Meanwhile, those of us who are under 40, a.k.a. Generation Rent, expect to funnel the majority of our incomes into the bank accounts of a handful of private landlords for the foreseeable future.
Without any clear way to leverage power against the people who own our properties, we are left at the mercy of our landlords and their odious middlemen, estate agents, who grow ever keener to wallpaper over the damp and charge us for the decorators. Faced with a growing number of tenants who struggle to pay their astronomical rents, estate agents have developed a whole new language of deception and exclusion. With one hand they lure residents in with the false promise of comfort, and with the other they police the types of people who they deem worthy to house.
Here, translated by and for the discerning renter, are five common euphemisms that estate agents and property websites use to convince renters they’re getting a good deal, and to lock them out if they don’t meet certain levels of ‘desirability’.
1. Words to convince you that size doesn’t matter
When I was a kid, I thought the word ‘mansion’ meant ‘absolutely massive, posh house’. How naïve I was! House-hunting in London reveals that a ‘mansion’ is a townhouse with a stately exterior which has been split up into tinier flats than you could possibly imagine, connected by long stairwells for which tenants often have to pay upkeep. If it’s not a ‘mansion’, then it’s probably ‘cosy’, meaning ‘I can’t actually stand up if there are two of us in here’. Oh well, at least you can heat the whole place with a hairdryer if the boiler breaks. You could have it worse – it could be ‘homely’ (i.e. not decorated since it was built in a hurry to replace the housing lost in World War Two).
2. ‘Professionals only’
Scrolling through Zoopla, almost all the ads make reference to the landlords’ preference for ‘professional’ tenants. Hidden between the lines here are dozens of class prejudices – is working-class work considered ‘professional’ enough? Is your collar white enough? There are even racist implications, since looking ‘professional’ is usually equated with looking white, as women of colour often attest when asked to alter their hair and appearance for the workplace.
Also nestled down in that neat phrase is a reminder that you have to be in work to qualify for housing, since anyone who cannot prove their income or magic up a guarantor for their rent can be refused a home. Moreover, those on benefits, especially disability benefits, famously struggle to find private housing which doesn’t freeze them out, because claimants are thought to be likelier to struggle with their payments. If you don’t believe it’s this cynical, check out this breathtaking article called ‘Reasons Why Landlords Shouldn’t Accept DSS Tenants’, published on a ‘no nonsense’ site for landlords. They write: ‘Being a landlord is about managing risk, but more importantly, minimizing risk. And since this is a business based on cash, we need to do whatever we can to keep the cash flowing, and that’s easier to do when you’re dealing with tenants that don’t have financial restraints.’ Disabled people’s difficulties maintaining their income are stated loudly and proudly as a reason to refuse them residency. This is made worse by the punitive state systems which penalise benefits claimants for an array of supposed misdemeanours, as depicted in the heart-rending film I, Daniel Blake. These changes have had huge repercussions across claimants’ lives.
So if you’re lucky enough to qualify for the human right to shelter, remember it’s ‘professionals only’: next time you turn up to a house viewing, pretend you’re a freelance something-or-other, wear a suit, and consult your watch to ensure you’re not late for your next ‘client meeting’.
3. ‘Ideal for students’
Mildly better than ‘professionals only’, and pretty much the only alternative to being a ‘professional’ in letting agency ads, this description means that the landlord expects first-time renters who (s)he can boss around at will. In other words, expect your landlord to refuse to fix your bath on the grounds that you must be using it wrong, leave the mould on the walls to develop its own culture, and take half your deposit away at the end of the tenancy because (s)he can blame any ‘superficial damage’, a.k.a. ‘wear and tear’, on the ‘parties’ you may or may not have had.
4. ‘Single occupancy only’
As a single person living in one of the most expensive cities on earth, every day I lament the empty half of my bed that I’m paying £250 a month to keep nice and cold. But it isn’t as easy as it seems to find an above-board double room on the UK rental market. Even if you’ve found a great-looking room for yourself and that lucky partner – or at least, yourself and that friend you’ve decided you could tolerate sharing with if it knocks down the rent – the words ‘single occupancy only’ mean that your landlord has the right to keep a close eye on your bedsheets. If (s)he finds a second toothbrush in the bathroom, it could be considered contract-breaking and you could be looking at an argument, a fine or an even more inflated rent.
Shit, the landlord’s here! Quickly, hide the second pair of shoes! Get your partner in the wardrobe! Hi there, oops sorry about the empty cans, yes I really did have 7 beers to myself last night. What a life.
5. ‘Studio flat’
Fuck off, this isn’t a flat, it’s a bedroom that you’ve stuck a fridge in.
Fight Back with the Renters Union!
If you’re in London, and sick of living in crap flats rented from crap landlords, check out the London Renters Union. They say “We believe it’s time for a union that will stand with and for London’s private renters: a union that will fight for a fair deal for renters and build the power we need to transform our housing system.” Their next event is an end of year social in east London on 9 December.