A Life of rent

My parents didn’t own their own home until they were in their forties – well, my mother just into them and my father perhaps slightly shy of them.  Before that, we rented.  Four houses in total but the house at 2a Wylde Street, Telopea, a northwest suburb of Sydney, is the one to which most of my childhood memories pertain.  It was an unimpressive, innocuous brick house on a typically bland street, but I seem to recall loving it.

Wylde Street never felt like a rental home, so colonised was it by our aesthetic idiosyncrasies.  Over the years we were there (probably only three or four in total, maybe five, but when one is small that amount of time seems like an aaaaaage), we implemented a number of different colour schemes to the interior.  Most saliently, pale spearmint green walls with maroon skirtings and architraves – it was the eighties and that combination was relentlessly cool, trust me.  My mother gardened rigorously, even allowing me my own bed which I filled with random, idiotic flowers that never successfully bloomed and eventually it became a designated kitty litter for our adopted feral offspring, Sakura and Kaztan.  In the back yard, my father had his industrial spray-painting booth – a self-erected tin shed – where he glossed the concrete casings for his speakers (he had a speaker business).  We also built a barbecue out of breeze blocks, a herb garden out of the guts of the old washing machine and a rather dubious flying fox (not the animal; the other type of flying fox).  My father even went as far as brutalising a tree in order to construct Prem and I an impressive Mordor-style watchtower – a macabre looking thing with inverted wooden spikes, bizarrely referred to by my brother and I as “dick teeth.”*

I make it sound like an enclosure for mad hillbillies and scrap hoarders, but ultimately we looked after the property well and as if it were our own, beautifying it and making repairs ourselves where necessary.

The point I’m making amidst all these little fragments of nostalgia is that the transience often associated with renting these days simply didn’t feature then for our family.  Perhaps my parents would argue differently; I don’t know.  Perhaps they too yearned for their own patch of dirt to play with and bemoaned the fact that it constantly remained slightly beyond their grasp.  Much like the Doctor and I do most days.

The UK, like Australia, though unlike many of its European neighbours, has become a nation obsessed with property ownership.  Television is rife with property-themed programming – young couples seeking dream cottages in Cornwall or shabby flats in Stoke Newington (if they’re loaded.  And if not, Kirstie and Phil will knock them down a couple of pegs to more realistic alternatives).  Young people are encouraged to ‘get on the property ladder,’ staying with their parents while they work and save for a deposit.  Others channel early inheritances or their parents’ pensions into mortgage agreements that deliver them a little space to call their own, not to mention providing them with (hopefully) a solid asset.  Sounds sensible, right?  Of course it does.  Buy to let is also a very attractive option for many, with rent providing a steady stream of supplementary income (or indeed total income if one’s lucky) as well as a decent pension plan.

But there are knock on effects to this indomitable lust for real estate.  Renting is not an attractive option; people perceive it as ‘wasted’ money, a stop gap measure.  Something one does as a student or when they first move to a new city.  Something one does briefly between moving out of home and looking for their own place to buy.  And the frameworks surrounding the rental market support this mentality.  Leases are generally short – 12 months with a six month break clause; flats come furnished.  Tenancy rights are increasingly weakened by the threat of security deposits not being returned or indeed, eviction.

Favourable tax conditions and a decent exchange rate have made London an attractive option for foreign investment, as John Lanchester pointed out in a recent Guardian article: “it was buyers of this sort, mainly targeting super-premium areas such as Mayfair and Knightsbridge, who last year made London property prices rise more than those in New York, Paris and Hong Kong.”  According to another Guardian article: “we can expect an abundance of affluent French citizens to be shopping for homes in London if President Hollande’s proposed 75% rate of income tax is enacted.”  The already pronounced asymmetry within the market therefore grows.  Housing prices go up, first-time buyers are shouldered out of the game, demand for rental properties completely outstrips supply, in turn driving rental prices up, up, up.  And this issue is destined to only get worse.  I’m simplifying of course, but you get it.

These sorts of issues may be a mere blip (if that) to those on the upper rungs of the housing ladder.  But for those of us scrambling in the mud below, life becomes an inexorable contortionist act – managing household budgets within the matrix of an increasingly untenable cost of living.  Saving? Forget about it.

Poor middle-to-upper income earner, I hear you scoff.  Will you have to buy rump instead of fillet steak?  And I concede your point.  There are many far worse off than the Doc and me.  But a woe-is-me scenario is not what I’m driving at.  I don’t really give a shit about owning a house at the moment, I’ve surrendered that fantasy for at least the next decade.  What I do give a shit about is how people are expected to survive.  If we’re struggling, then how on earth are those on lower household incomes expected to do it?

For those on single or lower incomes or without the means of a large deposit, there is the option of NewBuy or Shared Ownership.  But like most public private partnerships, it is you/us/the public who absorbs all the risk while the housing association profits.  In theory, the scheme is beneficial in that it is designed to help those who could not otherwise get on the property ladder, do so, but only insofar as they make that property their ‘home’ and not an investment.  Fine, but ultimately highly inflexible to the reality of peoples’ changing circumstances.  What if you need to relocate?  Not so easy.  In many respects, shared owners get the worst of both worlds – the rights of a tenant with the responsibilities of a landlord.  Having come dangerously close to embarking upon this scheme ourselves, I cannot help but feel that the Doc and I may have dodged a bullet there.

More concerning however is a recent push to encourage mortgage lenders on newbuilds to increase their ceiling from 80% to 95% of the purchase price.  Under the NewBuy scheme, it is the taxpayer who guarantees part of the mortgage.  So if those properties depreciate (which they are likely to do, being newbuilds) or the owners default on their payments (which is also likely given they maybe borrowing beyond their means), it is the public who must absorb that cost.  Sounds uncannily similar to the conditions which got the country into financial squalor in the first place.  I’m all for public housing, but not if it encourages risk and unmanagable debt.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think an active, constructive approach needs to be taken by the government to address the housing crisis in London.  And I certainly wouldn’t have the confidence or temerity to propose an alternative.  What I would say is that whatever steps are taken in providing affordable housing, reforms to the rental market will have to occur in tandem.  More attractive conditions need to be generated in order to accommodate long-term renting.  This country needs to start emulating tactics of those more solvent like Germany, Norway and Denmark.  Countries not as vulnerable to housing bubbles and the boom and bust cycles which have characterised the UK economy over the last decade (for a far more apt comparative analysis, see here).

Rent control, land tax (particular to harness the revenue of nom-doms), regulation and increased tenancy rights would be a good start.  Then perhaps more renters could install “dick teeth” in their back yards with new found impunity.

And PS.  Expect to hear more from me on this topic. I may be a neophyte now, but by God I’m gonna make myself an expert.

*I should probably add the disclaimer that these are childhood recollections and are therefore subject to at least some degree of unintentional misrepresentation and juvenile subjectivity.  To the best of my knowledge, these are the facts as I remember them.  My parents may take a slightly different view.

The dick teeth were real though.  I promise.

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