In the early 19th century, London’s housing conditions were reflective of other aspects of everyday life: divided by shockingly wide social divides.
Living conditions for the poor were awful, with houses squashed against one another and rarely consisting of more than 3 or 4 rooms. Families tended to be bigger back then too, so it wasn’t uncommon for bedrooms to be packed. Thankfully we’ve come a long way since those days. Or have we?
In the past few months, stories have emerged about the increasingly popular practice of actually sharing bedrooms with strangers within house shares, as to make an already high cost of living more manageable.
This week, a tiny two bedroom home in South Kensington has become the first ex-council flat in London to be put up for sale for over £1 million. It is put on the market by estate agents Maskells at more than four times the average £273,000 price of a UK home. In many ways, it is the perfect illustration of how much of a bad joke it has all become.
And you can read stories like this all the time. Perhaps the capital’s most notorious example of the kind is One Hyde Park, the imposing (and largely uninhabited) Knighsbridge residential complex owned by a former Qatari Minister, where property market prices start from £20m.
Similarly earlier this year, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, received planning permission for a luxury six-storey car park on the bank of the River Thames. The building will feature space for his fleet of 114 luxury vehicles, as well as offices and five-star accommodation for his drivers. Of course, the plan is for the entire thing to be covered in marble, too. It is unnecessary, will take up shit loads of public space and be entirely private. Somehow and despite popular protest, the project has been approved by the local council.
Back to the real world, a recent study found that around a third of Londoners earn under what is required to afford a ‘decent standards of living’. The researchers found that a minimum budget in London was as much as 50% higher than elsewhere in the country, largely because of higher housing and transport costs.
Now I’m pro-capitalism, and always have been. But London’s housing crisis raises questions about where the line should be drawn before the unregulated housing market becomes highly detrimental to the vast majority of the population. The principle of free market is great, but practical and ethical considerations should not be ignored. Housing is a basic necessity, just like access to food or medical care. And we’re dangerously edging toward forgetting that.
Many would like us to think the sole reason for this issue is the massive influx of immigration in recent years. With UKIP doing so well in General Elections – in terms of actual votes, anyway – it’s evident many support such argument.
Whilst this should not be overlooked, the lack of investment towards new and more affordable housing plays a big part too. The government is largely to blame for this. The other issue, and one I want to emphasize here is the indisputable fact that London property is now so expensive it’s losing its primary function of providing comfortable homes for people. Instead, it is now regarded as a greatly bankable asset to invest in because of skyrocketing values.
Yes we need to reduce immigration to a reasonable level, and yes we need to build more houses. But we also need to part with the ridiculous myth that a few people getting obscenely wealthy has no negative repercussions on the rest. Likewise the idea that the natural cycle of capitalism spreads wealth from the top down is an outdated vision, which for decades now has been disproved by the great case study of the United States.
We cannot continue to ignore the third major aspect of our housing problem by fear of pushing away a few greedy millionaires. We cannot continue to let a minority of landlords exploit demand and charge so much people can barely afford to rent, never mind save up to buy.
And we definitely can’t continue to allow foreign billionaires with no interest to even live in London acquiring places as huge trophies to add to their collection, and which they visit once a year. Whatever we do to tackle this, there is only so long we can allow the situation to worsen.