“What will you do when you graduate?” I ask a friend.
Her expression becomes gloomy.
“I guess I’ll be leaving London. I don’t want to become a rent slave”.
This is unfortunately a liner I hear too often as a London local. While the city boasts an overwhelming number of cultural activities, eateries and cool, artistic neighbourhoods for those who can afford it, the working class are getting pushed further and further out.
What does it mean to be a rent slave? It means labouring away, often at something we perceive as a “meaningless job” just so that we can return to our pokey little damp room and pay the rent before getting some shut-eye. It’s not quite being a slave, in the sense that we could just pack up and go. It’s surviving, but it’s not really living.
Beyond London, this is the price many pay for living in cosmopolitan hubs such as London, New York, Paris and Tokyo. For those with ambitious dreams, such cities are where the magic happens; exciting, creative internships and work experience placements, top notch gallery exhibitions and the beginning phases of up and coming trends. Unfortunately, such places are fast-becoming the territory of only those who can afford it.
Leonard Cohen’s evocative pessimistic lines sadly appear to speak truth:
“Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Are things about to change? Hope is high that the new mayor of London Sadiq Khan will live up to his promises in delivering affordable homes to those who desperately need it. Upon being elected, the new mayor announced that new properties may be required to be put on the market for the first six months in London. “I have got nothing against luxury properties being built in London. What we can’t have is London being the world’s capital for money laundering.”
Minimum wage in the UK is £7.20 for those of us who have surpassed the age of 25. Providing someone works a nine to five job Monday to Friday, in a month they will earn on average £1,152 per month. Compare that to the average rent price in central London, where a flat will cost you between £1,300 and £2,000 per month, and we have a bit of a dilemma. And that’s without even adding in the cost of food or the extortionate charges for London housing. London housing prices stand at an all-time high, with a current average of £556,350.
For the majority of the population, becoming a home owner in the capital is out of the question.
From a high rise building one might get a completely different perspective; how can there be a housing shortage when there are so many buildings being constructed? This is deceptive. There is a major housing shortage in London. So much so that locals are being forced to move out to commuter towns in the South East, increasing their time away from their families and homes.
In the past year, Londoners have seen quite a bit of media coverage about the city’s housing crisis. Gentrification has pushed those who cannot afford the skyrocketing prices further from the centre, and neighbourhoods such as Tower Hamlets and Brixton which were previously considered almost suburban are now getting renovated. Unfortunately, the swanky new shops and restaurants are for the newcomers who will be able to afford the rising prices. Brick Lane’s infamous hipster joint, the Cereal Killer Cafe became a target of angry protesters in September last year, who wrote “scum” on the window and threw cereal and paint at the shop front, much to the dismay of the terrified owners.
While the anger and fear on both sides is understandable, this is symptomatic of a different problem, a problem with its roots somewhere else. “I don’t blame them”, says Abdul, a waiter in one of the many Bangladeshi restaurants on Brick Lane “but I don’t think it’s the fault of those who own the Cereal Killer Cafe either. This is outside of individual people’s control, what can people do when the government is allowing house prices to skyrocket in this area?”
UCL students famously campaigned last year against the University’s accommodation price increase in an otherwise increasingly expensive city. The University has been accused of undertaking a “social cleansing” of the institution, pressuring prospective students to go elsewhere to avoid soaring rent costs.
Here’s to hoping that times are indeed a changing and that Sadiq Khan lives up to his promises. It would be great to be able to live in London without the fear of becoming a rent slave.
It would be wonderful to live in a city which doesn’t exile the poor and working class, consequentially leaving behind a homogenous and predictable middle class wasteland with little or no diversity. I’d hedge a bet that if you live in New York or any other major global hub you have similar thoughts.
Author: Elizabeth Cool
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Photo: David Dibert / Unsplash