I am thinking of buying a flat. So I log on to the Rightmove website several times a day and trawl through the offerings available. I do it on my phone, under the covers, in bed. Or on my laptop when my concentration is lapsing at the end of the day at work. I email links to my boyfriend and I squint at floorplans, imagining life with a second bedroom. It’s addictive this Rightmove-ing, a perfect combination of algorithm-based browsing and wanton lifestyle envy, an easy way to waste an hour while convincing myself that I’m doing something useful.
When communities secretary Sajid Javid delivered his white paper aimed at fixing the UK’s housing crisis in the House of Commons this week, he spoke of “young people, faces pressed against the estate agent’s window, trying and failing to find a home they can afford”. Maybe he doesn’t even realise the torment of a Rightmove trawl; he doesn’t know that you can take that disappointment home with you, see it relayed on a glowing iPhone screen, as you limit yourself to a sensible sum – four and a half times your combined household salary, say – and watch the website announce that “your search has returned 0 results”. He does know, though, that the UK housing market is broken. He admitted that on Tuesday. He knows that in London the average house costs more than 14 times the average salary, and that house prices have risen 11 times as fast as wages in 20 years.
When my parents bought their first house, the path to home ownership was straightforward: they saved for a deposit and then they bought a house with a mortgage. Given that the deposit required a generation later would take 20 years to save for, it seems unfeasible that young couples can follow this route in 2017. Most of the time, when I talk to young people who are in a position to buy a house or a flat, there’s a story. Unless they work in well-paid sectors like banking, they speak of inheritances or marrying people who are much richer than them or parents who are generous and downsizing. And that’s one of the reasons why talking about housing and the housing crisis can easily veer into uncomfortable territory. It sometimes seems that in London you’re only ever six feet away from a person ready to shout “Well why don’t you just move to Liverpool, then?” (Because I wouldn’t have a job there…)
Under the covers, my phone glowing in my hand, I experience my own personal crisis. I worry about whether or not the move will come to pass; whether or not I’ll be able to afford to begin a family with my partner
I can understand the lack of empathy we extend to each other about our housing needs. It is an off-puttingly middle-class notion for starters, this desire to own a house, and very often the specificity of the situation is alienating. I find it easy to discuss housing with people who are in a similar position to me, but I can feel unsettled when I realise I am talking to someone more privileged. A queasy envy comes over me when I realise someone’s address is a number on a road (a whole house!) and I am suspicious of those who live alone (just how?).
My own route to becoming a Rightmove obsessive is specific and circuitous. In 2002, I was hit by a car, thrown high into the air and then smashed against a windscreen. I was knocked unconscious, and my right arm was broken. There was contusion to my liver, I had stitches in my face, and it took lots of physiotherapy before I was able to walk without a limp. It was a life-changing experience, and a few years later I was awarded compensation. Around £100,000. I spent half that money setting myself up in a new career. And a few years after that, I used the remaining money as a deposit, buying a house in Ireland shortly after the market had collapsed. (In the interests of full disclosure, my parents also contributed to the deposit). Now five years later, the house is worth more than twice what I paid for it and if I sell it, I could consider buying a small flat in an outer borough of London with a considerable mortgage. So that’s how I can even think about buying a home in the UK; not because I’m particularly hard-working, not because I managed to save hundreds of thousands while also paying rent, not because I’m particularly savvy. Honestly, I can afford a flat because of a strange combination of bad luck and good luck.
It’s really difficult to talk about housing. It’s boring in lots of ways. And it’s awkward – all this chat about money. But if we are to seriously address the lack of diversity in the arts or the media, we must talk about the housing crisis. If we are to genuinely consider why women are increasingly likely to postpone motherhood, we must talk about the housing crisis. If we are to discuss the kind of society we want to live in, the kind of cities we want to create, the kind of future we want to build, we must talk about the housing crisis.
Under the covers, my phone glowing in my hand, I experience my own personal crisis. I worry about whether or not the move will come to pass; whether or not I’ll be able to afford to begin a family with my partner. And all around me, there are people having their own specific housing crises, so many of them so much worse. The government has admitted that the system is broken. We’re going to have to talk and we're going to have to listen if we ever want to fix it.