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The impossible economics of getting a room of our own

Wednesday’s budget offers one last chance for the chancellor to finally do something about a housing crisis that’s holding women back, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

When Fiona Mozley started her first novel, the only place she had to write in peace was on the way to work. Home was a foldaway bed in a house crammed with five other people, not all of whose existence was strictly known to the landlord, so she typed out much of Elmet (since shortlisted for the Man Booker prize) on her phone in snatched moments during her commute.

Journalists Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, meanwhile, started their feminist blog, The Vagenda, together while Holly was sleeping in the airing cupboard of Rhiannon’s flat (yup, literally) because it was the only way she could afford to be in London where the media jobs are. And JK Rowling’s writing career famously began in an Edinburgh café where, as a broke single mother, she’d spin out single coffees for hours while finishing the first Harry Potter.

Virginia Woolf was right in 1929, when she said every woman needs a “room of her own” – somewhere free from the pressures of everyday life, somewhere she isn’t financially beholden to anyone – to be creative. But what she can’t have foreseen is that even a lousy room in an overcrowded shared house would cost quite so much in 2017, or that the lack of it wouldn’t just be holding back writers. There are a million more choices theoretically open to young women now than in Woolf’s day, but increasingly there’s an invisible barrier to accessing them – and that’s the cost of housing.

Clearly, it's unfair that previous generations of owner-occupiers got the chance to build up a big fat lucrative asset made of bricks and mortar, while all millennials get is the opportunity to pay them rent forever. But this isn’t just about the economics of absurdly high house prices and equally ridiculous rents in so many parts of the country. It’s about the way a place of your own can function as an escape route, a magic portal to independent grown-up life, at least so long as you can actually manage to get one.

It’s hard to move where the jobs are, if you can’t afford to live there. It’s infinitely more difficult to escape an unhealthy relationship, or move out of the family home, when you can’t afford the rent alone. And all that represents a significant turning back of the clock for young women. What if the new threat to our hard-won independence, the one we never really saw coming, isn’t a deliberate backlash led by grumpy old misogynists, but the increasingly impossible economics of getting some room of your own?

There are a million more choices theoretically open to young women now than in Woolf’s day, but increasingly there’s an invisible barrier to accessing them – and that’s the cost of housing

A century ago, no respectable landlord would let to a woman living alone. It was only in the 1970s that banks finally allowed women to take out mortgages without a man's signature.  But, by 2004, almost a quarter of all new home loans were going to single, and newly financially independent, women. Giddy with the excitement of no longer needing a man to keep a roof over our heads, it didn't seem ridiculous back then to dream in your twenties about owning something (a tiny bit) like Carrie Bradshaw’s fictional New York apartment or Bridget Jones’s singleton pad near the Thames.

Fast forward a decade, though, and the dream is not having someone kipping in the living room of your shared house. Whatever that is, it doesn't sound like progress.

And if you’re wondering what all this has to do with politics, then Wednesday’s budget offers one last chance for the chancellor finally to do something about it. If he doesn't, then the social consequences are dire right from the top of the housing tree, where even relatively wealthy professionals are priced out now, to the bottom, where rough-sleeping is rising alongside evictions for rent arrears, and fears remain over the safety of tower blocks after the Grenfell Tower fire. But this is also an important moment for millennials' trust in politicians.

What's changed since the last umpteen budgets at which one government or another was faithfully promising to do something big about housing is June’s general election. Voters under 40 swung decisively towards Labour partly because of their fury at being priced out of the property market, a point very much not lost on Theresa May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, an ex-housing minister who lost his Croydon seat partly because of a backlash over unaffordable housing. And they're not giving up until something changes.   

That's why Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, has taken to publicly ridiculing arguments that millennials could somehow solve their own housing problems by spending less on avocado toast. That's why Theresa May says she wants to be remembered for building houses. The political will to act is finally – if belatedly – there, although that still leaves the far from small matter of finding the billions to do something serious about it. But maybe more importantly, since June the will among voters is clearly to punish them if they don't. The government has had its last warning. It should know that it won't be forgiven for letting this slip through its hands.


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