Why supporting and enabling young people to live in London is key
A YouGov poll conducted earlier this month revealed that the majority of Londoners believe the best age to live in the city is in your 20s – but with extensive unemployment amongst young people and an increasingly exclusive housing market, is this really the case?
A clear effect of these soaring house prices and rents is to push people out of the city that cannot afford it. So-called affordable housing is beyond many people’s reach; new luxury residential developments proliferate and private rents rise quicker than most young people’s incomes – the result is that those young people facing unemployment, low-paid jobs and debt are excluded from the very city that attracted them in the first place – the city of so much promise.
This ‘exodus’ of people from London has been reported in the media recently – yet most still herald the city as the big draw for young talented people. The truth is, many seriously struggle to get their foot on the career ladder here, let alone the property ladder. The thought of buying a house has become a pipe-dream for the majority of London’s young residents. In the late 90s, the average house price was five times the average salary – now it is 10 times that, and rising. Many either stay renting, hemorrhaging money even in the cheaper pockets of the capital, or they move out entirely. 26% of the UK’s young adult population now live with their parents – but for some this is not an option. In some cases, young people are forced by London’s unfeasible rents to choose stark and even dangerous living conditions just to stay in the city, including the so-called slums of houseboats without running water or heating, detailed in a Guardian article recently written by a young houseboat resident. What he writes reveals a reality we are all too unaware of: ‘I’ve often heard people ask how anyone can afford to live in London on low paid, insecure work. The truth is that some don’t really live at all; they merely exist, and their existence is bleak and unforgiving.’
‘Home‘, a play by Nadia Fall exploring young people’s experience of homelessness in London, returns to The National Theatre next month. The play developed out of a project based in a temporary supported accommodation hostel in East London for homeless young people. The project discovered that as rents rise substantially above the level of benefit young people can receive, more end up homeless and in need of shelter. Welfare reform changes, including the Shared Accommodation Rate and the capping of Local Housing Allowance are reducing young people’s ability to access private rented accommodation. Furthermore, this accommodation can be insecure and poor quality, with landlords increasing rents with no notice. Esta Orchard, an inspiring woman behind the Home project believes that current benefit changes and reduction in supported housing for young people are more likely to lead to increased homelessness, poorer chances to gain employment and increased mental health problems.
Why has inclusivity so clearly disappeared from this city’s agenda? If we cannot sustain a city that is balanced, inclusive, supportive and enabling to all people, we are travelling down a worrying path. London’s future is cast as one of empty towers of luxury flats, homes only for the very wealthy, with public spaces and streets starved of diversity. Not to mention a hollowed economy that usually thrives from the talent and creativity of young people – the people who are being pushed out and away from these jobs.We cannot disrupt the momentum of flourishing start-ups and creative sectors so critical to our economic recovery by making the city unaffordable for the young.
So what can be done? Well, we can start by supporting alternative and more affordable models of housing. For instance, Nakedhouse is an organisation that has emerged out of the fact that young Londoners have been priced out of the property market. They build affordable, stripped-back, low-cost housing that enables people to secure their own accommodation in the city. Community Land Trusts are gaining traction in order to secure more genuinely affordable homes, including The East London Community Land Trust in Mile End. These trusts are nonprofit, membership organisations run by local people that develop permanently affordable housing and other community assets for long-term community benefit. But we also need to see an overhaul of approaches to and policies around housebuilding, as well as structures in place to avoid rent and property prices to rise far above the realities of income. Many people recently, including London’s young residents, media platforms and politicians, have called for rent controls as a possible way out of London’s housing crisis. If such rent-regulation laws succeed in maintaining New York as a young, thriving city – why not London? In addition to this, we could do well to curb hyper-luxury developments and implement a vacancy tax. A large number of properties in London sit dormant, purchased only as investments, in the process pricing London’s residents out of their own city.
We may need to build a huge amount of housing, but this is not just a numbers game. This is about people. Economic growth is high on the capital’s – as well as the UK’s – agenda; but if we focus too much purely on the economic aspirations of the city, we may forget issues of quality of life and inclusivity in the process – and a city driven only by money is not socially – and ultimately economically – sustainable.
Young people are vital to any city and any place. They are the future generation of leaders and the current situation of housing in London is forcing many to leave. Meanwhile many do drastic things in order to afford to stay: choosing jobs they do not want, working unhealthy hours and living in poor conditions. If we don’t provide for or support our young generation now, we will be destroying our social future. But, of course, it is not only the young being disadvantaged by the housing situation – as the new Prince’s Foundation ‘Housing London’ report concludes, this lack of affordability threatens to cripple the capacity of so many to keep London as their home. Let’s ensure that our housing responds to the diverse needs of London’s residents, and enables them to live and thrive here, for the long term.
This is an adapted version of a talk I gave at The Prince’s Foundation ‘Housing London’ Symposium to HRH The Prince of Wales on 26th March 2014.