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‘It’s time to reclaim the word “affordable”’: writer Vicky Spratt on London's insane housing market

Written by
Time Out London contributor

Last week Sadiq Khan announced plans to launch a London Living Rent scheme. The plan is to build new housing for private renters, with monthly rates based on a third of the average household income in that borough. Households with an average income could rent a two-bed Living Rent flat for less than £1,000pcm – nearly £500 lower than a private rental. The Mayor has still got to make his sums work, but give him credit for trying: it’s long past time someone did something about the broken London rental market’s absurd doublethink.

How many times have you been walked around a miserable flat by a letting agent, heart sinking every time they say the word ‘affordable’? They show you the second bedroom (a coffin-esque airing cupboard) and the ‘barbecue-ready patio’ (a two-foot-square patch of bald concrete). Fully aware you’re being ripped off, you’re still weirdly grateful to get a working toilet for £350 a week.

After a while spent searching for somewhere to live in London, the word ‘affordable’ becomes infinitely flexible. A few viewings in you start expanding your own definition, going from ‘no more than half my salary’, to ‘whatever it takes to secure this relatively mould-free flat’ to wallpapering the place with your savings and taking on a second job – Deliveroo are looking for more drivers, right? In the twilight zone of London’s private rental market, ‘affordable’ essentially means ‘as much as we can squeeze out of you before you give up and move back in with your parents’.

Now, I don’t want to drop words like ‘Orwellian’, but if you slipped this shit into ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ no-one would blink. ‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, affordable is a two-bed flat in Camberwell for £1,400pcm.’ And yet we all go along with it – we have to. You bite your tongue and pay through the nose. 

It’s not just agents moving the affordable goalposts: the government does it too. First the Coalition redefined ‘affordable’ rent for social housing as up to 80 percent of market rates, then this year the government deemed starter homes worth up to £450,000 to be ‘affordable’ too. 

And if you still think that something ‘affordable’ must be within the buyer or renter’s financial grasp, think again. The average full-time UK salary is £27,600 before tax. This month, according to lettings agent Your Move, the average annual London rent hit £15,276. In the long term, rent rises have been turbo-boosted by a crazy buying market: if the cost of everyday items had increased at the same rate as house prices since 1974 (housing charity Shelter estimates), a kilo of bacon would cost £37.85 and a dozen eggs would come in at £33.73. Add in a £54 cappuccino and you’ve got yourself an ‘affordable’ breakfast.

It’s time to reclaim the word ‘affordable’, and the London Living Rent could be just what’s needed. A grand a month for a decent flat? It’s possible that my perception of reality has become completely warped, but that sounds to me like it could actually be affordable.

Vicky Spratt is a writer campaigning for a better, fairer, no-bullshit rental market. Sign her petition to make renting fair.

In other cheerful housing news, London has the worst landlords in Britain.

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