London’s Housing Boom

LONDON — Here, bricks are stacks of cash. “If you have capital in this country,” Alex Hilton, director of the advocacy organization Generation Rent, told me, “you can get other people’s money.”

Without capital, those of us who do not own property resign ourselves to running in an exploitative rat race. The race is rigged, of course, because some rats can never win.

With property at a premium, it’s renters who are paying full market value just to stay where they are. The average home in London costs nearly 20 times the average salary in Britain. The imperative to get a return on that capital investment is passed on to the renter. According to the housing charity Shelter, Londoners spend nearly three-fifths of their monthly income on rent.

London’s housing is no longer for those who need it but for those primarily concerned with accumulating capital. When bricks are cash and houses are savings accounts, the meaning of the word “affordable” is warped beyond all recognition.

In Stratford, the East London site of the 2012 Olympics, a new postcode has appeared. E20 used to be the made-up postcode of the fictional London borough Walford, from the BBC’s hugely popular soap opera “EastEnders.” Now, it’s the postcode of the East Village, which was briefly home to the athletes competing in the Games.

The village’s cluster of affordable homes was available to rent at 80 percent of market rates, which meant that they cost between £1,244 and £1,688 a month (about $2,000 to $2,700). The average annual salary is £26,500 ($42,600). The numbers just don’t add up.

I was born a few miles from Stratford, in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, the setting of Monica Ali’s critically acclaimed novel-turned-film, “Brick Lane.” A working-class area, Tower Hamlets has experienced waves of migration, and is one of the most multicultural areas in London. It’s also still one of the most deprived, with half of the borough’s children living in poverty.

There was a time, too, when nobody cared about Stratford. Stratford is a 30-minute bike ride from where I live now, and the wealth that the Olympics brought with it is palpable. My journey takes me through Leyton, a residential district peppered with fried chicken shops and budget Internet cafes. The amenities here are basic. But pedaling toward Stratford, I’m confronted by the imposing £1.4 billion ($2.25 billion) Westfield shopping center, built in 2011. Preparation for the Olympics saw lavish construction of new motorways and roads, complete with segregated cycle lanes and rows of new housing.

The effect is glaring, shiny and incongruous. Today, properties near where I was born are on the market for up to £5 million (more than $8 million). After a miserable stint of graduate unemployment, I settled in Walthamstow — farther out than where my immediate family lives, but one of the few places in London I can afford to rent without living costs swallowing up a majority of my income. So I live two boroughs away from where I was born, yet I’ll never be able to afford a home.

Back in Stratford, adjacent to the Olympic site, lies the Carpenters Estate. In 2012, Newham Council evicted some of the project’s social housing residents, insisting that the site was marked for demolition. Two years later, the homes had been left empty and forgotten. Around the same time, in another part of Stratford, a group of young mothers received eviction notices. They had two months to leave the homeless hostel they were staying in, and the council had plans to move them miles away. The Focus E15 mothers fought back, and were eventually rehoused in private tenancies in the borough. Last month, they occupied the abandoned Carpenters Estate to make a political point.

London is unashamedly stratified. It was always a city where extreme poverty lived cheek by jowl with extreme wealth, but the contrasts are starker than ever. Where a majority is scrambling to make ends meet, a wealthy minority treats the city purely as an asset base for investment.

Day-to-day living is precarious for those not born into wealth. Private tenants are subjected to the constant rigmarole of moving because of short-term contracts and annual rent increases, or they find that their overseas landlord is selling the place they call home because its value has increased sharply. Those without London’s capital find themselves at the mercy of it.

Social mobility has become social stagnation. With housing at a premium, London rents are eye-wateringly expensive in comparison with the rest of the country. Tenants turn to the state for help, but these are not welfare cases: Nationally, over 90 percent of all new claims for housing benefits are from households where at least one adult is working. Lawmakers, of course, are lax on the issue. That may be because a third of them are buy-to-let landlords.

It has long been the consensus that young people today will never enjoy the easy circumstances that the generation before us could take for granted. But this isn’t just a generational issue; it is a class issue.

My single mother was never afforded the privileges of a secure job for life or homeownership. Even those whose parents had those things are coming to the recognition that this is no longer their reality. More and more of us are realizing that London is not for the likes of us.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to The Daily Telegraph.

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