London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has called affordable housing “the biggest challenge facing London’s economic development,” pledging one billion pounds a year to remedy the situation and create 45,000 new affordable homes by 2018. Unfazed by this promise, many impatient residents have started to take matters into their own hands.
Take Sam Forbes, a restaurant worker unable to find an affordable West London residence. His solution? Like approx. 10,000 house boat dwellers on London’s waterways, he swapped solid ground for the waves. Now, he lives on the canals in a tiny room with no heating, running water, or constant power supply for 280 pounds a month. When he moved in, the boat was damp and rat-infested, yet it proved the only option for Forbes and many others who simply cannot afford the capital’s going rents. And his floating neighbors are no drunks or dropouts, but include council workers, students, and receptionists.
Pinpointing the problem, these are regular full-time workers who simply do not make enough money to live in London. And while some stay with their parents to save cash, others share rooms (think college dorms) or rely on friends and relatives for support. Those at the other end of the scale, i. e. those with homes of their own, often make ends meet by subletting rooms, garages, and even garden sheds to those in need. Taking this practice (and cynicism) to the extreme, a listing on local ad platform Gumtree (“Ideally suited for those under 5 ft 4”) recently offered a central London cupboard at 100 pounds per week below the asking price for a regular room.
In London, low to medium earners are often forced to choose between such conditions and a two-hour commute. Yet there are alternatives on offer: Non-profit housing associations, for example, specialize in urban regeneration and seek to provide housing for the most vulnerable members of society. Structured like a charity, they rely on donations and public funding. The longest-standing of these organizations is the Peabody Trust ), founded by the philanthropist and banker George Peabody in 1862. Among others, it was responsible for the recent development of East London’s underused Silvertown Docks. The stylish redevelopment consists entirely of properties available for partial ownership and the scheme prioritizes tenants who are key workers or on any social housing list. A ray of hope in a city like London, these associations rely on private generosity – and the top 15 are known collectively as G15. Taken together, more than one in ten Londoners benefits from these endeavors and the associations account for around a quarter of all new development in the city. While this is fantastic news, these schemes need to reach more than a tenth of the population for a real impact on London’s housing inequalities.
For Londoners not covered by these initiatives, often enough more work seems to be the only option, from overtime to second jobs. One of my colleagues, for example, moonlights as a weekend wedding photographer. Another DJs a few nights a week and does some freelance writing. And while this efficient use of every spare minute eats into our leisure time, it might also help to develop new skills that, in turn, increase future employment opportunities and eventually raise our standard of living.
Meanwhile, the city does not treat its freelancers – i. e. most of those in the creative sector – kindly. Jack Featherstone, a freelance designer working in the city, recently questioned whether London still has a real art scene. According to him, “there aren’t many artists out there who are focused purely on their work, who don’t need part-time jobs. If you are working five days a week to pay rent, and you only have your spare time to do art, then you are not going to be a very good artist.” Or in the words of The Times columnist Caitlin Moran, tackling the topic of young creatives who enter the city for the first time, “a million ideas that would have migrated to London will now remain in their home towns.”
The housing situation in London may force people to think twice before leaving their homes, yet the metropolis is where the jobs are and that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. So, simply upping the workload or finding innovative and cheaper ways to live could be the way forward. Right now, there are no easy solutions, but with London’s population approaching 10 million, the city keeps going strong. So, yes, London is full of opportunities – but be prepared to work hard in order to make them achievable.
Text: Tim Peyton
Header image: Circleview / photocase.com