As a 40-year- old gay man, there are plenty of conversations I’m used to being excluded from. Parenting, for example, is as relatable as Greek mythology, and there are some areas of fashion and music that I can only ever be a bemused tourist.
The housing crisis is largely presented in the media as a battle between two distinct tribes. In one corner, millennials – usually in London – worrying they’ll never afford their own home. They’re stuck in private rental hell, at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, forced to move every 12 months in the face of crushing rent increases. In the other, demonic baby boomers, dismissing their foes as “entitled”, pulling the property ladder up after them and bolting the door to the end-of-terrace they bought for a song in 1983.
I’m not sure where I fit into this conversation, but it’s going on anyway, without me. Despite all my assumed privilege, I’m kind of invisible. Too young to die, too old to change the world.
At 40, I guess, I should have this all figured out. I think I’ve been asked when I’m buying a flat every day since I was around 25. Although one set of grandparents owned their home, I grew up in rented accommodation, so had little compulsion to buy bricks and mortar of my own. My morbid fear of debt – leaving university a mere £10,000 in hock gave me nightmares – and my working-class background meant it felt out of reach, both culturally and financially. I saw neighbours’ council houses sold off one by one in the ‘80s, and watched them all get repossessed a decade later, so I’ve been in no rush to saddle myself to a mortgage.
I’d always approached home ownership with a quasi-optimistic “maybe one day, when I find somewhere I can both afford and actually want to live”, but this was before a feverish fetishisation of home ownership really took hold. It’s a sign you’ve grown up; it’s your future, your insurance policy. Panicked by escalating house prices, younger people are anxious to get on the property ladder as soon as they can, before the impossible becomes the unimaginable.
When I read about it, I see complaints like “even with a helping hand from mum and dad for a deposit, it’s still not enough”. You might think I’d cackle cynically and yell “tough luck, sweetheart” into the void, but I do genuinely feel for them. I get no joy from anyone’s lack of hope.
"Finding yourself stuck renting forever isn’t an age thing. It’s about opportunities"
I never had the luxury of a parental handout, nor the opportunity to “move back home for a bit and save money” – how exactly would my mother feed me, for a start, plus, y’know, 40 – so all my money went on my continued existence, and rent, so home ownership’s door slammed in my face long ago. It’s only recently, realising how even more distant a prospect it’s getting, that I’ve begun to feel uneasy about it.
Finding yourself stuck renting forever isn’t an age thing. It’s about opportunities: the differing ways these are denied you, and the tools you have at your disposal, or lack, to overcome it. There are plenty of us half a generation up, from all backgrounds, realising we’ve missed out and that we have less time to fix it.
According to a 2015 survey, the number of flat sharers between the ages of 45 and 54 rose 300 per cent between 2009 and 2014. It’s not just a London thing, either. All over the UK, where houses are cheaper, many low-earners are losing out. Some of them are privately renting the very social housing they’d be living in had it not been sold off to buyers convinced by the government that home ownership was the ultimate sign of mobility.
And we can forget the hope a post-Brexit “house prices slump” will solve our problems and finally give us a leg up. You know who’ll buy up those cheaper homes, don’t you? Mortgage-friendly buy-to- let conglomerates, not first-timers with no deposit.
By improving the experience through tighter regulation that favours the tenant, we can make renting feel less like a failure, an inferior option, and stop selling the idea that home ownership if the only method of advancement. In our rabid focus on buying, we’re missing the fact that affording rent is becoming just as difficult, with all of us dreading contract renewal in case this is the year rent rises, that we have to move on.
I had to make my peace with renting because my personal lack of opportunity to buy and the spiralling cost of rent for someone my age is not, so far, a problem anyone else will acknowledge or change.
Renting needs a drastic image overhaul – but first, we need the tools for the makeover.