Older people are suffering from the housing crisis too

Working-class people of all ages are being forced to rent single rooms in cramped shared accommodation.

Lisa McKenzie

Topics Politics UK

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The UK’s housing crisis is often assumed to be the fault of the older generation. We often hear that Generation Rent struggles to get a foot on the housing ladder, while elderly or middle-aged folk are all comfortably off homeowners. Retired on gilded pensions, the baby-boomer generation is said to be hoarding the nation’s wealth and property – and to hell with the kids.

But is this really true? Certainly, for many working-class people who are beyond middle age, homeownership is an entirely unrealistic prospect. In fact, working-class households are finding it increasingly unaffordable even to rent their own homes or flats. More and more older people are being forced to rent single rooms in houses with strangers. According to the house-sharing site, SpareRoom, there has been a 114 per cent rise in people aged 45 to 55 looking for rooms between 2011 and 2021. That figure is 239 per cent among those aged 55 to 65.

This has corresponded with an explosion of house-shares all across the UK. In the past few years, more and more planning applications have been appearing on lampposts, front doors and in local newspapers for ‘households of multiple occupation’ (HMOs). These properties are home to at least three unrelated tenants, who will usually share toilet, bathroom and kitchen facilities.

This type of living arrangement has traditionally been popular among students and young people starting their careers in big cities. Back in the 1990s, cult classic TV show This Life gave us a glamorous and exciting portrayal of one such house-share in London. The characters – middle-class law graduates in their early twenties – and their lifestyles made this kind of set-up seem desirable. The expectation, though, was always that these younger people would move out into their own places once they could afford to. House-sharing was not supposed to be permanent. And certainly, it was not something that people were expected to revert back to in their later years.

Recently, however, the ever-deepening housing crisis has pushed many older people into an HMO. Housing costs have skyrocketed in most areas. Where I live in Nottingham, the cost of privately rented housing has increased by over 20 per cent in real terms in less than a decade. The average rental property here is now £970 per month, in a city where the average wage is £35,000. That means rent would cost a single person almost half of their take-home salary every month. And that’s not taking into account that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Nottingham and the surrounding areas who are on minimum wage.

In London, meanwhile, private rents have risen by just under seven per cent in the past year alone. The average privately rented property in the capital now costs an eye-watering £2,000 per month.

The private rental sector has grown exponentially in England, with 4.5million households now renting privately. The collapse in social housing all over the country has only exacerbated matters. Local councils sold off much of their housing stock under the Thatcher government’s ‘right to buy’ scheme in 1979. They then failed to adequately replace it. Now, 45 years on, 40 per cent of ex-council houses are in the hands of private landlords. Those earning the lowest incomes find themselves in a particularly dire situation – stuck between spending extortionate amounts to rent privately, or waiting for years on a backlogged social-housing list.

This situation has birthed a massive rise in HMOs. Planning applications for HMOs are going through the roof across England, to the point where some local councils have introduced new policies to try to slow down their rise.

The explosion of house-sharing isn’t just bad news for renters themselves. HMOs have made some areas practically unlivable. They have become associated with anti-social behaviour, a lack of parking facilities and overflowing domestic waste. This is to be expected when you have multiple households living in a property that was originally designed to accommodate one family.

The HMO is no longer a fun means for students or young people to take their first steps in a new city. Instead it has become an all too normal way of living for the working classes.

Those over 50 are now finding themselves in dire need of housing. For many working-class people, there will be no inheritance at the end of their parents’ lives. And relationship breakdowns, low pay, ill health and a whole host of other personal disasters can easily tip them over the edge into abject poverty and homelessness. This precarious situation leaves many with the only option of living in a cramped house-share with strangers.

This is no way to live if you have worked all your life – or if you are older and still working. I spoke recently to a man in his early 60s who works as a carer for disabled adults. He currently lives in an HMO that was formerly a family home on a council estate in Nottingham. He pays £350 per month for a room, sharing the bathroom, toilet and kitchen space with four other single men in their 30s. He fears for his future and he is not alone. He worries that the HMO is becoming the new workhouse.

The older generations are not the villains in this housing crisis. Many people who have worked hard all their lives are now struggling as much as, if not more, than those youngsters who are just starting out and trying to get on the property ladder.

The housing situation in Britain should strike us all as unacceptable. How well you can cope with it will have far more to do with your class than your age.

Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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