Sunday, September 18, 2016

A sense of the temporary

There is a troubling, permanent sense of the temporary in London, something you can feel in neighborhoods across the social strata, from Hackney to Kensington. This is unhealthy both for the city and its individuals because it prevents residents from putting down roots, and feeling at "home" in their city. Regular readers know that I love London more than any other city, but this fault threatens the long term vitality and character of this amazing metropolis. 

As beautiful as Knightsbridge is, a sense of the temporary is not dependent on how wealthy an area is. Even in the exclusive borough of Kensington & Chelsea, over half of residents rent, and those that are owned are not necessarily lived in, with many homes owned by wealthy foreigners who are rarely in town, with no interest in the community.

This stems, of course, from extremely high housing costs, far above what students and workers can afford, putting pressure even on high-wage earning workers such as doctors and lawyers. Of course this is something London shares with most other large cities, and this post could probably apply to them as well, but more specifically this is based on my personal experiences in London. 

High housing costs make life in a city more difficult, or even impossible for those earning a minimum wage. In London this is especially acute as there is no specific minimum wage, a strategy often used in large American cities such as New York and San Francisco. A bartender in London makes the same wage as a bartender in the countryside, with obvious consequences for their quality of life. Everyone knows that high housing costs lead to uncomfortable compromises, but they also lead to less obvious problems.

Walking around most of London, you seldom have a sense that you're in a true neighborhood, that residents care about the long term future of their immediate area and are part of a community. Barely able to afford the rent for their apartment, let alone buy their own home, most residents are simply passing through, waiting for their opportunity to move somewhere slightly better or maybe further out to get more space. It's a double edged sword: with housing prices going up faster than wages, many find themselves trapped between wanting to move somewhere better but not being able to afford it. They end up in a limbo, in a constant waiting game, with the end result being that they feel no ownership or connection with their existing community.

When locals can't afford to buy their own homes, the majority of ownership rests in the hands of landlords, large and small. What both have in common is indifference. Except at the extreme luxury end, buildings owned by landlords are rarely as well looked after as owner-occupied homes. They're less likely to be renovated, and far less likely to have gardens out front. All of which further contributes to a sense of the temporary, walking along streets in far worse condition than they could be.

The street in Islington, North London that I lived on my last two months in London. The terrace buildings are decent Victorian stock, but are pretty much all renter-occupied, with landlords who invest little in their upkeep. Most residents, young people like myself, are simply passing through, and the street has no sense of community. Islington, coincidentally, has among the highest percent of renter-occupied homes in the UK at over 70% 

Something too rarely mentioned in articles about the housing affordability crisis is the effect it has on starting families. The decision on when to get married or have children should be a personal decision, but in large cities it has become held hostage by not being able to afford a decent place to live. Many who want to have children can't. Contrast this with my friends who still live in Indiana (like me, in their late 20's). They're not wealthy, just your usual college-educated middle-class working professionals, yet most have already bought 3+ bedroom homes in decent locations, and a few already have children. With my friends in London, however, none can afford to buy even a small apartment, even those in their mid 30's. Most still live with flatmates, something my Indiana friends haven't had to do since their college days. Just to be clear, these are people with good jobs. 

Ignoring cultural differences, my London friends for the most part can't have kids even if they wanted to. Their life circumstances just wouldn't allow it without serious financial consequences and it'd be a tight squeeze as 2+ bed apartments don't come cheap. They're being forced to delay important life milestones, unable to begin a truly "adult" life. The longer this situation stretches, the greater effect it will have on residents into old age as well. Don't take this as me advocating for large suburban homes. Far from it. I'm simply talking about decent 2-bed apartments in reasonably family-friendly locations. 

Waterlow Park, North London

You'd be hard pressed to find someone more enamored with London than me, but if the city continues on its current trajectory, pretty soon it'll be little more than a playground for young singles and the international elite. If home prices don't come down to levels a mid-30's working professional can afford, London will find itself bereft of the middle class which has always been every city's economic engine, which equally impacts local businesses like shops. That's not a sustainable trajectory for a "lived in" city and just further contributes to the city lacking a sense of permanence.  

There's no easy fix. Either homes prices have to fall, or wages go up... drastically. Neither of these is likely to happen anytime soon to the degree necessary for a true and long lasting shift. Eventually, though, I think it will, once society starts suffering from the effects and has had enough. A city like London is perfectly positioned for the shift, with a large stock of resilient historical buildings which have survived the test of time and are always ready to serve owners dependably with a little love and care. 

Housing statistics: Housing in London 2015 report