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Please let me watch The Witcher in my mouldy little flat

Solving the housing crisis is not about giving up Netflix – it’s about reforming renters’ rights

TextJade AzimIllustrationCallum Abbott

It seems for every young person caught looking from the outside in at the housing market, there are two homeowners yelling at them to stop eating avocados, and to stare blankly at a wall instead of spending £5.99 on a streaming subscription. Kirsty Allsopp’s recent contribution to this fruitful discourse is nothing new – but it does remain incredible that such interventions are still given any consideration. Check the replies on any Twitter thread on the topic and you’ll realise just how widespread the belief is that it is young people to blame for not owning houses.

It’s little wonder why. More airtime is given to housing price deniers – those that still, against all evidence, deny that it is the housing market that is broken, rather than the habitual spending patterns of an unlucky generation – than it is to those with lived experience of today’s housing market. Serious academics and economists that can give you the hard facts are also ignored. But here’s a fact: house prices have risen by 197 per cent since 2000. For the first time since records began, the average first time buyer is now older than 30.

So why do we put up with such a poor quality debate on a matter that impacts millions of young people, at a time so many of us are shivering in poorly insulated, mouldy flats for fear of soaring bills? In no other realm of policy do we hold those at the sharp end of it with such disdain. And while there has rightly been a furore over the recent cost of living crisis, rent and housing prices have been soaring for decades with no intervention – instead, they are seen as beneficial for economic growth at the expense of the young.

So what can be done about it? There are plenty of good and important policy suggestions that housing campaigners have been begging politicians to consider. The obvious would be to build more homes to bring down prices, as well as building more social housing. But there’s another option that could take immediate effect and cost even less: reform renters’ rights. 

While extortionate house prices are a huge obstacle for buyers, saving is made harder by rent repayments often being way more than you’d pay for a mortgage. Renting is by far our biggest cost, far more so than any meal out or EasyJet flight, with some Londoners paying 40 per cent of their income to their landlord. If commentators like Allsop were serious about housing, they’d not be recommending self-imposed austerity – instead, they’d consider what is staring us all glaringly in the face: renters in the UK have extremely minimal rights, creating the perfect storm for landlords to set astronomical rents that keep us from saving what is needed for a huge deposit.

The first step in helping renters save to escape the sector would be to reform tenancies. For example, an eminently sensible thing to do would be to abolish assured shorthold tenancies (ASTs) for longer tenancies found elsewhere. If you haven’t heard of this, it is only a reflection of just how bad the debate currently is. ASTs set the standard tenancy in the UK at one year, and give considerable power to landlords to end the tenancy or increase rent at a whim. The introduction of ASTs was an archaic political choice of the 80s intended to maximise landlord profits whilst sacrificing tenant security and longevity. Now the sector is so large and so central to the lives of millions, it is no longer sustainable – but it defines everything we do.

Abolishing this relic of the past in favour of longer tenancies – the norm across the continent – would change far more than cutting out Starbucks. Longer tenancies would act as a de-facto control on rent by setting the price for longer periods of time, preventing the intense increases in rent we have seen in recent weeks. But we never speak of it as a serious suggestion. Instead, we settle with a government whose housing minister openly voted against making all rented homes “fit for human habitation”.

Reforming renters’ rights would need substantive political will, but would also be so much more useful and serious than asking us to cut back on coffees and live more miserably. As long as these suggestions barely register in our national debate, no meaningful change will ever be made. We desperately need more column inches dedicated to the dire quality of life imposed on us by short and expensive tenancies, among the many other serious factors preventing us from getting on the housing ladder. We don‘t need any more about how selfish young people are for wanting to watch The Witcher in our cold, mouldy £1,500pcm flats.