Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Why can’t British Millennials afford homes? Some media coverage suggests it’s their personal spending habits.
Dear Millennials: Do you think buying your own home is impossible, or living a good life in an expensive city is tough? Well, think again. With a little belt tightening and some common sense, you too can hoist yourself onto the bottom rung of the property ladder and live the metropolitan life you always hoped for.
That, at least, is the gist of a popular article strain currently circulating around the British media. The somewhat more sober and empirical siblings of the popular “avocados and lattes ate your equity” genre of media commentary that is also a staple of the American Millennial beat, these stories profess to offer inspiration to young people struggling to scrape a home deposit together, plus the occasional sensible micro-tip on money-saving.
There’s a huge market for such takes, judging by their frequent appearance. Part of the lure of their siren wail is that the stories appeal both to cash-strapped young readers hungry for lifehacks and financially secure older people looking for proof that today’s feckless youth could cure themselves of any reasons to whinge if they only rolled their sleeves up.
The U.K.’s housing crunch is indeed serious: A study just released from Britain’s Institute for Fiscal Studies notes that home ownership among British young people has “collapsed,” having halved within 20 years. With the exception of London, the country’s most expensive market, property prices continue to shoot up across the country. With demand for housing far outstripping construction, Britons who don’t own their home are only likely to find things ever harder. And London’s price stall isn’t really good news, since housing there remains astronomically unaffordable. Currently, the average first-time buyer in the city hands over a £90,000 ($126,000) deposit and need a loan of £317,000 ($445,000). In a city where the median salary is £34,000 ($47,000) a year, owning a home isn’t viable even for many people who are doing well.
Meanwhile, the earnings of younger Britons have fallen through the floor. A report released yesterday revealed that, when compared to people born in 1970, the real-terms drop in wages for people born around 1980 was greater in the U.K. than any other western country, apart from Greece.
It would not be fair to suggest that this crisis has gone unremarked upon in Britain’s media. The spiraling cost of British housing is, quite rightly, an obsession for many outlets—even if there is a poorly suppressed strand of winners’ glee in many pieces ostensibly concerned about home price rises.
A recurring theme of this coverage: With a little bit of corset-tightening and hard work, getting on the housing ladder is eminently possible. Look a little closer at each story, however, and you’ll find the hinge on which each story swings is the same, even if the decision about where in the article to bury it (usually the fourth or fifth paragraph) varies. It’s a nugget of advice so simple it could fit in bold print on the back of a cigarette paper.
Have parents with money.
While implying that you can in fact make a good life for yourself without being born gagging on a silver spoon, these articles time and again underline the importance of having a financial leg-up to get you started. Take this London nursing professional who saved her way to a house deposit, for example. She was able to take advantage of early-career access to rent-to-buy housing for which key workers (employees such as nurses and teachers who are deemed to be fulfilling an essential social role that extends beyond their earning power) often have priority. She also didn’t have to pay personally for her degree fees, got a small grant to help her get by while studying, and has a partner with whom to split costs. But read on and you’ll find one other key money hack: She got a £15,000 ($21,000) inheritance.
This Manchester couple, meanwhile, seem on first glance to have saved for their home thanks to their laudable personal frugality—they cut down on take-out food and online shopping binges. Scan down and you see a more important factor: They saved up by living with family and paying just £250 ($350) a month each for all food and lodging—far below market price. Sensible, no doubt, but hardly replicable for people whose parents don’t have the money and space to board their adult kids.
Even in the rare cases where parental housing aid is not mentioned, the sleight of hand that got a young person without family funding into their own home usually turns out to be hard to mimic. This enterprising 21-year-old skipped college and saved for a house while working as a mere apprentice in sales. How did she do it? Well, she was a model salesperson who brought in $700,000 of business for her company and deservedly got a (one hopes sizeable) bonus on top of her salary. Good for her, but even the harshest critics of Millennials must agree that “get a very well paid job when you’re 17” is easier advice to give than to follow.
It’s fair to say that rejigging your breakfast choices is not going to radically change the housing situation for young people on a budget. So what will? The U.K. government has tried to get the market back in balance with a little mild tinkering—such as cutting the sales tax levied on housing. But this has been attacked for being more likely to raise prices overall. Other solutions currently being debated include removing many planning restrictions that hinder homebuilding, or taxing property speculation to deflate the housing bubble. Given the huge importance public housing enjoyed in Britain’s past (in the late 1970s, 42 percent of Britons lived in units rented from the state), many experts have also stressed the importance of making it easier for local authorities to borrow to fund public housing construction, with some calling for a tax on private landlords who charge higher rents to create a public housing funding pot.
But Britain’s political inertia and the national obsession with home-ownership as an essential savings tool make any of these fixes very hard to implement. This process will not be made any easier by shifting the focus from policy-based solutions to the consumer habits of younger people. If your take-out budget is keeping you from putting down this kind of cash, you must be ordering an ocean liner full of Chicken Tikka Masala. Suggesting that someone on average income can just scrimp their way to homeownership—or, as is often suggested, just move to a more affordable region while somehow keeping their good, satisfying job—is just cruel.