Over the years, the homes of young people in mainstream film and TV have been portrayed in a way which is hopelessly unrealistic for the majority of us. The onscreen archetypal abode of a professional twenty or thirtysomething – think of the Friends gang, the SATC women, pretty much any rom-com – is a gorgeously decorated, airy city apartment, where you can live for years on the salary of a waitress, masseuse or freelance writer.
Some even make no discernible wage at all. I still want to know how an 18-year-old Keira Knightley afforded her Notting Hill mews house in Love Actually: the average price of a home on the real-life street, according to Prime Location, is £1.98 million. To be fair to the Manhattanites, Rachel and Phoebe lived in Monica’s rent-controlled flat inherited from her grandma, and fellow New Yorker Carrie enjoyed rent control too. But off-screen, the reality for young professionals is very different.
Jeremy Corbyn might want it, but rent control is not a thing in the UK. According to research by think tank Resolution Foundation, while mortgaged owners spent around 12% of their income on their housing in 2016, private renters paid 36% – three times as much. After a decade of spiralling house prices and stagnant wages, the number of young people quitting London to move to cheaper towns and cities is at a five-year high.
And so the phrase ‘generation rent’ is now a dictionary-defined term. While home ownership was an achievable reality for our parents and grandparents, it’s now just a fantasy for millions of millennials, and people are making TV, theatre, music and poetry about it.
Last year, Fleabag actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote and starred in Crashing, a Channel 4 TV series about a bunch of young Londoners giving up things like privacy, sanity and safe household appliances in exchange for cheap rent as property guardians in an abandoned hospital. It explored the idea that we’re expected to nail down finding a home, love and a career in our twenties. “By your mid-twenties you’re supposed to have a pretty good idea about those [things],” said Waller-Bridge. “But I hadn’t ticked any of those boxes. I couldn’t even see them.”
This inability of renters to reach traditional adult milestones is being investigated in an eight-part documentary series by Viceland. Set to air in 2018, the programme will be fronted by journalist Billie JD Porter and will examine the long-term consequences of the housing crisis on British and US renters.
On stage, emerging playwrights are questioning the psychological impact of not having your own space too. Share close quarters with anyone and questions of boundaries, privacy and loneliness emerge: something actors and writers Lucy Bairstow and Jess Murrain delve into in Digs, a play they wrote and starred in this year. A dark comedy which ran at London’s Pleasance Theatre and the Edinburgh Festival, on the surface it’s about housemates dancing, arguing and drinking their way through renting together. There’s a lot of glitter and '70s disco involved, and the play is stuffed with gags about the passive-aggressiveness that creeps in when you’re trapped in a few square metres of space with someone.
Underneath the humour, though, Jess says the play is about how renting often means “panicking. Anxiety is rife. Maybe we can’t pay the rent at all, let alone on time. Maybe we’re too sad to head into our own front rooms. Maybe our parents never hear from us. Maybe we crave some green space…”
Writer, filmmaker and model Greta Bellamacina is investigating the very human desire for a home through New River Press. Alongside her partner Robert Montgomery, Greta is giving a platform to writers battling issues including “Orwellian, ridiculous rent prices”. She’s already convinced Burberry to host a literary salon at their Regent Street flagship store, and her poets have performed readings at the famous Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co.
Online, journalist James Barber is venting about the renting lifestyle (#ventyourrent is a hashtag, by the way) via an upcoming web series. He wrote, crowdfunded and is about to film Flatshare, a comedy about four young professionals living in a rundown flat in Peckham. A born-and-bred Londoner, “I'm getting to an age where I would like to settle down and buy somewhere close to my family, but most of the areas they live in, like East Dulwich and Peckham, have been massively gentrified and house prices have skyrocketed,” he says. “I needed a place to vent my frustration and that's when I started to write Flatshare.”
With the amount of work coming out about the subject, perhaps the UK’s housing crisis will prove to be a problem that shapes and defines this generation of British writers, filmmakers and creatives. While we may have been brought up on a '90s and '00s TV diet of dream apartments, McMansions and conflict-free house sharing, the next few years look set to serve up slightly more battle-worn stories about the way we live now.
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