Inside The Great Millennial Housing Divide

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
This is an edited extract from We Need To Talk About Money by Otegha Uwagba, published by 4th Estate on 8th July.
It’s difficult to convey to someone who hasn’t recently undergone the vagaries of renting in a big, expensive city like London how profoundly dispiriting that experience can be, and how it wears away at you, bit by bit. How, aside from the exorbitant financial cost, there are other, less obvious costs that can’t be quantified as easily, measured out in the constant worrying and weighing up, and in the emotional toll that that takes over time.
It’s the countless hours you’ll spend poring over Zoopla listings, wondering if perhaps a bedroom without a clearly discernible window might not actually be that bad, and the days you’ll spend repeatedly packing and unpacking your possessions, packing and unpacking your possessions, packing and unpacking your possessions, until eventually you discard anything that can’t be easily carted upstairs or loaded into the back of a car.
It’s the humiliation of turning up to a flat viewing alongside no less than fifty other young hopefuls and being invited to ‘bid’ on said flat by closed auction, knowing that there’s not a hope in hell of you getting it but bidding anyway (we didn’t get it). It’s being repeatedly catfished by property listings that bait you with photos of a nice-looking flat that somehow happens to fall within your price range, and clicking through the photos trying to figure out why it’s so affordable before realising that – oh, of course – it doesn’t have a living room. It’s all the times you’ll apologetically duck out of work to make phone calls to bewilderingly chipper letting agents or infuriatingly relaxed landlords, begging them just for once to be reasonable and act like decent human beings (they won’t). It’s the frustration you’ll feel at the pointless contractual prohibitions, at needing permission for something as basic as hanging a picture, and having to live in a perpetual limbo of undecorated walls and flimsy IKEA furniture. It’s the uncertainty, fucking hell, the uncertainty. The specific taste of the panic induced by an unexpected rent increase, or worse, eviction notice. Never really knowing if you’ll be living in the same place in three months’ time. Never really feeling settled.
That renting in London is an experience defined by its precarity is particularly true when you’re renting at the cheaper end of the market, as I was. It makes a mockery of the basic human instinct to nest, and the idea that one’s home should be a sanctuary, somewhere you go at the end of the day to shut the door on the chaos of the outside world. For Generation Rent (as we are often called) more often than not the call is coming from inside the house.
It didn’t help that, as a consequence of having been first to a private school and then to Oxford, I was surrounded by friends who frequently weren’t in the same position as I was, who had parents who could afford to give them huge sums for a deposit (and in a few cases buy them a property outright). Not that that’s particularly exceptional these days – more than a third of first-time buyers in England have to turn to their parents for financial help to get on the property ladder, a figure that jumps to over half when considering only the under-35s. The so-called ‘bank of mum and dad’ is now the tenth-biggest mortgage lender in the UK,  and certainly in London I didn’t know anyone who’d managed to get on the housing ladder without a significant financial contribution from their parents.

We see the Instagram photos of beaming twenty-somethings standing proudly on the steps of their new home, or engage in polite dinner party chitchat about paint swatches and mid-century Ercol furniture, even as we are silently wondering ‘How?

There is a strange coyness about homes bought with help from the bank of mum and dad (and why do we even call it that – why not just call it what it is: family money?). Few people are particularly forthcoming in noting the often-massive inheritances underwriting these purchases. Instead, we see the Instagram photos of beaming twenty-somethings standing proudly on the steps of their new home, or engage in polite dinner party chitchat about paint swatches and mid-century Ercol furniture, even as we are silently wondering ‘How?’ Or at least I did. I spent most of my twenties wondering how, crunching the numbers and trying to figure out how it was that people my age had managed to buy properties in London, and how much harder I needed to work, how much more I needed to earn, how many more rungs I needed to climb up the career ladder before it would be my turn; until at last the penny dropped and it dawned on me that none of these homes had been bought on an account manager’s salary.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this coyness unfolded not long after I turned 28. I decided that, rather than simply giving up and resigning myself to never being able to buy a flat in London, it might be worth educating myself about the ins and outs of buying a house so that I could make a plan of attack. If I could set some targets and make a plan, or even fully understand how big the gulf was between me and home ownership, perhaps I’d feel more in control. In short – and true to my intensely Type-A personality – I decided to organise my way out of despair. I spent the next few weeks calling up different mortgage brokers and financial advisers, peppering them with questions and hypotheticals, sending them bank statements and asking them to make vague predictions about how much I’d be able to borrow ‘if this, or that’. I texted a friend who worked as a financial journalist to interrogate her about interest rates, and devoured articles about credit ratings and LTV ratios. By this point I was self-employed, so I knew that getting a mortgage would be considerably trickier than it is for salaried employees. As a freelancer, you have to provide mortgage lenders with a record of income over a couple of years (as opposed to just three months of payslips) and given how irregular my earnings can be, it made sense to start planning my finances a few years out.
But no matter which way I cut it, no matter how firmly I massaged the figures or how optimistically I forecast my future earnings, it became clear that to buy even the tiniest, most rundown hovel in all of London, I’d need an insanely high salary – several times the UK average, and certainly far beyond anything I could realistically see myself earning in the years to come. Saving up for a deposit suddenly felt like the least of my troubles – I simply didn’t make enough money. (As of November 2020, the average house price in London stood at £514,000, nearly fourteen times the median London salary of £37,000. Most mortgage providers will only lend a maximum of 4.5 times an individual’s salary, five times at a stretch.)
It just didn’t make sense – my friend Amy had got a mortgage when we were both 24, and both on the same salary of £28,000. She’d mentioned at the time that her parents had helped her out with a deposit, but I still didn’t understand how she’d got a big enough mortgage to afford what was a spacious two-bedroom flat in a highly sought-after postcode. Was there a specialist mortgage provider for average earners no one was telling me about? More importantly, would they lend to me? Lounging on Amy’s sofa a few weeks later, I decided to broach the topic with her.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking,’ I began, couching my request in that tentative, almost conciliatory tone we’re accustomed to adopting when it comes to talking to people – even our closest friends – about their finances.
‘But, like, how did you go about getting a mortgage? What was the process?’ 
I continued, ‘Sorry, I’m not just being nosy – I’m just trying to plan for the future and figure out whether I’ll actually ever be able to buy my own place, and all this mortgage stuff just doesn’t make any sense to me.’
Amy looked immediately uncomfortable.
‘I mean, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to . . .’ I added quickly.
She took a deep breath. ‘OK – it’s not that I mind talking to you about this, and I’m obviously happy to help with anything I do know the answers to but . . . I have a bit of a confession to make.’
I waited.
‘I don’t actually have a mortgage.’
‘What?’ I responded, suddenly confused.
‘I don’t have a mortgage. I bought my flat outright.’
‘But you’ve mentioned having a mortgage before,’ I said, still confused.
‘I know,’ Amy replied, turning red.
Sheepishly, she explained the truth – that aged 24, her parents had given her enough money to buy herself a flat outright.

When people conceal their enormous advantages it invites self-flagellation among those who aren’t as fortunate, making them feel inadequate when they’re unable to achieve those same milestones, not realising that there is a secret cheat code they simply don’t have access to.

Worried that being perceived as ‘rich’ might affect how people treated her and create an expectation of largesse among her friends, she’d pretended instead that she still had a mortgage, as a way of downplaying the extent of her financial freedom.
In a society where the accumulation of wealth is viewed as verging on moral good, where the poor are routinely excluded from key social and institutional structures and maligned by nearly all aspects of our culture, it is not particularly surprising when people who don’t have a lot of money express shame about that fact. Shame as it relates to wealth is somewhat more unexpected because – despite occasional pockets of resistance and the growing anti-capitalist sentiment that has entered mainstream cultural conversations – on the whole, we tend to venerate the rich, assigning enormous social currency to traditional markers of wealth: nice cars, massive houses, designer clothes. But that’s the thing about shame – it’s an emotion that arises from our most base human instincts: the fear of being judged negatively by others; our desire to ‘fit in’; the discomfort of feeling exposed; and those emotional responses transcend income levels. For wealthy people who also happen to be politically liberal – and so value the notion of social equity – being rich, and the advantages that wealth presents can be a source of moral discomfort, particularly when said wealth is inherited. It is entirely possible (and common) to feel shame about having ‘too much’ money, though this remains a position that perhaps understandably is rather difficult for the majority of us to conjure up considerable sympathy for. In Amy’s case, she had kept her inheritance a secret not just because she’d been worried about friends treating her differently, but because – by her own admission – she felt embarrassed about having had it so easy on that front.
We carried on talking for a while, Amy explaining the details of her situation, while I rapidly tried to recalibrate my expectations of a conversation that had now gone wildly off-piste, to say the least. 
‘Look it’s fine,’ I said eventually. ‘I’m not angry or anything – it’s not like I have a right to know the ins and outs of your finances. I’m just a bit . . . taken aback,’ I added, trying to be as non-judgemental as possible, given that fear of judgement had been the main reason she’d lied to me in the first place.
I paused, weighing up my words carefully before continuing.
‘The one thing I will say is – you not being honest about this sort of thing is, like, actively unhelpful. I mean, I’ve literally been using you as an example of it being possible for me to get a decent mortgage on my current earnings, and that just . . . isn’t the case. I get why you wouldn’t shout about this from the rooftops, but actively misleading people . . .’ I sighed. ‘It’s just a bit unhelpful.’
And there lies the rub. When people conceal these enormous advantages – whether it is the inheritance underwriting a house purchase, or the career advancements facilitated by the privilege of financial support – it invites self-flagellation among those who aren’t as fortunate, making them feel inadequate when they’re unable to achieve those same milestones, not realising that there is a secret cheat code they simply don’t have access to.

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