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Opinion: ‘I messaged 180 people and got 6 viewings.’ The crushing reality of renting in this city

Editor’s Note: Jemal Polson is a social media producer at CNN, based in London. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion.

In the space of just under two years, I’ve lived in four different properties.

This isn’t due to a constant need to be in new surroundings and no, I do not own four homes. It’s because of the rental crisis gripping many major cities across the world – in my case, London.

Jemal Polson - Jemal Polson
Jemal Polson - Jemal Polson

I’ve quickly become something of an old-hand at looking for a new place to live in a city where demand is rapidly outpacing the number of available rental properties.

The house hunt usually goes like this: I join various social media groups, ask friends if they have any leads and sign up to SpareRoom.com – the self-proclaimed UK’s busiest flat-sharing website with over 14 million registered users.

How hard could it be?

When I was searching for a new place to live over the summer last year, I messaged more than 180 people and only managed to get six viewings through the entirety of my search. It felt like a miracle I managed to find somewhere to live at all.

I’m not alone. Much like in the US, the shortage of housing across the UK has resulted in a large increase in the number of average replies to a listing – more than tripling over the last four years according to Rightmove’s Rental Trends Tracker.

Against this dire demand and supply backdrop, it often felt like the power was in the landlord’s corner. For example, there was one landlord who would turn up unannounced at my front door to ask questions about the flat and wanting to carry out various unrelated administration, despite multiple warnings not to – even though UK law forbids them from doing so.

After being forced out of a flat I lived in over the pandemic due to a 14% rent increase in August last year, I moved into a shared apartment in a new area. I was welcomed in by two strangers whom I met on SpareRoom who had already been living there.

But the harmony was short-lived. Within weeks of moving in, I was notified that I, along with my two new housemates, would all have to vacate, due to the landlord wanting the property back.

Thankfully, my new roommates and I decided to stick together and find a new place – once again, in another part of London I was unfamiliar with. A housing crisis means you can’t be picky, you have to go with what’s available in whichever area.

Things were looking positive until a lack of communication towards the end of my 12-month contract meant I could no longer renew and would – you guessed it – have to move again.

Going at it alone again as my housemates were taking the next steps in their relationships, we parted ways. I fared slightly better in my online search this time – messaging 160 people and getting 15 viewings.

My story isn’t uncommon, but there were also a few unexpected obstacles which made the search slightly more challenging.

In both the UK and US, single people such as myself are much more likely to end up shelling out more for rent and bills than those with live-in partners, as they can split those between them.

It’s simply too expensive to rent a one-bedroom place on your own for a lot of people. But being in a couple, splitting rent and bills between you, can make it slightly easier. I can’t help but feel like people like me are punished for being single.

In addition to that – stay with me because this is going to sound ridiculous – trying to find shared housing as someone over the age of 30 made it even harder.

I frequently saw ads on SpareRoom from those who weren’t interested in living with someone over the age of 29 – sometimes even younger (I’m 33).

I can understand if you’re in your early 20s, you may not want to live with someone who may be in quite a different personal and professional stage than you’re in. But when a 28-year-old basically says “no over 30s,” frankly it’s a little daft.

There were also several ads unwilling to rent rooms to male tenants. Have a look on the site yourself and see how many “female preferred,” “female only” or “we’d like a female for balance” titles and descriptions you see. As limiting as this can be, I understand this one a little bit more. If men weren’t so terrible collectively, we would probably have more co-habitual options.

The process of viewing a place isn’t dissimilar to an audition or a job interview. Just because you decide that you want it, doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Ultimately, it’s the existing tenants or the landlord who decides whether they want you there.

It can also sometimes feel like a first date. I’ve asked myself “Will this house be the one?” “Will the tenants and I have enough to talk about?” as I’ve travelled to the property. You can also leave with a similar feeling of disappointment or dread of a date after a bad viewing.

And if you do make it past this stage, can you even afford it? London tenants are paying an average of £2,627 ($3,293)  per month for rent – a 12.1% increase over the last year alone. They’re also spending just over half of their weekly wage on rent.

In addition to that, most new tenancies require a security deposit, usually the equivalent cost of 5 or 6 weeks of rent. This can result in the average UK tenant paying £3,047 ($3,819) – all before they’ve moved into their new place.

The news of having to move again this year sent me to one of the lowest emotional points in over a decade. I think my housing worries greatly contributed to the amount of alcohol I was consuming in 2022. I haven’t felt secure in a rental property in years – partly due to feeling as though I’m at the mercy of landlords who have the power to change my situation at a moment’s notice.

However, many are facing much worse. These range from having to outbid potential tenants, and having to pay just to secure a viewing to being evicted for asking for simple repairs.

I’ve considered moving out of London. But the UK’s capital has a wider breadth of jobs and opportunities in comparison to other cities – and what I’d save on rent I’d make up in expensive train travel.

It’s strange to think back to a place I lived in three homes ago – only to realize that was just last year. The power imbalance between renters and owners is too large and needs to be reined in, giving those who aren’t able to afford to buy a home greater rights.

No matter your relationship status, age or gender identity, no one in London is going through renting unscathed.

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