London’s renting crisis: brutal choices, heartbreak and escalating costs faced by renters at breaking point

Ana Oppenheim says leaving one of her flatmates behind was ‘extremely heart-breaking’  (Adrian Lourie)
Ana Oppenheim says leaving one of her flatmates behind was ‘extremely heart-breaking’ (Adrian Lourie)

When Ana Oppenheim and her three housemates signed a two-year contract on a house in New Cross last summer they were pretty relieved.

True, the house was run-down but it was also reasonable value — Oppenheim’s rent was £760pcm — and they were looking at it being their long-term home.

Then, at the start of the summer, their landlord decided to move into the property and the friends were given notice. Oppenheim, 28, a parliamentary assistant, has been renting in London for a decade and in the past finding a new rental had been a drag but not a problem. This time around, after struggling to even secure viewings, she realised things had changed radically.

Over the past few months renting a home in London has moved from being a tricky and expensive manoeuvre to a full-blown nightmare.

Recent research from HomeLet found that rents in London are now nudging ever closer to £2,000 per month as increasingly desperate renters compete for the few homes on offer.

The supply/demand imbalance is striking. Flatsharing website Spareroom says there are now seven renters for every room available in London as people who left London during the pandemic return combined with the summer influx of students.

‘Everyone is trying to sell their personalities to the landlord’

Ana Oppenheim wanted to find a rental with two of her flatmates (the fourth moved to Margate), and they were willing to live anywhere in Zone 2. “There was a huge amount of competition,” she said. “We started making offers on places without even seeing them to be in with a chance and going to open-house viewings where everyone was trying to sell their personalities to the landlord, and writing covering letters about how much they loved the area and how they would take care of the house.”

By July the trio were spending hours every day on their house hunt, setting alarms so they could be on the phone to estate agents the instant they opened in the morning and obsessively monitoring the property portals. “We lowered our expectations, and increased our budgets,” said Oppenheim.

Ana Oppenheim and her flatmates lowered their expectations and increased their budgets in a bid to secure a home (Adrian Lourie)
Ana Oppenheim and her flatmates lowered their expectations and increased their budgets in a bid to secure a home (Adrian Lourie)

Eventually, with a move-out date of September 6 looming, Oppenheim accepted an offer to move into a friend’s flat in Nunhead when they move abroad this month. Until then she is couch-surfing. Unfortunately, the flat only has room for two, which means her third flatmate is currently still looking for a home.

“Having to leave somebody behind was extremely heart-breaking and quite awkward,” says Oppenheim.

The obvious cause of the current housing crisis is a lack of new homes being built. According to a report published last year by London Councils about 43,000 homes will be completed in the capital each year between 2021 and 2025. But the capital actually needs 90,00 to 100,000 new homes per year, and the report suggested that about half should be affordable and aimed at buyers and renters currently priced out of the market.

There is also talk of a rent cap, although how this would work in practice is hard to imagine and would not solve the wider problems: how — and, crucially, where — hundreds of thousands of new homes can be built. Building new homes is a long-term solution. In the immediate term many London renters are having to rely on the goodwill of friends or relatives offering temporary solutions.

‘It’s shocking how fast rents have gone up’

When she came home to discover that her flatmate had dumped a pile of sodden washing on her bed, Charlotte Boundy realised that her days of sharing a home were numbered.

“I think you just get to a point in life when you want to live on your own, and over the summer I got to that point,” she said.

Boundy, 31, had been paying £650pcm for a room in a flat in Bermondsey — a good deal negotiated in September 2020 when London was empty and landlords were scrambling to find tenants.

Charlotte Boundy realised that her budget wouldn’t stretch to a studio flat (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Charlotte Boundy realised that her budget wouldn’t stretch to a studio flat (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

“I talked to loads of estate agents, and asked about studio flats,” she said. “I told them I had a budget of up to £1,500pcm, but none of them had anything at all. It was a scary realisation that even though I have a good job there was nothing at all on the market for me.”

Boundy, a trained actress, works as an office manager and PA in the city, and runs agency pocketpas.co.uk. She wanted to live somewhere with good train links to work. She searched all around south and east London from Hackney and Bethnal Green to Clapham and Elephant & Castle.

Realising that a studio, at around £1,800pcm, was beyond her budget she started reluctantly looking at new flat shares. But, with rents rising fast, most of the available rooms were around £1,000pcm. “It is just shocking how fast rents have gone up over the past two years,” she said. “When I told my landlady I was leaving she said: “That’s fine, I can probably get £2,000 to £2,500 for the flat now. It is frustrating that landlords are charging so much because they can in the current situation.”

Boundy was brought up in Walthamstow, but her mother has moved out of London and she was starting to feel fairly desperate until her godmother stepped in with an offer of a spare room at her home in Shoreditch.

Boundy moved in with her in August and plans to use the time to save a deposit so she can buy a shared ownership flat. “I’ve looked into it and [shared ownership] will be cheaper than renting a room,” she says. “I’m so glad it exists because it is my only option.”

‘Prices have become ridiculous’

At the start of the year, Gemma Currie was living with flatmates in a house on the borders of Clapham and Brixton, paying just under £700pcm (plus bills). But she didn’t love the property, one of her flatmates was planning to move in with a boyfriend, and the sharers agreed to end their tenancy at the end of August.

Currie, 27, began looking for a new place in May.

“I sent maybe 100 or 150 messages on Spareroom.com and I got a response to about five per cent of them. I was having viewings and then being ignored or told that a friend was going to move in.”

She had originally planned to pay up to around £950pcm in rent and was looking for somewhere on the Northern line in Zone 2. She stretched her budget to £1,200pcm, and her search area out to Zone 3, put the word out among friends, colleagues, and on social media, but continued to struggle. “Prices have become ridiculous,” she says.

Eventually a friend offered a temporary lifeline — their spare room in Southgate, which Currie, project manager for a design consultancy, moved into at the end of August. Then a colleague going on sabbatical offered her the sub-let of his flat in Bermondsey, which will see her through until January.

“I’m just happy to have a break from looking,” says Currie.

She wishes more could be done to increase the supply of purpose built rental flats and houses that ordinary Londoners can actually afford — most build to rent developments, with their gyms and on site social events, are prohibitively expensive and for that reason tend to be popular with overseas students and well paid contract workers.

“I earn more now than I did when I first came to London and I have really struggled to find anywhere,” said Currie. “I can’t imagine how this year’s graduates starting their first jobs are going to cope.”