September 26th, 2005


Are you a lodger?

Does your way of life need a room? Are you an owner... or a lodger?

I've always been a lodger. I mean I've always lived in private rented accommodation. People ask me why. Rent is money down the drain, they say. My reasons are many. I like spending a couple of years here, a couple of years there, moving around the world with minimal fuss. In the last ten years I've lived in London, Paris, Tokyo, New York and Berlin. Could I have done that if I'd bought property?

It's also a cultural thing. The people who "want me to buy" are people like Margaret Thatcher. I don't like owning stuff. I feel like we're all lodgers in this world, we pass through it, we shouldn't become too attached to objects or imagine we have dominion over them. Students rent, and Europeans rent, and I feel very much like a student and a European. What's more, "home" to me is increasingly a digital place. Who needs bricks and mortar when you have zeroes and ones? Who needs to survey a physical space when you can survey your computer desktop and feel at home wherever you happen to be physically?

So I'm proud to be a lodger. But it's getting increasingly difficult. Here are some statistics I found in Private Rental Housing in Europe: The View from Australia by Dr Andrew Beer.

* Britain has swung massively away from renting in the last one hundred years. In 1914 90% of dwellings in Britain were let privately. In 1950, some 53% of UK households were still renting privately, by 1961 this had fallen to 31%, and by 1971 it had declined to 18.9%. By 1992 the private rental sector was down to 9%. Now it hovers around 6%.

* The UK private rental section is now a motley thing comprised of students, elderly people in secure tenancies, young single mobile people who move on quickly or "households of multiple occupation... strangers living in poor quality housing" together. 80% of these households are in dwellings defective on the grounds of poor management, inadequate amenities or over-occupation".

* "For much of the post-War period," writes Beer, "the rising price of housing (especially in London) has encouraged landlords to 'winkle' protected tenants out of their lets, encouraged others to ignore repairs and maintenance in the expectation that deteriorating conditions will force the sitting tenants to leave, keep dwellings empty, or circumvent rent controls by charging 'key money' or shifting from unfurnished to furnished accommodation."

I see evidence of the degradation of private rented accommodation whenever I go to London. "The lift has a sign in it that says 'Please do not use this lift as a toilet'. What do they take us for? Why not say 'You are a cunt, aren't you'? The assumption of guilt. But our hosts later tell us that the lift is used as a toilet. Often. Fuck. Welcome to Britain!" I wrote in Welcome to Britain. "Most of the buildings will be peely-wally, chopped around, subdivided and ruined by mean insensitive landlords with exchange value rather than use value in mind, full of blind corners, pointless steps, awkward bathrooms, and ghastly grey fitted carpet," I wrote in For Whom the Siren Wails.

Some think I'm just being prim or prissy when I make these observations about London. But you need to live in a city like Berlin to see how systematically British private rented accommodation has been run down, and how tawdry and terminal it looks. It isn't this way in Berlin.

Beer again: "The private rental sector is largest in Switzerland and West Germany where it accounts for 66 per cent and 43 per cent of households respectively."

That 43% German figure rises to astonishing levels here in Berlin, the city of the lodger, where only 12% of accommodation is owner-occupied. Trying to explain this situation to its astonished readers, The Times recently described "a long-entrenched renting culture among the locals".

"Housing in the east was owned by the state during the communist years, and after the Wall came down in 1989, blocks of flats were largely sold en masse to big corporations rather than to the tenants who lived in them. West Berliners, too, were traditionally reluctant to buy — rents were heavily subsidised, while the prospect of Russian tanks rolling in made the city seem anything but a safe investment. Home ownership was also rejected as “petit bourgeois” by students and other denizens of Berlin’s thriving hippie scene."

"It is worth bearing in mind that the market is very different from in Britain — not least because renting is a long-term option for the majority. Contracts are therefore usually for an unlimited period and, although there is generally a three-month break clause on either side, it can be extremely difficult to get rid of a tenant," the Times lamented, before heading into a premature gloat about anticipated regime change. "Things may be about to change, especially if today’s general election brings a new government... there are hopes the feel-good factor could feed through to the property market. Much depends on the prevailing mood — which, in turn, brings us back to Merkel and today’s election."

I don't appreciate The Times telling its "investors" to come over here and snap up undervalued property, bringing their British attitudes to lodging with them. My rent here is £250 per month for a 62 metre square apartment in a delightful neighbourhood (one The Times mentions by name as an "up-and-coming investment tip", fuck you very much!) and I want things to stay exactly as they are.

Out of interest, I looked up the figures for ownership versus renting in Asia. Here they are, courtesy Global Tenant. Surprise surprise, my beloved Japan is the country with some of the highest private rental rates in Asia.

But, you know, one of the best things about the situation here in Berlin is that conversation around a Berlin supper table is much more likely to be about art than property. In other words, it's much more likely to resemble yesterday's Click Opera entry than today's.