This week’s proposals to implement cheap rents for London’s artists show how the city’s housing crisis makes an absurdity of good intentions. They indicate why universality, rather than targeting, is needed to make renting affordable again in the capital.
Deputy mayor Justine Simons’ idea for “artist zones”, containing subsidised live-work spaces has got people asking all sorts of questions. How do you show you’re an artist? Why should we have ghettoised zones, rather than general support across the city? But mostly – why only artists?
The impulse is understandable. With rising rents and uncertain, low incomes, it’s inevitable that many artists will be struggling to stay in London. The Deputy Mayor for Culture wants to prevent that, and sustain London’s rich artistic tradition.
But separating Londoners from each other based on occupation is not the answer. The city is populated by millions of low-paid workers across many industries – whether that’s in the array of coffee shops that serve people each day, the retail mass of Oxford Street and the West End, or the hidden workers cleaning buildings late at night or in the early hours each morning.
Surely each and every person who works in London, keeping it running and fuelling its mixed economy, deserve affordable rents too?
To be fair, the details have not yet been clarified. Alternative proposals that have also been aired include stopping developers from buying up artist studios (which sounds good), and support to help artists buy their own places (where the devil would very much be in the detail).
The wider point, though, is that schemes to target sub-market rents at certain demographics in London look increasingly strange when so many different groups are struggling with housing costs. The city clearly needs more social housing; but with a private renter population of over 2m and growing, universal action is needed to support this wide spectrum of people.
People will argue that the wealthiest of renters in the most expensive properties don’t need rent controls – and of course, any system should accommodate these outliers. But as more and more people are hit by high rents, we should be extending the controls, not narrowing them.
This week the National Audit Office announced that the lack of affordable housing in London and the south-east, in conjunction with the benefit cap, was putting at risk the government’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees, who would struggle to be housed in London’s private rented sector.
When a crisis becomes so pronounced that it is affecting long-term Londoners, temporary Londoners, and future Londoners who are looking for a safe haven, we need to stop thinking about individual sectors and implement housing that is affordable to all.
Seb Klier is London Campaign Manager at the pressure group Generation Rent, on whose blog this article originally appeared.