'I searched for somewhere to live in London - and found racists and fraudsters'

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High rents, discrimination and fraud face young people looking for somewhere to live in London, writes Samson Folarin.

When English poet William Shenstone said nothing was certain in London but expense, I should have paid attention. You can blame me, but don’t be hard. I was awestruck by stories of the capital city’s edifices and its reputable academic and cultural institutions. I did not count the cost of schooling and living in a cosmopolitan city.

I was confronted with the harsh reality of my choice upon my arrival in 2023 for my postgraduate studies. This was when I started searching for accommodation. Despite spending as much as £118 per week on train travel during my search, I failed to secure a space. Teetering on the brink of homelessness, I reluctantly considered a shared apartment on Spareroom.

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I found one, where a Ghanaian lived. The young man invited me over for viewing. I spent about £21 travelling from Brighton, where I was squatting with a friend, to the Gatwick Airport train station area, where the house was. I had to trek some 30 minutes to get to the estate.

The young man came out to meet me and introduced me to his mother, who had emerged from one of the rooms with a sneering, demeaning look.

"My name is Samson and I am from Nigeria,” I said, as a courtesy to the woman, who was old enough to be my mother.

“Did you say you are from Nigeria?” she queried, as her face creased into an angry frown. 

“Yes, I am,” I replied, surprised at her sudden anger.

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“No, I don’t want Nigerians in my house,” she fired and moved away. 

I was dumbstruck. I tried to ask whether she had an issue with Nigerians. I thought I could change her mind. But no, she refused to speak further.

Her son watched the drama in disbelief. He appeared enraged, but later told me he was helpless. I was still trying to catch my breath from the walk and it dawned on me that I had wasted valuable time and money.

I was close to tears and wanted to demand a refund of my fare, but I chose to walk away. I should be grateful to this family for inviting me. What about white landlords and agents who did not even respond to my messages on the online platforms?

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 A few days later I found a lady, Racheal, on one of the websites. She claimed to be an agent. The apartments she advertised looked incredibly cheap and they were all in London. She invited me to her office in east London.

On the day of the appointment, she was nowhere to be found. I called the number on the ad multiple times, and she did not take the call. I sent messages, no response. After roaming the street for an hour in frustration, she sent a text message, directing me to an obscure office with no signage.

There, a man told me Racheal was his colleague and that she was out on another assignment. He showed me different accommodation options and I picked two.

“I will take you there after calling the landlord, but you have to first pay £200 for commission,” he said.

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I was taken aback and asked whether the money was part of the accommodation cost, but he said "no". It was a service charge. My sixth sense screamed "fraud". I was disappointed, disenchanted and exhausted.

Project Peter PanProject Peter Pan
Project Peter Pan | National World

Then I found a studio in Croydon listed at £1,000. When I called the agent the price had risen to £1,100 but I was desperate so I went to see the room, which was incredibly small, with no wiggle room for body scrubbing in the bathroom.

I was close to tears as I converted the rate to my home currency. At £1,100 per month (about N1,600,000 at the time), I could afford to pay a year’s rent for a three-bedroom flat in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre, and still have N600,0000 left. 

These experiences are not peculiar to me. Aside from discrimination and fraud that seemed pervasive in the housing sector, people in London go through tough times dealing with dodgy landlords who demand high rates. A report from Savills in November showed that London rents had risen by 31% since 2021 and that Londoners now spend as much as 42.5% of their income on rent, which is double the average rate for the rest of England.

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This is takes a serious toll on family life. Schools are closing down because of the drop in the number of pupils. Birth rates are falling and families are leaving London. Couples are trying to manage resources by not having kids.

Samson FolarinSamson Folarin
Samson Folarin | Samson Folarin

The government must intervene in the housing sector by building more houses. That is the simple solution. What is happening right now is an interplay of market forces and the way out is more homes.

Consideration should be made to recommendations from the private sector, such as those outline in the Brickflow White Paper, a 2023 research document produced by 12 industry leaders. The development experts recommended, among others things, increasing funding for planning departments and improvements in government and private sector funding for developers.

If William Shenstone were alive today, I am sure he would be shocked that more than two centuries on, things have got worse. London is losing families, schools, future. It’s a bad omen.

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Samson Folarin is a postgraduate student of Investigative Journalism at City, University of London.

Project Peter Pan - launched by National World as the UK heads toward a general election in 2024 - aims to use our collective media power to give a voice to those in their 20s and 30s who have negotiated a pandemic, work hard and are ambitious, yet are lost. Frozen out of the housing ladder and stuck in a rental cycle often in substandard accommodation, many are in debt and facing impossible decisions.

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