Photo by rustycanuck
Artillery Row

The curse of the tiny fridge

A tale of the overheated housing market and its secondary effects on life in the capital

A clattering sound splits the afternoon air, followed by a string of mumbled curses. It can mean only one thing: someone has tried to stock the fridge again.

Britain’s housing crisis is so acute, and its implications so dizzying, that it is all too easy to lose yourself in the big stuff. Once one has read “The Housing Theory of Everything”, one can’t un-read it.

Yet the problem also extends into some of the smallest details of daily life, especially for young (or not-so-young) professionals whose parents owned their own home by their age, but are themselves trapped by London’s overheated market in the long twilight of their twenties.

I previously wrote about the burden that rental life imposes on the millennial (and presumably Zoomer) bibliophile. Many tenants move often, and moving lots of heavy books is a chore — as is finding anywhere to store them. 

At least that problem only rears its head from time to time. The fridge, on the other hand, is a daily menace.

Certainly, many tenants face much worse problems

The problem is this. Until about a year ago, the four-bed house in which I rent a room was a three-bed house. The landlord, seeking understandably to maximise their return, threw up a wall across the living room and turned half of it (including, happily, all the bookshelves) into what is now my room.

What they didn’t do is make any adjustments to the rest of the house to reflect this increase in occupancy. In particular, they didn’t replace the very small in-built fridge in the kitchen.

I can already imagine people breaking out the tiny violins. Certainly, many tenants face much worse problems, and our own is largely soluble via a combination of restrained shopping and grocery jenga. 

But it does nonetheless have a tangible impact. In order to make sure everybody has space for some essentials, neither my housemates nor I can take the opportunity to buy in bulk, or plan ahead and do a week’s grocery shopping in one go.

As a result, all of us pay over-the-odds for piecemeal grocery purchases, versus what we would if we had adequate storage space. We are also much more likely to give in to the temptation and convenience of ordering in, which impacts not only our disposable income but our health as well.

On one level, the very nature of these problems illustrates their second-order nature. Were we genuinely facing starvation or genuine hardship, doubtless we would feel more incentivised to band together and collectivise our eating habits. 

Relative hardship in the past is beside the point

But we’re not a family unit indeed, we aren’t even a rental unit, as every room is let on separate contracts. We all work in different sectors and keep very different schedules. Being able to set and plan one’s own diet is not an unreasonable expectation on the part of independent working people.

I therefore highlight the curse of the tiny fridge not as a plea for personal sympathy, but simply as an example of the sort of second- or third-order effects that an overheated housing market can have on life in the capital and other parts of the South. 

Ours may be just one household, but how many others face similar pressures? If you scale up the effect of pushing people towards convenience food, what sort of impact might that have on national health and fitness levels? If you added the extra costs of just-in-time grocery shopping and ordering in to high rents, and scaled it across the nation, how much harder does it make it for young people to save, or even acquire the habit of saving? What’s the point?

I can already imagine the Boomers’ eyes rolling out of their sockets. We’re not dying of rickets, we didn’t fight in the war, we’re not grappling with 14 per cent interest rates. We have smartphones and Netflix and all the rest. So ungrateful!

But if we aspire to build a healthier, thriftier nation (and these remain Tory values, at least notionally) then the relative hardship the homeowning generation might have faced in the past is beside the point. 

What matters is that the housing shortage cuts across the Government’s ambitions on almost every point, and in many more ways than policymakers might think.

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