Why I didn't enjoy living rent-free in London


By Ben Palmer

Not paying rent in London is an alluring prospect. With the end of a four-year housemate bromance on the horizon, I saw the green light. I used all my annual leave to spend two weeks in America, three weeks cycling across Europe, a weekend at a stag do in the Lakes, and a week with work at a festival; all within a three month period. And crucially, whilst still being paid!

It sounds like a wanderlust dream, right? 

My adventures were enabled by not paying the extortionate rent we get lulled into believing is normal. But when I sat down and did the maths, I discovered I’d moved beds 62 nights in that 91 day period. And I was shattered.

You never sleep as well or as deeply when you’re sofa surfing between adventures, staying in hostels, or wild camping and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. My rent may have magically made a third of my salary vanish before my waking eyes, but being settled somewhere for four years brings a peace and security that can’t be found roaming even the most Instagrammable corners of this planet.

Having lost that stability, I have a dread of becoming another SpareRoom interviewee, fighting to handover far too much money for a poky room. Probably for only for a year until I can’t bear my housemates/  commute/ rent/ job any more. When the process starts again. Joy.

So rather than jump on the SpareRoom merry-go-round, I’m looking to head in completely the opposite direction. I’m looking to live on a council estate in a tough London neighbourhood for at least the next five years.

But why?

I hope my disillusion with living in a state of flux became apparent in the last 289 words. But it took a little more than that for me to head in the opposite direction. 

Years ago I watched the film Harry Brown. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s Michael Caine playing a recently widowed former Royal Marine, Harry. Harry fights back and kills the teenage drug dealers terrorising the residents of his South London neighbourhood. 

Not long after seeing that, I heard about Eden. Eden sends and supports teams of people who are motivated to live and invest their lives in estates like the Harry’s, to bring about an end to the violence and hopelessness, without resorting to killing all the perpetrators. The stories I heard and read were so powerful, they comprehensively trumped Harry’s Hollywood narrative. They inspired the desire in me to invest somewhere where it would actually matter, rather than moving wherever the wind of my millennial life blew, barely exchanging hellos with my neighbours before it was time to move on again. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it is straightforward. None of the stories I heard about Eden were. Working for an urban youth work charity, XLP, has only underlined that point and highlighted the often chaotic and painful reality of inner-city London estates. Every week there are more stories of young people on the edge, facing really tough situations and getting involved in all the wrong things.

But my faith inspires me to fight for a better world. Eden’s approach is the antithesis of Harry’s, based on a deep and real love for your literal neighbours. Living with and investing in those next door can slowly turn the tide for everyone involved in the community. Or at least that's what I'm hoping to see a glimpse of in the next chapter of my life.

Who knows what will become of it. It will certainly be just everyday life, with all its flaws and monotony. However, it will be life with a purpose. Shoulder to shoulder with a group of people who have a clear desire to spend their time and energy supporting and hopefully, transforming a community. Above all else, I think that desire to invest in others will help them know they are loved and valued. Surely that has got to have an impact?

It’s the same model that I believe God uses. Many people think of him as a distant rule-maker who leaves humankind alone to get on with trying to do good, while holding the threat of punishment over them if they fail. But that isn’t what the Bible teaches. According to the Bible, God is invested in us. He knows every hair on our head and every thought of our heart. God was so desperate for us to know we are loved and valued, He became one of us. One translation of the Bible says God ‘became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood’ (John 1.14).

So that’s exactly what I’m planning on doing. 

Unfortunately it means paying rent in London and giving up some of my freedom to travel and explore whenever I want. Instead, many of my evenings and weekends will be consumed within 50 meters of my house, building up relationships with my neighbours. It probably doesn’t sound worth it, but when you believe that God did it for you, your perspective changes. All I hope is that through the sacrifices, some of the people I encounter discover that they are loved and valued as extravagantly as I am.


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