Fancy paying a fortune to live in a cupboard, but in a setting more glamorous than London? Try moving to Paris.
In the city of lights finding, finding a place to call home is like staggering around in the dark. Unbelievably high levels of competition, high rental prices and little to no space make flat hunting in Paris less enjoyable than than the smell on the Metro in summer.
At a recent expat comedy night, an American comedian noted that WTF was not just a well known acronym for a phrase to express high levels of disbelief : it can also mean, “Welcome to France”. Anyone who's arrived in France, all wide eyed and bushy tailed, will have had their enthusiasm swiftly jolted by piles of paperwork.
The rental market in Paris is notoriously complicated and bureaucratic, with landlords asking for any number of documents and references. When flat viewings such an unpleasant experience, a tip-off that a property is available amounts to a very rare golden ticket.
That doesn’t mean it’s cheap, however. Landlords expect tenants to earn a monthly salary at least three times the monthly rent. And the bi-annual cost of living index from the Economist Intelligence Unit recently ranked Paris as the second most expensive city to live after Singapore for the second year in a row. (It was ranked fairly highly in all categories apart from the cost of alcohol and tobacco, so if all the stress of finding a place drives you to indulge in such vices, then at least you can do that much on the cheap.)
Anyone unable to meet these pricey criteria for obtaining a roof over their head must find a generous guarantor. Parisian landlords are notoriously picky: a friend of mine was asked repeatedly for a parental guarantor, despite being in his thirties and financially stable. Such expectations are driven partly by the strength of tenant rights in France, but it makes getting your foot through the door and into a new home a near impossible task.
So what about those who don’t have high incomes or wealth guarantors? Look at the rental ads and you’ll come across a range of properties offering accommodation that doesn't meet the basic living standards set out by French law (a minimum floor space of 9m2, ceilings at least 1.8m high, running water, electricity, and access to a bathroom and kitchen). The Foundation Abbé Pierre an organisation working to tackle bad housing in France, has uncovered numerous case-studies of vulnerable people living in accommodation that is simply uninhabitable: in a recent study, it found that there are currently 800,000 severely overpopulated lodgings in Paris.
There is some hope. One of the government's solutions is the “Grand Paris” project, which will extend the boundaries of Paris and make the suburbs more accessible. That, though, will not sort out a problem that needs immediate action.
Last July, the Parisian government also announced that landlords must open up unused commercial spaces in the city to new purposes, such as turning them into apartments, or face fines. The plan was meant to release about 200,000m2 of office space for homes. It's a good idea – but sadly, many landlords recognised that paying the fines can be more cost effective than paying for expensive conversions.
Then there’s the Loi Duflot – a property law affecting second home owners, and named after a former housing minister. When it comes into effect in 2016, it will offer tenants tax reductions, benefits and a cap on estate agent fees. It’ll also allows landlords to rent out properties without checking with governments first. This could bring more properties onto the rental market – but it’ll likely benefit landlords more than those seeking long-term accommodation, by encouraging them to focus on lucrative short term rentals.
Tenants may also welcome the proposed rental caps, under which rental contracts will be permitted to charge no more than 20 per cent per m2 more than the median rent in their neighbourhood. Nonetheless, if all landlords choose to set their prices at the highest legal rate, then medians will still rise year upon year.
These measures do offer tenants some light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of increased regulation for landlords that make it harder for them to run amok with prices and quality. But the moment, though, in Paris, a roof over your head will remain a luxury – and a cupboard to oneself the ultimate achievement.