What happens to a city when even doctors can’t afford to live in it?
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Forced to leave the city by rising house prices or only able to remain thanks to parental help, even the relatively high salaries of junior doctors aren’t enough to pay for housing near hospitals in north London.
Traditionally, the bright lights, big city promise of London has been to blame for the mass exodus of young people from across the UK and beyond seeking better jobs, wages and opportunities in the biggest city in western Europe. However, there are signs that this traditional brain drain could be about to see a reverse as property prices in the capital continue to multiply unchecked.
Last year a YouGov poll found that 70 per cent of employees aged between 25 and 39 said that the cost of housing makes it difficult to work in London and a third of the entire age group said they would consider moving to live and work in a different region.
The salary at which respondents said they thought a comfortable life in London was possible was £70,000, so it’s little surprise that junior doctors (who can expect to be paid approximately £50,000 a year) are leaving the city as even relatively high earners struggle to afford homes in the capital.
A few months ago, Dr Christina Stamoulis, 29, moved back to live with her parents in her home town of Birmingham, having spent seven years training and working as an anaesthetist at both the Royal Free and the Whittington Hospitals in north London.
“I relocated to Birmingham and in the past few months I’ve been living with my parents because I want to try and save up some money to be able to afford to buy somewhere to live,” she says.
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“I moved to London because the training opportunities for an anaesthetist are really good there. When I lived there I was living in a house share in Finsbury Park, paying about £700 per month, not including bills, for a room. I found that my savings at the end of the month were fairly limited, and definitely not enough to save a deposit for a home near the hospitals where I was working.
“Most of my closest medic friends were in exactly the same position. Some have left but the ones who’ve stayed are never planning to buy a property because it’s just not feasible, while the ones who do own their own homes are either married to people who work in finance, or are from London and have had significant help from their parents.”
With average house prices in Camden settling above the £1million mark in the past year, it hardly seems surprising that a 29-year-old can’t afford to buy their dream house in the borough. On top of this, unaffordable housing is an acute problem for all key workers and there are schemes provided by hospitals and housing associations in place to help them rent or buy homes near work. However, doctors – at the top of the food chain paywise – are better placed than most to be able to buy on the open market, which is what makes the current situation so shocking.
While many young professionals are being pushed out of their ideal areas in zone 2, for hospital doctors, living near their place of work is more than just a convenient lifestyle choice.
“Living near the hospital is becoming more important the closer I get to being a consultant because when you’re on call, you really need to be able to get to the hospital within half an hour,” says Stamoulis. “I know everyone has to commute but we’re an emergency speciality. If a child’s airway collapses, you don’t want your consultant to be on the tube from the other side of London.”
Philip Coakley, 30, an anaesthetics trainee at Homerton University Hospital in Hackney, agrees.
“Most people who have out of hours on call now are expected to live or stay within half an hour of hospital,” he says. “So, for example one of the ICU consultants I work with has a friend whom she stays with when she’s on call because she can’t afford to live any closer to work. She does one on call a week and one weekend a month; that’s a lot of time kipping on someone’s sofa.”
Coakley acknowledges that he is one of the lucky ones. Having been brought up in Highgate, he was able to live back at his parents’ for two years after university and save £25,000, rather than spending that money on rent.
However, when he actually came to look for somewhere to buy, he found that this was nowhere near the 10 per cent deposit he needed to secure a mortgage on a flat that was both close to his family home and to his job in Hackney.
“The money I had wouldn’t even have touched the sides of a 10 per cent deposit of a 500sq ft, two-bedroom flat, which isn’t even in the nice bit of Kentish Town! It’s an insane situation,” says Coakley.
“My dad contributed the bulk of the deposit and then, because the remaining money was more than six times my income, I had to get a joint mortgage with him as well. Because of his age they’d only give me a really short term mortgage, which has meant that my payments have been really high and I’ve had to do a minimum of 50 hours a month of locum shift work, in addition to my basic job, just to make the payments.
“There’s no question that without my dad none of this would have been possible. I’d still be renting, trying to save but the problem with that is that for most people with a normal income, the value of property is going up quicker than the rate at which you can save money.”
Nonetheless, renting is the most popular option for doctors in training who are required to move around frequently in their first years.
“For the years when they’re training in London, doctors make ends meet with a cautious eye on what they’re going to do if they have kids,” says Coakley. “One thing that lots of them do is leave London, but London is a nice enough place that I think there’ll always be doctors who want to work here. The question will be how will they afford to do that?
“We’re at the tipping point now, rather than breaking point. A lot of consultants working at the Whittington and the Royal Free are older and bought their homes a long time ago when they could afford to do that on a doctor’s salary. I don’t know how easy that will be for the next generation of consultants in north London. The breaking point will come when 70 or 80 per cent of them can’t afford to live here.”
There is major pressure now to prevent London becoming a training ground for young people across all professions, who then go and take their experience elsewhere. While the regions may rejoice at the prospect of at last seeing the so-called trickle down effect in action, for Londoners this is a very real threat and one that needs intervention sooner rather than later.
Indeed, the need for intervention of some kind in the housing market has been expressed by each of the major parties as key points of their general election manifestoes. But is there a danger that this is too little, too late?
Mairead Carroll of The National Housing Federation says: “The fact that even well-paid professionals can’t afford to buy a home and in many cases even struggle to pay their rent, should send alarm bells ringing. We need nurses, teachers, doctors and key workers in every city. Therefore we need to build homes that they can afford.
“With a bold long-term government plan for house building our housing crisis is solvable. We desperately need politicians from all sides to commit to ending the housing crisis within a generation.”
For Stamoulis, this isn’t a question of pay, or lifestyle, but of a striking disconnect between expectation and experience.
“As doctors we all want to sell ourselves as people who don’t care about the money, as altruistic people, but I always had a thought at the back of my mind that I’d be alright for money,” says Stamoulis. “I guess it was a bit naïve. Though I do earn a lot of money, I didn’t think it would be so tricky to settle.”