Thursday, 26 July 2007

Fire?

This morning I was woken up by a siren, presumably the fire alarm, which might have meant that Dovecot Towers was ablaze. I didn’t panic. I was calm, but the alarm kept on blaring, so I peered into the corridor. I wasn’t expecting hordes of panicky residents racing for the exit, hauling sobbing children, hefty loved ones and livestock (with many chickens – these scenarios always include chickens) but nobody else seemed to bother.

What if it really was a fire? I wondered where I should go, and what I should do. Of course the alarm would be wired to the fire station, so the fire brigade would automatically be racing over out to dampen the flames and save us all. Or would they? I wondered if I should call them. The alarm was whining on, and still nobody moved.

Previously I have lived in social housing, where - if nothing else - they cared about safety. Alarms were tested regularly. We recognised the familiar screech of the siren, and were drilled efficiently until we knew automatically where to assemble. Mind you, we were also blessed with a resident pyromaniac. Wearing an ill fitting dressing gown, he set many fires, and enjoyed the ensuing chaos from a special vantage spot on the street corner below. This got to be quite annoying. Eventually other residents tried to lynch him.

We were then advised to remain inside unless firemen hammered on the door, confirmed the fire was genuine, and ordered us to evacuate. Residents then started more fires, attempting to fulfil a common sexual fantasy involving a fireman’s hose.

But here in Dovecot Towers, what should I do? Even in my private flat in Glasgow, the fire assembly point was prominently displayed. There is nothing in Dovecot Towers, no drill, no signs, nothing. Not even a notice warning the dozy and smoke befuddled not to use the lifts. Nothing.

But did this mystery siren even come from Dovecot Towers? Perhaps it was the block next door, but I still didn’t see any movement. Maybe it was the security alarm from the building opposite, as scallies often breach defences intending to treat the cranes and diggers as their own personal adventure playground.

Eventually, I decided that this was a generic non urgent warning siren, indicating either that it was Tuesday, raining, or set off just to annoy me in particular; there was no blaze, and I wasn’t going to die, or lose everything I owned to smoke damage. Later, as I made my way into town, I heard the city’s sound track: a cacophony of sirens, bells, and electric warning devices. Car alarms ring out, to the disdain of everyone. Recorded messages assail my ears, advising me with fine and chilling hauteur, to: ‘…please close the door behind me/mind the gap’ and highly vocal lifts inform me quite imperiously which floor I am on. We are accustomed and immune to these warnings, until the genuine item is irrelevant. It’s as if the city itself is crying wolf.

Meanwhile, in Dovecot Towers, I am aware that - just as with the shoddy fittings, finishes, and poor attitude to security for the buy to let tenants who make up the majority of residents - the management company has ignored fire safety. It will take a disaster to stir them into action, and then only if makes the news.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Knowing too much

I hear every word my neighbours say. They stand on the balcony shouting into their mobiles, bellowing back into the flat. Shutting my own door makes no difference, and anyway it’s not practical on a hot, stuffy day.

Usually, I only hear those neighbours who live in an adjacent flat, but last night some distant residents were in the throes of one of the most traumatic arguments I’ve ever heard. I felt like a three year old, cowering upstairs mummy and daddy tearing strips off each other. It was horrible: two desperate people screaming, thrashing out their future. She thought he wanted her to move out, and then - sobbing – admitted she thought he wanted her to have an abortion. His denial was unconvincing, and delayed.

I shouldn’t know this. It was private. I closed the windows and shut the door, but the night air was humid, and soon I opened the window again. They were still arguing. I don’t know who they are; I’ve never seen them. I probably never will. It was compelling, don’t get me wrong, but I heard other windows opening and shutting as residents rushed to listen in. We are all trespassers; bystanders in a very private drama. Tenants leaned over the railings in the pouring rain, soaked but shamelessly trying to catch every word, looking for the flat which was the location for this melodrama.

The row worsened; doors were slammed, something crystalline was broken, the screaming and recriminations grew louder: and more ferocious and horrible. She was a slut. He was a bastard. She was a bitch. It wasn’t his baby. She hated him; he hated her. She was packing her suitcase. Oh yeah? Well…he was calling the taxi himself.

He blamed her family. She agreed, but she needs their help with a baby on the way. They couldn’t stay in Dovecot Towers – it’s no place for a child. I could sense the other residents straining to hear. I wanted to shout at the mystery fighting couple to keep it down (it was late at night by now) if only to remind them that we could all hear their argument, but I think they were past caring.

We all live in little residential boxes. Isolation renders us immune to the idea that tenants are linked by some sort of neighbourly umbilical cord. We shut our front doors, imagining this protects us from the world. But when we enjoy our desirable balconies, it’s as if we share an open plan living room, a fact which residents forget, as they venture outside to order drugs and pizzas, have innocent, pointless, screeching conversations, even arrange adulterous liaisons with their partner oblivious in the bathroom.

By two am the row was easing off. She was still crying. His despair was palpable; he was scared, but did she really think he wouldn’t help her with the baby? As they were calming down, the rain lashed and the focus changed. Her final words were plaintive, and soft. She said: ‘…you just don’t love me anymore, do you?’
I couldn't hear his answer.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Does Everybody Hate Newbuilds?

Some dejected plumbers struck up conversation in the lift recently. They were keen to share the news that all fittings, walls, ceilings, roofs, brickwork, as well as the foundations, girders, and well everything here in Dovecot Towers is cheap, shoddy and possibly dangerous. We get a lot of that round here. They also exposed the reality of a bathroom covered in what seems to be luxurious tiling: whenever they start a repair, they must rip out all the tiles and start again, as it cannot be removed in part sections.

When builders describe homes like my own, I am told of filigree brickwork with the wind whistling through, and wobbly, earthquake imitating foundations. Eventually, I succumb to wearing a hard hat when taking out the bins; well, you can’t be too careful, and I might get brain damage from tumbling boulders and sharp masonry. Builders are convinced my home is a machine of death, and predict my premature demise. They are carving my gravestone: ‘…we warned her about those newbuilds.’

Plasterers hate newbuilds. They speak ruefully about thin, miserly applications of second rate rendering, slapped on haphazardly where waterfalls of damp are waiting to pounce. Roofers bemoan the flat roofs, cracked slates, and leaking surfaces. They take some pride in their work, and realise that slapdash standards do nothing for their professional reputation.

Even the man who repaired my washer hates newbuilds, and he lives in one. It’s not just buy to let owners reluctant to pay for his work (he now demands cash upfront). While his brand new home was being finished, he was persuading the builders to scrap any white goods which came inclusive; he has his own fridge etc. As they were installing his washer drier, he was removing it, straight to the scrap heap.

Architects hate newbuilds, because they have little input in their design. There’s one huge, supposedly luxurious new-build near to me. It’s covered in off-white tiling, like a municipal urinal. It has tiny windows, a minuscule balcony, and looks like a secure unit for serial killers (who also really hate newbuilds, and were driven to kill when living in one.) One, now notorious, high end apartment block was ‘imagined’ by a fashion designer, with no training in (or experience of) architecture.

Everybody hates newbuilds. Estate agents would - without their halo slipping - describe the cupboard under my sink as being ‘…compact, with excellent access to amenities’. Even they hate newbuilds, but are constantly pressured to rent them as a priority, as buy to let owners walk a financial tightrope, and can’t afford empty flats. Estate agents disguise reality with words like ‘fresh’ and ‘new.’ Eventually, they develop a guilty expression, and convert to Catholicism, seeking absolution for the mortal sin of persuading tenants to pay rent on a buy to let newbuild.

Most workmen believe that within ten years, these detested new flats will be demolished. Who builds them? Who designs them? And who’s daft enough to live in them? Meanwhile contractors all agree on one thing: they are coining it in, from hours of large scale, long term, and therefore costly repair work. Which means that workmen are unique: they really, really love newbuilds.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Birth Of A Buy To Let Dovecot

Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds
‘Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of tickytackyLittle boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the sameThere's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow oneAnd they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.’
Over the past year, I have watched a block of flats being built, and the result reminds me of that song. Little Boxes was written about suburbia, but the lyrics suit my surroundings: the growing Land of The Buy To Let Dovecots, which - as I have seen - really are made out of ticky tacky, and really do look just the same.
The construction process begins with an enormous hole in the ground, surrounded by hoardings, all exclaiming how exciting and innovative this particular new development will be. Developers start the lift shaft, with gallons of concrete poured from a crane, and wary men in hardhats screaming as the skip floats ominously above them, waiting to shoot its load. The building takes shape; all are variations on a theme. Most newbuilds are stacks of one bedroom flats, with a few two beds at the end of the corridoor.
Newborn dovecots are tended by a gang of cranes; they look like huge, sinister insects building a nest. There are dumper trucks, and lorries arriving crammed with building supplies, noisily unloaded at 7am. When they fall silent, the building is nearly ready.
The facade is tacked on towards the end of the process, giving the building the look of a book shelf, or a corporate pigeon hole: anonymous empty frontages where people, rather than post, will be filed away. It’s difficult at this point to decide whether this shell will grow up to be an office block, or housing. Ideally, both are designed after considering very different requirements and priorities: homes should be comfortable, with living space, offices ought to favour functional practicalities, but they both look just the same.
Balconies are soon visible, with men suspended from winches seeming to bungee jump as they work on the exterior. Well before the dovecot is completed, visitors can be seen wandering around inside, switching on a checkerboard of houselights, presumably inspecting their new home, or being persuaded to buy one of these ‘exciting and innovative’ apartments.
Finally, a ‘design feature’ is added. In the example I was observing, this is an enormous white (presumably fibre glass) teepee type structure covering the entire roof, illuminated at night. My own dovecot is at the less classy end of the buy to let/purchase off plan design, and subsequently has no ‘features.’ It’s a rabbit hutch for people; a filing cabinet for human beings.
Even with cranes and lorries still working through the night, when the block is obviously still incomplete, television sets begin to flicker inside. Some brave pioneers are already living in these brand new, designer dovecots, which are all made out of ticky tacky, and all look the same.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Buy to let is bad for tenants too.

People speak of buy to let tenants as is if we are all ‘yuppies’ (do people still say that?) or trust funded wastrels with pots of money carelessly oozing away, when we should invest in property. The truth is simple: we aren’t rich, and just need a home.

Rarely mentioned are the problems caused for tenants by saturation buy to let. Rookie landlords often fly by the seat of their pants. They are reluctant to employ contractors for repairs (owners often arrive grumpily at 2am brandishing new spanners bought from the garage). The state of the building requires a high level of commitment when it comes to stumping up for professionals.

For buy to let tenants, there is the endemic apprehension that your landlord might not be keeping up with their own payments. Friends have been given notice after years of blameless occupation, meticulously paying the rent, keeping the place spic and span, because the property has been repossessed.

In certain blocks, buy to let tenants are the bane of everyone’s life. New owners economise, avoiding letting agencies (which to be fair, are extortionate) but often don’t check references, or police their tenant’s behaviour. This isn’t a matter of surveillance, or ‘control,’ but about ensuring the property is maintained and no disruptive or criminal activity takes place. Would you want to live next to a brothel? Or an improvised nightclub?

Buy to let increases rent. Many are the cases of one flat in a council block costing much more than its neighbour. This means going cap in hand to the council, explaining why your flat costs twice as much as the identical one next door. This is divisive on council estates, and in even private property, one neighbour can pay less; for example strong minded tenants might bargain a landlord down if the flat has been empty. This is problematic for tenants on benefit, where a standard rate is permitted for housing costs.

Developers don’t think ahead. More affordable, accessible housing, built on brownfield sites, is required rather than paving over the green belt with buy to let hutches for the comparatively wealthy to use as a pension plan. These are barely big enough for one person, let alone a couple, so when people wish to trade up, or need more space than their allocated microcapsule, two bedroom flats are rare, and large one bed flats are non existent.

An emerging and all consuming sense of impermanence is proving corrosive. I can’t imagine a positive campaign group being formed from an area dominated by buy to let flats (especially newbuilds, which are the majority). Most of these conquered colonies have no schools, and no doctors surgery. They seem to be built on the understanding that a six month lease is all that’s required. Many are on nine month leases, which is betrays the fact that these blocks are aimed at students, rather than a vibrant, lasting, organic community, one which will contribute to an area. The spectre of negative equity means that even buy to let owners lose out in the end.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Training feral newbies

There are rules you know. Tenants are either born knowing them, or learn by osmosis and experience. Others are raised by wolves. When these feral creatures move into a new home, they don’t understand how to act like a grown up. Flat dwellers well seasoned by years in fragile, echoey, newbuilds must intervene, or else the city will be plagued by hordes of wild, rampaging newbies switched into attack mode, sweeping into the lifts, and leaving havoc in their trail. Here are some tips, then:

It’s basic, I know, but don’t play ‘knock door/ runaway’ at 6.30 am (or at anytime). I’ll only get you back, and I will get you so damn good.

Don’t be so na├»ve as to think the neighbours are your new best friends. They are your enemies, and will blame you for messing up the bin room (when God knows you never venture that far, preferring to drop your rubbish onto the street from your balcony). In retaliation they will dump broken smelly bin liners outside your flat, play their music really loud, and then whine when you return the favour. They will steal your parcels, sneakily ordering more in your name while you’re away. They’ll listen into your conversations on the balcony and toy with reporting you to the drug squad. They may even be the drug squad.

Don’t drops smouldering fag ends on the foyer carpet. You wouldn’t do this at your parent’s house. Well, would you? Actually, you probably would.

Inside and outside are different. Outside is the street. I explain this because - should you need to discard pizza boxes, puke urgently, or be caught short for a piss - then do it ‘outside’ rather than ‘inside’ i.e. not on the carpet, by the lift, or outside my flat. Even better; head for the bin rooms. That’s where the bins are stored. You know; for your rubbish.

When you move in and your flat is all sparkly and shiny, well that sparkle is caused by a state called ‘cleanliness’. The bad news is, even if you don’t live that way, it’s how your flat should be left. It must be ‘clean’, which means you’ll have to ‘clean’ it. You’ll need ‘cleaning products’ like a mop, a hoover, some cloths and stuff. There are firms which offer a pay per hour end of tenancy clean, so if your surfaces are encrusted with gunk, the bath sloshes with goo, and there are dog ends embedded in the carpet, try using one of these services, or clean as you go. Then, you’ll see your deposit again.

Most citizens have a day that runs like this: they rise for work between six and eight am approxrimately, and often go to bed between eleven and midnight. This varies at weekends. If you live your life on a different timetable with alternative hours, then respect those around you. They might be heavily armed, or could stage a revenge four am wake up call. On a Sunday.

If you run out of things and need to borrow… some loo roll perhaps, maybe you need a parcel accepting, or fancy a chat, then it’s nice to be able to turn to your neighbours. So the golden rule is this; don’t piss them off. It’s better in the long run. Especially if you plan on popping your head into the corridor without dodging sniper fire.