Tuesday, 23 December 2008

They're Behind You!

Pantomime season is here. This year, many of the more astute and amusing scripts have characterised the traditional villain not as a witch but as a banker. Fair enough: the money goblins that sent us plummeting towards financial ruin are evil, but may I suggest an alternative focus for some camp jokes and custard pie accuracy? It’s a property developer.

The firm responsible for Dovecot Towers keep luxurious offices nearby. Displayed in the window is an architect’s model, a diorama of their grand plans. It’s a miniature plastic complex supposedly showing investors the gleaming finished product, but I know better. It’s actually a voodoo doll of my former home, which developers stick with pins, inflicting pain and suffering on the benighted tenants forced to endure their creations.

Developers gather on the moors, summoning familiars to cackle at the full moon, with demons, some weasels, and an estate agent named Pyewacket who does their bidding. Dark skies swirl as they enact their ghastly designs, cursing blameless tenants with bedrooms so small they must surely sleep upright in armchairs, unsightly concrete facades, communal post rooms and other foul deeds. Look out - they’re behind you!

Without regulation, soon there’ll be no kitchens; inhabitants will be fed pot noodles through a tube, and fitted with a colostomy bag, like The Matrix in beige surroundings. As that scary Channel Five lady says: neutral tones are easier to sell (‘Neo – the estate agents have you!’)

I once met some developers who remorselessly vilified both owners and tenants. A prospective buyer had been assured that their firm had no plans to obstruct his lovely view, when they knew full well that other builders had bought the surrounding land. Much fun was had at the expense of this man and his quest – as they saw it – for ‘compo,’ all told with jeering, comedy scouse accents and offensive stereotypes.

Developers never consult the individuals who own the end product of their miserly designs. They never ask how residents want or need to live, and the reason is simple: they don’t care. Le Corbusier’s magnificent intention has been corrupted. Newbuild flats are not machines for living, but piggy banks.

Councils and planning officers seemed powerless, or unwilling to control large firms. Here’s the clever part: developers agreed to squeeze a definite amount of residential units into the agreed footprint. With permission granted, could it be that those plans are ignored, and they squeeze in even more tiny flats? Do councils allow themselves to be persuaded that some two or even (crazy!) three bedroom units will feature, which - invariably - fail to materialise? Oh yes they do!

When this ruse is discovered, the developers twirl their moustaches and plead ignorance, claiming it’s an innocent mistake (oops - too late now!) resulting in yet another generic building crammed with meagre, joyless hutches. Booooo!

Developers take the money and run, and buy to let tenants are ignored. In the sixties, it was similar: vast areas of Britain were crammed with rat runs, some horribly damp and cramped, eventually demolished at the behest of disgruntled councils, spurred on by the poor souls compelled to live there. Profit is the sole motivation, which is unavoidable, but housing is a staple, like bread, and energy. We have choices with those basics, but does society realise, or even care that developers dictate life quality for so many?

Valuable, sought after urban sites were asphyxiated by mean spirited pods, not enhanced by attractive, spacious homes for families, couples, or singletons alike. Plastic models of tiny pretend people are happy in minuscule boxes, but real human beings will never thrive that way.

So when you’re watching a gaggle of girls dressed as boys and men dressed as women, joining in with the boos and hisses, don’t neglect the developers. They’re the real bad guys, and as soon as this downturn/slump/recession/nightmare ends, they’ll be back.
Oh. Yes. They. Will.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Forced Landlord? Meet Your Forced Tenant

One indication that you’re properly grown up is having friends who are not only married, but divorced. Now there’s another sign: when your mates are landlords.

I have friends lumbered with houses they can’t sell, and so in the interim, they must let them. It’s not all good. One was shafted by tenants who did a runner owing a fortune in arrears. He’s not a scumbag landlord who ignored repairs; he simply needed to cover his mortgage when he’d been compelled to move.

‘Forced Landlord’ is the slightly melodramatic term for this new and growing phenomenon. Even though I generally write from the tenant’s point of view, it’s still a major cause for concern. One of my friends bought a house at the height of the madness, but now she wants to move.

Several houses carry ‘To Let/For Sale’ boards on her street. It’s not the nicest area in the land: a mix of student HMO’s, family houses and some rough spots. Certain houses are visibly nicer, and judging by the amount of skips blocking the pavement, owners have been doing them up, so they’ll sell or be let first.

Being a landlord is harder than anyone imagines, especially of you aren’t a property magnate by choice. Rents are falling, and fast. Letting agents devour around 15% of rental income (if tenants ask for repairs, they’ll be referred to the owner.)

Even well-intentioned owners who go it alone are frequently ill-informed about new deposit protection schemes, Energy Efficiency Certificates or HMO licences. They are also blithely unprepared for voids, where they must go without rental payments when in between tenancies. As for insurance, burglar alarms, fire precautions and their own repair obligations? Don’t get me started.

The amount of forced tenants is also increasing. They want to sell their house but can’t, so they let it, and rent temporarily while house-hunting to avoid a chain. Do not mess with them. They know exactly what they want, which is never a shabby hovel that owner never got round to refurbishing, but a safe, empty, clean, neutral-toned, well-insulated family home.

Landlords with only vague memories of their own student renting experience may have bought a draughty wreck and filled it with cracked vinyl sofas and crusty unsprung mattresses. It’s not good enough for anyone, let alone the children who might live there.

Forced landlords might be happier if they saw tenants as long-term house-sitters, and cast aside any resentment that the property conveyor-belt has stalled. They’d also benefit from treating tenants not as trespassers (that’s how bad landlords still regard those unfortunates kind enough to safeguard their mortgage and underwrite their pension) but creatures after their own image, in similar circumstances, and to cherish that thought.

Ultimately, this craziness is creating an absurd carousel of owners renting property to residents who in turn own a house that they are also renting out to another home-owner. To rejig a childhood rhyme:

“Tall landlords have small landlords
Upon their backs to bite ‘em
Stuck landlords have broke landlords
And so on, infinitum.”

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Measure Of The Van

Recently, when in between homes once again, I kept my worldly goods in storage for months. My entire life, all my memories, dreams and baggage was dormant in some distant warehouse.

With everything safely out of reach, it’s odd what you begin to miss. Clothes stashed safely in bin bags suddenly become essential. For months at a time, I hauled everything around in one bag (okay – it was a very large bag.) Briefly, I was tempted to jettison everything and start all over again.

When you know you’re moving around and won’t be needing that sack of winter woollies for a summer by the seaside, or your flimsy skimpies in the wintry north, it’s nice to know that they are under lock and key, and won’t be ‘borrowed’, or go mouldy with neglect. But it was strange not to have them lying around.

I own nothing of value. In fact I don’t own much at all. Oddly, it wasn’t the clothes I pined for, but random items, like books, and my collection of cheap green glassware, everyday things that I wanted to have around me for some semblance or normality. I felt as if my entire existence was borrowed, and I had to ask permission for everything. I began to miss random treasured possessions, like a large white bowl, perfect for greedy amounts of soup.

That was my introduction to the crazy world of storage centres. These vast warehouses safeguard household belongings, as people hover between house moves, or downsize. Storage centres are modern phenomena, created by the insecure nature of tenancies, and decreasing living space coupled with increasing acquisitiveness. When booking your space in one of these storage units, you must predict how many square foot you will require. I’d never thought about my life in those terms before. When I saw my tiny cupboard, I despaired. Is this the sum of my life? Is that all there is? And how would I fit everything in? (I was even more demoralised when it did).

I’ve always prided myself on not hoarding piles of stuff, in regularly discarding tat, and never collecting things. I am ruthless about the books, and music I keep. I never bought a video or DVD player because to do so would lead me along the evil path of assembling a film library (i.e. more stuff) which I will eventually wind up lugging upstairs at some point.

The thing is, after months with my life on hold, and with everything condensed into one bag, I began to wonder if I needed all that stuff waiting for me in some far-off warehouse. Should I keep it at all, when I’ve managed so well without it, especially when I love throwing things out? The idea of banishing everything to a charity shop, or a wild defenestration extravaganza to entertain bemused locals grew more tempting every day.

Once upon a time my worldly goods could fit into a small car. Then it was a large hatchback, albeit with plants, and blinds hanging out of the window. Soon, everything covered the floor of a small van. These days I own some furniture, so it’s a large transit. My entire life measured out in van sizes. How depressing.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Horror, The Horror Of HMO's

Since moving out of Dovecot Towers I’ve been staying temporarily in a shared house, which brought to mind the reader who commented here: “…how did this girl think she could afford to live on her own".
She probably didn’t mean to sound so snotty, but seemed to think that not sharing is haughty, wasteful and proud. I deeply resent the notion that anybody under twenty-five, indeed everybody, should be compelled to live amongst strangers.

There are various ways of sharing: as a lodger, for example or when good friends rent a house together. Just to make things clear, what I am discussing here are HMO’s (Homes in multiple occupation). These are increasingly let under the rules of those crafty ‘how to be a ruthless landlord’ seminars. In extreme cases, this means accommodation in the basement, attic, in tiny rooms divided by thin stud walls, with only one bathroom for up to eight strangers (and their overnight guests) and perhaps just the one cooker and fridge.

Should low pay force anybody to live this way, even if they feel intimidated, or where they are unhappy? Must people who work in the caring professions be condemned to live forever in overcrowded houses because they aren’t suited to a lucrative career in the financial sector? And what about older tenants?

I’ve shared with some lovely people, and have friends who lived happily this way for years. I also anticipate comments about how delighted other sharers are. While I’m glad for you, I declared enough is enough after one housemate was drunkenly sick on the carpet on the landing which led to my attic room. She covered the mess with a suitcase for weeks, until I wondered what the smell was (by way of explanation, she was a heavy metal fan.)

We all have horror stories. Another house-mate habitually waltzed out of the front door at night, leaving it wide open behind her. You just reach the stage, where – what with verucca plasters abandoned by the shower and the clamour when you just want some peace after a fraught working day – you can’t take anymore. Another friend regularly knocked on a housemate’s door to check she hadn’t taken the latest in a long line of small, non-life threatening overdoses. She was clearly very troubled, but he could only take so much.

Lovers of solitude are not divas, demanding rainbows and freshly laundered fluffy white kittens to order. Freelancers with insufficient job security to guarantee a mortgage aren’t profligate, arty-farty types without a proper career; but victims of outsourcing and mandatory employment flexibility. Why should they be compelled to live like teenagers? Wanting to live alone is a modest ambition (and these days there are definitely enough flats to go round, especially outside of London.)

Although now I think about, it makes sense for families to live communally. They could pool resources, even sharing childcare and household duties, like on a kibbutz. Imagine the money they’d save by cooking together in a canteen. What a brilliant idea; let’s billet unacquainted families together in one house.

Admittedly, there’s the lack of privacy as everybody sees your post in the morning; you know - hospital appointments etc. And you might not enjoy sharing a lounge with other families, voting on what TV shows to watch etc, stumbling over washing left to dry in the hall, having your food stolen, hearing private phone-calls, organising a rota for the bathroom (with hot water if you’re lucky) the daily challenge of other residents’ somewhat cavalier regard for hygiene, the screeching personal melodramas, petty vendettas and biological warfare in the sink, all set against the backdrop of a toilet which doesn’t flush properly.

You mean, you don’t like the sound of that? Well, guess what? Neither do I.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I Dreamed I Dwelt in Dovecot Towers

To mangle and conflate two separate curses: “When the fates wish to punish writers, they grant us interesting times to live in and write about.”

Before I moved to Dovecot Towers, I was largely ignorant about both the enigmatic world of urban newbuild flats and the harrowing effect of mass buy-to-let. Like many others, I had even walked by Dovecots blithely believing them to be comfortable, even vaguely glamorous, upmarket apartments. Now I know better.

The very first weekend I lived there, I heard a truly horrific domestic assault in one of the flats below. I was the only resident to call the police, who had trouble locating the building. There was plenty more to come.

Many memories will haunt me forever. Davey’s death is the worst thing I’ve ever seen anywhere, and afterwards I found it very hard to live here. I hope Sarah escapes the horror of that night, that she finds peace of mind and happiness in the future. Imagine how she’ll feel if she sees Dovecot Towers in the distance through the window of a speeding train, or is inadvertently driven past. The flowers on Davey’s shrine were never stolen (somebody tidied the wilting memorial and left fresh blooms.) New tenants moved in to the flat last week. I wonder if they know what happened there. I hope nobody tells them.

Elsewhere, the ‘murder’ mystery is still unsolved, but police eventually described the flat as containing a crime scene with forensic evidence but no body. They suspect (or rather, have concluded) that something terrible happened. Meanwhile the incident file on Dovecot Towers gets bigger every day.

I always thought that when I left, I’d have my revenge on Dovecot Towers (especially its more irksome inhabitants.) Thumping Techno Boy beat me to the door. Many nights were spent watching my breakables and crystal dancing to the sonic impact of his tunage. I planned to visit at 5am, and press on his doorbell to wish him a cheery goodbye. I also wanted to install a powerful sound-system underneath Georgie the posh 24 Hour Party Girl, and serenade her with recordings of bagpipes or wolves howling for an entire weekend. Unfortunately she left before I did.

Sadly, in the previous few weeks, several friendly tenants moved in, people who would chat and pass the time of day. One couple even had a baby (this might seem strange, but hearing the baby crying was a welcome taste of humanity.) Then there was Yuri and Lev, the affable, upbeat Eastern Europeans who skilfully negotiated their rent down with their landlord when he tried to increase it, as living here was so, well, challenging.

As for my landlord, William, well he’s incommunicado, and never gave me a reference, never even told me when or whether the bailiffs were due. Mending my credit rating and retrieving the money stolen from my bank account is the next task in hand. Something as simple as a block of flats has devastated us both.

Moving out was easy. I was already packed, and didn’t have the flat professionally cleaned (it’s being repossessed; the bank can pay.) Despite my best efforts, the bathroom still looked filthy as mould was rapidly colonizing the walls. Tiles were put up from top to bottom, instead of the usual (i.e. non-cowboy) practice, from bottom to top. Consequently the tiling crumbled and collapsed, providing a handy gap for damp and spores. The day before I left, every light bulb in the kitchen/diner/lounge died in unison, which could have been a sign. I turned off my music, and listened to the building for one last time. Silence. Now there’s a first.

I sincerely hope the management company from hell keep their promises. They assured me there would be improvements, and I hope they keep the occupants of Dovecot Towers happy and safe, a hope which diminishes with every passing day.

The night before I moved out, the people staying below me (in a hotel apartment) sang rugby songs until 5am. I closed the door and drove away, without looking back. I dreamed I dwelt in Dovecot Towers. It was a nightmare.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Smash It Up

Certain message-boards are speculating about the true identity of Dovecot Towers, which is missing the point. With generic new buildings everywhere, the actual name is irrelevant. Sorry if I sound tetchy, but I am consumed with Japan envy. I need to live in Tokyo, and I want to be Japanese.

I expect you’re wondering where that came from. Before I explain, allow me to me reiterate that in most cities, rabbit-hutch developments monopolise valuable brownfield sites. Judging from your comments and emails, the problems within these walls are endemic: wherever there are Dovecots, trouble is guaranteed, but still nobody in authority questions the wisdom of their ubiquity.

However, Dovecot Towers is unique in one respect: its design is nasty, nadir-skimming, and miserly. Between blueprint and completion, anything pleasing, comfortable or humane was summarily excised with a callous red pencil, creating the bleakest of empty shells.

Meanwhile, greedy, deluded, wannabe property tycoons were ramping up rents throughout the land. Their faith in an infinite supply of occupants able to pay over-inflated prices was short-sighted (i.e. stupid.) Landlords learned that affluent young professionals usually move as soon as possible, buying homes if they can get a mortgage.

Dovecot Towers and its clones are occupied by workers in Nulabour world, where politicians brag about wage restraint and creating a flexible, mobile and as a result, highly insecure workforce, where potential employees must demonstrate their dedication with months of unpaid work experience, and the majority of recent graduates earn below the threshold to start repaying student loans. Reality has bitten hard, and lower rents might allow more of the target demographic to live here.

Along with my neighbour, I am one of the longest established residents. We’ve both lived here for just over two years. Lev was one of the first people to move in. He stayed because he’s an overseas student; Dovecot Towers met his basic needs and in just a few months time, he’s returning home for good. Everybody’s passing through.

What’s my point, you’re wondering; I’ve said this before. It’s just that I’ve noticed a large crack running the height of one interior wall, and it runs along the same spot on every level of the entire structure. Considering the dodgy building standards hereabouts, this might be a harbinger of disaster, although I am sure the management will maintain it’s something to do with plaster shrinkage. I’m concerned that one clumsy passer-by leaning against an outside wall could send Dovecot Towers crashing down.

So here’s why I envy Japan. It’s not the seafood, the scenery, or the art. It’s their attitude to architecture. Even large expensive structures are routinely demolished for practical, aesthetic and financial reasons, once they’ve outlived fashion or a useful life. Faulty or superfluous buildings are destroyed when society, architects and occupants acknowledge that a replacement is justified.

Brits are inappropriately sentimental about any old building (even a bad one) but this is my dream. With owner-occupiers having deserted Dovecot Towers, and since buy-to-let is dead, could somebody buy it, demolish it, then start again, ensuring better, larger flats designed for humans to live happy lives? Please? This newbuild thing just isn’t working out, but an accurate Japanese wrecking-ball could make it all better.

(NB: Last night, the main door was pulled from its frame, and left lying in the corridor. That shouldn’t be possible.)

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Please Try Not To Be Stupid

Some people are so astonishingly, blisteringly, face-meltingly stupid, they make me want to cut off my own head with a blunt penknife, as maybe that would hurt less than reading the cretinous comments they make when rounding up their three remaining brain cells (or mustering the one charged with rational thought) to understand the challenge caused by newbuilds.

My personal favourite came recently from somebody I refuse to dignify by naming. This particular lump of wood with porridge swirling in his cranium actually, genuinely, really, said: “…if the flat’s so bad, why did you move in?”

It’s such a stupid thing to say, that seeing it again made my finger nails ache. Really; it’s up there with “Is Africa a country?”
I’m trying to remain calm. I’m counting to ten, I’m stretched like an elastic band in a yoga pose conducive to tolerance and I’m taking all the tablets. Here it goes; here’s my answer.

Dovecot Towers was brand new. I was the flat’s first accursed occupant. It should have been perfect. I was innocent then, and full of joy. Why the hell would it have occurred to me to interrupt the dismissive, contemptuous, abrupt and intermittently oleaginous letting-agent to ask if the building is falling down? Or is the management company utterly inept? And is design so shamefully impractical and standards of construction so abysmal that thieves force the door and enter at will?

Prospective home-owners have the right to ask vendors about nuisance neighbours, and are permitted, indeed obliged, to have the building surveyed for major structural faults, and problems like damp. Prospective tenants, however, lack the opportunity, the money and (disgracefully) are denied the legal entitlement to ensure that property they pay to live in reaches even minimum standards in sound-proofing or building quality before signing a contract.

Having said that, I learned the hard way about the importance of googling an address to check it’s not listed under the ‘young and funky, party-no-problem’ section on some dubious hotel-apartment agency website, which would never have occurred to me before. I also know to check the post-room is sufficiently secure, but, hey - guess what? All post rooms are virtually the same, so pre-emptive research is pointless. As I wrote recently, brave tenants who ask about the ratio of owner-occupiers during their hasty ‘viewing’ will be misled or lied to.

Should I demand to know if my seemingly sturdy front door is actually so flimsy that my gran could kick it down? Or (you’ll love this: my latest best discovery) were the locks fitted the wrong way round? Perhaps I should dispatch the agent upstairs to piss in the en-suite bathroom, to see if I can hear?

I can’t. I want to. I wish I could; I wish I did. But I can’t.

(NB: The lift has been broken for weeks now. The new caretaker told me that ‘someone’ dismantled the machinery and piled vital components quite neatly on the steps outside. Should I have predicted that as well?)

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

With Reference To Landlords

Despite his promise, ‘William’ still hasn’t given me that reference, which set me wondering: how come there’s no way for tenants to appraise our landlords when we leave? There are after all plenty of ‘rogue tenant’ sites and databases (some of them cheeky enough to link with this blog.)

Before taking a new flat I must bare my soul, providing financial guarantees, actual guarantors, references, deposits and one of my kidneys to keep in the freezer in case I do a runner. But things being as they are and times having a’ changed, I demand similar documents and assurances from future landlords. After all, we need to formally evaluate their financial stability in case they forfeit the property i.e. our home.

I was once badly let down by a landlord. He agreed to let me a flat but changed his mind the night before I was due to move, and so, to even things out, I will need a non-returnable holding fee while deciding whether or not to formally take up residency.

I’d also like a bank reference confirming owners are financially secure, that my rent will cover the mortgage, or written proof that they earn enough to make up the shortfall themselves. Oh – and they can pay for their own credit check, same as me. I also require, randomly, for my own entertainment, a character reference from “…a responsible, professional person.”

The worst of all property overlords are creepy, lazy, strange, abusive, bullying, elusive and perversely, disturbingly over-attentive. Or intrusive: P’s landlord let himself in while P was in bed with his wife (P’s own wife, not the landlord’s.) This landed charmer intended showing some prospective replacement tenants around P’s bedroom, suggesting jauntily: “…just pull the covers up over yourselves.”
Indeed. You’re absolutely right. The correct response ends in -off.

Tenants are especially vulnerable when landlords keep a key. A small minority of landlords are openly and unrepentantly malicious. They delight in making renters feel powerless before exploiting them.

The man who moved into the spare room and terrorised his blameless occupants intending to scare them out is the worst example I’ve encountered hereabouts, although elsewhere a friend awoke to discover that her leering landlord had occupied the room next to hers. Like a coiled spring, she was gone (he also kept her deposit.) Can we have their door key please, to use if they misbehave?

My own particular landlord-from-hell deserves more than bad references or financial penalties. He should be frog-marched through town with someone hollering: “Unclean!” then publicly tattooed on the forehead with ‘W’ for weirdo, and afterwards shunned forevermore.

I was living in a large, shared house. While home alone, I heard someone moving around from room to room; I was stranded upstairs and petrified. With the intruder approaching, I hid in the cupboard, peering through a crack in the door.

Astonishingly, my landlord and not a burglar wandered in. Furtively, he glanced around, before pulling back the bedcovers to ‘inspect’ my sheets.

And before you ask: yes, that really happened.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Battered By Butterflies

There’s a proverb suggesting that apparently insignificant actions can have disproportionately large consequences: a butterfly flutters its wings and on the other side of the world, a million people die.

Throughout my time in Dovecot Towers letters were stolen from the communal post-room. My landlord seemed extremely sympathetic, but to be honest, I was never sure if he took the problem seriously.

Earlier this year, I tried to withdraw cash but my card was declined. I had no phone credit, no food and no fare to reach my friends and ask for help. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t pay my rent. I emailed my landlord explaining: my post-box robbed, my cheque book stolen, my bank account emptied, then a debit-card was taken despite banning my bank, or anyone from sending post to my home.

This might still look bad on my part, but remember that William’s side of the ‘pay rent – maintain property’ bargain is habitually broken. Previously, he admitted that he wouldn’t want me to leave, acknowledging that I’m a good tenant. Even so, he didn’t bother to get his arse into gear and organise repairs. However much he needed my money, I think he was overwhelmed by the demands and responsibility of managing property.

As forcefully as I could within the boundaries of carefully assertive tact, I said that if he didn’t make a fuss, if he didn’t really cause a commotion and press the management company, nothing will change. The management noted, but ignored his requests. He claimed to know them, but I don’t think they were his friends; for once in his life, I think he felt important. Emphasising that I couldn’t sort this problem out myself, I added that the situation won’t vanish of its own accord and reminded him that even if I do reach the end of my tether and leave, subsequent tenants will be equally irate and then move as well. He agreed, and offered to fit a letterbox on my front door. Remaining sceptical, I thanked him.

Meanwhile on Wall Street, vultures, not butterflies were flapping their wings. Soon, William’s many mortgages were in arrears. Interest rates had risen dramatically and he was clinging to financial life by his over extended fingertips. Along with a vacant flat elsewhere, my missing a payment had pushed him over the edge. The bank has delayed replacing my money since (I suspect) they think I am somehow complicit. Those repairs are not his fault, but most definitely his responsibility.

When William and I met up, he asked what it would take to make me stay. I think he intended to muddle through the recession, but now he knows that Dovecot Towers is thoroughly unsafe, and that I couldn’t stay even if I wanted to. William should have sorted out the post-box situation, the unlikely tipping point which nudged him towards financial catastrophe.

And so, a butterfly fluttered by. A door was broken, another remained unlocked. A post-box was crow-barred open. Life became difficult for me, while an admittedly ineffectual, but otherwise decent man was devastated. Nothing is ever simple.

(NB: This morning, there was a sign, marked urgent, on the post-room door, from our new caretaker: ‘Persons have gained access and levered open the post-boxes, stealing the mail. I have informed the police.’ Then someone delicately explained that it’s been like that for over a year. Bless him for caring, though.)

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Sympathy For The Devil

I am surrounded by boxes. My belongings are all packed up and ready to go but I’m wondering about my landlord. ‘William’ is a decent man: jovial, down-to-earth, compassionate and reasonable. Admittedly, he never got round to sorting out those blinds (by the time I had completely lost patience he was obviously going bankrupt) and I always organised repairs, which, while not ideal, hardly adds up to a Rachmanite reign of terror.

William is in trouble. He isn’t stupid, but then neither does he possess a rapier-like business mind; he’s no ruthless, highly driven tycoon. He simply followed accepted wisdom: invest in property. Many others did the same, a decision which has condemned them forever, as serial investors like William are burdened with around £750,000 of debt, if not more. He’ll never repay his creditors. I understand that even when you’re discharged from bankruptcy, they never let you go.

Nor was William unhinged by greed. Like many people he realised that we are all living longer, while the state pension, upon which we reasonably intended to rely, is shrinking by the day. Sensibly (it seemed) he accumulated flats to safeguard his future. Swiftly and easily he expanded his newbuild portfolio until he owned twelve buy-to-let properties. Who financed all those mortgages? The now infamous Northern Rock, that’s who, currently the official Emperors of Repossession, despite having been nationalised.

I may have inadvertently given readers the impression that William was based abroad: he’s not. He lives in a different town, far enough away to explain why he misunderstood the dodgy nature of this particular neighbourhood. When he bought my flat in Dovecot Towers the market was booming. His perhaps cannier friend was purchasing the flat next door, but quietly backed out.

William visited just the once, and gazed approvingly at a then modest building-site opposite, before announcing his ambition to invest there as well. He appreciated that the surrounding area was ear-marked for development, but was never told exactly how many better quality blocks were planned. Obviously, the widespread and ill-timed completion of nicer ‘apartments’ has devalued his stock.

We met recently on neutral ground. He wanted me to stay. I begged him to seek legal advice and stressed the dire nature of Dovecot Towers, emphasising the troubles I’ve detailed here. He was devastated, and actually started to sweat as the magnitude of his predicament hit home. Afterwards, I sent him a formal document detailing the many problems in this building which have decreased its value, intended to support any claim against the idle and ignorant management company if it allowed him to claw something back from this catastrophe.

My compassion is currently under strain, however. William has vanished without providing the promised reference. I know there’s a lot on his mind, but it’s impossible to find a flat without such assurances, and I don’t even know how long I can stay here. The bailiffs could arrive within the next month. I was living in the devil’s own piggy-bank, and somebody has smashed it.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Lying Letting Agents and the Lies these Liars Tell

Letting agents wouldn’t know Truth if it punched them in the face shouting: “I am the truth!” wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Truth” in sequins, whilst holding an official truth certificate, written in blood. That much at least is true.

Shameless mendacity informs their new hobby: ramping up prices. The market is so febrile and confused that bizarrely, for any given flat, there are three possible rents and guess what: agents reach for the stars.

First is the sky-high, crazy-mad, stupid and deluded oh-be-serious rent, the amount that avaricious, neophyte, naïve buy-to-let speculators were promised on those now discredited ‘How to Be a Millionaire Property Magnate’ courses. For a standard one bed flat, this is up to £100-£150pcm above the norm, and matches luxury privately rented flats, which are larger, and properly fitted out. I retain a small amount of sympathy for floundering landlords which evaporates whenever I discover that yet again, they or their representatives are still trying to exploit and over-charge tenants, even in this desperately saturated market.

Next up is the middle amount, requested by landlords who bought at the height of the ‘boom’ to cover their escalating mortgage which (including the agents cut) is still a silly £75-£50pcm over acceptable levels.

There is a fair and realistic price. It’s used by owners who bought at auction, or those who understand that they can either endure bankruptcy, or stump up their own cash to subsidise the mortgage when interest rates rise.

Astonishingly, if you check online, you can find all three prices applying to the very same flat. I’ve seen similar prices asked for: one beds, two beds, penthouses, houses, upmarket, downmarket, inner city and suburbs. It’s madness and demonstrates that the rental market has entered the realm of fantasy. Allow duplicitous, cynical letting-agents free-rein in this disastrous downturn, and the results are confusing if not actually strange.

Online prices are usually more grounded, but sometimes vanish once inside the office/lair. Having ascertained that I’m not a student, they assume I can afford the higher prices. At one letting agent I walked by and laughed. They’ve advertised the same exorbitantly priced ‘apartment’ for months now, causing a gaping void in income for the owner. You might imagine they’d attract passing custom by displaying the cheaper prices, when instead they keep the dearest flats posted up brazenly outside: a last gasp attempt, perhaps, at quelling the impetus to drop prices and reduce their own percentage.

Wise landlords who gained a foothold before property prices got totally stupid (five years ago?) have stayed on planet earth, and make money by accruing equity, and not by inflating rents. Unfortunately, urban newbuild values are widely predicted to fall by fifty per cent. One year ago, sale prices in Dovecot Towers had already dropped by a third, and are even lower now (I’ve checked.) Sensible owners avoid rip-off rents by topping up the shortfall thereby escaping insolvency, and letting agents should advise them to do so. Even the moustache-twirlingly ruthless agency responsible for letting most of Dovecot Towers accepted this some time ago.

If you think I’m unfairly maligning those kindly, righteous and angelic, agents, then here’s my worst encounter so far. I answered an ad for a privately rented flat, and was told that others were viewing.

Reader, I fell for it. I hurried over to the address in a taxi (and I’m broke). To my disgust and amazement, the address supplied wasn’t a flat, but an agency office (they “…thought it would be good to meet me.”) The agent was what we poets call “a right wanker,” having lied about the flat’s location, and its price. Elsewhere, agents lie about everything from A to Z reaching all possibilities in between, and I really wish they’d stop.

(NB: One online ad appeared to tick all my boxes, so I phoned the landlord for more information (you’re way ahead of me aren’t you?) The flat was in Dovecot Towers.)

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

How The Other Half Live

My house-hunt is urgent and I’ve seen my dream home. It’s perfect, but even with falling prices is frustratingly just out my league (I think the owners/developers have yet to accept the changing property market.)

Slighter more upmarket flats are bigger: not monumental caverns, but a judicious extra ten feet here or there makes all the difference. I’d like enough room for a coffee table in between two sofas in the lounge, nightstands next to the bed, a dining table and chairs (all in the same room, without falling over). Dovecot Towers was obviously planned by misers, as most ‘extras’ don’t cost that much to build. It says everything that a properly locking door and safe entrance hall is a luxury, and not for oiks like me.

While viewing my ideal flat, I opened a door. To my delight, it was a cupboard. Not just any old cupboard, but a utility cupboard with room for a washer, mops, brooms, and even a bin. Heaven lives in that cupboard, and all the other cupboards are outposts of paradise. There is an inbuilt wardrobe, another random cupboard (joy!) and even an enormous mirrored bathroom cabinet, which covered the wall. It was love. I must have sounded like a hick: ‘Yeeh-haw Ma-am! Those high-fallutin’ cupboards y’all have sure are fancy!”

The main appeal though is the balcony. You can stand on it. In Dovecot Towers, visitors must duck the door which swings across the outdoor space. My dream home has sliding doors, so the terrace can be used as another room. And the door tilts (yes, tilts!) so you can open it like a window.

The post room was disappointing, however. It locks (I know!) with a glass door (all good to see) but crucially, even here you can easily dip your hand in the post boxes. The sales-woman (let’s call her Zelda) made it plain that my suspicions and questions were a fatuous affront to the sheer unbridled fantabulousness of the building she was peddling. I explained that even neighbours nick your post: she humoured me, explaining that parcels are accepted by the twenty-four hour concierge.

A concierge? Now I have a new fetish alongside cupboards, utility rooms, space and proper balconies: concierges. I can’t stop saying concierge. Please, sir, may I have a concierge?

But here’s the terrible irony defeating my quest: I wish to avoid developments dominated by tenants with few resident owners, despite being a tenant myself. I quizzed the odious Zelda, who persistently insisted that most residents were owner-occupiers.

Was she absolutely sure?
(“Yes!” she swore, as her wooden nose grew.)
No really: can you assure me that this development is not specifically marketed at the buy to let market?
(“It’s not!” she promised faithfully as fire-fighters doused her pants, which were on fire.)

She chucked me a brochure and when I got home, out fell the ‘Ideal For Buy-to-let’ blurb, along with a flyer advertising a company furnishing flats for landlords. She also claimed that all the flats are sold. Zelda will be a wooden puppet forever more.

(NB: Yesterday, there was a strong smell of burning in my corridor. Someone had set fire to some newspapers, and the charred traces were left outside of a few front doors (thankfully not mine) as if they’d been trying to set the doors on fire. No smoke alarms went off. Unusually, the main door has being locked for days, which that means the putative pyromaniac probably lives here. Seriously: what is it with this place?)

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Flowers In A Dovecot

Perhaps I’m a little slow on the uptake, but the other day after yet another raucous party, I finally realised that yes, the flat below me is let out as a ‘hotel apartment.’ I checked online. Honestly, judging by the ad you’d think Dovecot Towers was a 5 star beach resort.

With no one taking responsibility for the ‘guest’s’ behaviour (most notably, the noise) I called the management company and explained my plight. Astonishingly, they sorted it out. The flat was still recorded as being owner-occupied and our management was mendaciously informed by the sneaky but stupid owner that his rowdy mates had caused the furore (what: different mates? Every weekend?) He was threatened with eviction, since hotel-letting contravenes the lease. I subsequently discovered that two other flats on my corridor are let this way, which means that, by my reckoning, around twenty out of one-hundred and forty flats are rented by the day, and at some profit.

Why does this matter, you ask, since I’m moving out?

Because I was organising a collection to send flowers to the service of the man who died recently. What a completely pointless and dispiriting exercise that was, as nobody answered the door, even if they actually live here.

‘Sarah’ texted to say that a flower laying ceremony was planned on the street where her boyfriend had died, if she could face going back. I wanted to contribute something. I didn’t know them, but have been incredibly moved by their tragedy (I won’t say upset, since that would imply that my feelings belong on the same page as hers.) The friends who had been with her, trying to resuscitate him had already left flowers which were stolen shortly afterwards.

I spoke with my neighbour who had heard him scream as he fell (mercifully, I didn’t.) Like all of us she had dialled 999, but perhaps wisely and unlike myself had shut the doors so as not to hear those terrible events. I told my neighbour about the flower laying. She didn’t turn up or leave anything, and she’s the nicest person I’ve met in here. I already knew that there is absolutely no sense of community in Dovecot Towers, but the cold hard reality hit home when I realised that nobody else had left a card, even if they seemed to be concerned.

I hate those shrines that appear when there’s been an accident and people who never even knew the victim leave maudlin notes, cuddly toys and garage flowers, appropriating random tragedy, wearing other people’s darkness like a badge, but this was entirely different. Despite only meeting ‘Davey’ once, I wanted to show ‘Sarah’ that somebody here cares.

I waited on the street. First to arrive were their former house-mates, one of whom had tried to give him the kiss of life that awful night, and who was clearly traumatised by the horror and devastated by grief. They love ‘Davey’ and they miss him; this will always cast a long shadow on their lives. I think they were wearing the formal black clothes bought for graduation day just a few months ago. One of ‘Davey’s’ friends left a mango (he loved mangoes.)

‘Sarah’ arrived. I asked permission to leave my flowers and generously, she consented. ‘Sarah’ was fragile, weak and exhausted from weeping. She wobbled like a faun, and needed constant support; it was terrible to be back on that street again. Her expression haunts me: gather all the sadness in the world, mix in confusion, shock and overwhelming fear, and you’re only half-way there. She saw things that night nobody should ever have to see.

Obviously, ‘Sarah’ was not keen to linger. When I hugged her, she was thin; she can’t bring herself to eat. She’s blaming herself. She believes (wrongly I know) that she could have stopped him and I am so worried for her. I reminded her how strong she’d been, how hard she’d fought to save him, and that she had told ‘Davey’ many times how much she loved him that night (I understand that hearing is the final sense to fade.) As she left that awful street forever, she whispered, desperately: ‘…it was horrible.’

I couldn’t sleep that night. Every sound convinced me that someone was stealing the flowers, but in the morning, they were all there, along with the mango. They’re still there even now.

(NB: The letting-agents are refusing to be compassionate and won’t end the lease immediately or return ‘Sarah’s’ deposit until the flat is re-let, even though she only lived there a week, having paid a month upfront. They actually expected prospective tenants to view while ‘Sarah’ and ‘Davey’s’ possessions were still in the flat. Just when you think agents couldn’t be any more callous, they surpass themselves.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Mad Max in Magnolia

Regular readers must think that Dovecot Towers looks like a scene from Mad Max, with smoking ruins dotted amongst the feint traces of some lost civilisation, all swarming with ragged feral children and their ragged feral parents. You’d be wrong. As long as you visit just after the cleaners have done their work, initially, it doesn’t seem too bad. Instead of ruins, visitors are greeted by a magnolia dystopia.

I have a theory which could explain the end result of this aesthetic desert. In central Manchester, there’s a road where drivers regularly turn left despite a ‘No Entry’ sign. Traffic management practice accepts that if people consistently repeat the same mistake, the problem lies not with the wrong-turner, but with the signals themselves. On some instinctive level the signs are confusing and lead road-users astray.

This hypothesis would explain many problems arising in the soulless urban developments covering the land. Cars roar as they jam the main road and any bare, half-arsed greenery is wilting. Once inside, there are no pictures, no colour, and nothing pleasant. The vast walls are chalky, with not so much as a solitary dribble of colour to alleviate the blankness. No bins either, since they are routinely stolen, but then residents feel entitled to help themselves, as they are relieved of service charges for very little service.

Once inside these flats, we are mostly forbidden from decorating the dispiriting white walls, or adding pleasing, homely touches to what is after all, our home. We can’t even hammer a nail in the wall to put up a picture, and - as I’ve written elsewhere - some landlords are known to inflict their own taste in art on their tenants. Rental agreements ban the fittings necessary for putting up welcoming, warming curtains (there are usually white vertical blinds, like a tax office.) We can’t add our own unique flourish. There’s no scope for individuality. We exist in an empty shell, a vacuum.

The positive effect of pleasant surroundings is well documented. Re-humanising the surroundings worked for the DWP, who stopped blocking off what are now ‘clients’ with screens, and added adornments like calming art, music, colour and plants. Attacks on staff decreased.

I appreciate that cost and safety are an issue, and don’t anticipate extravagant flourishes like tropical fish tanks, or cascading water-features alongside expensive sculptures. But is some colour on the walls other than sensory-deprivation-white too much to ask for? A few plants would be nice, even a mural. It seems so very bleak in here, and if you want to keep tenants happy and secure (so we will stay and pay your mortgage) then let us make the flat, and the building itself, feel like home.

Persistent desolation and an appalling lack of control over our environment sends a strong, if subliminal signal, just like those inadvertently misleading traffic signs. The message is clear: abandon hope all ye who enter Dovecot Towers. You are landless peasant scum. You count for nothing. This is not your home. You are vermin, infesting your landlord’s pension fund. When zoos are planned with more consideration than newbuilds, is it any wonder that tenants, so disrespected, are reluctant to stay?

(NB: The girl whose boyfriend died is absolutely devastated and utterly heart-broken, which goes without saying. I have heard from her, and she is determined to get past this appalling nightmare which - considering that her very world has come to a grinding halt - is both courageous and amazing. People stress that they were very much in love. He was twenty-three.)

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Death In The Dovecot

In Dovecot Towers, you hear a lot from people you may never see. For example, someone a few doors down loved The Arctic Monkeys. They played it loud - not annoyingly so, but just enough that I noticed.

Last Sunday afternoon I met some new people in the lift, who got out at my floor. They were Australian, and had been buying household items, like a clothes line and a bin. I wondered if they’d just moved in. They’d been here one week: it was The Arctic Monkeys fan and his girlfriend. Carefully, I did my good citizen bit and explained that they needed to ask the landlord to fit a new lock. They didn’t even know who their landlord was, since they had used a letting agency. I gave them the caretaker’s number, and wished them all the best in their new home.

At 2am the following morning I was woken up by screaming and footsteps pounding frantically along the corridor (nothing unusual there). But then I heard a woman begging someone not to touch her, shouting “Keep away from me!”

Envisaging a street attack or a drunken domestic assault, I was racing for my phone when I heard a loud bump, then more screaming, then another ominous thud. On the street below, a woman was pleading frantically for help.

Her boyfriend had jumped from the balcony. It was my near neighbour, the male half of the couple I’d chatted to in the lift that afternoon. She was calling an ambulance, beseeching them to hurry, while begging her boyfriend not to die.

Repeatedly she cried inconsolably: “…this can’t be happening…this can’t be happening.”
She didn’t know what to do, and called the ambulance again, urging them to hurry. I screamed down at her from my balcony to keep him still; that moving him might cause even more harm, but the words: “…his brains are all over road…” made me realise that moving him would make no difference now. Concerned at having heard her earlier begging someone not to touch her, I called the police, who were already on their way.

The Dovecot Towers trademark ‘Heads-Over-The-Railings-Tenants-Ad-Hoc-Residents-Association’ appeared. There was nothing to be done. Judging by the way he was lying, he had died instantly. The young woman bolted a short distance down the street, and faced the wall, shouting: “This isn’t happening!” before turning around and realising that yes, it was really happening. She was remonstrating with her boyfriend: “Oh God, what have you done, don’t die, I love you, I love you. Please don’t leave me.

Then another man appeared, clearly in as bad a state as she was. She said: “Keep away from me, don’t touch me!” then: “It’s all my fault.”
The man said he felt responsible. No ambulance yet, so they called again. She noticed her boyfriend wasn’t breathing, and they attempted to resuscitate him, but to their horror, there was blood in his mouth. A window opened and a woman yelled at her to shut up but another resident, aware of the desperate scenario unfolding below, retaliated: “Shut the fuck up yourself you selfish bitch.”

The ambulance arrived. The paramedic took one look at the broken body lying prone and bleeding on the street and shook his head. He covered the dead man with a blanket. Her remaining hopes extinguished, she berated the paramedic: “You didn’t even try!”

The police came, taped off the scene, and shepherded the girl away from the lifeless man and into the ambulance, where her visceral howling punctured the night. Suddenly police spilled out of vans, unmarked cars arrived and men in suits surveyed the scene. I heard the police enter their flat, heard her crying, and watched them leave in clean clothes, carrying luggage. She was led towards a car. Just before she got in, she curled herself into a ball and rocked to and fro, as a policeman looked on helplessly. Even the police were distressed. I heard one officer say he’d seen dead bodies, but nothing like that before.

Suddenly it was all quiet, and the dead man, with one fractured, contorted leg poking out from underneath the blanket, was left alone in a cordoned off area on the street, watched over by a solitary police van. He looked so lonely. By seven am the corpse had been moved. It was raining. A pool of brain matter was left in a gutter, until the scene of crime cleaners washed it away.

I’ve no idea what happened in that flat; what made a young man jump to his death, and I don’t suppose I ever will. As I write this, someone is embarking on a twenty-four journey from Australia to collect their dead son: the son I spoke to briefly, but never knew.

Does this have anything to do with Dovecot Towers? Maybe; possibly – but then again, perhaps not. People move in and out with alarming frequency, flats are now rented by the month, week, or even by the day. Life is tenuous, alienating, prickly and dehumanised. We don’t know each other. Problems seem larger here, isolation is exacerbated and arguments are inescapable in a tiny one bed flat.

And what about the devastated young woman, who was asking the world, the pavement, God, the sky or anyone, for help? Tomorrow, she’ll wake up and face the future alone with a ruined life, returning home to the flat where her world ended, her soul forever scarred. I’ll never forget the couple I met in a lift, and the harrowing primal sound she made will stay with me forever.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Too Late For Me

I was having some kind of episode. In quite a tizzy, I was collecting boxes and packing. Something had shifted. Any spare possessions, like more than two plates or cups, unseasonal clothing, superfluous kitchen utensils, books, etc. has been stacked in boxes and ready to go for months now.

Yesterday, I crossed the foyer where, alongside two sorely vexed community police officers, two besuited men were assessing the building. I introduced myself to the crime prevention officer and a representative of the management company from hell, i.e. the people who rule the kingdom of Dovecot Towers.

They wondered if I might have something to contribute; any suggestions, perhaps?

I recounted the numerous problems I’ve documented here (the local police were already appraised since they mop-up the consequences.) As I spoke, the crime prevention officer was astonished, to put it mildly, most notably by the ‘secret’ entry code being posted up next to a broken main door story (and my, how we laughed about the car park CCTV being stolen.) Disturbingly, when I asked for information about the incident which seems to have been a murder (tenants are still unsure) they wondered which one I meant, since there are several to choose from.

They were taken aback by my rising fury. The management fall-guy tacitly admitted that this place has been mismanaged. He’d only just taken over, and on inspecting the grand designs of Dovecot Towers was more than shocked. Even so, he still tried to blame the inmates/tenants, who keep on breaking the door. I said that a door shouldn’t break so easily. He claimed that dealing with tenants directly was forbidden; he was obliged to inform owners of changes etc. I said: many landlords live abroad, so why not update tenants simultaneously via a note under the door? The police agreed. They must be consulted when buildings are planned, but there is no legal requirement for their suggestions to be enforced.

I asked about the prevalence of communal post-rooms. Apparently, they save someone having to walk along the corridors. I said: why not conserve even more postal shoe leather by deploying them at the end of suburban streets. I think they got my point. Plans for updating the scary shut-off post-room of doom are ingenious. Really. Many great minds have toiled to invent a brilliant, innovative solution. No new post-boxes, no lock on the door, not even letterboxes on the flat’s own front door. Their cure is marvellous.

They’re only going to take the bloody door off.

The manager knows about the many empty flats and has witnessed the consequences: rents are plummeting, while landlords and tenants alike are rebelling. I said that inexperienced landlords, and the management, failed to grasp that Dovecot Towers sits between scally-central and the city centre. Mr. Management agreed, suggesting, perhaps correctly, that owners do not appreciate the responsibility of owning and maintaining property. He seemed suitably and convincingly chastened. Somewhat shame-faced, he promised a new regime: CCTV, a new (secure) main-door, bells, whistles and champagne on tap.

All these high-fallutin’ improvements are much too late for me. My landlord is going bankrupt, and so I must leave. Somehow, he’s accumulated twelve buy-to-let mortgages, you see, and nine are in negative equity.
Good job I packed, really.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

A Little Luck

I’m leaving Dovecot Towers, but am keen to avoid letting agencies, as are many landlords. The best flats are often found through word of mouth.

A little luck is what I need. In the past, informal contacts have led to my happiest rental experiences, namely the flat I pine for: my little nest in Glasgow, which was perfect. I found it when someone knew someone, who knew someone with an empty flat. This usually arises when people move in together and they’re unsure about committing, so one partner lets their flat. It’s also common when relationships break down, and the couple sit out negative equity by renting the conjugal residence. I’m not hoping any of my friends split up, but if a couple with a really nice flat decide on an amicable separation, then here I am. Choose me!

I bumped into S, who has split up with her partner, and even as a homeowner finds herself letting the home she can’t sell in this economic climate, and is consequently renting a flat from a friend in a similar situation. Word of mouth again; it leads to some welcome informality, and no ties, but usually in a good way.

Renting from acquaintances and friends has pros and cons: it’s usually slighter cheaper (no commission) and also much easier; there’s just more give and take. It’s seems less complicated; there’s altogether less pressure on everyone: you don’t mind a little slowness with non urgent repairs, and are more willing to help out, even chipping in or sorting minor snags out yourself.

The cons are insurmountable; it’s hard to be assertive when the owner is your mate, or best buddies with a mutual friend. A in Glasgow was a sweetheart, but had the hoarding habits of a magpie or a more hygienic Mr Trebus, and insisted on storing his finds, like string, bits of various contraptions, spare parts and ‘stuff’ in my flat, which deprived me of the cupboard (and regular readers know how I feel about cupboards; I covet them as much as other women value jewellery.) But it was lovely apart from that one niggle.

There is sometimes a lack of will to formalise arrangements, but tenants, and indeed landlords really do benefit from a legal written agreement, as both have a rare tendency to turn bad. If you are made to feel awkward about needing a proper agreement, or receipts for rent paid, then it’s maybe not a good idea, unless you are house-sitting. It’s harder for the landlord to let go of the property, as they sometimes cling to the comforting notion that they can move back in, if need be.

It’s obvious really. I’m playing for time because I dread flat-hunting and moving, with the accompanying hassles of viewings, credit checks, references, deposits, guarantors and removal companies.
I need a fairy godmother, with a magic pumpkin to turn into my dream flat. Nothing fancy: just a utility room, cupboards and friendly, well-behaved neighbours.
I closed my eyes, clicked my heels and made a wish.
It didn’t work. I’m still here.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

I Know A Jolly Policeman...

I was busy typing in my flat when a yellow card was shoved under the door by the police. It was a ‘Burglary Alert.’ Between the hours of 8am and 3pm, ‘…a property had been burgled.’ Had I seen or heard anything suspicious? Did I have any information which could assist them to catch those responsible or information about other crimes in the area?

Worryingly, I hadn’t heard a thing. Later that evening, I called police to report the following: (here we go again…) the front door is always broken, there’s no security, the management company don’t give a flying one etc, etc. Furthermore (now take a while to enjoy this; it’s brilliant) every single window in the building is fitted with the same lock.

The policeman I spoke to was forthright, paternal and concerned. He took some time leafing through the enormous Dovecot Towers log to find the particular crime in question, and the Dovecot file is very thick indeed, containing ‘…a disproportionately high amount of incidents.’ I told him what I have witnessed: stolen post, intruders etc. He said that when such unreported incidents are included in their statistics, it’s even worse than they imagined. Why hadn’t I gone to the police? I said: we’ve no CCTV (well, what we had was stolen) and I’ve no idea when my post was taken. He said: why not move?

Mostly, he wondered what the management company do about all this, adding that if it was his beat, he would have ‘harsh words’ with them. To his open astonishment, I said that they won’t deal with tenants.

I pointed out that the ‘secure entry code’ on the main door has been the same since February. Despite there being ‘hotel’ guests and countless visitors passing through, the management company (now, this is even better) had informed us about the new code on a window poster next to the broken main door. Bravo!

The kindly policeman told me that three flats were burgled efficiently in quick succession, the locks busted with a cordless drill after gaining easy access through the broken main door. He carefully, but unconvincingly implied that the robberies were not close by, and his final wise advice was to put a huge new fangled padlock on my front door until I moved.

The investigating officer called a week later. She was also horrified: I told her about the door, and the window locks. She had noticed that crime was rife, and security was poor, but I knew that. Nobody else had responded to her card.

Now in abject despair, I emailed my landlord, who contacted the management company, detailing my (and now his) fear. The managers emailed their solution to the security problem.
Was it a new door, or lock?
Security guards or extensive CCTV?
Were they sorry?

They were ‘aware of the situation,’ and had instructed contractors to mend the door whenever it was broken (not – you will note – replace it) which might just be the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Oh – and they promised to contact individual tenants and owners, advising them to replace the locks.

I told some neighbours, who either didn’t believe me, can’t be arsed or think I am a keening prophet of doom (and a bit crazy.) Other residents I spoke to were oblivious to the burglaries, and had not been notified about the urgent necessity of fitting stronger door locks by landlords or the management company. So much for promises and ‘awareness.’

One man I spoke to had only recently moved in. He was astounded by the sense of alienation here; nobody speaking, neighbours shuffling back inside to avoid each other. He’d never seen his neighbours, and I was definitely the first resident to chat. I advised him to have all mail redirected, but he already encountered the Dovecot Mail. Like many here, his post-box was crow-barred open before he moved in, and never mended.

Just a few months or so previously, I wrote here that newbuilds are desolate and neglected and how this will lead to crime, even deaths. I wish I was wrong, but I’m afraid my worst fears are being confirmed. Time to leave? That goes without saying.
(NB As I write this, the main door has been broken for two days.)

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Or Should I Go?

The word choice involves selection; making a decision between alternative options. When I leave (and it is when) I will live in a similar place, with similar problems. Perhaps it would be easier to get the hell out of here, head off for pastures new. But where? I like the city; the problem isn’t urban life, but the state of these developments.

I want to find somewhere better, and flats are all the same. For all its many faults, Dovecot Towers is pretty standard in what is the ‘affordable’ end of the market. But uniformity is stifling. Just who decreed that all urban newbuilds must be identical? Thankfully, I avoided the teeny, tiny examples that were being built four or five years ago. My requirements are realistic, and I’m no diva demanding Jacuzzis, verdant terraces or miles and miles and miles of space in my lounge. To be honest, I wouldn’t need a house; I’m happy with a flat.

Modest to a tee, I’d really like a slightly larger balcony, so I can stand outside without dodging the door. What I’d really like though is a lounge: just a small amount of separate space so I can sit without being serenaded by washing machines, both mine and those of my neighbours, but all flats have office/kitchen/dining/sitting/laundry rooms, with nowhere to pull out a mattress when friends stay. I don’t like the idea of being greedy and rattling around in a three bed house. I’ve been checking rents, and they are falling to a level where an extra room is a growing possibility.

Regular readers know that all I really want is cupboard. It has become an obsession. I am not naturally tidy, and so have discarded superfluous possessions, with Oxfam the beneficiary. And I’d like a utility room. As for my imaginary, ideal new neighbourhood, I’d like a bar, or a café, to escape to. I’d like to look across at something other than a perpetual vista of newbuild fading into newbuild.

If I go, I’ll be shuffling from one flat to the next one, hauling my diminishing possession from one side of town to the other. I feel exhausted and daunted, and I’m checking out ‘better’ flats, in neighbourhoods not routinely prone to crime. I spoke to the man at my bank (I was reporting that my replacement debit card was stolen from post box) and he said that theft was uncommon in his block, which is 50% owner occupied.

Wisdom says that I should bide my time holding out for rental prices to drop even further (and yes, doubters, they are dropping). More flats have been completed, and the available pool of tenants has reached maximum saturation.

For what I pay here I might afford a ‘luxury’ flat. It’s just that in the Alice In Wonderland World of Newbuilds, luxury for us (a bit of space, a cupboard or two, and a utility room) is what passes for average elsewhere. My dreams are not extraordinary, wide-eyed crazy fantasies. My wishes are mundane: I want a safe and comfortable place to call home.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Should I Stay?

Leaving Dovecot Towers will not break my heart. I didn’t want to live here, but at the time, I needed to find somewhere fast. Perhaps as a consequence, it’s never felt like home, and now something is making me wonder what will happen if I stay much longer. It’s not the murder. (FYI: the caretaker is playing it down, but confirmed that a passing resident noticed a strange smell, and pushed the door open. He admitted that the rumoured blood splatters were real enough, smeared on the wall of a deserted flat, while another resident mentioned East European gangs and torture.)

I have a new neighbour. I often have new neighbours, as nobody ever stays for long (except for me.) This one moved in a fortnight ago and he’s noisy. Dovecot Towers is designed in such a way as to heighten inter-neighbour annoyance. On sultry summer nights, when doors must remain open so we don’t suffocate, he stands on his balcony and shouts into the phone for hours.

Maybe it would be better if I could speak Urdu, as I can’t understand what he’s saying (maybe that’s why this is so annoying: a tantalising glimpse into an indecipherable world). Last Saturday was his birthday, and his sisters visited; they cooked for him, playing loud music and then shouting over and above said loud music. I ignored them for as long I could, then asked them to turn it down as I was working and couldn’t hear myself think, enduring his choice of blaring, blasted dubstep drowning out my own choice of music.

At night, his friends came round for a drink. They lingered on the balcony in the warm breeze, discussing the morality of alcohol and Islam, smoking weed, their shouting and laughter growing increasingly rowdy - nothing offensive (well apart from the heroic Olympic Long Distance Gobbing onto the pavement.) By one am, I cracked and asked them to keep it down. They were polite and apologetic. I felt really awful.

At 3am, I was shrieking again for them to shut up, as I had work to do the next day. Again they were respectful and this time moved inside, where they must have been sweltering. I hate to be a screeching neighbour. I know it won’t happen every day. I shouldn’t be able to hear him; bad design is responsible for this conflict, not my intolerance or even his volume.

If I stay, nothing will ever change. My Dovecot life is stuck on a loop like Groundhog Day. Every month is a repeat of the last: rowdy residents, subdued, until the next lot invade; the front door broken and never mended, post room robbed, again, and again or parties which stop for a while and then recommence, the monotony of my ivory walls, the fact that some genius thought it acceptable to place a washing machine in the lounge. If I stay, I will see all of this, cope with all this, and confront the effects of all of this into infinity. And beyond.

(NB: as I was writing this in my flat, police pushed a note under my door. While I was actually typing, three neighbouring flats were burgled; thieves entered via the broken, open main door, and drilled through front door locks. I shall keep you posted.)

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

No English Newbuild Garden

There are no large parks close to Dovecot Towers – they’re all at least a bus ride away. Some effort was made to landscape the barren concrete outside: there are three raised beds each planted with low maintenance cacti, all neglected and the adjacent bedding plants are gradually being stolen (even that’s better than nothing.)

I watch gardening shows and envy people with the knack. I could, I suppose, plant something here, but it’s a long term commitment. I could grow tomatoes in a bag. Without wishing to get too technical, my balcony has restricted access, as the door and windows swing open and would knock over terracotta planters, so my options are limited.

Despite minimal space, some clever residents successfully grow ornamental plants, and even vegetables. Horticultural dreamers grow flowers on their terrace; bright little posies, geraniums perhaps, in terracotta pots. Elsewhere there is a solitary example of architectural topiary, planted I suspect by the people who let their flats as ‘hotel’ rooms, establishing a veneer of beauty against a beige, Spartan backdrop.

There’s so much that could be done, I know. I read about those amazing guerrilla gardeners who sow illicit plantations under cover of the night, so that locals awake one morning to sudden greenery, fruit and perfumed blossoms. Then again, there are renegade gardeners of another kind altogether. With newbuilds competing for too few tenants, it seems that some flats are being let as large scale greenhouses, where they grow weed. Some tenants still grow their own. Only the extremely daft leave their crop to soak up sunshine on the window sill or balcony.

I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t want an allotment. I’d never dig it. I wouldn’t know what to do with the surplus, and they are so popular now there’s a long waiting list, and anyway, the way I feel today, I won’t stay here long enough to benefit. I love bonsai trees, but they are more demanding than children or pets. You have to trim, love and nurture them, moving them around with the seasons.

I dream of vines coiled over my railings, and harvesting their luscious fruit; of walking outside to be greeted by greenery, a perfumed floral scene, or aromatic herbs, like basil and rosemary. To really grow anything, I’d need to drill holes in the walls to enable a trellis to cling or for securing bountiful hanging baskets, all necessary to maximise the limited space, but drilling is forbidden. I could arrange old car tyres in towers and grow potatoes, or sow seeds for a scented colourful plant pot; I could do that. Someone in the flat a few floors down has done so and their balcony is laden with blowsy blooms dangling in wicker baskets (once again it’s a hotel.)

There are so many things I could do to improve my quality of life. When, finally and inevitably I leave, a plaque on the wall outside will read: ‘Rentergirl lived here full of good intentions, but never got around to any of it.’

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

There Really Was A Murder

When people told me about the murder (Rentergirl passim) I didn’t believe them. I wasn’t trying to be sceptical, just level-headed. Then another neighbour mentioned it. He asked me what I knew, and scornfully I repeated the myths I’d heard: tales of random body parts and screaming.

This man's bombshell was to tell me that there really had been a murder. He told police he’d heard a scream and witnessed two suspicious men running away. At the crime scene, investigators discovered a trail of blood where the body had been dragged across the floor, rubbish sacks and tape, but no corpse. Since the flat was rented in a Byzantine chain of informal subletting, the victim remains undiscovered, and also unidentified.

It hasn’t even made the news – and we’ve all been watching. The suspicion is that a man has murdered his partner. Or - being as the crime occurred on the ground floor – assailant(s) vaulted over the balcony and through an open window. Since the main door is always broken, maybe they knocked before barged in. I realised a short while back that every flat on my floor has identical window locks; no danger for those on higher floors, but on the ground level, a key holder could easily have let themselves in. There are of course no CCTV cameras.

The police canvassed the building, but they didn’t put notes under our front doors asking for information, instead they put notes into post boxes many of which were crow-barred open, emptied by thieves fishing for cheques etc. Police pressed buzzers during the day, when everyone was out (in any case, nobody opens their door unless they already know who’s there). Posters requesting information were apparently ripped down by the people who run a ‘hotel’ business here (don’t want to worry the guests now do we?)

Whenever I write about the dislocated, alienated lives we urban nomads lead, I generally receive comments and emails claiming that all streets are the same, or from people who own their flat and rarely speak to neighbours, insisting that reticence and reserve are not unique to rented newbuilds.

But it is worse here. There’s almost a sense of fear. We are usually afraid to talk, but briefly, and bizarrely we were speaking but only about the murder. Now it’s heads down again, don’t look up, don’t make eye contact, don’t say a word. It takes courage to so much as nod at strangers passing on the corridor.

When I was a child, I lived in a small town, and a man was murdered in a house at the end of our quiet, ordinary road. He ‘kept himself to himself,’ caring for his learning disabled brother. He was also gay. We live in more enlightened times, and the victim had been ‘cottaging’ in the public toilets in the park where we played, and there were dark tales of blackmail. The older brother of a girl at my school was convicted of his murder.

Every locked front door conceals a secret. Crime is everywhere and nowhere is immune, wherever you live, no matter how upmarket your area, nor how diligent the neighbourhood watch scheme. Random acts of violence have always been with us, but the guarded, anti-social world of newbuilds was a contributing factor to the murder, and the emerging enigma. Could this be my final straw?

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Lights Aren't On And No-ones Home

This isn’t something I’ve only just noticed. It’s been around a while. It’s called Buy To Leave Empty, and for tenants in buildings like Dovecot Towers it’s the root cause of yet another fresh hell.

The property boom bought with it not just saturation low-rise newbuilds, but other forms of development. Most cities have their eye-catching architect’s masturbation fantasy: a phallic symbol, thrusting into the clouds. Then there are those slightly-out-of-town canal side/dockside dreamscape buildings, which - at the time of their inception - seemed like an excellent idea.

These larger, better fitted-out ‘apartments’ (we’ve reached the level of value where you must no longer say flats) were marketed as luxurious, but - dislocated from the trappings and requirements of a happy life, like ordinary shops and neighbourhood pubs - they’ve been shunned. They are often sited close to drive-in theme bars, multiplex cinemas, outlet stores and US style ‘diners.’ Better paid workers passing through on short term corporate contracts are usually the only inhabitants.

Many buildings, medium, plain and grand alike, are left deliberately empty. If you’ve ever walked past a building and counted how many houselights are switched on of a Monday at nine pm, you might think the occupants are crazy, decadent and debauched socialites, having too much fun. Some flats might still be let at unrealistic prices, and are waiting for deluded buy-to-let chancers to see sense and drop the asking price.

Elsewhere, investors have found caring for pesky residents to be a major pain, so magnates who live on the other side of the world don’t bother finding renters to rattle around in their investment. Sensible owners make a slower buck on the equity, not by ramping up the rents. They snap up bargains, hold tight and yet still enjoy the many generous tax advantages.

In Dovecot Towers, many overseas owners were domiciled in Hong Kong. I’m noticing less Chinese occupants round here now: I think the owners previously let to their children and other relatives, but now prefer a simple life, allowing their investment to stand empty. I’d should welcome the quiet, and an end to other annoyances great and small, but empty flats distort the nature of a neighbourhood, encouraging a block to seem hollow, even dead.

If these ‘apartments’ were released onto an already flooded market, rents would plummet to a reasonable level. Just imagine having so much money you can snap up a massive portfolio of mortgage-free property to mothball until the crisis ends. This means that whenever you notice an empty building, it’s possible that someone somewhere is making millions. You might think: that’s capitalism, and fair play to them. It’s just that, while these concrete embodiments of a deflated property bubble disdainfully flaunt their eventual worth, corridors are left in desolation, deathly quiet, cold and empty.

There is another side to calmly sitting out the crunch/recession/whatever, accumulating property for the eventual equity to accrue. Way down below, in the semi-landscaped garden, homeless men and women are sleeping in the shrubbery.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Has There Been A Murder?

There’s Been A Murder…?

It began quietly, with whispers that: ‘…something very bad has happened.’ The police, who were often been parked outside, had mentioned something about an assault. Perhaps that’s what they meant.

The following day, I met a tenant who asked if I had heard about ‘…the murder.’ What? Calmly he explained that there had been a killing on the first floor, and that the police were questioning residents living there.

I remained sceptical. Surely it would have been on the telly? Mindless slaughter is still rare enough around here to merit considerable coverage on the local news. After further consideration, I thought - oh come on: there’d be an incident room outside, with police knocking not just on the ‘relevant’ floor but canvassing elsewhere as well, and I’ve heard nothing.

Then signs appeared about a planned community meeting with local police to be held nearby, aimed at addressing tenant’s concerns about crime, which got me thinking. Another tenant later struck up conversation with the sole purpose of discussing the alleged murder. I didn’t contradict her, but she was firmly of the opinion that a man had sadistically killed his partner. Domestic violence is still shamefully under reported, but I believe that even a dismissive media would reveal any death by foul means.

Days later, there was still nothing on the news, when yet another tenant broached the subject in the lift. Details have grown worse with every retelling: here there was no corpse - well not a complete one - just random dismembered body parts hidden in the bin room. The cynic in me theorised that it’s some half-eaten takeaway chicken, but my informant was adamant. He’d heard there was trail of blood, fingers, limbs, and everything.

Still nothing on the news though, and other residents on my floor had heard nothing about it. The lower floors are certainly more dangerous, vulnerable since they present the opportunity of leaping over the balcony and straight into the lounge. The people who live on the ground floor are more convinced than those of us safe on the higher floors that something awful happened. Still nothing on the news, mind you.

Personally, I think it’s symptomatic of the sense of alienation in Dovecot Towers. With so little contact I couldn’t describe the people who live to one side of me, or opposite, nor could I pick them out in an identity parade, and god knows who lives above me, or below. Meanwhile, the story is getting worse: now neighbours are supposed to have ‘disappeared’ (or else they’re on holiday…) and bloodcurdling screams have been heard (unless it was the telly…)

Ultimately, I’m certain that nobody’s died. I’m sure we’d know. Unless there is a monstrous serial killer picking off newbuild residents, and the police are keeping details quiet so as to efficiently catch and prosecute the murderer, just like on the telly. Here in Dovecot Towers, our daily lives are secluded and dislocated. We rarely talk; how bizarre it would be if a murder encouraged tenants to chat.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Jolly Japes and High Jinks

Many recently completed developments have names like tacky nightclubs. I’ve heard of a Spectrum, a TheEdge, and even a Blue2. Little wonder then that certain occupants can’t tell the difference between party central and their own sweet home.

These days, most residents of Dovecot Towers are students, and they love to play. Classic and now legendary examples of these pranks include the lads who suspended their house-mate’s possessions on bungee wires from the branches of a tall tree. Elsewhere, tricksters planted cress in an absent friend’s carpet. On his return, he was greeted by a lawn in his bedroom. Others shifted the furniture from their house-mates room, and perfectly reconstructed his digs, alfresco. Then there are water fights, streakers, and competitive piles of junk food cartons. Totally hilarious.

Unless like me, you’ve heard all this before. I could live with the occasional frantic party, but am defeated by the assumption that everybody in the building returns at 3am and can rise leisurely on a Sunday and so slamming doors and screaming is of no consequence. And, no, it’s not about being an old fart; many younger residents also have that Victor Meldrew moment, screaming at the ceiling, especially when working split shifts which start at eight am after enduring neighbours who celebrate the simple fact of it being Wednesday by screaming until seven.

Some flats, especially in those found in increasingly rare, remaining pockets of social housing, practice age selection. One block sets a limit of twenty-five. I’m not entirely sure how this works. Are residents booted out if they survive all that debauchery and reach the dreaded age of thirty, or worse have the audacity to cruise on through to forty? And what if you are twenty four when you move in?

Here’s the problem: there is no magical age when consideration and empathy kick in. On reaching their quarter century, citizens don’t automatically abandon improvised, informal home nightclubs for B&Q. On reaching twenty-six, it’s erroneously assumed that yobs change into considerate citizens. This theory was disproved by Thumping Techno Boy (formerly of this parish) who was well into his thirties; age didn’t restrain him from blaring out tunage until my ears bled. I once met an eloquent adversary of pandemonium round here who was just twenty two.

Most tenants in Dovecot Towers are students. They live their days to a different timetable: up late, and sleeping in, but at least we have end of term to look forward to. Even so, every block has at least one incongruously older resident, and some occupants have their kids to stay, even if no children actually live here permanently.

Currently, landlords are desperate to rent their buy-to-let money-pit and students are a boon in that respect, since they pay the rent, and if not use parents as guarantors. It’s just that they bring their lifestyle with them. I’m no fuddy-duddy expecting endless silence and peace to encourage contemplation, but I survived life in a hall of residence, and I don’t want to go back.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Battening The Hatches

Floundering construction firms have instructed workers to stand down, pausing only to make any half-completed blocks waterproof (you mean, they don’t already do that?) Builders are biding their time while this buy-to-let boom crashes into a seething hell-pit (nobody mentions the property developers, so I imagine they’re feeling no pain, bless ‘em all.)

Across the way on the building site I use as my exemplar, nobody’s in much of a hurry. The newest apartment blocks back on to each other; you could easily shake hands with your neighbour across the gap between them. I doubt that tenants will be foolish enough to live there and with so few mortgages, buyers are scarce. What will become of all those empty buy-to-let flats and half completed housing schemes?

Surely it’s not practical to mothball an entire block. Cities like Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester feature interlinked systems of dubious, half-empty or semi-finished developments with no night-time security. Within months these behemoths of uselessness will be overrun by burglars, drug dealers, and pimps (to be honest, it’s already started to happen.)

One council is thinking ahead, albeit with the assistance of this site, which they quote copiously, verbatim. Greenwich Council in London has published a report detailing problems associated with the property downturn. They worry about derelict building sites and empty newbuilds becoming dangerous, improvised playgrounds and magnets for crime.

Perhaps Greenwich should have thought of this before they granted permission for the bloated, lumbering white elephant that is Thamesmead. Was every council so blinded by greed for council tax revenue that they too allowed their precious brownfield sites to be paved over with newbuilds, teetering already and poised to collapse like Jenga? Did they honestly imagine that Britain needed yet more tiny, jerry-built rabbit hutches rather than generous and robust family homes? And why are they so surprised that desperate landlords, unable to sell, are turning a blind eye to dodgy tenant references (that’s if they bother at all)?

This isn’t some hysterical, disproportionate fear of crime, or even simple snobbery. There will be a disaster soon. Vandals will break into an empty flat in a semi-occupied block and start fires. I have already written about the lack of safety procedures, like fire extinguishers and well-lit exit signs for escaping a smoky inferno (of course, developers made certain that these properties are thoroughly - and lucratively - insured. Didn’t they?)

Do I sound cynical, or melodramatic? Perhaps even apocalyptic? Certain readers felt me gloomy for predicting that new building would slow down. I was right, but take no joy in it. I think I’m right about this as well.

Meanwhile, our ambitious Housing Minister Caroline Flint is still wittering on about another massive scandal: those supposed ‘eco’ towns (which - it turns out - aren’t so ‘eco’ after all.) Has anyone else noticed that Caroline ‘Everybody; Call Me Vlad!’ Flint is the Michael Howard of New Labour? There is definitely ‘…something of the night about her.’ Well, have you ever seen her in the same room as a crucifix?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Ghosts of Dovecot Towers

In Dovecot Towers I see only fleeting shapes: a glimpse of departing heels as neighbours disappear round corners, or retreat silently into their flat. I rarely see fully formed living people, just outlines and traces, or plaintive, disembodied voices on distant telephones.

The men next door have been resident for a year now. They were young and in love, but lately, I’ve been hearing some truly horrible arguments. Mercifully I couldn’t hear what they were arguing about, just piercing, impassioned shouting. The doors slam, and my walls shake. One of them storms outside and crashes the door shut; his partner follows him and jumps him in the corridor, where they fight. I’ve heard someone rush out and clip their lover on the head; heard the slap, heard the ‘Ow!’ as he yelps with pain.

I know this happens all over, but around here everyone can listen. I have considered slipping a card with the number for Relate under their door, which isn’t realistic. I thought of asking if they’re okay. I know I’ll never do anything. It would be an imposition, and I would feel uncomfortable, an intruder. Theirs is an equal fight, retaliatory, but not abusive.

Some old faces remain. The local dealer was spotted recently wrestling with his sturdy and now silent dog. It used to yelp all day long, and sometimes at night to emphasises its loneliness. It seemed to move from flat to flat; perhaps it was being hired out as a deterrent. I think he’s had the voice-box removed, which ended that anguished howling.

Around here, residents are comfortable on their balconies, forgetting it’s the great outdoors, and that they’re on display. They nip out to collect their freshly laundered lingerie, and have been met with applause by the passing scallies.

And, like most of Britain, we have Polish people living here. They stand on the balcony below me, shouting into phones, having the traditional nasty Dovecot Towers argument. Polish arguments sound horrible; by nature of the language, it just sounds so harsh. Imagine watching England from a distance, and nurturing Brideshead dreams, only to relocate and find yourself living in the quasi-soviet Dovecot Towers.

I occasionally see a man on his balcony, working at his drawings in front of a large graphics board. Sometimes he gazes into the middle distance. He seems lost. Then I heard him berating a friend for letting him down. He really wanted, no – make that needed - to play football. He’s trapped in a concrete hell. It’s deadly round here. He’s working too hard. He needs some daylight, to go outdoors, feel the wind in his hair, move around, shake his bones and work his muscles. If not football, then a trip to the park? No; it’s not about going for a drink at night. The days are the hardest; working at home is driving him crazy.

There’s no connection between any of us. I don’t know who these people are. We live next door and know so much, yet live in isolation.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Green Tenants Are Revolting

This week’s offering isn’t amusing, nor likely to attract much attention from property crash sites, but it says much about how little control we renters have over our lives, so don’t switch off.

Tenants share a problem with Kermit the Frog: it’s not easy being green. For example, the terms of my lease prevent me from installing a water metre. Many newbuild flats have one bedroom and so house a maximum of two people, and yet we are charged the same as a family of five in a rambling house with cars to rinse, muddy children to wash and lawns to water.

I live close to the city, and do not own a car (it’s not like I can afford one) and so by necessity use public transport, taxis or walk everywhere. More of us would cycle, but flats are too small to store a bike, and it would be nicked within seconds if chained outside, so bikes live on the balcony, wheeled daily through the lounge. Consequently, cyclists are rare.

Recycling is impossible. I can’t store tins, bottles and paper: there’s just no room. How would I transport stuff to the bottle bank; the closest facility is miles away, and remember the no-car thing? I once asked Cleaning Man about installing recycling receptacles in the basement. He sympathised, but pointed out that evil tenants would burn the bins, or smash the glass.

We shop locally by necessity owing to that lack of a car. We are seen stumbling home weighed down with carriers (or these days, canvas bags) full of heavy stuff like potatoes as we shop for food on a daily basis, and are quite poor, so we don’t waste much. For those on low wages or benefits, supermarket delivery is a costly treat to be savoured.

Air pollution is a problem, as most developments are close to main roads, so we are choked by other people’s combustion. The dwindling few who cling to cars own little diesel minis: the only people owning spacious gas guzzlers are the landlords and trades people, who then have the gall to whine about a lack of parking.

It’s harder for tenants of older buildings. Ancient, draughty conversions feature unsealed windows, no insulation, and are saddled with greedy storage-heaters which guzzle energy while thumbing their noses at the ozone layer. Landlords are obliged to ensure appliances function, but an inefficient heater is not illegal (yet) so tenants shrug and pay the bills.
And newbuilds? Our boilers are efficient, the heating economical, and our homes so thoroughly double glazed that we are hermetically sealed in and need rudimentary air conditioning or else we’d die. We have small, frugal fan ovens (while most stick to the microwave) and power showers are unknown hereabouts. All choices made on our behalf.

Factoring in our inability to make rational and reasonable energy saving decisions, perhaps our shiny brand new world doesn’t seem so noble. And why do newbuilds never feature solar panels and wind turbines for communal power supplies?

I could go on. I won’t.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

There Goes The Neighbourhood

There are several useful signs indicating that a once desirable area is in decline. When looking to move, the street with multiple betting-shops instead of a friendly, well-stocked local shop, or ubiquitous tanning-salons and armoured assault off-licences is best avoided (unless you want to be called a pioneer, which is code for sucker.) Another warning sign is a police van parked frequently outside, as is often true of Dovecot Towers.

Our main front door is always broken, so anyone can wander in. Impromptu visitors might stroll for a bit; you know, casually check out the sights and explore the amenities, sell us the Watchtower, or greet us with a friendly: ‘Good day to you madam!’

Or, they could race along corridors banging on front doors at all hours, press on the buzzer for ages to see who’s at home before struggling in vain to kick their way in, or glare moodily at residents. They could sleep and piss in the bin rooms, or in extreme cases, sell drugs, mug, assault and murder us. Most visitors, I suspect, could go either way. Same goes for many tenants.

When I first lived here, I called the police to report a horrible domestic assault. They’d never been here before, and struggled to find us. I predicted that in the near future they’d be here all the time, and suggested they could book a parking space downstairs, or just establish a base in this emerging slum.

Lately, I’ve seen world-weary coppers marching in, racing upstairs and then casually out again, escorting miscreants and looking vexed. Last weekend I heard bad lads stomping past my door as they escaped, hotly pursued by three panting officers. Several hours later, the van was still hanging around. Realising they had finished their assignment, I made some enquiries.

The local police are only too aware of the newbuild phenomena and the inherent problems. They too are plagued by easy thefts from post-rooms which are (here we go again…) unlocked, placed in open, insecure buildings, with individual boxes so shallow you can slip your hand inside for ease of stealing. They suggested I spoke to the management company, but they will only deal with owners and landlords, who in turn don’t give a damn, being too busy worrying about the newbuild buy-to-let crash, or if better off, are in an offshore counting-house, counting out their money.

The policewoman I chatted to was astonished at the lack of security cameras, as none are placed where we really need them (i.e. in entrances, lifts and the post room.) She explained that if we found emptied envelopes, they might have fingerprints on, which could provide useful evidence. Then they waited a while, probably taking a breather before they sped urgently away, sirens blaring, to their latest crime scene.

No need to speed, and sirens not required. I watched them pile out of the van again and straight back into Dovecot Towers, primed to thwart another dastardly criminal.

It really would be cheaper if they got a room here.