Here's another post inspired by an anonymous reader's story. She shared her tales of the many malevolent and odious actions of her former landlord in London. He had suggested that if she was struggling to pay the rent he would 'go easy on her if she was 'nice' to him.' We all know what that means: my correspondent moved out straight away.
Her email coincided with a planned post about how the bad old days are returning, by which I mean the power of the 'tallyman' or other regional, colloquial terms for rent collectors. In the old days, in the very old days, housing was not seen as a right. Tenants were grateful to have a roof over their heads, even a hovel crammed to the rafters with hungry families.
Occupants were exploited: squeezed into slums, with several families living in homes built originally for just one. Landlords controlled the destiny of anyone they condescended to accept the rent from, and abuses were rife. Once per week the dreaded tallyman knocked on the door, and if the week had been a bad one, with the man of the house out of work and consequently away, the lady of the house would answer. If they were behind with rent, her only hope of avoiding homelessness and the workhouse, was that he might generously allow one week's grace and let them stay. But this was more sinister than it sounds.
In order to ensure the indulgence of the landlord, the woman of the house, alone perhaps because her husband or father was hiding from debt collectors, was occasionally obliged to offer a 'sweetener' to the tallyman. That is, in order to ensure her family had somewhere to live, and secure the small mercy of delayed payment, she might be compelled to offer, or likely, have been asked under duress, for sexual favours.
This was in an era where moralising notions of the 'deserving poor' dominated the law and social policy - when impoverished people were seen as being in need because of moral laxity. The hypocrisy of these judgemental attitudes is breathtaking. Prostitution was a constant threat, or dark 'opportunity' for the desperate, but if the tallyman bragged the woman might be deemed a loose woman, and forfeit her reputation, her children and consequently, her home.
Supposedly, we live in more enlightened times. But the clock is ticking backwards. Research by Shelter and The Joseph Rowntree Trust confirm that increasing numbers are in rent arrears, terrified of eviction and afraid to negotiate with unsympathetic private rentiers (this is one place where I especially hate the word landlord) so let's remember this.
The minimum wage does not pay enough for rent, alongside sufficient heat and proper amounts of nutritious food. Social security pays less. Faced with a choice of hunger or homelessness, heating or eating what choices will tenants be forced to make?
Tenants will do as they were obliged to in the bad old days. The truly desperate will sell their belongings and ultimately themselves, only to find they are judged and punished for it.
And around we go.