Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Five Horseman of 2013.

2013 has been every bit awful as I feared, due to the five horsemen of indifference. Cruel policies implemented – or rather inflicted - by a party of out of touch millionaires caused chaos, despair, hunger, isolation and homelessness.

First The Bedroom Tax. Or ‘spare room subsidy.’ Which it isn’t. Rich people watched a documentary about social housing which show that some people - mostly older tenants - cling to their homes when their family and dependents have moved on.

They’re not evil. They simply wish to stay because their friends, social network and support are close by, and in any case there’s nowhere else to move to – the private sector is tenuous, expensive and actively discriminates against claimants or the poor (openly displaying signs reading ‘No DSS’).

So money was taken from their allowance to cover the ‘cost’ of this so-called spare room. The result was arrears and therefore, debt. They didn’t move. There is nowhere else to live. Labour have promised to repeal this stupid tax. I await the proof of this. I also await the mass evictions, which will start next year.

Next, The Benefit Cap. This too is vile. Hideous. People are limited to how much they are entitled to, not on the basis of dependants (I wonder if this includes disabled children and elderly parents…) and not on their need. It is an arbitrary red-line. It will force low paid workers from property hot-spots – which in truth means London. So who will serve in the shops, clean the homes, work as clerks, nurse, study and set up new businesses in the capital? I’m curious, that’s all.

Rising rents are a nightmare, but this isn’t true everywhere. Prices are still stable and reasonable where work is scarce and supply plentiful. Even so, letting-agents try to insist that rents must be raised.

So, yay letting agents, once more. My friend was house hunting in Scotland, where fees payable by tenants are unlawful. She was being shown a ‘studio’ by an agent, and when they reached the flat, it had no central heating (in Scotland, this is just plain intolerable). To make matters worse, she was informed that the owner would not permit Calor gas heaters. Sarcastically she suggested an open fire in the bedroom. ‘Burning what?’ demanded the agent, obviously immune to irony. ‘Well, the documents which set out the fees you’re illegally trying to charge me.’ She replied. Oh – the fiends from last years roll of shame who claim to be ‘Licensed by ARLA’ in their bumph, posters and ads continue to do so. For now…

The cheering news saving my endangered sanity was the spirit of Digs aka Hackney Renters, and other tenant rights organisations, who are angry, but increasingly organised. This means that I believe for the first time the tide might well turn, with better prospects for rent control and long term tenancies.

Turning my deeply etched frown upside down, I would like to thank and remember the following, who are wise and make me smile.

For his patient demolition of SEO cowboys, and also his blog on housing law - @nearlylegal, aka Giles Peaker http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/

There’s @BenreeveLewis. Stern, brave and increasingly furious, he’s a Tenancy Relations Officer. Do not mess with him. He also makes me laugh. Which, things being as they are, is very much appreciated.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Cancel Xmas. To Pay The Rent.

Too many people can't pay their rent. Due to a noxious combination of low wages, high rents, soaring utilities, job insecurity (zero hours contracts with exclusivity clauses) and the looming threat of redundancy, I've been contacted by several readers who can't pay. But here are the measures taken and lengths, deprivations endured and humiliations tolerated to cover their essential rent.

No xmas presents. None. Nothing whatsoever at all. One of my friends can't buy even a tiny gift for her new nephew, another has nothing to thank her supportive family. Yes, xmas is a febrile fiesta of escalating greed, even so, this has happened for the third year in a row, which is demeaning. Not everyone can make something. But she needs to pay her rent.

Porridge for xmas brunch (late to rise to stay under the warm duvet for as long as possible). Porridge for dinner. Porridge for every meal over the xmas holidays. People are not eating properly, if at all, but at least they're paying their rent.

Meeting a potential work colleague in a coffee bar, hoping for seasonal freelance work. My friend had just enough in her purse for one coffee, a rare treat to be cradled and savoured. Contact arrives, but oops - he'd forgotten his wallet. She had enough for herself and the fare home in the darkness of midwinter. Desperate for work, keen to show willing - if not ingratiate herself, she 'loaned' her contact a coffee, and walked home in the sleet. Because she couldn't afford to dip into her rent.

The worry, fretting, not sleeping then simply panicking. The stress is remorseless, unrelenting and worsens. Bellies half-full, minds in turmoil, life lived on a day-by day basis. So tenants can pay the rent.

Kids, who overhear their parents agree to ask for cash and to put into the household budget. So they can pay the rent. Fine dining on value brands and gratefully accepted food-bank bounty. So they can pay the rent.

There are days of holiday in the cold weather, when warm libraries and museums are closed, so pondering a bracing country walk, which is free, but does create a healthy appetite, which you can't feed. Mothers deciding to stay huddled with miserable, fractious, disappointed children under a blanket, afraid to boil the kettle. So they can pay the rent.

Selling everything (I mean everything - that is, absolutely everything) other than basic essentials. So you can pay the rent.

Actually begging in the street to see if you can raise something, to buy food, so you can pay the rent. Lunching on tiny bite-size samples of xmas food. Overhearing your richer friends complaining that you've never repaid that tenner from a few months back. Because you need to pay your rent.

No headache pills or plasters, eking out toothpaste, rationing toilet paper, painful lumps in over-darned socks. Cuts from blunt razors, clothes un-ironed, length of shower rationed on the electrical appliances and scant telly time. Because you paid the rent.

Fearing the unexpected, or anything outside of your strict, regimented budget, such as leaking shoes, a coat being stolen, or a broken pay-as-you-go phone. So you can pay the rent.

Cancelling xmas, because if you do that, you might just if you squeeze, and don't eat for a day (it's only one day, right?) then might just about be able to pay your rent.

Will 2014 be the year that we descend upon Downing Street with pitchforks? I hope so. Because we need to comfortably pay the rent.


Monday, 16 December 2013

Wring Out Your Onesie

There’s a bizarre sloshing sound in both owner-occupied homes and those lived in by tenants right now. It’s this. Since there is no greater fear than turning on the heating, people wear multiple layers, until they end up looking like the Michelin Man. Warfare breaks out between couples and flatmates, with one sneakily boosting the thermostat, the other then sneakily lowering in once more.

One of my friends even works at home clad in paper overalls, which he claims keep him toasty. There’s woolly hats, fingerless gloves, and scarves in the privacy of your home.

Others use improvised insulation, like blankets on the wall, polystyrene plastered to ceilings etc. You never know – it could work.

But the fear of switching on the heating causes another problem – and it’s a big problem. The name of this big problem is… condensation.

This wearing of jumpers under blankets in the lounge is done under duress as occupants watch their own frozen breath snake upwards to the ceiling, where this deluge is distilled until it flows in rivulets down the walls. There it used productively, to irrigate vast fields of mould and mushrooms, with plantations springing up all over the place. Last year I found mould growing on my pillow.

This has been troubling me for some time. Yes, the energy companies are greedy. Yes, older homes – i.e. those built over fifteen years ago let the arctic winds waft bracingly through the walls. Cavity walls were intended to let homes breathe, but are now being systematically and in my experience – inexpertly - filled with insulation. Insulation is now universally regarded as a good thing. Nobody questions this, well, except for a few shy voices whispering at the back.

These voices ask a question. State funding for what is sneeringly referred to by our condem overlords as ‘green crap’ has been insulating lofts and packing cavity walls with warmth promoting material across the land. It’s universally accepted as a brilliant idea, and judging from my experience, lagging the loft makes the place so much warmer. But it also seems to make condensation worse. So that home of yours is warm, but steamy, and opening the window isn’t an option, since the icy hand of frost will barge inside, rendering the energy saved useless.

You can’t leave the vents open. You can’t leave the heating on. Dehumidifiers can help, but they’re electric and so costly in own their way. I’m left wondering if, in a few years time, homes that have become pulsing with groves of toadstools on the ceiling will be visited once more, this time to remove the insulation. In the meantime, I’m still looking at passivhaus developments, with envy.

One friend’s rentier knows of a leak in the roof, but blithely lets the water seep in, because it’s being sucked up by the posh new loft insulation. What a stupid man.

There we all go, sloshing around the xmas tree, wringing out our onesies, contemplating mushrooms. There must be a better way. Perhaps we should wear wetsuits. Constantly.

Monday, 9 December 2013

'Persuaded’ To Leave

They’re back. The firm. The management. You know – the men who help ‘persuade tenants to leave.’ I was reminded of this sinister phrase by the excellent Digs – a tenant rights group based in London. They sent me details of a firm who offer to help owners be rid of bothersome tenants. Some troublesome occupants do not vacate immediately when issued notice to quit by power of thought alone. Some stay, and must be ‘persuaded’ to leave.

Now, let’s not pretend that all tenants are angels. Let’s also accept that some rentiers are saints. Meanwhile at the far end of the rentier spectrum are the pond-life who refuse to use proper lawful method of serving notice.

So let’s explore that ‘persuasion.’ It doesn’t mean a nice lady from the days of Jane Austen in a pretty frock comes for tea for and a chat about the day you’re due to quit the property, soothed from your home by healing flute music and free money. Nor does it mean being served proper notice, timely notice of a court date and the chance to appear and counter claim. No. ‘Persuasion’ means random thugs, often former bouncers, showing up at random times to hammer on your door, then threatening to kick said door down.

This is done by firms of so-called ‘eviction specialists’ and their own ‘legal experts’ who are anything but. These self-appointed ‘experts’ are rarely qualified solicitors, let alone proper barristers. They send pseudo-legal, incoherent letters, badly phrased, unlawful demands with no backing in law, under a thick layer of intimidation or simple threats. Then they add thousands to any outstanding rent, supposedly to cover those ‘legal’ fees.

But this can be really nasty. I’ve tales of tenants being visited late at night by boorish, inarticulate thugs who bellow threats through the front door letter-box, or loudly hurl abuse from the street below. These supposed bailiffs have, I am informed, tried to evict tenants on the wrong day (ie by before the courts say they must, when the owner finds it convenient, or even when no notice has been issued.)

The group using their services the most are new buy-to-let owners. Few have any formal training, and many are oblivious to the need for a series of properly drafted official documents, even if the tenant is in arrears. These are the type of person who find me here by googling ‘Why can’t I just throw tenant scum out onto the streets.’ (Yes – that happens.)

The worst case I’ve heard involved a disturbed landlord, in collusion with his letting agents, ‘visiting’ a tenant, issuing threats but never proper notice, then employing ‘bailiffs’ to come round and try to kick open the door, until the police were called and, unusually, the neighbours intervened.

Now such behaviour is admittedly, unusual and rare, but just imagine the reverse. Picture what would happen if a the benighted tenant of a bad landlord visited them repeatedly at their home, late at night, terrorising their family, hammering on the door, demanding they were removed from a register of landlords, issuing violent threats.

The police would arrive fast, the tenant would be swiftly arrested, then convicted. Simple and without an eyebrow raised.



Monday, 2 December 2013

Affordable Homes.

It’s out there. Labour plan to build lot’s and lot’s of affordable homes. Loads of ‘em. Many, many affordable homes. Plenty of them. Lot’s. This really is great news – we need these ‘affordable’ homes. The more the merrier.

But here’s my problem with those vast expanses, those wide yawning vistas of so-called affordable homes. They will not be affordable. What’s worse, they’ll be substandard. They will be smaller, and shoddier, and not even that cheap.

I used to live on an estate with both private homes to buy and own, and some council houses – or social homes, as they are now styled, were located on adjacent streets. The private barret-boxes were bad enough – thin walls, three bedroom in theory but one teensy box room in reality. They were built with as little space as possible, with no cupboards and low ceilings.

I’ve never understood (and never will understand) just why it is that people in need of social houses should subsequently be deemed to need less of everything, because this is just what happened on my old estate. Why should it be that council houses, or social homes as they are now designated, must be far worse than second best. It’s true that poverty slows human growth, but the impoverished are not tiny pixies.

It didn’t use to be this way. Council houses in the post WW1 were sometimes lovely, with thick walls and high standards. Even those brutalist tower blocks which have evaded demolition have their fans. I’ve lived or stayed in some excellent examples, so I know that they can be fantastic machines to live in.

But still, why does cheaper homes for poorer people need to be so shoddy? The lower your income, the less money available for heating bills, so you’d think that insulation and sturdy walls would be universally considered to be vital. But nooooo.

Let’s remember – this also applies to ‘affordable homes’ bought by owner occupiers. But here’s the bit where the sneering of the people who design and plan houses, that is – those who permit us to live in a house. They actually waved through recent requests by some overseas investors who were building homes in London. The idea was that this development was to feature some top notch, high-end, posh homes, but also – for us povs and plebs, some affordable places. The upshot is that the homes will no be just for the posh, rich and litigious. Oh – and their will be a separate entrance for ‘affordable’ home occupiers, because well, the sight of the great unwashed will disturb and menace the others.

So when new homes are build to rent, or ‘affordable’ or intended for that first, tenuous, precarious step on the ownership ladder, and when (as in my previous post) some homes are let by 'forced' or accidental rentiers, why, why, why are these homes build for some secret mythical norm fit for people who don’t need space, spare rooms. It’s yet another example of tenants being viewed as subhuman, or lesser than owners.

A separate entrance. Really – a separate entrance. That happened.