Sunday, 23 February 2014


The magic moment is here. The third; perhaps the fourth date. Or the first…or whatever. You’re bringing someone home ‘to physically express your affection for them’.

You open the bedroom door.
Then you’re startled to hear: ‘Hello! Don’t forget – it’s your turn to take the bins out. Ooh – who’s your friend?’

Yep, it’s your actual room-mate. They’re still here, curled up in their single bed because they didn’t go out like they promised. Oh dear. Well, scrabble, it is then.

The word 'room-mate' has infiltrated UK English, because we watch so many US sitcoms. What stunned me was the fact that this actually means that the parties concerned share a room. Not a flat, or a house, but a bedroom. This is especially true of students.

Imagine the reality of two adults, not in a relationship, sharing a confined space with two dinky single beds. Think of the consequences. Of the effect on privacy, solitude, ownership of space; where to store things: secret things, personal things. Of nightmares, sleep and work schedules, coming in later and rising early. I can't imagine doing this. Ever.

A friend has shared a room (an actual room) for some months now. He first shared a bedroom when studying in LA, where that's the norm. He liked the experience, and after graduating, kept it up. His reasons are complex: firstly - cost, in that he saves money (although his two flatmates rent their own separate rooms.) The fact that rentiers routinely rent all rooms as bedrooms and covert lounges was a factor – if he didn’t share they wouldn’t have a communal sitting room. He also explained he appreciated the simple fact of some company. He is a really lovely man: open-hearted, happy, well-adjusted, straightforward, but confesses to tiring of the situation.

Another friend was sharing a large house in London, where two (straight) women shared not just a bedroom, but a bed. They were completely broke and saving up to travel, so the sacrifice was worth it, if only temporarily. I've heard of couples renting one room in a house-share, but they're usually desperately poor, and the effects on house dynamics (not least the crowded bathroom) are intriguing.

UK student housing providers would rather commission layers of cells, like a studious beehive, rather than have two pairs of renters share one room and then a group study/lounge/dining area combo. I have to say, I agree.

But the increasing infantilisation of tenants who claim social security, where anyone under the age of 35 is entitled to just the single room rate for local housing allowance, coupled with the threatened withdrawal of any payments whatsoever for those under 25 might, well lead to claimants being housed in dormitories, or work-programme barracks. Even soldiers past their training live in flats, these days, or so I understand.

But compelling unrelated adults into shared rooms is punitive to the point of being abusive. So don't let yourselves become softened up, worn down into accepting shared rooms. These rare volunteers might be just the start.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Losing Everything.

Most tenants are itinerant; inadvertent, perpetual nomads, moving from one home to the next, living the life kinetic, but with all the restless, roaming energy travels sideways and backwards, seldom does this endless journey progress forwards or upwards.

Some renters do enjoy moving, but these optimists are a rarity. When an assured short-term tenancy (accursed short-stay travesty) usually lasts for just six months (twelve if you're lucky) and is then rolled over if not fully renewed or ended, tenants generally have a maximum of four months in which to breathe before they could face being kicked out with two months notice. This precarious, fractured security is more than simply unsettling. It's also costly, with the regular hiring of vans, storage to find, upfront deposits, the infamous fees to letting agents and rent in advance to find.

Other costs are emotional but they also hit hard over time, especially the cost of replacing lost belongings after yet another move.

Such losses can be accidental. I once mislaid a bag of beloved clothes including a new dressing gown when I moved. To maximise profit and to save me money, the removal firm split their truck space between several people, and stuff was mixed up, irretrievably. I only lost stuff - I did not gain.

It's a distracting messy process, this relocation conveyor belt, no matter how hard you try to be organised. Perhaps worst of all is leaving stuff with friends to be looked after informally, assuming they will respect the value of what you own.

A friend told me how she lost everything (literally - everything) after travelling to the States for a temporary but amazing opportunity. In the meantime, her now former friends moved out and casually left her worldly goods behind, without a care. No insurance, no payback, no possessions and a series if wrecked friendships.

Storage can be expensive for those on no/low pay. Leaving baggage with family or in the attic of stable friends is inherently risky. Some other friends have had property damaged in floods, fire and break-ins.

Nobody escape the curse. The artist Marc Chagall lost all his early work when he left it with a friend in Paris during WW1. His paintings later appeared on the open market...

Like many renters, I operate a triage system for possessions: absolute essentials are taken with me when travelling. Valuables (if only to me) are left in official storage centres - costly, but worth it. I keep possessions to a minimum, but things like precious art works, made by friends are irreplaceable.

Mass made household goods are cheap to acquire, but dear to replace when lost in bulk. Bin bags burst during the move, with explosions of underwear veering across motorways. Soggy cardboard boxes cave in and smash all your crockery onto the pavement. Overburdened suitcases burst.

I've been told, callously to shrug off the loss. It's just 'stuff.' It's only 'things' - nothing more than 'possessions.' But to lose everything you own, including winter clothes or precious photos never stops hurting.

Sunday, 9 February 2014


‘Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a landlord.’

‘Well, study hard my child and maybe, just maybe, one day you might just get there.’

Nobody. Ever.

I have mentioned many times before that being a rentier is seldom a vocation. I doubt the scenario above has ever actually happened. A career as a rentier is, I suspect never mentioned by careers advisors, and does not appear in those bizarre job suitability or aptitude tests. The same is true for letting and estate agents, neither of which feature in feverish dreams of potential success, even if the latter usually requires a degree.

63% of private landlords admit having no prior experience of the industry. 94% are not in a professional letting body. In short – they’re amateurs, not even well-meaning ones.

These figures are truly appalling, but utterly unsurprising. The unmourned, mercifully now defunct ‘Inside Track’ seminars, which promoted deluded profiteering acquisition was the closest thing to training, but that’s long since discredited. The dominance of the terminally unskilled can mean that rentiers remain ill-informed about rules, regulations, customs, laws and bye-laws related to letting out homes. Just buy a house. Then rent it out. Erm… that’s it. Hooray!

Consequently, some newbies mistake bricks and mortar for a filigree crystal castle, constantly worried it will shatter, or that rough-hewn tenants will break it. They will be unaware of rules about deposits, licensing etc. They will do all the really bad things, such as turning up unannounced for too-frequent inspections, to the extent they let themselves in, or issuing notice to quit by power of thought alone and then wondering the tenant is still there. Etc. Etc…

Oddly perhaps, the opposite can be true. I wonder of owners could be too tolerant, on occasions fail ever to inspect, and then realise all too late that the dreaded cannabis farm is present. Or tenants have knocked the down dividing the lounge from the kitchen, like on the telly.

But what sort of education should career rentiers seek out? I suppose, a degree in business might be useful. Experience in customer relation is desirable, for those tempted to be rude or obstructive - basic money-saving home maintenance, too.

This matters because buy-to-let seems on the rise once more. I would not wish fresh faced dilettetantes and, well-meaning dabblers turned into wizened, world-weary cynics. I simply think they’d benefit from awareness of the pitfalls, responsibilities and problems.

For a home to be fit for letting out to paying tenants, it would be helpful for a mortarboard wearing tyrant to mark ‘pass or fail’ when presented with, for example, bathrooms fitted with tiles ready to harbour mould before tumbling down, or other faults which destroy the security, safety and happiness of occupants in the ‘investment.’

Which it isn’t. Nor are occupants ever really ‘customers.’ We’re tenants. It’s our home. Becoming a rentier should be a considered decision, more like a vocation than an inadvertent career. Because done badly by the ill-informed, it will ruin the lives of tenants and owners alike.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Where To Stick Your Bike

This blog has moved from writing about my previous, falling down home within the horror-scape of Dovecot Towers, on to the design of housing, to the nature of being a tenant, or rather the nightmare of renting, and dealing with letting agents, who are still the monstrous enemy at the door.

As for design, I’ve long thought that all homes should feature not just storage for, you know accumulated ‘stuff,’ but also sufficient space to keep a bike. Or bikes. Several bikes. Because, they’re cheap and green and cycling is the way forward.

Newbuilds should be mindful of this increased bike need. They’re often built just slightly too far away from city centres, and could even feature their own, special bike hire hub. Bike storage could be built into the entrance halls – or in basements, next to car parks.

Cycling keeps you fit and healthy – plus, it’s cheap. The only problem is finding somewhere to stash them, or to mend punctured tyres and paint them. It’s worse when visitors bring their own cycles when visiting you – especially if you live somewhere that’s not safe, and you must remove the wheels and lamps, etc.

*sighs, then weeps*

Oh, who I am kidding? I don’t care about bikes right now – there are so many more important problems and issues.

It shouldn’t be that social security cuts are affecting the housing situation as much as they are. But they are. And they’re hurting everybody. The benefit cap, then Local Housing Allowance which severely restricts where claimants can live – that is, right at the bottom of where it’s safe to live. By this I don’t mean ‘affordable’ – there’s no such thing.

I mean where it’s scary. Where CCTV points to the problem side of the road, where there are no bijou cafes, just tanning salons, ‘Turf accountants’ and pound shops. Where insurance costs are restrictive because crime is high. Nor do I mean edgy, trendy or arty.

Then there’s the whole of renting, of interminable references, credit checks, ‘affordability’ checks, one-off cleaning fees, fees to collect fees, all charged to both tenants and owners.

The previous post discusses the idea of intentional, vindictive inherent insecurity – of never really knowing how long you can stay.

The privately rented house is rarely a home. Why bother to unpack, when you can’t paint without knowing you must repaint possibly in six months time, and why buy nice household items when sooner rather than later they’ll be stored or dropped on the pavement by the kindly friend who’s helping you to move house again, for the umpteenth time in five years. If in London, you will be dreading rent rises, having no pension, keeping enough to one side, not for a deposit to buy a home but for the next deposit on renting one.

Yes, design matters. Storage is essential and bicycles are fantastic. Bike sheds outside, with safe secure areas to mend and keep them. But you know what, even with the mooted increase in private buy-to-let developments where these issues could be properly considered and catered for, right now there are so many other priorities.