Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Random Things That Make Me Ponder

Lately, there’s a been a palpable, creeping sense of transition around Dovecot Towers, with a scattering of random stuff, odd little details, and I’m not sure what any of it means. Maybe nothing, whatsoever; I’ve just noticed it, that’s all.

Today, I saw a smudge of blood, at face level, next to the lift. It’s one of those sights that once you notice it, the possibilities are endless: too much cocaine? A fight? An innocent nosebleed? I wonder if the originator lives here. My imagination has decided they were fleeing a beating, and made it to the building just in time. Some late night mid week screaming may have influenced my theoretical fears. I should have called the police; I usually do. It sounded like hi-jinks, but you can never really tell.

An Abel&Cole van, was delivering delicacies to a local gourmand. That’s a bit posh for round here: even people who use Tesco’s home delivery are considered to have airs and graces. I know we are close to the best shopping the city has to offer, but are tenants growing rich, or was a resident craving an organic veg box with posh cheese.

Someone pushed a flyer under my door, offering bass guitar lessons. I love the idea of an informal skills market: perhaps we should all print notes explaining who we are, and what we can offer. But, someone would offer premium heroin (none of your rubbish) and ruin the goodwill. I could offer professional sarcasm: details on application, reasonable rates.

There’s a pile of crisp packets by the stairs, held down using a small rock as a paper weight. How simultaneously neat, yet untidy.

In the corridor, close to the lift, someone left a full size wall unit, by which I mean a huge expensive looking lump of shelves designed for premises far grander than this. It couldn’t possibly fit into any of the flats, since they are so small. I wonder; did they measure the space first. Cleaning Man was irate: it needed many different Allen keys to disassemble. Did they ever fit it in the flat, or was it an unwanted gift? You’d think the donor would have asked.

On Sunday, the building was devoid of any party mess: no cans, or pizza boxes (and no vomit). Then in the lift I saw one thin rubber medical examination glove on the floor. I don’t know if somebody is being very sensible, or very strange.

A row of residents cars were parked on the street outside. I’d estimate that roughly seventy per cent were for sale: nearly new mini coopers, a jeep and a several standard run-arounds. Parking is a bastard and a bitch round here; town is close, and the wardens hunt fruitfully in packs.

The pub down the road has installed pine tables with candles, a cruet and one little flower; a coffee filter machine is visible. It serves home made soup, an all day breakfast (there’s even a children’s menu) but karaoke is no more. Customers are few in number, except for some defiant original punters who sit alone with a pint of cooking beer. I think they’ll move on soon.

This weekend, the entire building was festooned with balloons. When next day they were strewn around, all burst and forlorn, it seemed so poignant.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Landless Peasants

Poor Caroline Flint. As you read this, our Minister For Housing sits in a darkened room, rocking to and fro, pausing only to bang her head on the table. Occasionally she turns to a colleague, groaning: ‘…whatever was I thinking?’

She’s still floundering in the fallout after suggesting the withdrawal of tenancies from those found shirking employment. She even cited ‘…a culture of nobody works around here,’ allegedly rife in social housing (i.e. council housing, as ‘twas in the olden days.) But don’t worry, Caroline, I won’t be mentioning your funny five minutes here…

…except to run through the following points.
Firstly, ‘…culture of nobody works around here?’
What’s that then?
There indeed exists a culture of ‘…nobody can get a job around here no matter how hard they try,’ but try they do. Meanwhile, the blameless residents of many estates endure ‘…a culture of nobody can get their windows repaired around here,’ as cutbacks mean that councils routinely evade even essential repair obligations for all tenants, employed or not. What about briskly evicting the officials responsible?

And about those estates: most inhabitants work, despite living on ‘schemes’ or ‘developments’ (never say suburbs) frequently placed - because of invidious notions of social hygiene - well outside the city walls. Spiralling transport costs render it prohibitively expensive for job-seekers to ‘network’, attend interviews, or try on spec in person with employers to see if any unadvertised vacancies have arisen. And that says nothing of bus timetables which are downright useless if you work punitive, anti-social shifts for minimum wage and can’t afford a car.

Education is a vital tool in acquiring well-paid, secure and interesting work. Stand outside a school on most of the estates Caroline refers to and you will observe a lack of Chelsea Tractors driven by eager, well informed yummy mummies and daddies, and rarely are parents from miles away moved by the Holy Spirit to come over all Catholic in order to secure a place for their bright eyed brood. Of course, there are local heroes, but most parents are fighting to transfer out, rather than in.

Social Housing is being reduced, and in order to secure access a family will likely have been homeless for ages. They might be bedraggled and demoralised to breaking point and beyond, having lost precious belongings like interview clothes and references (even their confidence, and ultimately the will to live) during the trauma of constant jaunts between hostels and B&B’s, and yet they still work, or at least they try.

If Caroline’s wish is granted, what sort of jobs will be provided? Properly paid, meaningful employment with some hope of advancement? Or just another badly organised, box-ticking training scheme which – somewhere along the line – involves learning by heart the phrase ‘Do you want fries with that?’

Full employment is a myth; there isn’t a job for everyone. Treating housing as a treat for those who behave themselves is not only patronising and offensive, but also another example of people who own no property being treated like teenagers who have outstayed their welcome in the crowded parental home, or landless peasant scum. Even so, Caroline Flint might have earned my respect had she suggested penalising those city wide boys personally responsible for breaking the UK’s economy by spiriting away mortgage money in convoluted, avant-garde but (for them) lucrative trading methods, which have siphoned off billions of pounds to rest a wee while in pixie-lala-land.

C4’s ‘Shameless’ is not a documentary, and the idea that on council estates, those in full employment are ridiculed by masses of scrounging, jeering neighbours is utter bunkum. Her now infamous statement was a cynical attempt to appease Middle England - that bastion of tolerance this government is so peachy keen to mollify, but she failed. When even the head of The National Federation of Housebuilders speaks out against you, then something is badly wrong.

I’m sorry if this response seems a little tardy, but when I first heard what she said, I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I started to cry. I’d imagine that’s exactly how Caroline Flint feels right now.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Furnishing My Dovecot

I moved into my flat because it’s unfurnished. This might not seem important, but the absence of that omnipresent grubby chintz or those businesslike, wipe-clean, leather sofas is even now a source of some considerable happiness.

I don’t own much furniture. Thanks to less than diligent removal firms, my worldly goods diminish with every move. My previous relocation relieved me of my bed frame (well, as I belatedly discovered, all fittings and screws, which extensive research proved to be irreplaceable, rendering the frame useless) and ruined my beloved posture chair. The removal man said: ‘Don’t worry it’s fine…’
(Except it wasn’t.)

But I can’t go on like this. I wonder if there’s a specialist firm making fold-up, easy-store shelves, which (here’s the tricky part) don’t require being attached to the walls for stability. Holes in walls lead to deductions from my deposit, after a long sentence in America’s toughest prison. Next, my head is shaved, and I will be paraded around bearing a placard proclaiming: ‘Evil Vandal Who Dared To Own Possessions Above Her Station And Then (And Then!) Left Holes In The Plaster!’
After which they will shoot me.

Unfurnished private rented flats are rare, so much so that when I asked the letting agent if such a thing existed, he looked at me funny and backed away, as if I’d asked for a log cabin under the canal, with space outside for a few chickens. Then he consulted my landlord, who realised that letting the flat unfurnished was cheaper, less hassle and avoided wear and tear on his goods.

Furniture in most new builds is awful: mean spirited, second rate and Spartan. My neighbours were provided with blinds reaching partway down the window, which their landlord refuses to replace. Other flats are kitted out like rooms in a Travelodge; I bet the owners even provide tea making facilities, with those cute little kettles.

I avoid collecting too much stuff, because I move so often, but it’s pretty Zen around here, and now I need a coffee table, a desk, light shades, and a bigger settee. Most of all, I am desperate for shelves. I need smart techno floating shelves which hover next to the wall, and do not leave dents or holes.

I am currently battling with my landlord for blinds. It was agreed before I moved in that he’d provide blinds and a shower screen, being as I won’t be able to take them with me when I go. He’s ignoring my requests, so this issue could be the one that will force me over the edge. I’ve offered to organise the process and installation with his approval after providing estimates, but still he’s ignores me. I can’t stay here without blinds, and can’t install my temporary solution, as this would leave…holes in the walls! My only bargaining chip is that he wants to avoid the hassle and expense of finding another tenant.

I am currently overlooked by boorish, nosy builders from the site opposite. I suspect one of them is filming ‘Rentergirl The Documentary.’ Look out for me on You Tube.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

What About Us?

Fame at last. Dovecot Towers and other similar developments are all over the media, illustrating some depressingly common tales of negative equity and bankrupted amateur property speculators.

Rentergirl is occasionally asked to contribute to TV and radio programmes about the property downturn, but when I mention that I have no chance of buying a home, the interest fades, and if I suggest that alternatively, reporters could highlight problems encountered by renters (aka landless peasant scum) the line goes quiet. The trauma endured by desperate owners is presented as a national scandal, but I wonder when anybody is going to remember this stark fact: for every buy to let repossession, a tenant is evicted.

I was chatting to my neighbour who explained that he had moved urgently from one flat to another the previous week. There had been a frantic banging on his door one evening: it was the letting agent, who explained he’d have to vacate his home, right NOW! The flat was due for repossession the very next morning!

So move he did; that night, all alone, rushing to shift everything he owned down the corridor to an identical flat allocated by the agent. He admitted to resenting the fact that he’d been struggling to pay rent to a landlord who blew the money, not on the mortgage, but booze, pies, or hats, never condescending to inform his benighted tenant about his precarious pecuniary circumstances. Fortunately, neighbour was dealing with that rarity – a sympathetic estate agent. He’s settled now, but still shaken.

The post-room, and often my post-box is often crammed with someone else’s letters, all opened, including mortgage forfeitures discarded by someone long gone from here. Gary didn’t know he was being evicted until he opened one of many angry red court orders ignored by his landlord. The flat - his home - was repossessed, after which the letting agent still pursued him for the final month’s rent, despite the building being flooded out, and when the landlord had clearly been pocketing Gary’s money. Mortgage brokers often don’t even know that flats are rented out.

Mortgages featured recently on an excellent edition of C4’s Dispatches. The games played with our money are so bafflingly complex, ‘blue sky’ and out there (if not downright stupid) that it took a wise old banker roughly twenty minutes to explain the fundamentals. Basically, banks lent money to customers so poor that even fiscal morons could predict they would struggle with repayments. Panicky lenders then tried unsuccessfully to claw their money back when borrowers defaulted. You don’t need to be a mathematical genius of the kind who can zip through equations which cover a wall to realise something fishy is going on, and it’s tainting my world by association.

Life for tenants is already uncertain. Landlords are an elusive bunch, and communicate with gnomic missives, ignoring emails, and rarely answer the phone. Tenants may suspect something is awry, but have no solid way of predicting whether their lord and master is prospering or dancing with bankruptcy. If the latter is true, they could end up homeless, and nobody will even notice; they’ll move silently and unnoticed to another buy to let property with a six months lease, hoping that too isn’t suddenly repossessed underneath them. Moving is a costly, miserable and unsettling nightmare with one beneficiary: removal companies.

Property speculation is a gamble. Investments might go down as well as up. I sympathise with owners who lose their life savings and pension plan, but the plight of tenants, booted out through no fault of their own is being ignored. As usual.