Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Luxury Lifestyle?

Parts of the media have finally acknowledged the existence of urban living, even if they have some strange ideas about the type of people who live in the city. Most commentators are ignorant of the fact that urbanites are just average citizens, frequently surviving in lowly paid occupations and bog standard entry level work, making do on short term contracts, or even struggling on minimum wage or benefits. We are not millionaires.

Television stories about city centre apartments (never say flats) use words like swanky, swish and flash, which is far from true. Outsiders drive past these developments and imagine that we are all yuppies living in luxurious marble edifices, and that we are rich.

If you are currently house-hunting, then the most available and accessible option - especially in the current climate - is to live in a building like Dovecot Towers. You might be in a hurry, or perhaps you have a genuine need to live in the city – to save fare money or work anti-social hours, for example. But still everybody assumes we are posh. In a former flat I was serenaded by drunken revellers at closing time singing ‘…wake up yuppies!’ Except, this was a Housing Association scheme and residents were anything but wealthy; in fact most were downright poor. Even so, passers by firmly believed we earned a fortune and lived in blissful conditions, which they were determined to ruin.

City newbuilds have featured elsewhere, highlighting another problem I rant about here: the lack of amenities like schools, GP’s, and shops where you can find basics like fuse wire. Misleadingly, the only flats shown were luxury penthouses and I’d like to point out one last time that we do not live in lofty palaces festooned with sumptuous silk hangings, with all three bedrooms en suite, next to techno kitchens groaning with gadgets, every room bedecked with plush designer fittings and a champagne fountain in that enviably spacious lounge. For the record, I don’t have a butler.

Annoyances about preconceptions apart, life is increasingly unsettling for those landlords who bought their property speculatively off plan. They own and rent out a property they may never have seen and often live some distance away: not just in another town but in another country.

Owners are occasionally spotted wandering about, visibly disheartened - even utterly appalled - as they test the flimsy structure, kick away the rubbish and take in the enormity of just how skilfully they’ve been fleeced. They were charmed into believing they had bought a bijou, high-ends lifestyle accessory. They are keen to join our party, and may even have considered moving in themselves for a carefree retirement after years of coining it in and spending money on diamonds, or their children’s private education.

In reality, they’ll be lucky to pay the mortgage, having bought into a stack of frail garden sheds, where the phrase ‘urban living’ is being replaced by the more negative ‘inner city life’. When it comes to newbuilds, both landlords and tenants can forget as fanciful any idea of a luxury lifestyle. Our home is too rickety for that.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

How Clean Is Your Hoover?

Most new leases feature a clause insisting that tenants have the flat professionally cleaned before they vacate, on pain of losing that precious deposit, which used to be the landlord’s responsibility. By nature I am a slob. Even so, the thought of losing money concentrates the mind, and I am turning into one of those weird compulsive Stepford scourers.

Recent news reports suggest that some women gain a subtle sexual satisfaction from cleaning. Not me. I would love to have a cleaner for that scrubbing (actually I want staff.) I contacted my landlord from Glasgow, the sainted Adrian, who had written a reference glowing with praise about my upkeep of his property. I cleaned that flat from top to bottom, and stood back to admire my work. Then Adrian arrived and put me to shame. He cleaned efficiently until the cooker sparkled and you could perform aseptic surgery on the carpet.

That’s why he was the man to ask about the black concrete glued to my rarely used oven. The only plausible explanation is that medieval kitchen goblins are roasting sucking pig basted in treacle whenever my back is turned. Even Adrian was at a loss, so I cleaned it with a terrifying substance so toxic and acrid it dissolved my eyebrows and made me ‘happy’.

Initially, Dovecot Towers seemed okay, until I realised that the windows had been brushed over with a dirty cloth; I have trouble with my sight, and thought I was going blind again. I’ve been driving H mad with queries about the efficacy of vinegar for banishing those weird soap stains from the glass shower screen. Eventually I used science: acetic acid dissolves calcium carbonate. Will somebody please alert the Nobel committee?

My habit of slathering myself in thick hand cream means I leave a trail: there’s a Turin Rentergirl made with from cake crumbs and Shea Butter to be scraped up on a weekly basis. I’m especially pernickety about toilets. One flat I rented had a previous occupier with problems in every aspect of that area. I do so hope he’s better now.

The building site opposite blasts mortar dust towards the building, and so cleaning is a never ending journey. Our new caretaker spotted that the professional window cleaners who visit once a year delicately wiped the outside with a splash of cold dirty water; and yet I am expected to keep my flat as clean as a Victorian hospital ward.

My friend faced down a picky letting agent, who inspected his flat by marching languorously around all snotty like, dead set on retaining the deposit. Imperiously and pointedly she ran a finger across the dusty shelves and a table, but my friend calmly pointed out that since he owned both items, frankly - they could be as filthy as he wished. In obvious desperation, she spluttered: ‘…maybe, but that Hoover’s filthy and you’ll have to pay to get it cleaned.’

There was a brief silence as they absorbed the absurdity. Even the landlord laughed out loud.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Meeting My Landlord

I met my landlord in person a while back. Despite heroic efforts, even Mr Indolent couldn’t avoid the journey this time. I didn’t really want to meet him. I prefer to keep landlords at a healthy distance.

‘William’ my landlord is a relaxed character. I showed him some of the problems in that flat: not whining, just saying that the lack of splashback by the sink, and the poor tiling in the bathroom were affecting the value of his investment. Disarmingly, he agreed, admitting that some fittings in newbuilds were just plain crap. He was pleasant enough, but the problems I have with him became clear: he’s really easy going, not through diffidence, or philosophy, but through an ingrained desire to avoid confrontation. Making a fuss, and doing anything about said fuss would use up valuable energy.

He stood on the balcony and surveyed his kingdom. Noticing my belongings in boxes, he wondered how long I intended to stay. I explained that I had to repack as the building site opposite creates so much dust. I mentioned some noisy neighbours – we both know there’s nothing he can do about that. He considered buying one of the new dovecots being built close by, claiming to know the management company (never seems to get anything done though). His motto seems to be ‘C’est la vie/Que sera sera,’ and other real and imaginary songs by Doris Day.

My brand new washing machine had broken. Rather than repair it, he bought a new one, choosing to deliver and install it himself, as he had messed up the online process. This seemed slightly extravagant, but after six weeks of hand washing bath towels, I wasn’t complaining. I suppose he must get some sort of tax incentive.

For some property owners, the only real power (and fun) they have comes from nit picking their tenants behaviour, acting as masters of their subordinate’s destiny as if they own a museum or a show home, and are charging not rent but an entrance fee. Meeting landlords can be extremely awkward and the suspicion is mutual.

Previous examples have tried to be mates, while others were clear cut enemies from the onset: visiting unannounced (illegal by the way) and striding around their kingdom, barking instructions while evading their own obligations. Others have arrived hopefully with a bottle of booze, and been slightly put out when shunned by what they thought was ready supply of willing and adventurous ladies, denied their imaginary droit de seigneur.

‘William’ is genial, calm, and brandishes his authority gently. I imagine that he is as aware as I am that - due to the growth of buy to let - the balance of power between lessee/lessor is shifting. He keeps quiet about his life outside being my landlord, didn’t ask personal questions (or any questions) and was entirely reasonable throughout his visit. He ignores all my emails, and is happy that I usually sort out repairs. He isn’t evil, just idle.

However we seem to agree on this one thing alone: landlord and tenants should never be buddies. It will only cause problems later on.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Rubber Gloves In Dovecot Towers

Dovecot Towers has a new cleaner. Presumably his predecessor ran screaming from the building when faced with accumulating filth and growing disrespect.

I’d imagine the caretaker did much the same; he was a lovely man who did his job with kindness, diligence and good humour, but who was always in the pub whenever I called (inevitable really.) We now have a permanent caretaker blessed with the traditional, dry, resigned, seen-it-all-and-then-some attitude of those who clean up after the general public. His first task was smartening up a flat where fleeing residents had stolen several large dustbins from the bin room and left them piled high with festering matter. Around here if it’s not nailed down…

I asked him why so many discarded reusable rubber gloves are scattered around. He says the cameras in the car park (efficient security is confined to the basement) show a balaclava clad man wearing said gloves to rummage through the rubbish, seeking unshredded documentation for the purposes of ID fraud. Next he’s spotted heading upstairs, and can’t be tracked; apparently he lives here, or rents a parking space. I hope he contracts a new disease which brands his forehead with an angry purple ‘T.’

He’s probably the same man who steals from post-boxes. Victims are selected at random; I can’t even have birthday or Xmas cards sent to my own address, while others are unaffected. Apart from that, Dovecot Towers is relatively crime free.

I once lived in a city block where scary gangsters set up an informal HQ in the basement, attempting to control the door security much as they did the clubs. The car park became a no go area, with stories of beatings, and male rape. Previous homes have sported thinly disguised cracks dens and informal shooting galleries. There were also brothels aplenty; I once opened a glossy Sunday supplement feature on inner city crime, where the under age prostitutes featured were my next door neighbours.

The management company though are tough on a new crime: ‘No Smoking’ signs have appeared. Don’t misunderstand me – I loathe smoking, and support the ban, but it seems fussy and absurd when the gaping main door as good as says: ‘Dovecot Towers Welcomes Careful Thieves.’

Whilst clinging to my bread board for the comfort of touching wood, I take consolation in the low rate of burglaries. For some reason, designers grasped that being able to knock down doors with a feather was a bad thing, and subsequently turned all front entrances into barricades. Consequently, burglaries were generally caused by a failure to lock up (even bailiffs evicting erring tenants struggled.)

Contemporary architects were slow to acknowledge emerging threats: rubbish bins are left open in communal areas, and post rooms are unlocked, as is the main door, because it is broken. Here in Dovecot Towers criminals keep their nefarious pastimes quiet (apart that is from the man I saw pissing from his balcony last week - but then it was such a lovely day for it.) Perpetrators learned a valuable lesson in discretion, which means they walk amongst us: they pass us on the stairs, before they rip us off.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

It's All Gone Quiet Over There

In Greek myth, Cassandra was blessed by the gods with the gift of true prophecy, but cursed when nobody could believe her predictions. When I first moved into Dovecot Towers, I looked across from my balcony, and forecast:

(a) ‘It’s going to rain.’
(b) ‘I am witnessing a genuine social and economic phenomenon: the excessive building of below par new build developments for the buy to let bubble when an economic downturn is approaching. It will end badly (just you mark my words.)’

Certain readers remain sceptical, but official evidence suggests that whatever happens in or around Dovecot Towers is repeated in developments nationwide. It’s just that recently I’ve noticed something new which may prove significant in the future: the building site opposite, which has been the bane of my life, has gone strangely quiet.

Previously I was woken at 7am sharp (even on Saturdays) by sirens, frantic shouting and machines roaring, as the construction company raced to complete this latest addition to an array of identikit developments across the way. Speed was of the essence: workers bellowed and the buildings grew at breakneck speed as cranes hoisted vats of concrete enabling lift shafts to appear first, erect in isolation. Then the skeleton was filled in hastily by walls, windows and balconies as they filled in the gaps.

Now it’s quiet. Not entirely silent, but far less builders scream at cranes or stomp up and down the road. It may seem vainglorious (forgive me) but I suspect this calm is indicative of an end to the building boom. People count the cranes on cityscape to ascertain how much work is being done, and one of the cranes has been dismantled.

The buy to let revolution was not supervised and like Icarus, investors flew too close to the sun. Amateur investors bought off plan, lured in with gifted deposits and 130% mortgages. They were assured at seminars that rental incomes would be massive and grew giddy with greed, relying on inflated, unrealistic rents instead of a steady rise in equity as surety for the future. It was always doomed.

Nobody thought to question the wisdom of covering enormous areas of valuable land not with well designed, and sturdy two, three (or even four) bedroom houses, but with miserly and shoddy hutches. I don’t want to buy one; I know too well what they are like. Owner occupiers are rare as nobody wants to actually own a flat here and live in it themselves.

The space around Dovecot Towers was like The Klondyke: a muddy boom town, but now developers and building companies are scaling back. After all what’s the rush? It’s not as if they’re beating off prospective buyers with a stick (and who in their right mind would approve a mortgage?) Nobody wants to live in a newbuild long term.

This is a genuine human tragedy. Cities (even some suburbs) are blighted by superfluous, virtually uninhabitable boxes. The Cassandra in me says: stop building, or even better demolish them all before we are surrounded by deserted building sites blighted by skeletal abandoned newbuilds. I don’t imagine for one minute that anyone will pay attention.