Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Ghosts of Dovecot Towers

In Dovecot Towers I see only fleeting shapes: a glimpse of departing heels as neighbours disappear round corners, or retreat silently into their flat. I rarely see fully formed living people, just outlines and traces, or plaintive, disembodied voices on distant telephones.

The men next door have been resident for a year now. They were young and in love, but lately, I’ve been hearing some truly horrible arguments. Mercifully I couldn’t hear what they were arguing about, just piercing, impassioned shouting. The doors slam, and my walls shake. One of them storms outside and crashes the door shut; his partner follows him and jumps him in the corridor, where they fight. I’ve heard someone rush out and clip their lover on the head; heard the slap, heard the ‘Ow!’ as he yelps with pain.

I know this happens all over, but around here everyone can listen. I have considered slipping a card with the number for Relate under their door, which isn’t realistic. I thought of asking if they’re okay. I know I’ll never do anything. It would be an imposition, and I would feel uncomfortable, an intruder. Theirs is an equal fight, retaliatory, but not abusive.

Some old faces remain. The local dealer was spotted recently wrestling with his sturdy and now silent dog. It used to yelp all day long, and sometimes at night to emphasises its loneliness. It seemed to move from flat to flat; perhaps it was being hired out as a deterrent. I think he’s had the voice-box removed, which ended that anguished howling.

Around here, residents are comfortable on their balconies, forgetting it’s the great outdoors, and that they’re on display. They nip out to collect their freshly laundered lingerie, and have been met with applause by the passing scallies.

And, like most of Britain, we have Polish people living here. They stand on the balcony below me, shouting into phones, having the traditional nasty Dovecot Towers argument. Polish arguments sound horrible; by nature of the language, it just sounds so harsh. Imagine watching England from a distance, and nurturing Brideshead dreams, only to relocate and find yourself living in the quasi-soviet Dovecot Towers.

I occasionally see a man on his balcony, working at his drawings in front of a large graphics board. Sometimes he gazes into the middle distance. He seems lost. Then I heard him berating a friend for letting him down. He really wanted, no – make that needed - to play football. He’s trapped in a concrete hell. It’s deadly round here. He’s working too hard. He needs some daylight, to go outdoors, feel the wind in his hair, move around, shake his bones and work his muscles. If not football, then a trip to the park? No; it’s not about going for a drink at night. The days are the hardest; working at home is driving him crazy.

There’s no connection between any of us. I don’t know who these people are. We live next door and know so much, yet live in isolation.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Green Tenants Are Revolting

This week’s offering isn’t amusing, nor likely to attract much attention from property crash sites, but it says much about how little control we renters have over our lives, so don’t switch off.

Tenants share a problem with Kermit the Frog: it’s not easy being green. For example, the terms of my lease prevent me from installing a water metre. Many newbuild flats have one bedroom and so house a maximum of two people, and yet we are charged the same as a family of five in a rambling house with cars to rinse, muddy children to wash and lawns to water.

I live close to the city, and do not own a car (it’s not like I can afford one) and so by necessity use public transport, taxis or walk everywhere. More of us would cycle, but flats are too small to store a bike, and it would be nicked within seconds if chained outside, so bikes live on the balcony, wheeled daily through the lounge. Consequently, cyclists are rare.

Recycling is impossible. I can’t store tins, bottles and paper: there’s just no room. How would I transport stuff to the bottle bank; the closest facility is miles away, and remember the no-car thing? I once asked Cleaning Man about installing recycling receptacles in the basement. He sympathised, but pointed out that evil tenants would burn the bins, or smash the glass.

We shop locally by necessity owing to that lack of a car. We are seen stumbling home weighed down with carriers (or these days, canvas bags) full of heavy stuff like potatoes as we shop for food on a daily basis, and are quite poor, so we don’t waste much. For those on low wages or benefits, supermarket delivery is a costly treat to be savoured.

Air pollution is a problem, as most developments are close to main roads, so we are choked by other people’s combustion. The dwindling few who cling to cars own little diesel minis: the only people owning spacious gas guzzlers are the landlords and trades people, who then have the gall to whine about a lack of parking.

It’s harder for tenants of older buildings. Ancient, draughty conversions feature unsealed windows, no insulation, and are saddled with greedy storage-heaters which guzzle energy while thumbing their noses at the ozone layer. Landlords are obliged to ensure appliances function, but an inefficient heater is not illegal (yet) so tenants shrug and pay the bills.
And newbuilds? Our boilers are efficient, the heating economical, and our homes so thoroughly double glazed that we are hermetically sealed in and need rudimentary air conditioning or else we’d die. We have small, frugal fan ovens (while most stick to the microwave) and power showers are unknown hereabouts. All choices made on our behalf.

Factoring in our inability to make rational and reasonable energy saving decisions, perhaps our shiny brand new world doesn’t seem so noble. And why do newbuilds never feature solar panels and wind turbines for communal power supplies?

I could go on. I won’t.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

There Goes The Neighbourhood

There are several useful signs indicating that a once desirable area is in decline. When looking to move, the street with multiple betting-shops instead of a friendly, well-stocked local shop, or ubiquitous tanning-salons and armoured assault off-licences is best avoided (unless you want to be called a pioneer, which is code for sucker.) Another warning sign is a police van parked frequently outside, as is often true of Dovecot Towers.

Our main front door is always broken, so anyone can wander in. Impromptu visitors might stroll for a bit; you know, casually check out the sights and explore the amenities, sell us the Watchtower, or greet us with a friendly: ‘Good day to you madam!’

Or, they could race along corridors banging on front doors at all hours, press on the buzzer for ages to see who’s at home before struggling in vain to kick their way in, or glare moodily at residents. They could sleep and piss in the bin rooms, or in extreme cases, sell drugs, mug, assault and murder us. Most visitors, I suspect, could go either way. Same goes for many tenants.

When I first lived here, I called the police to report a horrible domestic assault. They’d never been here before, and struggled to find us. I predicted that in the near future they’d be here all the time, and suggested they could book a parking space downstairs, or just establish a base in this emerging slum.

Lately, I’ve seen world-weary coppers marching in, racing upstairs and then casually out again, escorting miscreants and looking vexed. Last weekend I heard bad lads stomping past my door as they escaped, hotly pursued by three panting officers. Several hours later, the van was still hanging around. Realising they had finished their assignment, I made some enquiries.

The local police are only too aware of the newbuild phenomena and the inherent problems. They too are plagued by easy thefts from post-rooms which are (here we go again…) unlocked, placed in open, insecure buildings, with individual boxes so shallow you can slip your hand inside for ease of stealing. They suggested I spoke to the management company, but they will only deal with owners and landlords, who in turn don’t give a damn, being too busy worrying about the newbuild buy-to-let crash, or if better off, are in an offshore counting-house, counting out their money.

The policewoman I chatted to was astonished at the lack of security cameras, as none are placed where we really need them (i.e. in entrances, lifts and the post room.) She explained that if we found emptied envelopes, they might have fingerprints on, which could provide useful evidence. Then they waited a while, probably taking a breather before they sped urgently away, sirens blaring, to their latest crime scene.

No need to speed, and sirens not required. I watched them pile out of the van again and straight back into Dovecot Towers, primed to thwart another dastardly criminal.

It really would be cheaper if they got a room here.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Just Who Lives In A Place Like This?

Seeking that elusive silver lining, a journalist recently requested my help in finding people likely to benefit from the mortgage/buy-to-let/credit-crunch fiasco. I explained that his search for goodness in this economic ill-wind is endearing, but likely to be scuppered by factors largely ignored by the media.

Outsiders might imagine that the residents of Dovecot Towers live in rented property as we predicted the housing crisis, and are cannily biding our time, waiting for prices to spiral downwards so we can emerge from the rubble as smug, billionaire property barons.

The reality is different. Most inhabitants of urban newbuilds are not aspiring landlords, and many of us are starting to accept that we will never own a home. Lower house prices are tantalising, but most of us avoid the property treadmill for reasons other than cost. It’s just that, we’re poor, and we’d need a deposit so huge and distant, it exists in space.

Dovecot Towers is populated by a surprising mix of people. There’s a sizeable amount of Divorced Dads, who will never afford a place with room for when the kids come to stay. The rest are mostly students who move at least once a year: life is uncertain (or crazy, wild and free if you’re a glass-half-full-type). Inevitably, short-termism discourages or prevents students from owning property, although parents might invest. The remaining tenants are trainees on entry level wages or just low paid, like shop workers, and impoverished ‘creatives’.

But still we are decreed capable of affording inflated rents on newbuilds, which were originally set at cheeky levels. Because our pay is so low, we will never be accepted onto the mortgage chain, although we must pay these silly rents. As my fellow blogger Alice, on the excellent ukbubble (see links below) explains, there is a limit on how much income should be eaten up by housing costs. Current prices for both owning and renting have almost reached an economically feasible ceiling.

Property prices plummet, but tenants seldom benefit as we don’t earn enough. Our problem isn’t house prices, but job insecurity, short term contracts and especially, low pay (whenever I hear politicians boasting proudly about keeping a lid on wages, I could scream.) And yet, we are supposed to aim for home ownership, despite tenuous employment, empty bank accounts and unattainable deposit rates.

There’s a brief moratorium on handing out mortgages to people unlikely to repay them, but give it a few years and the wastrels of Dovecot Towers will be actively recruited by bankers again. A few may benefit: some couples - a tiny minority - are slumming it hereabouts to save money, feet hovering on the first rung of that stairway to property heaven, waiting to pounce on a bargain.

For everyone else, the problem is wider and more complicated than house prices or low wages; it’s a reluctance, or inability to incur debt. We can’t get loans, so prudence is forced upon us. Renting isn’t a crime (well, not officially) so we’ll stay put and let those newly risk-averse bankers speculate when the boom/bust circle turns.