Tuesday, 23 December 2008

They're Behind You!

Pantomime season is here. This year, many of the more astute and amusing scripts have characterised the traditional villain not as a witch but as a banker. Fair enough: the money goblins that sent us plummeting towards financial ruin are evil, but may I suggest an alternative focus for some camp jokes and custard pie accuracy? It’s a property developer.

The firm responsible for Dovecot Towers keep luxurious offices nearby. Displayed in the window is an architect’s model, a diorama of their grand plans. It’s a miniature plastic complex supposedly showing investors the gleaming finished product, but I know better. It’s actually a voodoo doll of my former home, which developers stick with pins, inflicting pain and suffering on the benighted tenants forced to endure their creations.

Developers gather on the moors, summoning familiars to cackle at the full moon, with demons, some weasels, and an estate agent named Pyewacket who does their bidding. Dark skies swirl as they enact their ghastly designs, cursing blameless tenants with bedrooms so small they must surely sleep upright in armchairs, unsightly concrete facades, communal post rooms and other foul deeds. Look out - they’re behind you!

Without regulation, soon there’ll be no kitchens; inhabitants will be fed pot noodles through a tube, and fitted with a colostomy bag, like The Matrix in beige surroundings. As that scary Channel Five lady says: neutral tones are easier to sell (‘Neo – the estate agents have you!’)

I once met some developers who remorselessly vilified both owners and tenants. A prospective buyer had been assured that their firm had no plans to obstruct his lovely view, when they knew full well that other builders had bought the surrounding land. Much fun was had at the expense of this man and his quest – as they saw it – for ‘compo,’ all told with jeering, comedy scouse accents and offensive stereotypes.

Developers never consult the individuals who own the end product of their miserly designs. They never ask how residents want or need to live, and the reason is simple: they don’t care. Le Corbusier’s magnificent intention has been corrupted. Newbuild flats are not machines for living, but piggy banks.

Councils and planning officers seemed powerless, or unwilling to control large firms. Here’s the clever part: developers agreed to squeeze a definite amount of residential units into the agreed footprint. With permission granted, could it be that those plans are ignored, and they squeeze in even more tiny flats? Do councils allow themselves to be persuaded that some two or even (crazy!) three bedroom units will feature, which - invariably - fail to materialise? Oh yes they do!

When this ruse is discovered, the developers twirl their moustaches and plead ignorance, claiming it’s an innocent mistake (oops - too late now!) resulting in yet another generic building crammed with meagre, joyless hutches. Booooo!

Developers take the money and run, and buy to let tenants are ignored. In the sixties, it was similar: vast areas of Britain were crammed with rat runs, some horribly damp and cramped, eventually demolished at the behest of disgruntled councils, spurred on by the poor souls compelled to live there. Profit is the sole motivation, which is unavoidable, but housing is a staple, like bread, and energy. We have choices with those basics, but does society realise, or even care that developers dictate life quality for so many?

Valuable, sought after urban sites were asphyxiated by mean spirited pods, not enhanced by attractive, spacious homes for families, couples, or singletons alike. Plastic models of tiny pretend people are happy in minuscule boxes, but real human beings will never thrive that way.

So when you’re watching a gaggle of girls dressed as boys and men dressed as women, joining in with the boos and hisses, don’t neglect the developers. They’re the real bad guys, and as soon as this downturn/slump/recession/nightmare ends, they’ll be back.
Oh. Yes. They. Will.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Forced Landlord? Meet Your Forced Tenant

One indication that you’re properly grown up is having friends who are not only married, but divorced. Now there’s another sign: when your mates are landlords.

I have friends lumbered with houses they can’t sell, and so in the interim, they must let them. It’s not all good. One was shafted by tenants who did a runner owing a fortune in arrears. He’s not a scumbag landlord who ignored repairs; he simply needed to cover his mortgage when he’d been compelled to move.

‘Forced Landlord’ is the slightly melodramatic term for this new and growing phenomenon. Even though I generally write from the tenant’s point of view, it’s still a major cause for concern. One of my friends bought a house at the height of the madness, but now she wants to move.

Several houses carry ‘To Let/For Sale’ boards on her street. It’s not the nicest area in the land: a mix of student HMO’s, family houses and some rough spots. Certain houses are visibly nicer, and judging by the amount of skips blocking the pavement, owners have been doing them up, so they’ll sell or be let first.

Being a landlord is harder than anyone imagines, especially of you aren’t a property magnate by choice. Rents are falling, and fast. Letting agents devour around 15% of rental income (if tenants ask for repairs, they’ll be referred to the owner.)

Even well-intentioned owners who go it alone are frequently ill-informed about new deposit protection schemes, Energy Efficiency Certificates or HMO licences. They are also blithely unprepared for voids, where they must go without rental payments when in between tenancies. As for insurance, burglar alarms, fire precautions and their own repair obligations? Don’t get me started.

The amount of forced tenants is also increasing. They want to sell their house but can’t, so they let it, and rent temporarily while house-hunting to avoid a chain. Do not mess with them. They know exactly what they want, which is never a shabby hovel that owner never got round to refurbishing, but a safe, empty, clean, neutral-toned, well-insulated family home.

Landlords with only vague memories of their own student renting experience may have bought a draughty wreck and filled it with cracked vinyl sofas and crusty unsprung mattresses. It’s not good enough for anyone, let alone the children who might live there.

Forced landlords might be happier if they saw tenants as long-term house-sitters, and cast aside any resentment that the property conveyor-belt has stalled. They’d also benefit from treating tenants not as trespassers (that’s how bad landlords still regard those unfortunates kind enough to safeguard their mortgage and underwrite their pension) but creatures after their own image, in similar circumstances, and to cherish that thought.

Ultimately, this craziness is creating an absurd carousel of owners renting property to residents who in turn own a house that they are also renting out to another home-owner. To rejig a childhood rhyme:

“Tall landlords have small landlords
Upon their backs to bite ‘em
Stuck landlords have broke landlords
And so on, infinitum.”

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Measure Of The Van

Recently, when in between homes once again, I kept my worldly goods in storage for months. My entire life, all my memories, dreams and baggage was dormant in some distant warehouse.

With everything safely out of reach, it’s odd what you begin to miss. Clothes stashed safely in bin bags suddenly become essential. For months at a time, I hauled everything around in one bag (okay – it was a very large bag.) Briefly, I was tempted to jettison everything and start all over again.

When you know you’re moving around and won’t be needing that sack of winter woollies for a summer by the seaside, or your flimsy skimpies in the wintry north, it’s nice to know that they are under lock and key, and won’t be ‘borrowed’, or go mouldy with neglect. But it was strange not to have them lying around.

I own nothing of value. In fact I don’t own much at all. Oddly, it wasn’t the clothes I pined for, but random items, like books, and my collection of cheap green glassware, everyday things that I wanted to have around me for some semblance or normality. I felt as if my entire existence was borrowed, and I had to ask permission for everything. I began to miss random treasured possessions, like a large white bowl, perfect for greedy amounts of soup.

That was my introduction to the crazy world of storage centres. These vast warehouses safeguard household belongings, as people hover between house moves, or downsize. Storage centres are modern phenomena, created by the insecure nature of tenancies, and decreasing living space coupled with increasing acquisitiveness. When booking your space in one of these storage units, you must predict how many square foot you will require. I’d never thought about my life in those terms before. When I saw my tiny cupboard, I despaired. Is this the sum of my life? Is that all there is? And how would I fit everything in? (I was even more demoralised when it did).

I’ve always prided myself on not hoarding piles of stuff, in regularly discarding tat, and never collecting things. I am ruthless about the books, and music I keep. I never bought a video or DVD player because to do so would lead me along the evil path of assembling a film library (i.e. more stuff) which I will eventually wind up lugging upstairs at some point.

The thing is, after months with my life on hold, and with everything condensed into one bag, I began to wonder if I needed all that stuff waiting for me in some far-off warehouse. Should I keep it at all, when I’ve managed so well without it, especially when I love throwing things out? The idea of banishing everything to a charity shop, or a wild defenestration extravaganza to entertain bemused locals grew more tempting every day.

Once upon a time my worldly goods could fit into a small car. Then it was a large hatchback, albeit with plants, and blinds hanging out of the window. Soon, everything covered the floor of a small van. These days I own some furniture, so it’s a large transit. My entire life measured out in van sizes. How depressing.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Horror, The Horror Of HMO's

Since moving out of Dovecot Towers I’ve been staying temporarily in a shared house, which brought to mind the reader who commented here: “…how did this girl think she could afford to live on her own".
She probably didn’t mean to sound so snotty, but seemed to think that not sharing is haughty, wasteful and proud. I deeply resent the notion that anybody under twenty-five, indeed everybody, should be compelled to live amongst strangers.

There are various ways of sharing: as a lodger, for example or when good friends rent a house together. Just to make things clear, what I am discussing here are HMO’s (Homes in multiple occupation). These are increasingly let under the rules of those crafty ‘how to be a ruthless landlord’ seminars. In extreme cases, this means accommodation in the basement, attic, in tiny rooms divided by thin stud walls, with only one bathroom for up to eight strangers (and their overnight guests) and perhaps just the one cooker and fridge.

Should low pay force anybody to live this way, even if they feel intimidated, or where they are unhappy? Must people who work in the caring professions be condemned to live forever in overcrowded houses because they aren’t suited to a lucrative career in the financial sector? And what about older tenants?

I’ve shared with some lovely people, and have friends who lived happily this way for years. I also anticipate comments about how delighted other sharers are. While I’m glad for you, I declared enough is enough after one housemate was drunkenly sick on the carpet on the landing which led to my attic room. She covered the mess with a suitcase for weeks, until I wondered what the smell was (by way of explanation, she was a heavy metal fan.)

We all have horror stories. Another house-mate habitually waltzed out of the front door at night, leaving it wide open behind her. You just reach the stage, where – what with verucca plasters abandoned by the shower and the clamour when you just want some peace after a fraught working day – you can’t take anymore. Another friend regularly knocked on a housemate’s door to check she hadn’t taken the latest in a long line of small, non-life threatening overdoses. She was clearly very troubled, but he could only take so much.

Lovers of solitude are not divas, demanding rainbows and freshly laundered fluffy white kittens to order. Freelancers with insufficient job security to guarantee a mortgage aren’t profligate, arty-farty types without a proper career; but victims of outsourcing and mandatory employment flexibility. Why should they be compelled to live like teenagers? Wanting to live alone is a modest ambition (and these days there are definitely enough flats to go round, especially outside of London.)

Although now I think about, it makes sense for families to live communally. They could pool resources, even sharing childcare and household duties, like on a kibbutz. Imagine the money they’d save by cooking together in a canteen. What a brilliant idea; let’s billet unacquainted families together in one house.

Admittedly, there’s the lack of privacy as everybody sees your post in the morning; you know - hospital appointments etc. And you might not enjoy sharing a lounge with other families, voting on what TV shows to watch etc, stumbling over washing left to dry in the hall, having your food stolen, hearing private phone-calls, organising a rota for the bathroom (with hot water if you’re lucky) the daily challenge of other residents’ somewhat cavalier regard for hygiene, the screeching personal melodramas, petty vendettas and biological warfare in the sink, all set against the backdrop of a toilet which doesn’t flush properly.

You mean, you don’t like the sound of that? Well, guess what? Neither do I.