Monday, 31 May 2010

On Your Own

Everyone reaches the stage where they can no longer cope with flatmates (or ‘sly, noisy, milk thieves’ as they are better known to me). One day we all run screaming from our HMO (House of Multiple Occupation) to seek relief alone.

But the idea that solo-abiders maintain contact with a social circle or family is alien to architects. Most one-bed flats are designed for recluses, with a zen attitude to possessions, and no sex life. Certain one room flats aren’t even large enough to accommodate a double divan in the bedroom: are single people celibate for religious reasons? The ceilings are low, and many new blocks are glorified Japanese capsule hotels. I’ve even heard of a studio conversion with a freestanding bath in the kitchen, although bathrooms are sometimes disproportionately large, as if to encourage us to wash.

You can’t fit a sofa, dining table, chairs, desk, large TV, stereo, books and CD’s/DVD’s in most one room ‘apartments,’ and these are pretty standard possessions. Add to that fanciful plans like drying washing, inviting several friends to stay, four friends round for a sit down meal (or a proper party) are also deemed beyond their reach, or out the league of forlorn, desolate unmarrieds.

And there’s a thriving market supplying one bed flats to divorcees, who are the clients for out of town storage spaces, visiting distant possessions, nostalgic about the days when they owned a library of much loved books, treasured CD’s, and collections of clothes, running their fingers wistfully over the furniture they won in the settlement. Oh, such joy in times past: if only there was room in their new apartment.

The indignities and unfairness increases every day: without a water meter (which many lease prevent us from installing by law) they are stung with water bills as high as that of a large family. Standing charges are identical, and the council tax deducts just 25% from the bill of solitary flat dwellers, despite all those statistics about increasing numbers of lonely, isolated, paranoid, space blocking singletons. Statisticians claim that they die young, so the next move must inevitably be straight into a hospice, as they don’t live long enough to complain.

Unfortunately, isolated flat dwellers can quickly slip into bad habits and strange ways, like my neighbour, who would scoff an entire week’s provisions in one go (that’s seven ready meals) which makes the freezer a mixed blessing. Or they become all twitchy and weird about the best way to wash up or clean the floor, and petty about how to best squeeze a tea bags.

In reality, ie outside of brochures and the warped minds of developers, people who live alone don’t necessarily spend all day on a bed chair/commode, glued fast by their own rotting skin, balancing a congealed, micro-waved ready meal on sad, shriveled laps. Developers like to name these buildings something modern, and edgy, like ‘The Edge’. Considering the contempt in which they so clearly hold them, why not hang a lurid, flashing neon sign above the door, with the slogan: ‘Only Losers Live Here.’

Monday, 24 May 2010

And Around We Go

The property market is like Groundhog Day without the gags. It’s an eternal, infernal cycle where people buy piles of bricks and mortar, either to live in or to charge others for the privilege. The value of these bricks subsequently soars off into the troposphere, or plummets to the very centre of earth’s molten core. Bystanders must then either celebrate or commiserate, as the news reports bang sonorously and portentously on about this situation being either really, really bad or very, very good.

Meanwhile, tenants watch helplessly from the sidelines, wondering how this will affect their lives, hearing talk of something mythical called Capital Gains Tax which may (or may not) compel their landlord, aka the de facto owner of their immortal soul to sell up or hang onto their investment. This means they are either homeless or housed – either really. It’s all so tenuous and fanciful.

Astonishingly, the Housing Minster no longer sits on the cabinet, and something which sent the economy spiralling into disaster like a vast tornado devouring public funds, forcing thousands out onto the street as novice landlords went bankrupt, forcing the state to take steps to stem the first run on a bank in hundreds of years, is regarded as an distraction, not a vital economic, or a basic human need, namely: a safe home and security of tenure.

Sometimes I wonder if I am engaged in my own life: or am I at the mercy of a huge game of piggy-in-the-middle crossed with monopoly, with giants flipping coins and throwing rubber balls over our heads to decide where ordinary people will get to live, and for how long they can stay. I want a home, a permanent home. I do not want to live in a piggy bank, but once again, I am.

What’s bought this on? Well, commercial property is cranking up for a new boom, with mothballed sites being reactivated. Buy-let-mortgages are back on offer and soon, building will begin again.

Again. And again. Which means: speculative short term investment in shabby, toy-town new build dovecot, with the private rental sector entrusted with housing us all, and no improved regulation of letting agents, building standards and no end to the dire renting culture here in the UK, with renters hanging on the end of fraying rope, with landlords and letting agents tugging furiously at the other end.

I suppose the saturation of one or two bed flats might help us still, as landlords are desperate to rent, and anyone who bought in the recent ‘fire sales’ might not expect to crank up the rent to cover an extortionate mortgage with a gifted deposit.

Except – except… that’s all staring to happen again – soon we’ll see re-animated Inside Track staffers staggering around like zombies, promising vast inflated profits before eating neophyte investors and saving the best part (their beating heart) for last.

Have we learned from the recent past? No. We didn’t. And so it goes - around and around we spin, back on the speeding hazardous carousel again…and again.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Girls and Boys.

My, but aren’t we modern? Men and women now live together when in previous less enlightened times they would have been forced to marry by the league of decency at a mass ceremony like the moonies.

Even so, some flatshare ads specify the sex of the tenant, and some rented households are still single gender. Others aren’t so specific.

How quaint you think - how Victorian. But always remember: in ancient times, men and woman lived in separate villages, and with good reason. When you’ve lived in a house with boys and girls together this begins to make sense.

Firstly, there’s the shared bathroom. Anthropologists have written thick editions of theories about male toilet habits, and here’s a brief summary of their learned conclusions: ‘They’re horrible!’

No really; the adage about snaps and snails, and puppy dogs tails missed out appalling mess, hideous invasive smells last used in the trenches of WW1 that melt your nasal passages and permeate the entire house, before heading off down the street to make their way into town.

There’s the fact that (despite an ability to programme computers and re-assemble engines) a toilet brush is a bewildering and complex piece of technology. There’s shaving beards (and heads, and god knows what else) leaving the detritus on the bathroom floor, and they make good use of all your beauty products, whilst disdaining you for vanity.

Yes, I know - females are not innocent. Much to the amazement of men without sisters or mothers – ladies function just the same, digestively speaking. And yes, women and baths is an extreme, experiment in hygiene. Sugar and Spice? Make that leg shavings in the bath, sanitary products discarded openly in the bin, and hours, and hours, and hours (in fact a residency) in the bathroom. One flatmate was oddly coy, insisting that spare loo roll was stored in the kitchen cupboard, but not so coy about drying half washed knickers in the lounge (I will spare you the details…suffice to say it was like a surgery scene ER.)

And emotionally it can get a very messy, with boyfriends made insecure by male flatmates, or boys hijacking your man for that Simpson’s marathon, or something called ‘The Match’.

Certain are assumptions linger: many men assume that women love to clean, while women assume that men can instinctively mend stuff, when neither is true. While the exception proving the rule is always a joy to find, I have encountered men ask if lettuce needs cooking, and girls who called the gas company when the meter ran out. I also know of ladies who cooked boil-in-the-bag-fish, or reheat takeaway curries for breakfast, and men who insisted upon cooking carefully prepared, delicious, nutritionally balanced meals every night.

When a house with a large amount of inmates divides along gender longs during conflict – well that’s not a good thing. And there’s the drama and recrimination when couples pair off and then split up. It’s unavoidable and cranks up the drama. And there’s no going back.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Value Consultants Up Against The Wall...

The late, lamented Douglas Adams wrote mockingly about the seemingly needless profession of telephone-hygienist. There are other jobs that make me wonder if the world would spin without them: colour consultants (FYI – I am a ‘Spring’) and obviously - letting agents. But here’s a new one: value consultants.

Value consultants are employed by developers to assess the spec of newbuild homes, shaving off any ‘extras,’ the theory being that previously, architects and builders decked buy-to-let flats with platinum flooring, marble walls (or crazier: long lasting carpets, bathrooms that saved energy and water, kitchen cabinets and appliances that didn’t break, etc etc, oh I promised I’d be good but I am compelled to mention this again.)

I still debate how dovecots came to be so horrible, since nobody in their right mind would scan a list of things you really in a home and with a sharp red pencil cross off ‘cupboards’ and ‘that surplus five feet of lounge which uses up all those costly bricks you know.’ This isn’t about minimising waste. This is about mean-spirited and cruel downward trends in size, space, and fittings, which have eroded quality of life in new developments until life is becoming unbearable. Blame the value consultants. It’s all their fault.

I thought standards had been shaved to bone, but what’s next? All walls – even the bathroom wall? In some new flats, they even miss out doors. Then there are the flats supposedly one bedroom with a separate kitchen and open plan lounge-diner, where there is no corridor. I’m just waiting to hear of newbuild with the toilet in the middle of the kitchen (crapper/diner?)

And many balconies are actually caged windows. I’ve mentioned previously the developers who omit double-glazing, as the fine is cheaper than the thicker windows. People will do anything to slice a pound from the cost, as they don’t own the building – they just design and finance it. Somebody else builds it, another firm manages it, another lets it. This unwieldy, fractured chain ends with the tenant at the bottom, victim to vicious cost-cutting, with no input and no voice.

Another dovecot, slightly further along the way (grey fittings, no extras) exemplifies these mean-spirited ‘economies.’ The balconies (a decent size) stand on a metal frame, stuck on the outside like meccano, with floors made of thick mesh, which drains easily during a downpour. On the top of this bolted on extra, someone had the presence of mind to put on a roof. When I first saw it, I thought it might be solar panels, or protection from the deluges that frequently descend upon this city. But no. They erected the frame, but left out the glass, and so anyone standing on the balcony will be subject to some horribly inclement weather. How spiteful is that?

Inhabitants of Douglas Adam’s planet that had exiled all the useless telephone hygienists, died of an illness spread by germ-raddled phones. However, if we were to storm the value consultants brandishing torches and pitchforks and run them out of town, life for tenants (and let’s not forget – property investors) would improve. To the value consultants then! And after that - onwards – to the letting agents!