Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A New Year Wish

Over this past year, I have been asked by several newspapers (notably The Guardian and The Sunday Telegraph) as well as elsewhere in the media for my dreams, wishes, hopes for (and views on) renting in the UK.

I am keen on increased regulation, but in Grant Shapps, we endure a Housing Minister so witless that he imagines the solution to homelessness and overcrowding is for people to live on boats. Or else buy houses (especially if they are built on unprotected informal play areas and the greenbelt.) Simple! If only we’d all thought about this, we wouldn’t be in such a mess.

Even building societies refer to ‘generation rent’ – condemned never to own a home. I hate renting, for so many reasons: a rented home does not feel like my own, I can’t rely on staying longer than six months, I can’t afford to buy even though rent is usually lower, or no more than rent.

What would make everything better? The answer I give whenever I am asked is this: for a change in culture to end the sensation that we tenants are vermin infesting our lord and master’s fragile porcelain piggy-bank. A change in mind-set so that we can stay as long as we need or desire, unless we (the tenants) change our minds.

Much is spoken of the rental Shangri-La that supposedly exists in Germany, where legend has it that tenants are treated like royalty. This isn’t actually true. It is correct that tenants are welcome to stay for years rather than months, permitted to alter their houses (as long as they put the property back to its original condition on leaving.)

Renters must give three months notice, which does tend to make people feel slightly stuck, and I wonder if it movers make hasty decisions in the panic of a looming move. Overall, it is a better, safer system – unless the tenants want somewhere temporary, or do not wish to stay for years, because rented homes are just that – homes.

Back here, the solution to making life better for tenants is vigorous regulation of letting agents (I have once again found an agency that didn’t know the law) rent caps enforced by rent officers like in the old days and the severe punishment of the minority of landlords who might accurately be described as having gone rogue.

But more than anything, life for tenants would be greatly improved by not having to wonder, four months into a six month tenancy, whether rent will be increased, if the tenancy will be renewed, or even (and this has happened to me) the landlord will expect distant relatives to move into the tiny box room.

And to be allowed to stay, and to paint. It used to be that tenants were even permitted a week rents free to pay for making the home suit them (it is after their home where they live.)

So that’s it then: painting, with the expectation of remaining. And not to live on a boat. Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Xmas Fashion Tips

The fashion pages are full of inspiring tips on what to wear when hosting parties. It’s an annual quandary: the little black dress? Tuxedo with comedy tie and challenging but picturesque socks? Is that strapless gown too much?

I solved my festive dress dilemma some time back. Like many renters, I will greet my guests wearing a cocoon of fleece, under a blanket, with two pairs of socks, fingerless gloves and a scarf. It just so now!

The last time I set off for the arctic waste known as my kitchen, I advised my companions that: ‘I might be gone for some time.’ Rented homes are cold - well, I say cold, when I actually mean freezing: wintry, damp and draughty. They don’t call those chocolate biscuits penguins for nothing, you know.

One friend spent last winter huddled in an alcove, wrapped in his duvet in order to keep working. Other DIY attempts at insulation focus on windows: plasticine, aluminium foil, plastic sealant, expanding foam and blankets nailed to hang behind curtains etc. One theory advocates clingfilm on window-panes tightened with heat from hairdryers, which might end badly.

The problem is that landlords have no incentive to make homes in the frozen north well-insulated, or even adequately heated: they don’t pay the bills, so why would they care? I’ve lived in flats where I could see daylight between the window-frame and wall, where water seeped in through the rotting wood leaving a sad grey pool on the floor (the landlord knew – he had once lived there.)

There are ancient storage heaters which keep the place toasty, but pump money up into the atmosphere, or no heating at all, so we wander around like Michelin people wearing layers of jumpers, thermals and tights (guys too.) I am even tempted to buy a balaclava helmet, but want to retain my one remaining shred of dignity.

Something is very wrong when homes are only warm when the heating is pumping; insulation should retain the heat, and I shouldn’t start to shiver the moment the heating switches off. I don’t even have thick curtains – all landlords now put in cold thin blinds, not generous heat conserving textiles. I’m not sure why – fashion I suppose.

Friends from Scandinavia venture over to the UK and deride our hapless weather survival strategies: ‘Call that snow? We have that in the summer in Finland.’ But then, they do have economical communal heating from green sources, thick insulation and triple glazing. Ooh – and a blazing log fire.

Landlords must be legally obliged to maintain insulation. They must provide heating tenants can afford to use, especially from geo-thermal boreholes, wind-power turbines where applicable and by effective insulation, as they won’t act out of kindness or to save the planet. Legislation is required, because as I sit here wearing gloves, wrapped in a fleece burkha, my nose is still cold. Also – I have to be rolled along the floor into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. It’s no way to live.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Old v. New

I am a really fun rentergirl to travel with. Honest. Whenever I’ve been lucky enough to holiday abroad, I ignore the constant low-level whining of expats, slap on the suncream and head straight for a research trip around the design and nature of local private rented housing. Then, later – champagne! Like I said – I am fun to be with.

Wherever I have wandered, the most desirable, the loveliest, best designed buildings, the one with queues outside for viewings when offered for rent or for sale, the structures people actually want to live in are old. In terms of domestic architecture, ie building ordinary homes, in so many ways, old is best.

There is the German term alt-bau (old build) and in Spain some of the best buildings are circa 19 C – throughout Europe in fact. The old German apartments (another city where flats dominate) are beautiful, with high ceilings, light and spacious - all the words so beloved by estate agents.

In Bilbao the beautiful old quarter has some amazing apartments. In north-eastern Spain the weather can be wet and windy, and so Victorian era designers created enclosed balconies, allowing occupants to gaze out onto the street or enjoy the river view. Many of the older flats are were designed when people had more children, and so are larger.

These places have their problems of course. Anyone currently shivering, huddled in one of those personalised fleece igloos is thinking: this flat is draughty. In Glasgow, tenements are desirable, but remember they might have housed as many as ten people, and you wonder how they coped. There was no bathroom (people used communal toilets and baths) and when refurbished the bathroom was sometimes placed in what had a been a cupboard. Apart from the waste of storage (you know me and cupboards) this causes damp.

And elsewhere? Well, people are coming to terms with terraced housing. Think about it. When families or ‘units’ are smaller – i.e. single people or childless couples, these homes are ideal. Add on a loft conversion (even a basement) and you have a brilliant place to live.

Some of the older houses in Manchester look straight out of The Munsters, albeit in a good way. Add in cavity wall insulation, double glazing (tastefully done) and you have a proper home for a family, which is what they were built for – not conversion into miserly bedsits.

Builders and architects got so many things right. We should learn from them: large homes meaning more rooms, as space is the main appeal – with generous amounts of space, even in a flat. Maybe we should build higher than before, but using a similar template for the layout.

And please, can we learn another lesson: these older homes were built and designed almost without exception to look attractive from the outside. Building new homes from land-banks will soon commence. Bricks are expensive, which is why newbuilds are cobbled together from concrete and twine (although concrete can look great but nobody bothers to me make it so.) Until then, let’s go forward and step back into the past.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Punishing The Precariat

Imagine my joy. I thought I had invented a word! An intoxicating reverie pictured me immortalised in the dictionary (perhaps even garlanded with laurels. Or worshipped like a word goddess…) Fame beckoned. Precariati! I did that!

Of course, reality pierced my dream. ‘Precariat’ has been used elsewhere, a social group identified by author Guy Standing (although I prefer ‘precariati’ and yes, I am sulking.) Sometimes overeducated, on short-term, low-pay employment, dipping in and out of stability, with only the safety net of benefits to occasionally save them (us) from penury and the streets, as they (we) stagger on from day-to-day.

Many people I know live in rented housing and work under short term contracts, doing their best, trying for long-term employment with the phrase permanent becoming increasing exotic, as once your CV says the phrase of doom freelance, you are stuck there (it means you are less likely to find a home to rent as freelancers are popular.) Life is uncertain. Signing on, or claiming Housing Benefit is an ever present, undermining inevitability for we, the precariati. And it’s no fun: the current rate of Jobseekers Allowance is £67.50, not enough to live on short term, and utterly impossible long-term. People do not sign on for laugh, or because they need a holiday from work. They claim benefits so they can eat.

Housing Benefit (or Local Housing Allowance) is being abolished. The self-employed, or new business start-ups could at least hang on to their rented homes while trying to make a living. I’m not noticing much opposition (at least not from anybody important ie a celebrity – you know, from a soap…) and so ‘Benefit Claimant’ has, like the terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ been corrupted and now implies scrounger, when this is far from the case.

Housing Benefit helps the precariati stay housed, in turn allowing them to work. Looming, ever present rooflessness takes up all your energy, and it’s hard to be a young entrepreneur or diligent jobseeker when you can’t pay rent. It’s exhausting.

The precariati are debilitated by uncertainty, especially in housing. People in new found jobs can be fired within the space of one year without much excuse (and those cuddly, cuddly condems are thinking about dropping even that requirement). It’s like wandering around with an axe hovering over your head, ready to chop off your prospects. But at least you can receive housing benefit, so you won’t be out of a place to live, right?

Wrong. Unopposed the new regime are hacking away, undermining an already tenuous existence. This is a government following an economic philosophy advocating low regulation and minimal intervention (well, alongside welfare for bankers who are bailed out, but that’s not the same as Housing Benefit, right?)

The precariati endure the imposed uncertainties caused by a wrong-headed philosophical system of cuts. When in certain areas of the country there are no long term jobs, what are they supposed to do without housing benefit? Grimly shuffle to the work-house, perhaps? Corralled into the precariat - punished for being a member of the precariat. There’s no way out.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Blame the Poor.

Random post, but this cartoon was too good to ignore, given the post below, and the troll comment. Refutes the right wing gibberish better than words alone.

Monday, 28 November 2011

A Home Is Not A Treat

‘The sight of a Labour council - a labour council – evicting tenants convicted of rioting.’

I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, Al Quaedi planned 911, and NASA really did land on the moon: deal with it.

Recently however, the internet meme/satire quoted above highlighted my own growing suspicions: that there is an enormous conspiracy, audacious in its implantation and spiteful in its intent. I honestly believe that recent housing laws are aimed at scaring and undermining poor people into submission.

That paraphrased parody of Neil Kinnock’s searing speech put into words how I feel. During the UK’s summer riots, I read about the aftermath from afar, but like many I am subsequently wondering how can it be that a crime unrelated to a perpetrators home will end in their eviction?

Remember it’s rare that even the most hardcore anti-social, drug-dealing, violent bully is evicted permanently for bad behaviour, so why the sudden rush to associate a roof-over-your head with being a good little citizen. This policy is ideologically led, unsupported by data and punitively transformative in its philosophical agenda: no more housing as of right, no more council tenancies for life, no more housing benefit (the new universal credit effectively abolishes housing benefit and Local Housing Allowance, or didn’t you notice?) Ed Milliband has even equated ‘bad’ council tenants with those beloved, mother-loving bankers.

This is the most undermining of all Condem wheezes: that housing a luxury and not a necessity- an extra, a privilege. The LibDems are standing by and watching Grant Shapps detonate the idea that everyone deserves a permanent home. He’s big on ownership and keen on boats (I still don’t believe he really said that.) But housing is essential; without a home, people are overcrowded, unfit and miserable. The homeless die young. Even Victorian grandees knew that.

The insidious notion of housing as a treat to be withdrawn for bad behaviour is seeping into policy. Unlike food, you can’t grow your own house on an allotment or scavenge, and housing benefit cuts are starting to bite. Tenants will either make up the difference from food budgets when weekly benefit does not cover the rent, or ask landlords to drop prices – and we all know that landlords love lowering rents.

Many casual landlords will collapse like straw men when interest rates go up, with tenants again be expected to pay. Those who moved to find or begin work can hardly return; they will be declared intentionally homeless and workless, entitled to neither housing nor benefits, stranded in high rent areas enduring low earnings, choosing rent or food.

After both world wars, decent housing was a national priority. Now it’s a national scandal, with tenants undermined by cuts, enduring slack protection, under a growing fear that the behaviour of their children might lose them their home. This is housing used as the stick when there is no carrot.

And never let it be forgotten: the ceiling on rents in local housing allowance is a Labour party innovation. A Labour party innovation…

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Think Of A Number - Slight Return

When landlords let a property, there are two ways to go.

One owner visited all the letting agencies, who in turn visited with their clipboards (parking the inevitable Smartcar outside. Incidentally, does anyone else think they only use these to provide a genuine excuse for not giving tenants a lift…)

Anyway. The various agencies assessed how much money the flat would make. Every visiting agent asked how much their predecessor and brother-agent had suggested, before telling the landlord they would make it their life’s goal to rake in even more money, and that the previous estimate was too low. With cartoon pound signs rolling in their wide and bloodshot eyes, they cranked up the rent. They all did. All of them – even if was by £5, they suggested he could make more money than their cautious, clueless predecessor promised.

Now, the landlord is a human being, and fell for it. Little was said about the state of the place: no matter that the place was unfurnished, situated in the badlands, in need of renovation. Nothing about the aging, heritage d├ęcor, or lack of facilities - no the rent was going to be so high that the landlord would roll around naked in tenners and bling, feasting upon foie gras wrapped in gold leaf.

The owners were going abroad, so couldn’t feasibly manage the property themselves. Since they emigrated, the flat has regularly been empty, and prospective tenants have even made contact with the absentee owner (via friendly neighbours) to suggest reducing the rent. It is empty now, and the owner has never dined upon diamond encrusted quails eggs. In despair, a former tenant organised repairs, hiring the landlord’s relatives, where appropriate. What exactly does the letting agency do here?

Elsewhere, another landlord wishing to rent out his property was visited by a brace of letting agents (a swoop?) and listened in awe to the money he could make. Later on, after some sweet and fleeting dreams of easy wealth, he woke up. Interestingly, he was about to rent a place by the seaside, and realised the letting agents were talking crap (you can tell by my elegant phrasing that I am wordsmith, can’t you?) and, brandishing a crucifix, he said to the letting agents: get thee gone.

He let’s the flat himself, renting to people he trusts and likes. Mates recommend contractors for repairs, or sometimes do the work themselves. The rent is reasonable, so tenants want to stay, not move out at the earliest opportunity. Nobody bothers anyone, as he knows what it’s like to be a tenant, since he is one himself. He wants what will one day again be his actual home to be looked after, but never bothers tenants, and arranges days – even weeks in advance before he comes to call in person.

This is why rents are rising. Rents are rising because…prepare for a sharp shot of obvious, but people are forever putting up rents – a self-serving and damaging process in this time of low interest rates, and it can’t go on forever.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Damn Those Evil Scammers

Flat hunting online is like entering the Wild West naked without a gun. Wearing a blindfold. With your hands tied behind your back.

The flat-offered adverts are bad enough – they offer non-existent homes for a massive upfront deposit, sometimes (as I’ve written about previously) from a ‘pastor’ who is much too busy preaching in (yes, sadly) Nigeria. Pay him upfront and praise the lord, he will courier the keys…

Then there’s the ‘blind’ landlady, promising to arrive with her carer and sort out the legalities. It’s just that she can’t quite make it, and could you transfer the massive deposit anyway? Or you could just open your window, fold the cash into little origami birds and scatter them into the wind. Either really.

The worst abuses are found when tenants place flat-wanted ads. Scamsters are getting better at pretending to be real people, choosing European names, inventing complicated ruses for not being around, encouraging a huge upfront deposit, security bond, rent in advance and fee (I know!) can be sent through. They used to give up when asked for a fast viewing, but nowadays have a brass neck and press ahead with creative, complex excuses about why they are overseas.

One told me they were working as a diplomat in Hungary. They trusted me instinctively and suggested I wired my money to their PA in Geneva, who would forward the documents. I think they were aiming a bit high, as why would a high flying diplomat live in a scuzzy flat-share? The flat descriptions are giveaway to the wise: pasted in from websites, estate terminology and all. The pictures of the flat were obviously of an hotel. Then they changed the pictures, to a luxury flat way out of my league, and too good to be true for the price.

Another was just so pleased to find someone like me, who they could trust to sort things out quickly, and would send the keys when I had wired the money. Isn’t that nice?

It’s funny how hard they try, and how the weave their way in and out of truth. It stops being funny when you realise that people are unaware of these scams and send the money. One friend was caught out in London by a thief who had even set up a website, and ended up stranded with nowhere to stay.

It’s no laughing matter for innocents who pay upfront, subsequently arriving in a strange place with nowhere else to go. It doesn’t matter how many warnings are posted, as these parasites can still pass for legit and go on to winch in vulnerable home-hunters.

Especially in London, housing is scarce, and rents are rising. People might be new and one step away from a hostel when looking for a home. They might not be thinking straight, and when fraudsters can convincingly pass for legal, the result is a huge, yet silent tide of misery. I wonder how many millions have been siphoned away from the bank accounts of needy, desperate people. This scam is causing so much real harm.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Unavoidable Storage Centres

I was packing my worldly goods again, when I noticed a change in the behaviour of those running the booming business of storage centres.

As places go, storage centres have always been extremely odd. Tales of murder victims in freezers, ill-gotten gains and terrorist related items being ‘stored’ are legion. People even hire rooms in storage centres and hide that they are living inside, although I am amazed that it’s cheaper than renting a house. They are often places of quiet desperation, where the detritus of failed relationships is stacked in tea-chests, next to a failing ebay company and some old videos the owner can’t bare to throw away.

Many people, myself included, have noted storage centres, and the role they play in enabling people to hoard possessions when homes are getting smaller. I wandered round the ancient building, fascinated by just a peek into dusty rooms. One held a life-size Mr. Punch, elsewhere there were packing boxes and bicycles, toys, furniture and burst bin bags full of mouldy old clothes.

They are very expensive nowadays. Competition for custom is hotting up. Phoning a storage centre to request a quote is on a par with comparison shopping for insurance, but here the sales people are oily than rather than slick. Try asking for a direct price and they avoid the subject, asking if you are student (“…you sound so young!”) and making a big show of not selling you too much space (so easy to spot) and instead piling on ‘extras.’

Extras? You mean a door is optional, or a ceiling. No: but wait, they are trying to sell you their ‘free’ van. It’s only available if you book really quickly, and then you have to drive it yourself, so if you can’t drive, well need I finish? Not much use really. Beware ‘offers.’ They last for one-two months, after which in the complex language of subterfuge, prices escalate.

Then they call again: they promise to meet the offer of any ‘reasonable rival.’ They are more pushy and duplicitous than the worst estate agent. They call casually once more, surprised then hurt that you’ve used another company where prices are reasonable. The problem is that within the big group of famous companies, no matter what, how fair and reasonable they claim to be, the price eventually offered is exactly the same for all of them. How strange.
Thankfully, I found an established family firm, and by established I mean they’d been keeping things safe in the same warehouse for 150 years. Imagine what they must have seen. I worried what would happen if payment didn’t go through, and joked about a bonfire of my vanities in the delivery bay. They said no: it’s not like that. But we both know they hold a trump card, that is my worldly goods, under a lock with combination known only to them, while I have my own key so they can’t rob my stuff.

Such strange places. Such necessary places, but that hard-sell needs looking at.

Monday, 31 October 2011

When Flatshares Turn Bad.

Frosty looks at breakfast, hostile notes, slamming doors and sitting for weeks in the same room without saying a word (friendly or otherwise). Arguments with flatmates are as bad, if not worse than those with your own family, except with no formal ties, there is little reason to try and sort things out. The options are mediation and reconciliation, or just get the hell out, and then the only question is, who will go and who will stay.

There are several ways that people fall out. There is creeping coldness that ruins any warmth. It happened to me once when one girl stopped talking to all her flatmates: seems she had decided she simply didn’t like us much. An extreme case of this was the two blokes who just stopped talking, and didn’t exchange a word for about eighteen months, which is surprisingly common.

Then there is the full on blazing row: hugely cathartic and entertaining for eavesdroppers, but usually as destructive as hand grenades. I’ve been there too, when a flatmate moved in her vile, snide and parasitic boyfriend. We all tried to be tolerant, but eventually, when we realised he’d been cheating on her by bringing women back to our house the shouting started. It ended with them both moving out.

Then there is unacceptable flatmate behaviour. This can be as harmless but vexing as the flatmate who always lost her key and banged ferociously on the door to be let in (“…but I was in the bath!” “Sooooooorry”) to the friend who’s flatmate’s boyfriend stole money before disappearing, although mercifully, that’s an extreme.

It hard when any relationship ends; people grow apart, and for example, someone who waits isolated, bitter and forlorn at home while you are out with friends, or one brings back random strangers who use the ‘romantic’ encounter to do a recce and return to rob your house, or steals your food are quite simply bastards. Sorry: I slipped there. All of those have happened to me, and talking doesn’t help. People find it hard to change, and usually, just don’t want to.

But what if you like your house or flat? And what if you want to stay, or have good reason to remain, such as work or family just round the corner? Deposits must be salvaged and moving is tricky. Or what if you have other people who’d like to move in, and want to negotiate a truce so that weapons (snide looks and hateful, passive-aggressive post-notes) can be abandoned, and truth, reconciliation and your tin opener can be shared.

If you move into a house, and guards are dropped, and all that civilised turning the other cheek, smiling sweetly, trying to make the best of it passes, and violence breaks out (I’ve heard of actually fisticuffs which is no laughing matter) then here’s an idea: what about Relate? They’ve embraced the modern world, helping gay and unmarried couples. Now someone needs to help out when flatmates row, as it’s really hard to find a new home.

Monday, 24 October 2011

When Will The Spanish Fly The Nest?

A joke circulates constantly in southern Europe. How do you prove that Jesus was Italian/Spanish/Portuguese (delete where applicable). Answer? Because he lived with his parents until he was 32.

I have in the past been flat-hunting in Spain, and it’s a nightmare. Not because of the prices (fair) or the apartments (frankly breathtakingly lovely at times) but because nobody shares, or even rents a room. The idea of a flat-share is bizarre to people, as people leave the family home clad in either a coffin or a wedding dress (or suit – you know what I mean.)

It’s a source of fascination to Americans and northern Europeans, who leave as soon as possible, and parents act as guarantors to profligate, unreliable offspring and even cash in savings and re-mortgage houses to ease junior’s path out of the nest. Over here, it’s a national scandal: people can’t get on the property ladder, and questions are in Parliament, and everything.

There are many reasons. Firstly, people seem to study in their hometown, and parents pay fees, so the whole student flat-share thing is less common.

Also, where people live in apartments (and many do) they are large and open, with several bedrooms, not the poky little huts on stilts we see still in the UK. There is often a dining room, and a lack of open plan living, which means that privacy is still possible, with different people, even generations pursuing varying activities and alternate hours in different rooms.

I also wonder if they simply like each other more, or are more tolerant. The sexual revolution has reached worldwide, and I doubt that those thirty-two year old Spanish brides wear white for the old-fashioned reason. Yes couples live together, but parents must be accepting of their older/adult children’s lifestyle choices. I’ve heard of a Spanish gay man, out to his family since he was sixteen who didn’t leave home to live with his partner until he was (yes!) thirty-two.

Or do people simply behave in a different (as a veteran of many drunken escapades I won’t say better) way. Perhaps coming home drunk/stoned is less of an issue. Perhaps they don’t indulge. Perhaps their parents join in.

Maybe European parents have learned to back off and keep out of their children’s lives, although I doubt it. I think they are positively indulgent of their children, washing their clothes, with dinner waiting on the table? If so why would they leave? (Oh right, that happens in the UK as well.) And what about Scandinavia, the low countries or Germany, where people also race for the exit asap.

I suppose this is a question: can anyone explain what’s happening here? Southern Europe has got something right. Or is it stifling and people only stay at their parents because they can’t afford to buy, or are younger buyers excluded from the market?

Either way, everybody rents, and when they move, baby will rent as well. I’m just curious, that’s all.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Furnishing The Unfurnished

Some friends recently found an unfurnished flat. I am surprised this isn’t more common, but most rented flats are still furnished, no matter how trashed and tawdry the alleged furniture is in reality.

They placed requests on social media for donations of spare or unwanted furniture, as they even had to find white goods, which is unusual even in unfurnished places. There’s Freecycle of course, but people in the UK seem to use it instead of abandoning collapsed, stinking mattresses in a layby.

Ebay works of course, but for larger goods, The Salvation Army and Emmaus sell reconditioned fridges and repaired beds, (although I’ve heard of problems when buying white goods from the former) and you get the glow of not adding to the world’s fridge mountain.

Second-hand shops are so overpriced that even pre-owned (that’s the buzz word now) Argos stacking chairs are priced as antiques of the future. Then of course, there’s the trusty IKEA catalogue. Ever wondered how much it would cost to fit a small one bed from scratch with their cheapest products? By my calculation it’s about £3000.

You might need a telly, and all kitchen stuff like saucepans. And don’t get me started on carpets – god, add that on to the IKEA list and it rockets off into space.

For people in low-pay/no-pay lifestyles, it is technically possible to equip a house for nothing. Friends might help with moving stuff, but there’s national glut of man and van companies, so you can hire one of those by the hour (just help with heavy lifting, they operate alone, usually.) There is a whole world of ways to upcycle newly acquired old things. Planks of wood and brushed bricks can make shelves, and decorating tables can stand in for their permanent cousins.

Then there are skips – you can usually find something in a house clearance. In Germany there is a sub-culture of leaving unwanted furniture and household items in the street for others to rescue – fine unless it rains. In fact, in some circles buying new things is frowned upon, and trains usually have one person lugging a chest of drawers back from flea-market.

Auctions are good as well – they sometimes sell cleared house contents when an elderly resident has died (that’s fine as long as you don’t believe in those haunted bread-bin urban myths, and I know you’re all too wise, aren’t you?)

But seriously, if there’s one thing I will always buy new, it’s a mattress. I’m not fussy about a bed-frame (although it’s nice) but the frame you can hoover diligently and then scrub (and apparently should regularly in case of bed-bugs) but a mattress….

I shall tell this story again.

I visited a house with view to moving, and wasn’t impressed, but when I saw the bed I was horrified. It looked like that Anish Kapoor had been practicing his paint gun but with germs. I said what anyone in their right mind would say: “Uuurrrgh! Yuk! It’s horrible!” The landlord sagely nodded his head: ‘Art students,’ he explained.

Mattress covers. People: we need mattress covers.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Sheila McCechnie Was Right

I once interviewed the formidable and humane and amazing (but now sadly departed) Sheila McCechnie of Shelter. We were discussing one of the many instances that Tories had suggested relocating homeless people from the South of England, perhaps forcibly, to the North.

She worried about the effects of this, as do we all, where jobs and opportunities are found in the South, whereas the North has space and housing (a vast over-simplification of course). The situation was not as harsh then as it is now, and Sheila came up with a stark phrase to describe the possible consequences.

The South will become a concrete hell, I said, with people crammed into increasingly small homes. And the North? ‘Vast Bantustans of poverty,’ Sheila suggested, whip-smart and accurate.

You might not know what a Bantustan is. In apartheid South Africa, semi-independent states were formed, where people were kept deliberately poor and powerless, but lived under the lie that they were empowered by being dislocated from the state. Most foreign governments saw through the lie, and did not recognise these Bantustans as sovereign states.

Back in the present day, Housing Benefit changes are making life impossible for impoverished and jobless occupants of Southland. Unemployment is disproportionately high in Northland. Buy-to-let chancers even invested in The North, buying three flats in Rochdale, rather than stumping up for much needed homes in London, because investing in London and surrounding satellites was too dear, for all the good it did them when they went bankrupt.

An impossible situation is emerging. Are you vulnerable, and employed but still effectively homeless, due to precarious housing either through overcrowding or expense? Well, meet jobless but housed. Shake hands and say hello, as you might be compelled to swap places any day soon. It’s ridiculous. Where, if you are poor, are you supposed to live? What are you supposed to do?

Perhaps employers will start providing homes, or deposits. Maybe people will again live on site, like they used in Victorian times, with apprentices permitted a futon in the larder. Maybe homes in the North will come with jobs attached. Then we get to the state of tied housing as suffered by agricultural workers, where dismissal and redundancy means the loss of your roof as well as an income: back you go up North young fellow-me-lad. Another can of worms, and another battle fought and won heroically in the olden days, soon to be fought again and lost.

And what about family and neighbourhood ties, or the Condems and their beloved BS (big society)? How will a stable community run libraries and youth centres competently and for nothing, or summon sufficient spare concern to care for incomers, or organise their neighbours, when every so often everybody ups and moves in either direction?

Did you know the North of Britain, especially Scotland is, geologically speaking, rising up, while the South is sinking. Facile and flat-earthy to suggest it’s all those extra people moving in or vacating, but a tempting parallel to draw nonetheless.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Continental Dovecots

I’ve been travelling around Europe a bit recently – sort of a research expedition, in a way. I have to say I was amazed to see in every town, a version of Dovecots.

For those of you who have forgotten, or who are new, Dovecots was the term I gave to nasty developer designed, low-rise newbuilds, because when they are being built they look like Dovecots: as if layers of humanity should live on top of each other in purpose built boxes, which of course they do.

But here’s what I have noticed about European Dovecots. They are larger inside, that is, they have more than one or two rooms – sometimes three, or four.

Outside is where the biggest difference can be seen: they have playgrounds. In the UK, you could easily imagine the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had been round to hoover up all the stray toddlers. I saw children playing. I saw older people looking after the children. I saw knots of people outside having a natter.

People rent for years rather than months, which gives a sense of a stable community, not of folks just passing through as they strive, hopelessly to become owner-occupiers. They have children, and become grandparents in the same block. There is a sense of continuity.

The other difference is, they are taller (those of you who said: what, taller people? Hang your head in shame.)

I know developers are on a mission to concrete over the south of England with nasty, mean-spirited little Barrett-boxes, but surely, adding a few extra layers is more economical, and might even permit higher ceilings, so you don’t bump your head. Seriously, I had friends whose flat was so small that I thought they had spiked my tea with the potion from the bottle in Alice’s Wonderland marked ‘Drink Me’ and that I’d end up with all my limbs poking out of the windows.

These Euro Dovecots were sited both in suburbia and city centres. I know I am repeating myself, but most major cities have varied and diverse urban population, with schools and sheltered housing and everything, so why can’t we build this into Dovecot development meetings?

I know that overseas and even continental architects now associate the massive estates of brutalistic flats dreamed up by Le Corbusier with heroin and deprivation, and dread their export to places like India, but when done with diligence, care and foresight, they could be the perfect solution to space and cost issues.

The difference might also be in the acceptance of urban living: that is people need to live within cities if we are to avoid having the world seen from space as a massive concrete island with green dots which are pay-to-enter private parks that is all that remains of the green-belt.

Don’t get me wrong: there was still so much to despise about these places. They were bland, and anonymous, and had no design philosophy they weren’t little boxes, they were BIG boxes, and they do all look just the same.

Euro-dovecots are far from perfect. All I’m saying is: they got something right.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Think Of A Number

Rents are rising, even in cities where there is an excess of empty flats and houses, despite interest rates kept non-existently low. I might have discovered one reason why.

A friend moved from abroad to study in a northern city. After spending some time living London, where rent is ridiculous, she had limited time for flat-hunting in this new home-town, but found a room, decent but nothing special, slightly out of the centre but close to transport links (everywhere’s close to the bus train etc, but she didn’t know that.)

Her jovial landlady/flatmate set the rent at the same level as a small one bed flat, just thirty pounds under many local two-beds. My friend had no idea. I resented what the landlady had done, especially when she moved out and let her own room to another overseas student, who also knew no better and needed a home fast, thereby covering both her entire mortgage and her rent.

I met this woman a few months ago. She’s nice and everything – really friendly and tolerant, and allows her tenants use of her household nick-nacks knowing they are unlikely to have bought them across from overseas. We were discussing rents, and she asked me how much I paid. Whilst trying hard not stir up trouble for my friend (who was sitting next to her) I answered: the same as my friend pays for her room. She was aghast. I said it’s not in the best of areas, but neither is it in the worst. It’s the going rate for such a place.

She disagreed. She said she’s paid that for a flat five years ago, which was true, but her home then was an excellent flat in a really desirable area, where rents haven’t risen much as they were stratospheric to begin with. She’d never compared the cost with other local room rates, and I think that’s how landlords set prices: think of a number, double it, add some more and see what sticks: massive profit for them, misery for tenants.

There is no excuse for rocketing rents anywhere outside of London and even there rent rises are market rather than interest rate led. When interest rates rise, there will be further misery, as tenants – already squeezed – will be expected to cushion the same landlords who haven’t lowered rents when interest rates were low.

I checked again: the only flats rented out for as much as she was asking were genuine luxury flats with champagne fountains and lifts up to the sofa, not bog-standard two beds, no matter how near a train station.

It’s wrong that there is no rent officer to intervene when landlords are greedy, ripping off tenants who don’t know any better. How this woman looked my friend in the face every morning without falling to the floor and begging for forgiveness is a mystery to me. Amazingly, they are still mates. How tolerant of my friend. How cynical of her landlady.

Monday, 19 September 2011

No Riot

I’ve written before about those horrible and invidious Condem housing benefit changes, but can’t believe it’s going ahead. I say changes: this is not a change, it is an abolition. Housing Benefit, and Local Housing Allowance, its evil twin – are going. Wiped out.

Nobody is angry. There have been no riots, no protests.

Years ago, thanks to Edwina Curry, changes were made in the allowances paid to people condemned to live temporarily in B&B accommodation. This was (and is) only ever a temporary measure, which happens when people are genuinely homeless and there is absolutely nowhere else to go.

Currie had proposed the cuts by stating that claimants were: ‘frolicking on the beaches of Brighton’ as if the state was paying for a little trip to the seaside, rather than condemning people to exist in hovels. Full English breakfast? Hardly: no cooking or washing facilities and appalling overcrowding were the norm. The system was being abused, not by claimants, but by landlords and B&B ‘farms’ who crammed people into dingy shacks and charged the state a fortune, much as certain landlords are profiteering from inflated rents. Again, the abuse was stopped not by punishing the landlords, but by penalising hapless tenants.

When actioned, nobody was sure what would happen. First all, it was imagined that there would be riots, as masses of angry people slept in the hot summer parks, and that the decision would be reversed. They didn’t and it wasn’t.

But that was nearly thirty years ago, and ask anyone old enough, they won’t remember the changes being announced perhaps, but they might recall a different world, one that seems miraculous to us now.

There were far fewer beggars, and pan-handlers, or whatever is the acceptable phrase now. Yes, I know that not all beggars are genuine, but numbers were lower. That is because there were not as many homeless people.

Imagine: no Big Issue. Fewer wraiths and shades wandering around in the twilight, shuffling for somewhere to sleep. Even Grant Shapps is aware (and it’s the only sensible thing he’s ever said in his life, ever) that the official roofless, street-living homeless figure is way below the genuine number.

I don’t predict a riot. A predict a world where there is even more overcrowding, and more people begging to make up the difference between their income and rent.

There is an equation for the amount of beggars and for want of an acceptably descriptive phrase, ranting, visibly mentally ill people per square mile that society will tolerate, before demanding that something must be done. When will we reach that limit, because these cuts are going to push things to the max.

Don’t imagine people care. They don’t care. People want to enjoy their latte without being prodded by some Herbert who asks for change, and if it happens too many times on the way to the gym, they demand action.

That’s not to mention the separated parents under the age of thirty-five who will have nowhere for their visiting kids to stay. Nice work from the self-proclaimed family party. Nice work.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A Spanish Tale

I visited a friend in Barcelona. She lives in the old quarter, close to the shore. Her flat is amazing, with a terrace straight out of an Almodavar film, three large bedrooms, a study and high ceilings with original plaster moulding. The entrance features a formidably huge carved wooden door, with a smaller one cut into it so people can duck and enter without damaging ligaments.

Originally the flats were built around a cooling courtyard, now covered sensitively with a glass roof (I visited during the rainy season in Catalonia) and the owner had recently paid for a glass lift to be installed. We reached it via an elegant, ancient street with an equally ancient coffee house on the corner, where neighbours met for a cuppa.

The tenants are varied. My friend has two teenage sons, and her neighbour has a toddler. Another neighbour has lived there since being a dreadlocked engineering student, and is now a smartly dressed professional (what? they scrub up nicely.) Other occupants are elderly and have lived there all their lives. The stone steps are eroding with countless human footsteps

The flat is absolutely unfurnished, not even white goods, as has become the custom in unfurnished flats in Scotland. Over the years she has amassed a begged and bargained for beautiful raggle-taggle band of chairs and other belongings, all of which suit the grand and eccentric nature of the building.

The landlord has not put up the rent for two years, and it being close to the yachts, beach and shoreline development, you can imagine how desirable that flat is.

My friend recently wilted in the heat and paid to install a much-needed ceiling fan. She said that if she ever installs central heating (which she might well do) she will expect a longer rental agreement, but it seems tacitly understood that she will stay as long as she wants, be that decades or forever.

The problem is that the landlord doesn’t really ‘do’ repairs. It’s her home, and so she does all the work. Before she moved in he installed a modern bathroom and kitchen. Oh – and regular readers of this column might like to know there is utility cupboard, something I advocate in confined space, but this is an airy flat.

Even the locks are carefully crafted, adorned with decoration. The windows might leak in the winter, but they are antiques, with moulded locks and fittings, and to replace them with sealed water resistant plastic ones would be a crime and a travesty.

It’s always been an apartment block. Over the years, the flats have been reduced in size (I imagine they once had space for servants, larders and laundries as they are quite grand). Tenants have always rented homes long-term here, and the landlord inherited the freehold from his mother – it’s been passed down the generations.

Tenants wash clothes, floors and each other, die, are born and marry, love, work laugh and argue in this grand, cool and fantastic building. And they’ve been doing so, as tenants, since the early 1700’s.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Bully Boy Bailiffs

Several readers have contacted me about those new-fangled ‘eviction specialists’ and shared some of their unpleasant experiences.

By now we know that there will be no more social housing, a situation which imprisons tenants in a familiar private sector housing hell where landlords/wardens view their investment as a fiefdom or a precious heirloom, and never as a home (more importantly someone else’s home.)

Solicitors are amongst the ultimate professionals, aren’t they? They study for years incurring debt to learn the complex nature of the law and how to apply it. All that knowledge explains why they charge so much money. When dealing with legal matters, many landlords deeply resent handing over money for anything, let alone something that costs because experts train for years to protect themselves and the people hiring them.

That’s why landlords are sometimes stung after downloading and using poorly worded, dodgy documents, or worse don’t provide an agreement at all. More worryingly when confronted with problems (and there will always be problems) they are increasingly reaching for the nearest firm of eviction specialists, also known as bully boys, to harass and terrify tenants into leaving or ‘behaving’ themselves.

Ads for these gentlemen are appearing all over the place. Some are honest solicitors specialising in property services and ‘eviction specialist’ is a poorly chosen, attention-seeking term for what they do.

Others are bullies. They are largely unregulated, and offer to get rid of tenants ‘efficiently’ and ‘fast’.

One reader told me of an informal meeting with one such company. She was a newly graduated lawyer, and along with the legion of recently qualified lawyers she was unemployed. During her brief chat with the firm, which was operating at the blunt and confrontational end of the industry, she was left feeling quite disturbed: they mocked tenants, openly despised them actually and even seemed to get their thrills from intimidating people instead of using formal, appropriate legal channels.

Considering that many landlords operate on the assumption that tenants should just jump out of the property when (let’s hope metaphorically) they are shoved, and that renters genuinely have very few rights at all (apart from the right to be given notice and the subsequent legal process) this is a disturbing development. Seriously, owners can get practically get rid of tenants by saying three times: I evict you, I evict you, I evict you.

I predict a problem. I think it’s going, to get out of hand. In the near future, a tenant eviction specialist/ex-bouncer (they are often ex-bouncers) will go too far, revert to violent type and injure a tenant or worse while ‘persuading’ them to leave.

Some operators are legitimate, but you have to wonder why landlords need a gang of hired hoodlums, as opposed to using the well-established legal process, as happened to one reader, recently. Are they cheaper? Do landlords get their kicks from hanging around with rough bad boys?

Stopping this will involve strict formal regulation of a growing, emerging industry. And what are the chances of that happening?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Flat Sharing in 'Can Be OK' Shock.

Recently, I found myself sharing a home again. The flat was large and pleasant enough so I thought – oh, give it a go. I wasn’t looking forward to it entirely, especially as one of my (lovely) new flatmates described the residence forthrightly as: “We’re two blokes. It is what you would expect.” Cue feverish visions of 70’s contrived sitcom flat-share hell.

But they could use the rent money, and I was looking for a place, so why not? Ghostly memories of flat-shares past came flooding back, reminding me of why I avoid multi-occupancy wherever possible. Stories like the long, desperate queues for the bathroom, once while the horny couple (there’s one in every shared house) shared, a long, indulgent bubbly bath last thing every night.

Or the chilly, gothic, three-storey house where I went away for xmas, returning to find that in my absence, all six occupants had quarrelled terminally and disastrously, so badly they had stopped speaking to each other, even with me. And it was nothing to do with me!

I had flashbacks of sharing the nervous breakdowns of others (one co-tenant tried to take her own life with four junior Disprin) the heated recriminations which turned nasty over ‘carrot theft’ (so kill me - I used one of your carrots…)

The flatmate who one morning filled an entire kitchen with a visiting French street theatre troupe but ‘…had only slept with two of them.’ The flatmate who, for economy turned down all the heating until there were ‘icebergs dead ahead’ in the lounge, but heated her room until we melted again. The flatmate who bought a house but took the bed and the curtains from her room, leaving me to explain things to the landlord.

But my flatmates (let’s call them Alex and Bruno) are lovely guys and behaved like gentlemen throughout. The only bugbear was Bruno and the toilet. Until I arrived it looked like the bog in Trainspotting: a dark abyss, a dangerous swirling vortex of filth and gloom, which until I held my nose and applied bleach could have pulled humanity through its noxious gateway and into an unpleasant alternative universe. Forever…

But we were all polite: no bathroom hogging or food-stealing. Perhaps it was a question of respect. Nobody resented living there. Previous flatmates of mine have felt themselves out of place, and have acted imperiously, as if renting was beneath them. One even referred to us as peasants. I miss her so much.

Bruno leant me books, Alex recommended music. I am missing the music (mostly Bruno’s daily 11 am sax rehearsal) and Alex’s diligently prepared, economical and yet paradoxically luxurious packed lunches, and having technical assistance around at all hours. Most of all it was great to have someone ask: ‘..do you need anything from the shop’ occasionally.

You’re going to miss me Bruno, I said, enjoying the leaving meal he’d cooked for me. No, he replied: we’ve bought a dishwasher.
He loves me really.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Life On The Ocean Wave With Grant Shapps

Grant Shapps thinks people could live in boats.

Grant Shapps thinks people should live in boats.

Yes I know I said it twice, but seriously, I might even type those words again in the vain hope that I will believe that he actually said that (he did) or that it makes sense (nope – it still doesn’t.)

A few years back, I interviewed the great man himself. This was of course some time before he could sit in his lair with a glint in his eye, dreaming up new and increasingly bizarre solutions to the housing crisis.

Crisis? What crisis? Yes, we have a housing crisis: housing benefit cuts are propelling large numbers of tenants towards fewer properties (well ones they can afford if they are now, or likely to be claiming benefits.) I’ve said before that surely that would be best achieved by revitalising rent officers, allowing them to set tight rent controls, rather than cutting benefits and hoping landlords will drop their prices (why would they where this is a shortage of properties?)

We need to build large affordable homes on city centre sites, under the Parker Morris standards. We can build them in skyscrapers or in well-designed low rise developments, not the Dovecots I have written about in the past. I doubt that developers are queuing up to build boats. (It just sounds sillier every time I type it.)

This will be a nightmare. Now, Grant when we met, was very keen to emphasise his admirable campaign for realistic rough sleeping figures, to the extent that he spent a well-publicised night sleeping outdoors one chilly Christmas eve. But apart from this, nobody in government seems to have grasped the reality of housing, such as the supply and demand part, and we are still in a febrile buy-to-let scenario, where owners still believe they are entitled to ramp up rents and luxuriate in money. Didn’t that used to be called profiteering?

But back to the boats. It’s already hard enough to get a mooring for a residential barge, I am led to believe. Does he mean we should all go on a cruise? As jolly as that would be, it’s hardly practical: the obesity crisis would be worsened by those notorious 24-hour buffets, and what if you are sea-sick?

Does he mean we should join the navy? Defence cuts will see to that. Rowing boats? Yachts? Well, I’ve fancied sailing in yling-yling just because I like the sound of the word. Or does he mean that blameless citizens, tax payers and claimants alike should be herded off into prison ships and forced to wade ashore every morning, that’s if they aren’t intercepted by pirates. Every child’s dream, but not very nice, even if we are piped ashore by lovely sailors.

Boats are not the answer. Not for nothing are boats big enough to live in long-term usually the preserve of the stupidly rich.

Grant, Grant Shapps – Grant Shapps are you out there? Earth to Grant Shapps!!! You are deluded, you are causing harm and your latest utterance is an absolute load of coracles.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Tale Of Two Flats

Two friends live in very different flats, where the owners employ opposing philosophies with regard to managing their nest egg.

The first place is an ancient, purpose built block in an area that’s down on its luck. The flat itself is beautiful, featuring everything that renders estate agents boggle-eyed with joy: plaster mouldings intact (get me with my fluent estate-agentese) large rooms with high ceilings, views of a nearby park (I’m turning into one of them) original solid wood floor (give me a job?) and spacious hallway (somebody stop me...)

The rent is very reasonable. Why? Over the years, the owners have neglected this amazing property. Windows are mercifully original not UPVC horrors, but the grand and frigid lounge is deserted in Winter, with occupants huddling in bed to keep warm.

Worst though is the bathroom. There’s a hole in the floor, and I don’t mean a dent, but a gaping pothole in the floorboards, next to the bath, where years of ignored leakage caused the chipboard to rot. One tenant is a gifted carpenter, and offered to mend it in return for a month rent free, but the landlord hesitates, saying he needs the income.

They might benefit from stressing that the aforementioned hole is dangerous, because when the residents fall into the flat below and end up in casualty, he’ll be sued so bad he won’t know where to run. Elsewhere the building isn’t dangerous, but doors are falling off cupboards, furniture is broken/inadequate/missing, and there are no curtains. The landlord didn’t even provide a hoover, but at least he’s a friendly, easy-going guy who arrives with beer, despite avoiding repairs wherever possible.

The other flat is also cheaper than you’d think, but for different reasons. The owner believes that if rent is set slightly below market levels, tenants are more likely to stay, thereby avoiding the dreaded voids in occupancy, and so she’ll gain in the long term. It’s draught proofed, subtly renovated but not destroyed, and still has all its original features.

The owner replaces the mattress every now and again, has provided a dish-washer, pays for the upkeep of the communal garden, and does repairs fast, because as she might need to live there herself one day. Tellingly, her kids rent in a another town, and so she treats her own tenants as she would wish her offspring to be treated: fairly, courteously and lawfully.

What I don’t understand is this: property is an investment. If you earned money from a building, wouldn’t you care for it? Both ways of working are entirely legal (except leaving that massive hole in the floor.) Little can be done about the draining neglect of landlords who fail to maintain their investment, causing misery, or harm to tenants.

Nobody cares to enforce what laws do exist, even when landlords are brutish thugs who terrorise tenants, cramming them into rooms which are blighted by damp, cockroaches, freezing draughts and mould. Meanwhile, low-level, debilitating conditions which drain mental and physical health must battle to sound important. Important is exactly what they are.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rentergirl Is Back!

Some of you have been kind enough to notice and comment on the fact that I stopped writing rentergirl for a while. There are many reasons. Bubbling under everything is the simple fact that because of the lack of focus on housing and other condem ruses it all became hard for me to write.

More simply and less catastrophically woeful is the fact that I lost a memory stick with months worth of research material on it. I couldn’t find anyone I trusted to mend it, for a reasonable amount of money, and so lost momentum. Any suggestions?

But now rentergirl is back, with a few changes. I put an awful lot of work into this, and must earn a living. After a great deal of soul-searching, I decided to accept one of the many offers of sponsored links. Indeed I am actively seeking ads (see links to the side and above.)

I will not allow sponsored posts – they detract from the integrity of what I do. All sponsors having read the blog are aware that I regularly write strong criticism of property related businesses. And those of you who craftily try and include adverts in comments – haven’t you learned that I always delete them?

Furthermore, I am opening the blog up. Please suggest topics you would like covered, and I’ll see what I can do. My experiences good and bad are not unique, but let me know if you think I have missed out on any aspect of the renters life and I’ll see what I can do.

Trolls and nasties beware, however. For the time being, due to some sinister comments and attempts at intimidation, I will moderate all comments before they run. This blog is a troll free zone. It is not a discussion board, with all the nastiness that seems to entail, but I would like readers to put their temperate, relevant (hopefully funny…) comments on this blog, then after moderation, they can appear.

So let’s get started again, at what is a difficult time for tenants, with rents in the south rising, lack of protection, lack of suitable property and indeed a lack of will to regulate.

Oh and finally: all the publishers who have been reading rentergirl still, don’t be shy at contacting me…

Welcome back.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Too Old For Renting?

I can’t quite believe it, but the con/dems have decreed that anyone under the age of thirty-five and renting a home must share – or rather that they will only be allowed LHA to cover the cost of the shared property.

Having watched the student protests, I am wondering why people aren’t more angry. I am aware that anyone who has swallowed the hate campaign (benefit claimant now being synonymous with benefit scrounger to many) must imagine they are immune. Once again, those on the housing high-ground should remember: there but for fate go we all, as in this economic climate, anyone can end up signing on – even for a while.

One of the main groups liable to be affected – even devastated - by this are already angry. It’s divorced dads – you know, sometimes they express their thoughts dangling on the end of bungee ropes dressed as superheroes. Job loss, marital breakdown and homelessness are the three horseman of the social apocalypse: they often arrive together. Fathers usually vacate the family home after marital breakdown, and will – if they are under thirty-five - be forced to share a house with no space for their children to sleep when they visit.

There aren’t enough decent houses large enough for people to share, and nobody seems to be asking what people want and need from a home. Developers veer from one orthodoxy to the next: first building vast suburban Bantustans of Wimpeyvilles, or then covering inner cities with ‘luxury’ one bed flats. When a flat has two bedrooms, the other occupant is likely to be the owner, and claimants are low on the list of desirable lodgers.

I’ve written previously about how miserable it can be to be compelled to share a flat, and charities like MIND and Shelter have also raised their concerns about the effects on infantilising adults and also on mental health problems, but nobody seems to listen.

The bill for Housing Benefit has rocketed, spiralled and sped hyperbolically out of control, but whose fault is that? Encouraging speculation, persuading owners to ramp up weekly rents, gibbering with satisfaction at escalating property values oblivious to the human cost, and then (and then!) blaming the innocent, powerless victims of this farce is now normal.

If claimants must share a house, why not force developers to build proper homes, so that there are houses spacious enough for several singletons to have some privacy (The Right To a Private Life being enshrined in law and all that…) And if those in power are so keen to save money on housing benefit, why not bring back rent officers empowered to enforce fair rents, or compel anyone living alone in a country (or urban) mansion to rent out rooms to lodgers and then see how they enjoy sharing.

It’s not like single claimants are holed up in massive country houses: they just want a small flat (technically they can’t even claim for a bedsit). Adjusting house price inflation by penalising those who cannot fight back is cowardly and pointless. But I don’t see anyone rioting about it.