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.