Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Something Very Bad Is Going To Happen

Some time ago, I was standing on my tiny balcony which, being apparently made of chicken wire seemed to float above the world, and gazed across at a host of empty newbuilds, pondering the block I called Dovecot Towers. I thought to myself: I got it right.

Quite early on, I spotted the effect that ill-considered, mass buy-to-let property investment would have on the UK’s economy. Despite suspecting that economics is up there with voodoo and homeopathy, I predicted (well, not just me) that the property downturn was a coming in, and was vindicated.

I mention this because the list of keywords (ie the phrases people google to find rentergirl) indicates that many desperate people are seeking help by using variations on phrases like ‘I am afraid of my landlord,’ and ‘I am afraid I will have to move because of benefit cuts.’

I have never seen so many people indicating they are really scared, if not overtly terrified for their security. Those affected by housing benefit cuts have much to fear, and I can’t say anything that will make things better: this policy is stupid, spiteful and misguided. It infantilises adult claimants, placing a huge proportion of the claiming population in an impossible position.

Firstly, flatshares for older people (and that can mean anyone over 30) are often hard to find. Secondly there are not enough house-share suitable homes – and families need them. Thirdly, having claimants for tenants is forbidden under many buy-to-let mortgages – did you know that?

And then there’s the second part of this rising fear: ‘I’m afraid of my landlord.’

Add that to the above situation, where tenants are being expected to ask for cuts in rent, or to tell their hostile overloads that they lied, and are claiming, or have lost their jobs, and you can perhaps see why this might end badly. How, in times of rising unemployment, do tenants approach a landlord they already fear, who is acting like the grand-high-ruler of their destiny, and say please sir, can you lower my rent?

Many landlords have held on to the property they bought when prices were soaring, and are now bracing themselves for an interest rate rise which will mean they must either raise rents, go bankrupt or swallow the loss (and this isn’t sympathy – they shouldn’t have been so stupid, but it’s tenants who will, as ever suffer.)

I must be a genius, but here’s what to do: bring back rent officers to lower/cap rents. Don’t cut the benefit which is paid to landlords in any case. Don’t place the vulnerable ie potentially homeless on the front line of this. Don’t leave it to terrified people to sort this mess out. Housing is not like food: you can’t go freeganing/dumpster diving, the only other option to claiming Housing Benefit is rough sleeping, which will increase.

Tenants are being forced to move when nobody: not landlords, councils, shared houses, people looking for lodgers in two bed newbuilds – accepts benefit claimants for tenants. This policy will end badly: really, really badly, and I really, really hope I’m wrong this time.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Made For Sharing

Think of the average house-share: everybody is a bosom buddy, and in between fond group hugs, people look out for each other. Delicious and nutritionally sound meals are prepared, cooked and enjoyed together every night before occupants adjourn to the spacious shared lounge (after the washing up rota has been cheerily observed) to watch mutually agreed entertainment, after which they retire to their spacious rooms for hobbies or sleep, as their warm utterances of ‘good night’ echo throughout just like The Waltons.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

I’ve been thinking about the housing benefit rule change (my mind is a fantastical palace of wonder) and keep coming back to one problem in particular: rental properties are designed for families, not independent adults who either choose, or are obliged to share.

But first a recap: the UK’s economic downfall was caused in part by poor design. Buy-to-let chancers ‘invested’ in shoddy, flimsy dovecots/euroboxes, which always had a maximum of two bedrooms. Six month tenancies (usually bad, but here good) granted dissatisfied tenants freedom to move, leaving owners with empty flats, mortgage arrears and ultimately – bankruptcy. If only developers, investors and buyers had listened to what people want from a home.

New Housing Benefit rules mean that claimants under 35 are entitled to just the shared home rate. There aren’t enough suitable houses to go round, and in any case, families need them. Singletons who share have quite specific needs (claiming or not, as people share because rents are eye-watering) so here’s a suggestion: why not build houses aimed specifically at adults who share, but are not related or attached?

In modern houses especially, bedrooms are small, and lounges and diners are usually open-plan, despite the fact that shared home life differs to family life: meals are rarely communal, so please supply extra cupboard space for individual food storage.

Remember that many bedrooms intended for children in a family home are smaller than prison cells, so bedrooms must be larger: becoming combined dining rooms, lounges and even workrooms (some freelancers work from home, and need space for a desk and a gap between desk and bed.)

Occupants invite friends round to visit, eat and meet, so open-plan is not ideal when trying to watch a film and there is a gathering in the kitchen. Separate rooms work best here.

I say this as if anyone will care or take notice. But why not build family homes which make maximum use of space and suit family lifestyles, and then specialised homes optimising space for people who live in what are called homes in multiple occupation, that is larger houses shared by groups of people united by the simple fact of living in the same house who might not know, or even like each other, and so need defined personal space.

When will owners, developers commission buildings for rent taking tenants needs and wants into consideration, rather than applying the same old norms and practices? Generation rent need housing to suit them.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Flatmate Interviews

Flat-share interviews used to involve a basic chat, or alternatively being casually bequeathed the room by whoever vacated, moving in under cover of darkness and explaining your semi-clad presence on the landing to your new roomies. Now it’s like trying to join the SAS.

I had some bizarre experiences in Germany, where flatshares are taken very seriously. By way of background, renting is the norm in Germany, and people of all ages share a homes with an entire culture and system of manners evolving around WG’s, as they are called.

There are two extremes: one is the type of WG where co-tenants sleep communally and ‘with’ each other (ah…the 60’s.) At the other end is the British way where all people share is the front door entrance and nobody speaks at all.

Somewhere in the middle is the flatshare where residents must befriend flatmates, even attending weekly film screenings and regular communal meals. I was checking out places to live, but they take those interviews very seriously, perhaps because German tenancies can go on for years, even decades.

I attended one interview which felt like I was being assessed for work in the secret service. I was offered Rooibus tea:
Not for me…
‘Are you sure?’
Yes – I never take milk.
‘Have you tried it with milk?’
I politely declined thinking ‘Enough with the ‘effin’ milk, please.’

But I chatted, and after an hour of extracting information about me (‘…so, tell me who you are?’) I was told how things would be (keep in mind, she didn’t own the flat.) ‘I want to know where you are. We will keep our doors open, when you will buy cheese I will eat your cheese and then I will buy cheese if you have no money for cheese, and when my family come to stay, they will also eat your cheese.’

Despite being incredibly proud of British dairy produce, I was slightly reluctant to keep the entire German nation supplied with cheese. I didn’t get the flat. The interview lasted two hours.

Elsewhere, there was an open viewing/interview, with a man who stood at the far end of his flat and held court. The game was to spend time chatting with him and making him feel good about his DJ’ing career, and not minding that there was no lounge. He even had friends who were giving all prospective tenants the once over. I didn’t take the flat.

Why does this matter? Rents are rising, mortgages are rare and given only occasionally to millionaires (do they exist at all?) while new HB rules mean that claimants under the age of 35 are only entitled to the rate for renting a room in a shared flat or house.

People will be stuck for years, hiding the fact that they have children who might be coming to stay, or that their work is not steady (but who’s work is?) So get ready for those new flatmate interviews to get a lot more serious here as well.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

I was writing the most recent rentergirl post when I realised something disturbing: it wasn’t funny. No gags at all, not the slightest hint of an eyebrow raised in discreet amusement: no guffaws. Not so much as a stifled giggle.

Now I like a laugh (I’ve even written comedy professionally for broadcast, a genuine low point in my life, but that’s another story.) Some past rentergirl posts were amusing, even if I say so myself but it hasn’t been that way for ages, and I think I know why.

Rented housing in particular is a catastrophe inflicting an undeserved, relentless cascade of perpetual misery to all cursed with enduring its deathless embrace. A teeny-weensy bit melodramatic, perhaps but think about this: even if you are best pals with your chummy, helpful landlord who charges a fair rent and is top of your xmas card list, you never know how long you can stay. Assured Short Term Tenancies (AST’s or accursed short term travesties) lasting a meagre six months are the bane of every long-suffering renter’s life.

Another factor sucking joy from every benighted renter’s soul is housing benefit. People on imposed short term contracts, or made redundant find that when work dries up, or has vanished, they must sign on – yes, Mr Big City Big-Shot – even you are not immune to the dole.

Claimants scrabble to find work, and need enough to cover rent in order to avoid moving, which is costly. In any case landlords don’t want those nasty ‘scroungers’ (©Condems/Daily Mail) they want ‘grafters’ (©Blue Labour.) Sadly, Housing Benefit is set to be effectively abolished, replaced by a ‘housing component’ allocated for rent under strict and unrealistically low limits. This is going to be like a watching a slow, massive pile-up in close-up – albeit one that was predicted and preventable. That’s not to mention current odious and unworkable housing benefit caps.

Even less amusing is housing minister Grant Shapps: a man who might – to use a technical term – accurately be described as an idiot. He wants us to live on boats. Or help people buy houses when (I’m try hard not to shout but failing: that’s what caused this mess to start with!!)

Still, I want to be light hearted. My own situation has been far from a constant fountain of joy interspersed with intervals of unbridled happiness since…well, forever. But what’s to become of us renters?

Rented housing is a nightmare of repossessions, evictions, insecurity (landlords can and do give notice on childish, irrational and vengeful whims which renters cannot contest) ramped and escalating rents, shoddy standards, even landlords from hell (a rarity, but they exist) not enough suitable homes to go round, housing benefit caps, substandard newbuilds/euroboxes, the smallest homes in Western Europe, no more social housing, buy-to-let amateurs/right-to-buy chancers, letting agents (untrained and unregulated) who charge complex, fanciful, astronomical fees and have slowly eaten all the houses.

I want to laugh. I want to smile. But it just isn’t funny. Not funny at all.

Anyway: here are some more amusing posts. I used to laugh…(I'd post them as links, but Safari won't play ball.)

Monday, 2 January 2012

My Advice? Don't Grow Old

Recently, I was contacted anonymously by a tenant in their early sixties, desperate to share the horrendous housing problems they are battling. They work for low, or (when work dries up) no income. Reasons too complicated to explain here compel them to accept the reality of working beyond retirement age. They do not own property so must rent a home, and they asked for my advice.

Apart from a debilitating background of persistent poverty, their main problem is caused by one simple over-riding fact: they can’t find anywhere to live. Their landlord is selling their current place and they are now worried about the cost of living alone (they might lose work, and approaching cuts in Housing Benefit mean they will be unable to afford somewhere safe, insulated and close to their remaining social contacts, and family live abroad.)

So why not share a flat, says you. Why not indeed, but it’s not for want of trying. They’ve been looking for months – using all the usual property search sites, even signed up with agencies, albeit reluctantly as they are trying to save money. They’ve placed ads online, while responding swiftly to any flat-share ads within their budget.

But low or ‘reasonably’ priced flats are sought after, and desirable tenants are never older – even less so when they are struggling in insecure employment. Flats go to younger tenants, who must seem more attractive – not like the ‘flat-blocker’ who contacted me. Yes that’s offensive terminology but you can see what the letting agents are thinking: they deal with cruel and inaccurate stereotypes, and see only an aging tenant with impending health needs, including dementia potentially messing up their portfolio.

As for the older and impecunious prospective renter - how do they find a guarantor? Seriously: do they ask their parents (who in any case are long dead.) You think that’s ridiculous? An especially witless letting-agent nonchalantly requested such a guarantee.

This person seems engaged with the world, is erudite, educated, and judging from their message possessing a keen sense of humour. They socialise, enjoy ‘modern’ music, and are healthy. How do you explain this when they arrive and are visibly in their sixties, when all other applicants are in the twenties and thirties?

They are not ready for sheltered housing – neither do they need it. What they require is a home, a comfortable, secure, affordable home, where they can stay a while (having as much as forty years ahead of them still.) They might move across into a care home eventually, but what they need right now is the same as everyone else - a place to live.

I don’t believe they are unique. I think that there must be other people out there: older people in urgent need of flatmates their age, and/or affordable housing, not a grim, lonely garret in distant bedsitland (which is what they’ve been offered so far.)

This might happen to us all eventually, and it’s chilling. I had no idea what to suggest, so my advice is: never grow old. Any better suggestions? Anyone? Hell-ooo?