Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Looming Threat

For some lucky people, renting is a glorious world, a constant fountain of glee, contentment, joy and freedom, with tenants waltzing from one ideal home into another lovely residence. All interactions with owners, letting agents and well, darnit - everyone serve to reaffirm the tenant’s faith in human nature. Rented homes are grand, repairs are prompt and prices are reasonable. Happy days! But even fantasy renting is about to get a whole lot worse. It's the news of 'home-owner's soaraway house price delight.' Hooray!

I am as ever dubious that prices are rising as much as claimed (compare 'prices asked for' with 'prices achieved'). In London demand is high and supply is tight, but elsewhere - like less salubrious parts of Glasgow - the cost of a home is stagnant after a fall. Mostly, I believe that febrile, rising house prices are extremely disadvantageous to tenants, especially those saving to buy, but more especially, any tenant whose landlord is one of those so-called 'forced' rentiers, who own homes they cannot afford to sell due to negative equity. Boy can they be difficult.

Often, they do not inform the mortgage company or insurers, which leaves tenants vulnerable if they default, or if there are structural problems with the building. They are often ignorant of the law related to renting out property. They can also be very bitter, and more than other owner resent their tenants, who they view not as the nice people who are keeping them afloat, but as irritants, who whine and bleat for repairs. (Landgirl is the exception to this sad reality.)

They hope to sell up as soon as possible, a fact they often hide form tenants. In the worst examples, they inform tenants not by carefully consulting, thedn arranging for viewings when it is convenient. Nor will they jeopardise their rent by giving notice to tenants, giving them the benefit of certainty. Occupants face having strangers traipsing in and out at their capricious leisure. I've even been told of rentiers attempting to retain deposits because the home they were trying to sell was deemed not to be clean enough to pass muster for viewers, which, politely put, is cheeky.

If acting properly and respectfully, they sell with vacant possession, and so, inevitably, tenants will have to move. The bad rentiers insist on multiple intrusions - viewings at awkward, random times. They will expect the property to gleam.

They might even let themselves in unannounced with some random people to gawp, as once happened to me. An editor I work for was in bed with his girlfriend, but told 'Just hide under the covers until we're gone.' Or there’s my friend 'Dave' who was enthusiastically and athletically expressing his love for his boyfriend.

This will hit if prices rise. Landlords who do not wish to let homes for the long term, and plan to offload their property ASAP must be compelled to inform tenants, who already endure the tyranny of institutionalised insecurity, and live knowing they might have to move every six months.


Monday, 11 November 2013

Family Homes.

So let's return to those tens of thousands of new homes currently been promised and planned for by everyone - that's all governments, developers, and everybody.

As I have said previously, I strongly suspect that in reality, this means the resurrection of the dreaded 'dovecot' - that is, rickety, thin-walled, tiny, jerry-built one or two-bed flats provided for the delight of buy-to-let owners, and not the spacious, well-designed family homes we need. The last time there was enthusiasm for buildings, we ended up with vast, yawning, panoramas of matching newbuild low-rise blocks of flats, which are probably starting to fall into disrepair... right about now. Well - those that aren't falling down.

First off, we must define 'family'. We need to define family where idiots like Jeremy Hunt are bemoaning the fact that we don't all welcome our elderly parents to live with us, despite that bedroom-tax thingy, and the UK having the smallest homes in Europe, etc. Families in actual, real life are complex creatures.

They rarely comprise of neat interludes of 2.4 children per heterosexual life-partnership. No: families are blended (that is when two partners with children from previous relationships share a home). They mighty even be multi-generational - with grandparents sharing to be cared for themselves, or to care for children. There will older half-siblings of varied gender, perhaps returning home to save or in breaks from their studies. All or none of the above is likely to be employed to do shift work which comes with anti-social hours. Some might be disabled, and so require specific access facilities, and space for health equipment.

In all honesty it's always been that way. Tenants – even owners – must live in what they are given. But now we must cater directly for real life. Privacy is essential, and rooms situated in other storeys, as sticking to two floor houses might not work anymore. We need separation of rooms dedicated to different uses. The current trend for open-plan living defeats different modern life: people need a quieter study space, and room for eating and distracting 'entertainments' like television.

They will also need sufficient storage space for everyone, for clothes and other possessions, and of course proper sound-proofing. I'm really interested in the idea of the 'passivhaus' built with triple glazing, excellent insulation for warmth, and heated by warm air circulating. This would bring an end to the spine-tingling fear, guilt and recriminations when the one person at home turns on the heating.

This typically, untypical family I've created also needs a good-sized garden, with some space to grow food (I am not expecting any more allotment space to be set aside any time soon.) The kitchen should have enough space for energy efficient food storage ie large, economical freezers, and cupboards for bulk buying food so as to economise.

So that's what we need: a new initiative for three-story, spacious, sound-insulated, passivhaus's, each with enough room for every family member to have a seat at the table and another in the lounge. Is it too hard? I can hear developers everywhere laughing disdainfully even as I type.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Who Pays The Tallyman?

Here's another post inspired by an anonymous reader's story. She shared her tales of the many malevolent and odious actions of her former landlord in London. He had suggested that if she was struggling to pay the rent he would 'go easy on her if she was 'nice' to him.' We all know what that means: my correspondent moved out straight away.

Her email coincided with a planned post about how the bad old days are returning, by which I mean the power of the 'tallyman' or other regional, colloquial terms for rent collectors. In the old days, in the very old days, housing was not seen as a right. Tenants were grateful to have a roof over their heads, even a hovel crammed to the rafters with hungry families.

Occupants were exploited: squeezed into slums, with several families living in homes built originally for just one. Landlords controlled the destiny of anyone they condescended to accept the rent from, and abuses were rife. Once per week the dreaded tallyman knocked on the door, and if the week had been a bad one, with the man of the house out of work and consequently away, the lady of the house would answer. If they were behind with rent, her only hope of avoiding homelessness and the workhouse, was that he might generously allow one week's grace and let them stay. But this was more sinister than it sounds.

In order to ensure the indulgence of the landlord, the woman of the house, alone perhaps because her husband or father was hiding from debt collectors, was occasionally obliged to offer a 'sweetener' to the tallyman. That is, in order to ensure her family had somewhere to live, and secure the small mercy of delayed payment, she might be compelled to offer, or likely, have been asked under duress, for sexual favours.

This was in an era where moralising notions of the 'deserving poor' dominated the law and social policy - when impoverished people were seen as being in need because of moral laxity. The hypocrisy of these judgemental attitudes is breathtaking. Prostitution was a constant threat, or dark 'opportunity' for the desperate, but if the tallyman bragged the woman might be deemed a loose woman, and forfeit her reputation, her children and consequently, her home.

Supposedly, we live in more enlightened times. But the clock is ticking backwards. Research by Shelter and The Joseph Rowntree Trust confirm that increasing numbers are in rent arrears, terrified of eviction and afraid to negotiate with unsympathetic private rentiers (this is one place where I especially hate the word landlord) so let's remember this.

The minimum wage does not pay enough for rent, alongside sufficient heat and proper amounts of nutritious food. Social security pays less. Faced with a choice of hunger or homelessness, heating or eating what choices will tenants be forced to make?

Tenants will do as they were obliged to in the bad old days. The truly desperate will sell their belongings and ultimately themselves, only to find they are judged and punished for it.

And around we go.