Do we not all deserve a place we call home?

Renting in the private sector means an omnipresent lack of stability, the invasion of privacy and the constant threat of being moved on.

 

I had my disagreements with M in the past; every time dramatic gestures would amplify his laughable threats that came straight from films and TV.  But on this particular occasion, as I sheltered in the doorway to my bedroom, I was shocked by his peaceful movement and expression, so at odds with the situation, as he advanced down the hallway towards me, dragging the baseball bat behind him.

M, and his partner O, previously strangers to me, were my flatmates in a shabby little South London flat.  Earlier that day O had ended their relationship, and on the come down from a coke binge M imprisoned her in their bedroom, beating and strangling her.  Hearing her cries for help I intervened, and just in time. 

Through 12 years of renting in the private sector I have found that sharing, even with friends, can be traumatic.  It requires a willingness to make uncomfortable compromises and the ability to forgive.  What should be a place of safety and comfort can very easily become the site of conflict and unrest.

The government’s decision last year to increase the age of entitlement to a one bedroom flat from 25 to 35 for a single Housing Benefit Claimant was perhaps a signal of their intentions rather than the reflection of an existing social trend.

As the pressure for a flexible and mobile labour force increases whilst wages go down and rents go up, sharing accommodation with strangers will become the norm, particularly for the young.  Compatibility between co-tenants is a gamble, particularly considering the unavoidable intimacy of the relationship.  And behind closed doors there is little protection from bullying and violence.

Commitment to a fixed-term contract and the inordinate cost of securing new accommodation can mean that once entered the situation is inescapable.

What will be the effect on the incidence and severity of mental health problems as the number of people living in conditions of persistent uncertainty and anxiety increases? Sadly, experiences like mine with O and M may well become more common.

Of course, privacy and stability are issues common to all tenants in the private sector.  To rent is to live in a house, not a home.

Right now, I am lucky to have a reasonable landlord; still, I am often reminded that this isn’t my home.  I must periodically submit to invasive flat inspections and nosey workmen who enthusiastically report back to the landlord as though I am under suspicion. 

A homeowner is master of their domain whereas the tenant has a master in their landlord.  The privacy afforded to tenants and homeowners is distinct.

When the people upstairs forget to turn off their taps and with every unavoidably defunct appliance I inch closer to making an enemy of my landlord, despite my contractual obligations and his.  Costing him money, pissing him off, will mean moving again – as soon as the contract expires I will be asked to leave.

Homeliness is a patina; an accrual of memories and emotional attachments.

The reality of renting is that each situation is only ever temporary. 

Like many people of my generation I will probably never own a home of my own.  I am instead destined to pay the mortgage for somebody else, investing a significant proportion of my income in an inheritance for someone else’s children.  But this goes beyond the flow of money from the poor to the rich.

The poor find themselves at the bottom of yet another hierarchy, this time with their landlord at the top.  With only the qualification of relative wealth, landlords have potentially devastating power over their tenants. 

Like trees that cannot spread their roots, the poor have no anchor in a storm. They can be destabilised and moved on with very little effort. Unlike homeowners, tenants in the private sector have no foundation, no belonging.

Last week in the Spectator , oozing with good intentions, Housing Minister Mark Prisk declared “I’m determined to make the Privately Rented Sector bigger and better.”  

Forcing more people into private sector tenancy ensures that the poorest are detached and powerless; unable to fight for their right to freedom. 

Do we not all deserve a place that we can truly call home?

Unlike homeowners, tenants in the private sector have no foundation, no belonging. Photograph: Getty Images
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.