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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue