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?