A woman huddles close to the heater in her London flat, in a picture taken in 1934. Photo: Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images
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My rented house is not my home

There’s only so much twenty quid and a trip to Ikea can do.

I’ve lived in my rented houseshare for seven years. I’d previously rented a room nearby from a friend, who moved abroad. For various reasons, I had to find somewhere to live in a hurry. I’d just graduated from the London College of Fashion, was writing freelance for the Independent on Sunday, I’d been on Woman’s Hour, I was, by some definition, “successful”. But without a regular income my housing choices were limited. I looked at one place where the furniture was all on its side and a tree was growing through the wall. My dad helped move me to the best place I could afford, with fairly hands-off letting agents who wouldn’t check if I had a proper job. I knew I could pay the rent, I just couldn’t prove I could pay the rent.

My house, shared with four others, was fine at first. My dad pulled a face and the shelves off my bedroom walls (DIY tip: rawl plugs are your friend; stuffing holes with tissue paper is not) and called it “a student hovel”. I called it “faded grandeur” and focused on the Victorian fireplaces, pretended the black-and-white check of the peeling laminate flooring was tile, ignored the hole in the hearth in my bedroom and the bellowing noise of the toilet’s Medieval plumbing. According to the contract, it was rented to us as furnished. Hmmm. The ‘coffee table’ in the sitting room was two wooden construction pallets topped with a dusty piece of hessian. There was a dining room; it contained nothing but a hideous Freecycled bamboo picnic table. The beds in each room comprised more wooden pallets – of slightly fancier construction; varnished, even! – and a mattress. If you don’t look too closely at stains you can pretend they’re not there!

I mopped my wooden floors. Bought my own curtains. You can do a lot with twenty quid and a trip to Ikea. In the back yard, I dug up the dead tree and the cat shit and the beer kegs and the rusty bicycle wheel; got a compost bin from the council, planted climbing roses and jasmine and two hydrangeas. My housemates and I joined the local Residents’ Association and volunteered at the street parties, painted walls at events to rejuvenate the neighbourhood, wrote letters to the council when late-night bars sprung up and men began following us home along the street, cat-calling. We threw out the sitting room’s wooden pallets and bought a coffee table from Oxfam, a dining table too. Our neighbours in the Residents’ Association gave us a vintage sideboard that we filled with fancy-on-a-budget wine and we had people round to dinner. I made tacos!

In the first couple of years, our shower broke. In the winter. ‘It’s always something with you lot,’ the letting agent complained when we rang with the news. We washed our hair in buckets filled from the kettle while we waited for them to get round to it. The first plumber didn’t bother grouting the tiles; our dining room below sprang a leak. The second plumber didn’t bother with a tile cutter to get around the shelf, he just smashed a tile and mosaiced it to the wall. The dining room leak returned. The third plumber stopped the leak; his grouting was OK. (He also installed our shower upside-down and said things like, ‘Say what you like about that Hitler, but…’.) The boiler broke: it’s always something…

We couldn’t afford anywhere else to live, and we had a garden, bus routes to work, a life, friends nearby. The rent went up.

Almost two years ago, January 2013. I woke to a gentle, rhythmic “thwunk thwunk” noise in my bedroom ceiling. I was living on the first floor now, the big but freezing front bedroom, single-glazed to the noise of a street that now filled with fights every Friday night. But it had that lovely, gorgeous fireplace (fill your hot water bottle, ignore the draught), and was warmer and quieter once I bought my own curtains. And London was expensive – it feels like my Oyster fares have doubled in the ten years I’ve lived here, but maybe I’m imagining that. Back to the “thwunk thwunk” noise: the roof, or maybe the gutters, or the radiator upstairs, was leaking into my bedroom ceiling. But the water hadn’t fallen through the ceiling yet, my room was dry. It was a reprieve! There was time to stop this!

I told the letting agent straight away. About a month later, a plumber came round to fix it. He couldn’t find an internal leak, so he told the letting agent to get a roofer. He left my bedroom ceiling open to the joists, to the winter air: no sense in closing it up, replastering, when the roof needed repairing. They didn’t schedule a roofer for weeks; I kept calling. It was winter. Eventually a man came, peered out of the attic window, concluded there was no problem, then leant over me in our dark hallway while we were alone in the house and told me to ditch my boyfriend and go out with him. I bared my teeth in the polite smile of the uncomfortable. He suggested I hadn’t understood what he’d said, repeated himself. When I finally got him to leave, he called the letting agent to say the roof was fine; they rang me and asked, ‘Why did you ask for a roofer? It’s expensive, why did you do that?’ It took several weeks of phone calls and emails before they closed up the hole in my ceiling, replastered.

Seven months later, October 2013 now. Thwunk thwunk thwunk. The leak was back. It had to be the roof, or the gutters. The gutters that leaked into the neighbour’s flat so that they complained about us. I was given a number for a roofer and I rang him twice a week all winter, and he forgot, or he couldn’t come, or he could come round but right then, that minute; except right then, that minute, I was at work. I also rang the letting agent regularly, asking for a different roofer, one who could make an appointment maybe; and could they also fix the fence that had blown down on Christmas Eve in the storms? Eventually would be OK, sometime this century, even.

We did minor repairs ourselves. Bought new toilet seats, fixed the flush when it rusted clean away, stripped the moulding wallpaper in the dining room, cleaned the mould with some kind of industrial strength spray, used anti-damp paint, repainted the whole wall. Filled the house with furniture and books. Kept throwing dinner parties, but bought extra blankets and advised everyone to drink a lot of red wine, it gets kind of cold in here. The roses and jasmine in the garden were joined by tomatoes, honeysuckle, clematis. We bought curtains for the sitting room. We didn’t throw all-night ragers. We were in the freaking neighbourhood book club! Most importantly, from a legal rather than whimsical standing: we always paid our rent on time.

Eventually, March 2013, I gave up ringing the roofer. The letting agent never responded when I emailed them about finding a new one. Spring came, the rain stopped, so did the thwunk thwunk noise, for a while. I had a full-time job and a book to write and a bunch of intense personal issues that are not entirely my business to write about here. But anyway besides, I was tired of ringing the fucking roofer every week. And the leak hadn’t actually come through my ceiling.

On 15 October this year, the leak came through my ceiling. I put a bucket (actually, a large Tupperware, previously home to chocolate parkin) on my floor, surrounded it with the thick plastic sheeting my new bed quilt had come packaged in. The leak was kind of messy and didn’t always hit the Tupperware. I needed the plastic, too. I called the letting agent that day, followed it up with an email. Mentioned that, sure, we’d agree to the rent increase they had recently suggested – if they’d fix the major repairs. The leak in my front bedroom ceiling; the damp in the back bedroom. We agreed, even though the notice of increase came on the wrong form, with the wrong names, and the house was much, much worse than the student hovel my dad had moved me into nearly seven years ago. There’s only so much twenty quid and a trip to Ikea can do.

There was no reply, except another letter – again, with the wrong tenants’ names on it – explaining they’d got the rent increase wrong and it was actually this much more. Not that other amount. LOL, soz. My housemate emailed to repeat that, yes, we would agree to pay it: when the repairs were done. About a week later we were told a roofer would ring my housemate. We asked that he ring me, instead, so I could arrange the appointment. My ceiling, my time off work. He rang a completely different housemate and asked to come round right then, that minute. It wasn’t possible. We all work full time, to pay these rent increases, keep our stock of Tupperware for leaks intact. He didn’t ring back. We asked the letting agent again, could someone ring us and make an appointment. If I took a day off and let them know, would someone come round? I had a day off, as it happened, and told them so. I rang them again. And again. And again. And again.

Eventually I sent a brief email (brevity is a thing I am capable of, despite this blogpost), with a much less colourful timeline of these events, to the letting agent. It had now been three weeks. The Tupperware had to be emptied of its yellowing contents pretty regularly. (In rereading that sentence, as part of the whole, I feel I ought to mention: the Medieval plumbing works fine, I use the Tupperware for only its intended purpose as a leak-collector; I assume the yellow is the result of charming London smog. Or maybe there’s asbestos on the roof!) The heating had broken down at this point, and it was raining pretty much always. They finally agreed that yes, this was urgent, and the handyman would ring. Could he come round right this minute? I sighed, explained that whole pesky job thing, and he came round two days later at balls o’clock a.m.. I gave him a key, went to stay at my boyfriend’s house for the weekend, where – Hallelujah! – there was a roof without a hole. I came back on Monday. There was still a fucking hole in my ceiling.

It needs a roofer, the letting agent told us, CC’ing my granny with some rudimentary egg-sucking instructions. Told us, not unprompted: we had to beg over two or three emails for some update to the saga. We know, we replied. Check the timeline. A few centuries passed and no roofer or updates materialised. I sent a further email, still polite but slightly less full of peace and goodwill to all men than the time of year warrants, but, y’know. My duvet was, by this time, moist. My books are crinkling. I moved to my parents’ house. The train is only 50 minutes to London, but factor in the walk to the station, getting to work at the other end, the train times, and my daily round trip is four hours. I bought a seven-day ticket: £92.50. Surely this would be fixed in a week!!!!

The letting agent emails my housemate to ask why we haven’t signed the new contracts? We have to pay the rent increase NOW, this CANNOT wait.

I reply with another, even less humorous, email. They agree: a roofer would come, on the Saturday. I’m supposed to be editing a book, but I can give up my Saturday if this guy will fix my ceiling. If this guy turns up. (He turned up. He even found the hole in the roof! I want to call the gross roofer from two years ago and say, See! See! If you spent your time actually looking at roofs instead of creeping out tenants, this problem might be fixed! I also don’t want to call that guy ever.) On Monday I hear nothing from the letting agent, but get a call at 6pm from an entirely different roofer. By the time I sort out what’s going on, I’ve missed the train to my parents’ house. I get home late; this second roofer is scheduled for the next day. He showed up, too, and found the hole, too. He quotes my letting agent too. That was a week ago.

~~~~~~~Silence~~~~~~~~~

The council comes round to inspect the damp and they don’t even bother sticking the little dampometer machine into my bedroom walls. Elsewhere in the house it shrieks like the Ghostbusters have found Slimer, but in my room the Tupperware O’ Suspiciously Yellow Roof Water speaks for itself. The brown stain creeps towards the light fitting. I’m freelance and staying home for this inspection costs me half a day’s pay and holiday pay. The council will write to the landlord asking them for their response to ‘the issues’ in ten days. Also, we have woodworm, did we know?

I buy my third seven-day ticket. I email the agent: hey, heads up, I’ve now spent £319 on train travel (there was another ticket on top of the three season tickets, my maths is sound). Happy seven-week anniversary to the hole in my ceiling! Bon anniversaire to the mould on my windows! My duvet is like a sea sponge! My lovely new quilt is pretty much done for, but thank goodness for its handy plastic sheet packaging, eh? I don’t tell them I have bronchitis, and a whole bunch of stuff going on, and I cannot travel for 20 hours a week and pay £92 a week AND pay the rent and stay sane. Somewhat sane. Chronic stress-induced insomnia, albeit caused by more than just the fucking hole in my fucking ceiling, is not helping. (And I’m one of the lucky ones. My parents live near enough; I have money enough.) I keep it brief. I keep it to: When. Is. The. Roofer. Coming. Please.

“We apologise for the inconvenience,” they reply. “The landlord is making a decision.”

A friend of mine challenged her rent increase this month; she received an eviction notice yesterday. Her description of her rented house on the Guardian makes it sound a lot like mine (hers is more succinct, btw). The Tenancies Reform Bill, aimed at preventing retaliatory evictions, failed last week. I can’t withhold rent without risking my housemates being evicted; I can’t move out because who would they rent the room to? A sewer mermaid? A really rich frog?

I have a job. I have my parents’ house, and my boyfriend’s house, and I can pay rent on a room I can’t live in and train fares, for a while. I am hugely privileged. I am one of the lucky ones. My landlord is making a decision.

This article first appeared on harrietreuterhapgood.com and is crossposted with permission. Follow Harriet on Twitter: @hapgoodness

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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