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18 June 2023

In my renter’s mind, a broken boiler valve means I might have to rethink my entire life

I collect, compulsively, stories from friends of rents being raised in response to maintenance requests.

By Hannah Rose Woods

My boiler has had a bit of a breakdown again. Which is why I’ve had one too.

It happens like this: something minor goes wrong in my flat, and even before I report it to the landlord I begin to worry quite fundamentally about my security as a tenant. I have a panic browse of nearby lettings on Rightmove; I shock myself anew at how much rents have risen since I last did this. I mentally tot up my income over the past few months and start to worry that my career has been rendered unaffordable. A valve on my boiler has broken and I may need to rethink my entire life.

I can see this isn’t normal behaviour but who’s to tell me, categorically, that this isn’t going to happen? How can any renter rationally feel secure when they know they can be evicted at any time, for no particular reason, with little notice?

I collect, compulsively, stories from friends of rents being raised in response to maintenance requests; of 20 per cent increases arriving out of the blue; of being asked to pay 12 months’ rent upfront in order to secure a new lease.

We vie to outdo one another for the best/worst rental horror stories, such as the time I had to move because my landlord told me I was not allowed to work from home, or the time I reported a leak and came home to find a hole sawn in my bedroom ceiling.

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And I’ve been relatively fortunate, compared to so many people’s spells in rental hell. A few years ago, I exchanged, for roughly the same cost, a single box bedroom in London’s Elephant and Castle for one whole flat in the East Midlands. What a bedroom that was to be precariously housed in, in a Georgian terrace that once accommodated grooms and coachmen to serve the grander houses in the adjoining square. A century later the houses had been subdivided into flats for working-class families – including, briefly, a young Charlie Chaplin – and by the 1970s the area was almost derelict. Now they are, once again, tremendously unaffordable houses, and the servants’ quarters a place where young professionals will gladly part with half their income for a house share.

I moved into my Nottinghamshire flat before property prices rose faster here than anywhere else in the country. I have no issues with mould whatsoever! I have a spare bedroom! I have nice, quiet neighbours! As far as I can tell, my landlord (mediated by a lettings agency) exists in a state of remote and almost benevolent neglect, in which – I am assuming – I accept having doors that don’t shut properly and a bath panel held together with duct tape, in exchange for him not putting my rent up.

Except I don’t know that. So in the absence of reassurance I worry about entropy, and the boiler getting old, and the fridge getting old, and everything else beyond my control that means, at any moment, there’s a chance I’ll have 60 days’ notice to come up with a different life plan.

[See also: Michael Gove’s Renters Reform Bill is “unenforceable”]

I’ve been watching Shane Meadows’ period drama The Gallows Pole – the true-life tale of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a gang of textile workers turned money forgers in 18th-century Yorkshire. In the opening episode, soon-to-be gang leader David Hartley returns to find his village fallen on hard times and that the spinning wheels have stopped turning.

Instead of counting my 21st-century blessings, I keep imagining how nice their houses must be now. And I’m quite taken by the mugs they quaff their ale from, which look exactly like the kind of earth-toned, handmade ceramics I lust after in Toast.

These aren’t the kinds of thoughts I usually have, when contemplating the transition from cottage industry to textile mechanisation. But clearly I’m not the only one. “Shane Meadows TV drama shows Cragg Vale on its knees but here’s why it is now a des res village” ran a recent article in the Yorkshire Post. A few years ago, I’ve learned, David Hartley’s farmhouse went on the market for £950,000.

I’ve constructed a little fantasy of bougie domesticity for myself: wafting around my Georgian workers’ cottage in a chunky Toast cardigan, standing in front of mullioned windows in dappled sunlight and arranging eucalyptus stems in a stoneware vase, or placing a single pear in an earthenware bowl. I’m so very sorry to everyone at the sharp end of the First Industrial Revolution that they’re now furnishing the aesthetic material for my fantasy version of Escape to the Country.

[See also: Housing crisis: A generation locked out]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars