There are many ways in which you can wake up, but being abruptly forced into consciousness by the sound of water pouring through your bedroom ceiling is not one of my favourites. This was Sunday, and it marked a dark moment in our housing situation, a state of affairs that I am beginning to view as little more than a series of dark moments, some of which, considering the broken light in a windowless bathroom that we endured for three months earlier this year, have been literal as well as metaphorical.
While I was crying on the phone to Shelter this past weekend, Mark Simmonds MP was no doubt reflecting on the “intolerable” nature of his expenses. The £27,875 a year rental allowance to which he is entitled (plus £2,500 for each of his three children) was not enough money for a family home in central London. Simmonds is, naturally, not prepared to live anywhere less than a stone’s throw away from Parliament, and though his claim that there is no suitable housing has been found to be nothing short of unadulterated bollocks (the Times found several three and four bedroom properties within his price range), he has now resigned from his Foreign Office post, or, to use terminology reminiscent of the coverage of his colleague Baroness Warsi’s departure last week, has flounced off in a diva-ish hissy huff, the big girly girl.
Simmonds’ case makes me wonder just how much more the Great British Public is willing to tolerate from these minted Tory parasites. Crybaby Simmonds earns £89,435 a year, pays his wife up to £25,000 to be his office manager, and until he became a minister in 2012, had a £50,000 consulting job with a private healthcare firm. Last year, he was dubbed the most expensive MP in Lincolnshire by his local paper after he claimed £173,436.96 in expenses. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions from the fact that such a staggeringly large sum is dear for Lincolnshire but maybe relatively modest compared to other, less sausagey counties.
Boris Johnson once famously described his £250,000 salary at the Daily Telegraph as “chicken feed”. Presumably £27,000 doesn’t even go as far as that. It may be enough to maintain the bloated, blood-filled ticks nestling amongst the chicken’s feathers, or to finance a small flea circus. Perhaps Simmonds could take me on as a consultant. In my new advisory role I’d be able to inform him that maintaining a colony of weevils costs roughly £1,200 a month (less than the cost of a special house for your ducky ducks, not enough to maintain a moat), though I can tell you from personal experience that it costs far, far more in emotional expenses. I’d hazard, also, that Simmonds has never been forced to take a shit by candlelight, and if he had, it would have been because of aesthetic and atmospheric considerations, not through necessity.
Seriously, though, just how does he think the rest of us manage? In the midst of a housing crisis, at a time where families have been forced to leave central London due to the benefit cap of £500 a week introduced by legislation voted for by Simmonds, it doesn’t just leave a sour taste in the mouth: it is fury-inducing. Many of us lucky enough not to be couch-surfing or cupboard-dwelling tolerate leaking ceilings, damp, mushrooms growing from the walls, pest infestations, broken boilers and gardens filled with fox turds and mattresses and are supposed to be grateful for it. And when we do confront our powerful landlords, we are told that the mould is our fault for breathing too much and that the repairs may take six months, if they happen at all.
I keep my rented flat despite the hole in the roof and the oven that doesn’t work and the cracks in the ceilings because it is the only claim I have to a home. The rent is relatively cheap for an area that is becoming increasingly gentrified and will soon become unaffordable, especially if Giles Coren insists on continuing to enthusiastically review local restaurants. I live a stone’s throw away from the hospital in which I was born, and the first house that I ever lived in, which also had a mattress graveyard for a garden. There is a large, white mark on my wrist from when, as a toddler, I fell on some broken glass while playing there. This place has given me scars, but it is my place, and I would be heartbroken to leave it.
The other thing that stops me going is hope. The hope that I will earn more money, as at the moment nearly fifty per cent of my earnings go on rent and, despite what several snide (and rather wealthy) critics have implied while discussing my book advance in the national press – making a regular living from writing is a challenge. Then there is the hope that they’ll come and fix the ceiling, if we hassle them enough, though the word “hassle” is key here. I wonder how many others in the vicinity are living in poor conditions, and how those without the education or assertiveness or tenacity might cope. We are able to quote the relevant statutes, to talk of putting them on notice and housing ombudsmen. We have an internet connection which allows us to send the 500 or so emails required for a response, and phone contracts which enable us to spend hours on hold. We are not suffering from depression or another mental illness, and so the thought of being endlessly volleyed from department to department is irritating but not enough to make us give up and go back to bed, hopeless and cold. We know our rights, and are not so frightened that when Shelter tell us that the nature of our tenancy agreement means that the landlords could evict us for kicking up too much of a fuss, we refuse to stop making that fuss.
We are, in other words, lucky. But still, what we would do for £27,875. What so many of us would do. The whole thing is intolerable.