Generation Rent, we were, even though we were a bit old for it.
Not by choice but by circumstances. We were a little bit older than most, with a little less time for a mortgage. I got married in 2008 to someone born in Zimbabwe. He has a British passport and his parents came from Birmingham. His dad, who left school without many qualifications, was one of the children of a former maid who had been sacked for taking an illicit piece of apple pie from her employer (and thank goodness for that tempting treat and mean spirit) and the widower who married her to help him cope with the children he had already after his first wife died. I never met him, but have heard tales of his mischievious sense of humour – telling the children for instance, that Father Christmas wasn’t coming ‘this year’ because his sleigh had come down on a landmine.
I would have had words to say to him about sending his sons off to board in Salisbury (now Harare) and never turning up to support in sporting events. (“Did you know Bob, that the prefects used to drop children over the bannister from the second floor? Yes, they caught them, yes, but did you know what was happening in that place?’ for example.)
I would have asked him if it was necessary for the children to have to hang out of the back window of the car with a gun because of the terrorist threat and why he chose to have them sleep out in the garden instead of in the house? (It probably was. The closest family to them were murdered one night, including a teenage girl, in the most brutal way imaginable.)
Maybe. But maybe, I would have asked him also about building projects. We have a small area of ferns in our garden named Fernhill to remember him. This was the name of his house in Birmingham, built with friends, who were all in the building trade. Electricians, plumbers, brickies, painters, carpenters…they helped each other build a small street of houses. From this he went on to being offered a job with a firm either in Zim or Malaysia, so his first children were born Brummies and the next four in Zimbabwe. Now, they are scattered around the world and I’ve never met my brother-in-law in Pretoria.
Mother-in-law designed her own dream home on a farm next to a game reserve including rondaavels in the grounds ‘for the servants’ but now lives in a council flat in Brum as they got divorced and she moved home to care for her own mother. My husband moved first to South Africa – with his first wife – and then to the UK. He almost turned around and went home when he saw the price of petrol and the parking at the airport, but didn’t and rented a home from a landlord which he was still living in when we met – also our first home together. When we got married, his older children were still at home so I became a step mother to teenagers. After some turbulent times (one refused to speak to me for three weeks but then needed washing doing, one was going through a difficult time for other reasons), they moved out to independent homes. I wanted to have a new start and didn’t see why we couldn’t start looking to buy a home so we moved to a ‘try before you buy scheme’ run by Bromford. We were tenants, but it was a new home. Three weeks later, and scarily early, my tiny son was born. We counted our blessings (and his fingers and toes) as we were now only minutes away from a big hospital with a neonatal unit. Also, unlike many traumatised families there, we didn’t have our baby in a different city to where we lived. We offered support, and a sofa for the night if needed to families we met there – our postbox-sized spare room being taken up by my step son once again as he had lost his job. (For the record, he took himself to night school after this, trained as an accountant, got married, saved up, has just bought his first home in Brum – and is now a lovely big brother.)
Then we learned that two of the main supporting walls on our former Private Rental Sector home had collapsed.
So, premature baby, in hospital for weeks, constantly in pain and crying because of hernias, step son learning the ropes of early child care (and how to use a washing machine), swine flu pandemic and then the riots that spread across the country.
After the riots (which I am very proud to say did not come to our town – they had better sense and more neighbourliness), and having to drive for an hour to get ‘anywhere green’, we moved down to the Forest of Dean. It was close enough to get to my family in one day, but far enough away to feel as though I’d moved somewhere else. We looked for 18 months for work, then my husband got three offers of interviews in Gloucestershire. We had friends in the town we live in already and had done extensive searches on house prices. The only places lower were in the Welsh valleys. We rented for two years privately – a house owned by a local GP. He refused to listen to what we were saying about damp problems and the walls were paper-thin. We all had asthma, including our toddler.
We moved again. Homeless again, for two weeks while the documents went through and staying with friends and after the sale almost fell through four times, but we moved.
Thanks to some lovely friends and their families, we were able to get a shared ownership home. Our local connection was a bit tenuous but we did pass the test and have always tried to give back in terms of volunteer work in the church, school, and community. I’ve since found out that my great, great grandmother was from hereabouts. While that doesn’t count at all in anyone else’s book, it did make me happier about living here. I miss our gregarious, fun-loving, multicultural friends in the Midlands. I worry about the down side of growing up in a small town and seek to instill positive values in my son. I worry about his future but at least we have a small share in a house that we can pass on to him.
When you have been homeless (I have), had to sleep in a doorway because the doormat insulates you from the cold (I have – once), had to worry about forms for housing benefit (I have), had to write notes about what to do about the bailiffs because of debts other family members ran up (I have), have lived in a housing association flat and been driven out of it by threats from neighbours with machetes (I have), had your career destroyed just as you were starting out by illness and bullies (I have), you appreciate sturdy, well-insulated walls, a roof that doesn’t leak and being on the right side of the door when the estate agent leaves you. (Even if your small child then howls the place down because ‘It’s not home Mum! It’s not my home.’)
But there are those around us that are suffering because:
- There are no lifetime or inheritable tenancies any more
- Soil was mismanaged to such an extent on our estate that gardens became insect-infested swamps so inert that not even weeds would grow in them, let alone grass
- No regard was paid to the nascent community or how that would develop, cut off and isolated from the rest of the town
- No plan was made for looking after the public areas, or the only road access (#OakdaleRoundabout)
- Some houses appeared to be showing signs of subsidence just a few years after being built
- Planning permissions changed and new houses were put up blocking the light to living rooms in flats owned by a housing association. They couldn’t be bothered to check this before it went through. Nobody challenged it. Nobody cared enough.
- Many, many houses sold off cheaply at auction are now in the (as previously discussed) far from secure or safe private rental sector).
So, UK Housing, really, truly, there is no one who appreciates a home we can afford in a beautiful place we’re not sure we deserve to live in more than me, but is this a model for the future? Are profit-driven schemes doomed to always be like this? How are we planning for best values for future generations? Are we at all? I have satellite photos from Google Earth that show the area planned for Phase 2 of this grand housing vision that was funded by the Homes and Communities Agency. It looks for all the world as though top soil is being skimmed off years before any work begins: an environmental disaster as we have seen here, as well as an economic failing on the part of the housing associations who have (after vigorous campaigning) had to put right many of them as best they can – which means adding paving, reducing permeability and increasing flood risk. Fighting fires. Not a long-term strategy and with the prospects ahead of us, one that we need to talk about for the good of ‘the many, not the few’.