On turning 50, I realised I’d never own my own home. What bank would agree to give a mortgage to someone with no regular source of income? Even if I did somehow hold down a job, I would have just 15 years until retirement age.
For a while, I was depressed. Owning your own home is the British dream. Why else would all those property shows I drool over be so popular? I won’t have anything to hand down to my kids. What sort of loser am I?
Then I remembered: I live in a five-bedroom Victorian terrace in Islington, which is owned by the council. At £650 per month, our rent is far less than what private tenants might pay for a flea-infested bedsit in the same area. When the toilet gets blocked, the central heating breaks or the roof blows off, we make a call and the problem is fixed for ‘free’. And while I can’t pass on my home to my kids, I can pass on my tenancy.
Best of all, not having a hefty mortgage has meant my wife and I have been able to be there for our children throughout their lives. Some of our home-owning friends have had to work long hours, miss school assemblies and trust their children’s care to family members or au pairs. While many home-owners can barely afford a holiday, we have several a year. Last Christmas we were in Australia; the year before we spent five weeks in America. We can’t pass on much in the way of capital, but we can provide our children with plenty of memories.
In case you’re thinking I sound impossibly smug, I should point out that my life hasn’t always been like this. Having been booted out of home in 1983, aged 16, I spent the next eight years sleeping in basements, squats and on sofas. I ended up sharing a windowless room infested with maggots above a Holloway Road curry house.
In 1990, when I discovered that the Peabody Trust was allocating bedsits to young, single males in need of housing, I applied without hope and forgot all about it; then, a year later in 1991, I received an offer for a tenancy of a Clerkenwell bedsit. I still have the letter. After seven years in the bedsit I was given a one-bed flat in Sloane Square; a year later, in 1999, I swapped to a two-bed place back in Holloway with my partner. After 17 years there — during which time we married and had two children — we swapped a further three times, finally moving to our current place in November 2015. To my delight, I discovered the house has security of tenure; it means that unless I do something demented, I’ll have a roof over my head for life.
In my years as a social housing tenant, I’ve been able to study, travel and write, secure in the knowledge that so long as I keep paying the rent, I’ll always have a home. The importance of secure housing cannot be stressed enough, yet the number of new places built each year has fallen from a peak of roughly 220,000 in 1953 (under a Conservative government) to just 8,000 during the entire 13-year Labour Blair-Brown government.
Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy benefitted my own family, who bought their social houses, but meant that many of the most desirable properties were lost forever. Revenues from the sale were not ringfenced to build more homes and yet the need for new homes is growing. By some estimates, three million social homes must be built over the next 20 years to meet demand.
Social housing has an image problem. It is seen as providing homes for welfare-junkies, who are to be pitied, resented and feared. People who don’t live in social housing can’t understand why anyone would want to. But for me, it has been a godsend. Younger people paying exorbitant rents to modern-day Rachmans are quite right to resent my position. To them, I’ve won the lottery of life, and explaining about all the years in condemned housing and windowless rooms cuts no ice.
It amuses me, though, how people of my age respond when they discover I live in a council house. Perhaps it’s my imagination, or that persistent and totally inexcusable chip on my shoulder, but some seem to visibly shrink back. Conversations about house prices and interest rates are irrelevant.
Unfortunately, most of the current government appear to have zero understanding of social housing or the people who live in these properties. (A charge that could equally be levelled at most of Corbyn’s inner circle and much of the media.) The recent introduction of something called Affordable Rent, whereby tenants pay a rate much closer to the private market in return for a less secure tenancy, is a classic example of bad policy. It leads to higher-earning tenants being pushed out into the private market and their homes being taken over by people who might not have the same investment in the neighbourhood. If you means-test social housing, it acts as an incentive not to work too hard. Why bother trying to get a better job if it means you will be turfed out of your house?
More than a million families are currently on waiting lists across Britain, including more than 100 families who were made homeless in the Grenfell disaster. Sometimes I feel a pang of guilt that my family of four live in such a large house; so far we’ve been unable to find anywhere smaller with a secure tenancy, mainly because nowadays councils and housing associations prefer ‘fixed-term’ or ‘flexible’ tenancies which enable the landlord to get tenants out much more easily. I understand the attraction for landlords, but there has to be a middle way: allow tenants who take care of their homes and get on with their neighbours to stay as long as they like; get rid of the ones who allow their homes to fall apart and make life hell for their community.
The vast majority of tenants simply want a quiet life. One or two problem families do everything they can to ensure that doesn’t happen. There’s another way we can free up social housing to those most in need: boot out the scumbags. Though the term ‘chav’ is unfair, I think it’s going too far to claim, as some do, that the word is anti-working class. Most social tenants know who the chavs are: tracksuit-wearing, tattooed, monosyllabic morons who prefer pit bulls to books. My grandparents, by contrast, who lived on the same estate for 70 years, were avid readers, sent all their kids to university and stayed in the same house even when (after much soul-searching) they bought it from the council.
The British are obsessed with owning property. A home is regarded as a symbol of success, even if the only part of that property not owned by the bank is the doormat. But not everybody can own a house. Far from being a loser, living in social housing has made me feel like one of life’s winners.
Should councils turf out the social housing tenants whose circumstances improve? Mark Piggott and Luke Doonan discuss (at 23:30).