On a back street, behind a row of cheap bars and chicken shops, in deepest, darkest east London is the first flat I lived in. My new flatmates, four of them, and I, we shared it. In exchange for almost 70 per cent of our incomes, we shared the damp, and the mould, and together we strategically placed a second-hand rug over the black spots of mildew, eating their way through the wooden floor. The cat lazily chased the odd mouse away. I was working in my first job as a magazine journalist which, more than five years ago, I perceived as achingly glamourous. I offset the charm of the publishing world with shoes that grew mould in my rotting wardrobe.
It is a housing horror story, yes, but it’s not uncommon. And I know that I am lucky. I am privileged to have had a roof over my head back then, and a slightly better one now. I am lucky that now, since I moved from the alleyway behind the takeaway shop, everything I own does not permanently smell of greasy chicken. But, given my experience and that of my friends, I’m also dolefully unsurprised by a new report from Shelter, which found that 43 per cent of us are living in homes which are not up to standard.
The survey, which analysed homes over 39 points, was released as part of a campaign by the housing charity to introduce a “living standard” for homes akin to the living wage. One-quarter of the homes surveyed across the country failed to meet the housing living standard on account of affordability. One in ten of the homes failed due to insecure contracts over the period of occupancy: the pervasive anxiety of dealing with a “cash in hand” landlord or the fear that rent could be increased without warning. Unsurprisingly, more than one-fifth were deemed below standard due to problems with vermin, safety hazards and damp. More than 70 per cent of homes in London failed to reach the standard.
We’re familiar with the feeling that we’re living a double life, working hard all day in reputable jobs only to get back home to a place where the windows weep and even the cat can barely stand
At its heart, the report echoes and underscores what we already know: Britain is failing to protect the poorest in society. Shelter’s worrying findings come just nine months after the Conservative party voted to reject a move to enact Labour’s amendment to the housing bill, a call to ensure rented homes are fit for human habitation. What the government have done is focus their attentions so heavily on home ownership that council housing introduced to protect the vulnerable is greatly suffering. From April next year, they plan to implement a controversial “pay to stay” scheme under the Housing and Planning Act. In a nutshell, it means that low-income working families in social housing will be hit by rent hikes they likely can’t afford. On homes that are, as this latest news shows, probably not up to scratch as it is.
For people like me, we are privileged that we have been afforded half decent housing. But alarming numbers of us still know what it’s like to sleep in a room that is perpetually cold, to get locked in a cycle of head colds from the damp and to lock the door with a hope that it’s secure enough; to sleep with one eye open because it might not quite be safe.
We’re familiar with the feeling that we’re living a double life, working hard all day in reputable jobs only to get back home to a place where the windows weep and even the cat can barely stand. We’re familiar with the act of nipping to the toasty pub down the road instead of cranking up the heating because we can just about afford four quid on a pint for a couple of hours of warmth, but not the hefty gas bill at the end of the month. Begrudgingly paying cash to a dodgy landlord knowing you’re sacrificing your rights and security, but unable to afford anywhere else.
And – here’s a harrowing thought – we’re not nearly at the bottom of the housing ladder. Once upon a time, the government built housing under the principle that everyone deserves a basic standard of living. Now, Britain’s most vulnerable – in unsafe and insecure housing, those who don’t have a home at all or who are facing homelessness – are up against far worse than living in the vicinity of questionable chicken shop or a few mice. How did we get here?