‘Who would live in a house like this?’ Jim said to me in a parody of Lloyd Grossman. ‘Clearly someone with a busy lifestyle who hasn’t time to mess with keys, as you can see from the lack of a lock on this front door …’
He went on to describe a smell akin to rotting flesh, filthy carpets and a grimy bathroom that boasted a cracked toilet and a shower that didn’t work. The kitchen was downright dangerous, he said, with a fire exit that was padlocked shut.
He was describing his own home.
Jim had a colourful past that he was not proud of, after he fell in with the wrong crowd and took to using drugs. It led to him being evicted from his former place for anti social behaviour, and it was for this reason that most housing providers were not prepared to give him another tenancy, including the local housing association: a private company that bought up local council housing, and whose rules were much stricter.
Jim could understand their reasoning, but he was trying hard to change and was desperate to break out of the vicious cycle that put him on the streets. And so his only option was privately rented housing. It had to be somewhere that would accept a tenant without a job, with minimal I.D., and cheap enough for his housing benefit to cover.
His search had brought him to this place, and it was this or the streets. On visiting, I felt physically sick. It was everything that Jim had depicted and more. There were holes in the concrete floor where it met the skirting, which was a trip hazzard besides letting in cold air and vermin. The back door – his fire exit – was locked with no keys provided. The kitchen had dangerously exposed wiring, the cooker didn’t work, and though the tenancy was for a furnished property, his sofa and bed ought to have been condemned, with all their stains and cigarette burns. It was the smell that hit me most and I could see why he said he had to think twice. Given the same choice, I’m not sure which option I would have preferred.
We had a chat about why he accepted the offer and Jim explained that a single man in his circumstances was entitled to little over £60 housing benefit per week. In an area where small flats start from £200, his budget could only afford this shared, run-down accommodation: a large Victorian terrace that had been split into ‘studio flats’ (estate agents’ term for bedsits). The state of it did not exactly attract discerning fellow-tenants, who besides not cleaning up after themselves, stole Jim’s food from the fridge.
One of the worst things, Jim said, was when his landlord called on rent days (because the rent was inclusive of bills like council tax, Jim’s benefit didn’t cover it all). The landlord would arrive in his nice car and expensive clothes, but when it came to maintenance, he was evasive to say the least.
Jim was one of many who were reluctant to report repair issues to the council*, because unscrupulous landlords have a habit of evicting people for doing so, not by legal means of course. They simply turn up and change the locks. Yes, this kind of illegal eviction can be challenged, but it involves solicitors and courts; and for people who have enough stress to deal with (or who, like Jim, have colourful pasts), it is easier to keep their mouths shut and the landlords know this.
I appreciate and agree that other tenants who have never caused problems also have a right to live without nuisance, and in Jim’s first tenancy, his landlord was right in evicting him. But there are many others who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in equally shocking housing conditions.
Regarding people like Jim though; how can we expect them to ‘sort themselves out’ and get off the streets if we don’t give them a fair chance? People can and do change. With help and guidance, Jim was well on the road to being one of those people, but an adequate, safe place to live is key to that process.
* There are means of reporting repair issues to the council, who will contact landlords. If repairs are not done, the council will do them and bill the landlord.