We all have our stories to tell…

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Kelsey has been Communications and Tenant Engagement Officer for Caerphilly County Borough Council’s housing division since August 2013. Prior to this she spent three years as Community Investment and Involvement Officer at Tai Calon. Kelsey was also heavily involved in the transfer of housing stock from Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council to Tai Calon; as Communications Officer during the pre and post ballot processes. Her housing career began after graduating from university in 2003, when she became repairs clear in a busy local authority area housing office. Kelsey is passionate about addressing the stigma of social housing, tenant engagement and regeneration.

 

This is a photo of me at Christmas when I was 6 years old. Not long after this photo was taken my family became homeless….

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After my parents’ divorce and the sale of our house, my mother, brother and I lived in a house in the private rented sector. My mother was in full time employment, earning a reasonable wage and always paid the rent on time. But one day our landlord knocked on the door to tell us his daughter had decided she wanted to live in the house, so our notice was served.

As a household with just one income and limited time to find another home, we had very few options available to us. Unable to find another home in time we were forced to put our furniture into storage and declare ourselves homeless.

This isn’t a sob story about how awful it was being homeless though, as for the 6 year old me living in a hostel with around 7 other families was a great adventure! I was never short of friends to play with and school night sleepovers were always allowed, as it usually meant just staying in the room next door!

Of course there are some memories that aren’t quite as pleasant. My brother, who was a teenager at the time, was so concerned about what his friends would think about us being homeless that he refused to move into the hostel with us. He went to live with a relative and, as a result, our family was separated.

After a short time in the hostel we were moved on to temporary accommodation, before finally being allocated a council house.
I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years growing up in that council house. My fondest memories are of my time spent living there and the friends I had on that estate: birthday parties in our house where 30 of my ‘closest friends’ would squeeze into our 3 bed semi; long summer nights playing games in our street; ‘snow days’ when school closed and we would all hurtle down the hill on makeshift sleds; my mother making toast on our coal fire when we’d had a power cut.

My memories of happy times like these are endless and I can honestly say that the concept of us as ‘council tenants’ never entered my head. I know my story isn’t unique and I suppose that’s the point I’m trying to make. Homelessness can happen to anyone and at any time; when it does, social housing provides a much needed safety net for those in need.

I get angry by the continual demonisation of social tenants, perpetuated by media portrayals and stereotypes. Social housing tenants are people, just like you and me. In the 10 years I’ve been working in social housing I’ve met some amazing tenants who are doing truly brilliant things in local communities. I’ve also met lots of tenants who’ve been dealt a bad hand in life and need some support to help them get back onto the right track. We all have our stories to tell and until we have walked in another’s shoes who are we to judge?

 

I admit it, I’ve never been a social tenant..

Catrin Lewis is a Tenant & Resident Involvement Support Officer; aspiring journalist & CIH Rising Stars Cymru finalist 2014

Caitrin Photo

 

When I first learned of the Council Homes Chat campaign, I knew that it was something I wanted to get on board with. When I gave my first presentation at CIH Cymru’s conference this year, I spoke of wanting to help change the image of social housing, its tenants, and the successes that we are all a part of. I told all those delegates about how I wanted to alter perspectives and show the country what we are all made of, and who we are.

However, when it came to writing this blog, it turned out that it was incredibly difficult to put into words how I feel. I admit, I have never been a social tenant, and probably never will be. Yet I feel incredibly strongly about the benefits it brings tenants, communities and the country as a whole. Despite three years studying it and a lifetime of a Neighbourhood Officer mother talking to me about the Right to Buy, I still have never understood why government deemed it an excellent idea to sell off one of Britain’s greatest assets. I despair at the prospect of having to choose between living with my mum for what feels like the rest of my life, or being at the mercy of a private landlord who won’t see me as a person, but as a series of numbers and figures that will be filling their bank balance each month. Mostly, I’m disappointed that I will probably never be a part of the communities that the South Wales valleys used to be filled with. Strong, vibrant communities which cared for each other, came together in time of hardship, and worked to make their neighbourhoods better places to be. These are now fractured, limping along, a shadow of their former selves.

Even when I applied and gained my job at a Housing Association, I think even my perception of council tenants was a little skewed by whatever popular scrounger story was in the newspaper. Quickly, I met tenants who worked hard to support their homes and household, wanted to make a difference in their community and most importantly, were sick of being told that they were akin to the scum of the earth because of their tenure. These tenants were from all walks of life, held different jobs, held different values. They were, I realised, wanting to smack myself in the face for being so daft, just like everyone else in the world.

As I’ve come to meet more of those involved with social housing in one way or another in the last year, I’ve realised one major problem. People see housing as a necessity and everyone would agree that each person deserves somewhere to call home. Yet, unlike roads, hospitals, and schools, previous political figures and those in authority have done a fantastic job in trying to downplay the amount of responsibility the government should have towards it. Everyone knows that a decent home with a secure tenancy provides the basis for improved educational attainment, employment opportunities and health, yet we are essentially told that we do not deserve homes unless we are at the very bottom of the rung. We have been told this until it has become a part of the British psyche, that social housing is for the scrounger, the teenage mother, the person with disabilities, the elderly.

So what does social housing mean to me? It’s security. It’s safety. It’s something that we’re in danger of losing; renamed and rebranded on the sly until it no longer means what it meant to. I may never live in a council house, but I will defend the right to it, and the reputation of those who live within it. I will fight for more to be built, helping to create jobs, restore communities, and solve this housing crisis that we are all a victim of.

 

These three walls..

Rob is a social housing tenant, former IT professional, full time carer for his wife and inspiring blogger

  ROB

The fairly recent rescue of my wife and I by social housing in 2007 isn’t the first time I’ve been caught by the ‘safety net’ that council housing represents. I think it can be difficult to understand the value of a home. It’s something we all take for granted, and I’ve been struck by how the call by CouncilHomesChat for people to tell their positive stories has brought forward such touching and personal tales – as if one of the four walls of the contributors’ homes have been peeled away, so we can see what having a home really means.

This is part of my story about the first time my family needed a safe, decent home and couldn’t afford one. It starts when I was 14 and living with my parents and my brother. It touches on a time when things were difficult for us, and I imagine that as homes are currently becoming unattainable for many, this is an increasingly common theme for people who find themselves subject to the ever-changing eligibility criteria for social housing waiting lists. That’s before we get to the added stigma of being assumed to be some sort of disruptive influence.

The picture Paul Diggory posted of his ID card reminded me of one of my Dad’s first ID badges. For my Dad, it was a badge which said “Draughtsman” on it, and although I can’t remember who his employer was, it was the job that set him on the road to his own business, running both the office and working on the tools as a partitions and ceilings outfit, employing people who became fixtures in my childhood. Much of the time I spent growing up with my Dad was spent in, on or around building sites. I think it was a time before Health and Safety had properly taken hold.

draughtsman set

It was Dad’s success at his business that funded my Grammar School education – Like Paul I have a clear memory of the day I’d passed my entrance exams – probably the most animated I remember my Dad, who was a quiet, thoughtful man. I remember him bursting into my bedroom, envelope in hand, so excited about what he knew, that he struggled to slow down enough to explain what it was he was holding. I don’t know where my picture of me wearing my cap and grammar school uniform is now, but it was another interesting parallel to Paul’s story.

Both these things – my Dad’s business, and my attendance at Grammar School, came to a halt when the building industry buckled in places during the recession of the 1980s. Having sworn he’d never do a job he couldn’t afford to cover, or work for main contractors he didn’t really trust, he ended up doing both. When the bottom fell out of the development he was subcontracted to and he didn’t get paid, his company folded and with it, the foundations of my parents marriage, which had already been under a lot of strain.

BUILDING INDUSTRY

After those foundations gave way, he moved out, leaving Mum, my brother and I in the family home my parents owned. The school fees didn’t get paid and I was hastily found a place at a local comprehensive school. As I struggled to adjust to these changes, suddenly in the uncomfortable position of being the oldest male in the house, the house was repossessed when the mortgage wasn’t paid. I found my Dad’s first ID badge in the loft, as we were filling boxes to clear it out. I was 14 years old and putting a brave face on everything. I don’t remember the order everything happened in, and I was probably close to 15 by the time we moved into our first council house, a top-floor Maisonette, considerably smaller, colder and emptier than the home we left.

I have a lot of stories about that home. I built my first ever set of flat-pack kitchen units there. I think I did a pretty good job for a 15 year old. I came to understand that community isn’t about the people in the adjoining and nearby gardens of a comfortable middle-class life. I adjusted badly to having to find new friends and study for GCSEs. I was an angry young male. Crucially though, I had somewhere to live. It wasn’t idyllic. Some of our neighbours were probably not strictly declaring all their incomes. A lot of the food we ate was fresh but bought cheaply from a charismatic guy in a beaten up transit van, who also did a good line in knock-off VHS tapes and an ever-changing inventory of tat. Then there was the washing powder he sold – big boxes of the stuff (presumably damaged in the fall from a lorry) a recollection that had drifted deep into my memories until I saw ‘Benefits Street’.

We were safe there. It was a mix of people of different ages and outlooks and aspirations, and we survived. I had somewhere to eventually settle into school work, though I think my brother struggled more with this. We stayed in the maisonette long enough for me to pass my GCSEs and get my first part-time job in a supermarket, which was handy for helping to pay the rent and bills, and long enough for me to start A-Levels and take my first driving lessons, and long enough to pass my driving test.

We simply couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.

Perhaps towards the end of the 1980s, after early flushes of the ‘right to buy’, the provision of social housing was already beginning to be about rescuing people, and not about communities and homes. We knew our neighbours, and they knew us. The people who lived around us, then as now, didn’t fit the negative stereotypes we’re bombarded with now.

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There are principles that underpin social housing. As well as being a safety net for people in need, it’s a decent, essential model for building homes for people that can’t otherwise afford them. The public debate about housing and benefits increasingly turns this kind of tenancy into a discussion about units. Units of housing, and the numbers of people who require them. These descriptions work against the original principles of providing safe, decent homes for families.
There must be some florid comparison I could make about being given the safety and security to stop, breathe, and have a chance to change the direction I was going in from an angry, self-destructive one to something a bit more positive. There were still a lot of imperfect things about living in our first council ‘house’, but it became a home of sorts.

Perhaps I’ll get a chance to tell other parts of these stories – about babysitting for the other people who lived there, perhaps in my naiveté not realising where my neighbours went at night. About having a parking space for my first car, bought for £20 from one of the history teachers at my school. Maybe stories about having somewhere sheltered to live, even when it became apparent that on top of my Dad leaving, my Mum had decided not to live with us either. There’s probably a story or two to be told about moving from that first maisonette to a street of brand new council homes, though today that seems more like the kind of thing that happens in fairy tales.

Without the safety net of social housing, we wouldn’t have had the support we got, even if sometimes it felt like a threadbare weave that held us up. I’m sure I’d never have had the breathing space I needed to get to University and have a chance to choose bits of my own destiny. While politicians and public debate confuse aspiration with the desire to own a house, I wonder if there’s enough space to address the more fundamental need to give people a home – whatever their economic circumstances.

SAFETY NET

In quieter moments I sometimes draw comparisons between my first council house and our current one. It seems like a different world in many respects. One of the things that underscores both tenancies is the sense that, as social housing tenants we’re just like everyone else. We probably rely more on the social fabric than people who have more generous financial means, but we’re striving for the same things – a sense of self, a sense of worth and a way to be part of a settled society. That television is continuously painting us as some sort of other, as it revels in the selective details of the lives of a minority of people is a real problem. That this media is aided and abetted by a political narrative of blame and envy is even more of a problem.

I’m not ashamed of the communities I’ve lived in, and I wonder what it is that drives politicians and television production companies to try and pour shame upon us. As I try and fathom out why the positive force of social housing has become embroiled in a debate that has lost sight of the value of homes, I can only hope that a glimpse inside these three walls will help people see that homes are important for everybody, especially families who need a little extra support, like mine did.

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“I often say I owe everything to social housing..”

Tom Murtha

Tom Murtha

Chair of HACT, Plus Dane Group board member and Emmaus Coventry Trustee

I often say that I owe everything to social housing. I discovered recently that this is truer than I had realised.

I have been reading my Mam’s diaries and in them discovered another date among the birthdays of my brother and sisters. It belonged to my older brother who I knew had died at birth in 1947. He had been born in a breeched position and those in attendance could not save him. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Leicester the location of which was only known to my Dad. I was born 5 years later in 1952 and even though I was breeched I survived. Maybe I was just lucky but I believe that it had something to do with the place of my birth and the medical attention my Mam received.

Tom at 5 months having survived the trauma of his birth

Tom at 5 months having survived the trauma of his birth

I was born in the bedroom of a new council house on New Parks Estate in Leicester unlike my brother who was born in a shared terrace slum. I also benefited from the support of a proper midwife and doctor provided free by the newly established NHS. My parents could not afford such help in 1947. Part of the reason for my survival were two of the great social initiatives created by Anuerin Bevan who had responsibility for health and housing in the post war Labour Government. These initiatives were continued by the Conservative Government in the 1950s. I am a product of an era where there was cross party support for investment in the welfare state. It provided my home, my health, my education, and if things went wrong a safety net. In those days politicians of all parties realised that there were many social and financial benefits from investing in these provisions.

Toms Mam and Dad on their 25th wedding anniversary just after they were housed as homeless by Leicester City Council

Toms Mam and Dad on their 25th wedding anniversary just after they were housed as homeless by Leicester City Council

Today’s politicians seem to have forgotten this and all of these areas are threatened in a new age of austerity. The immediate casualties of this are those in care, those in receipt of social security and those living in any form of social housing. And there is more to come. After 2015 there are more plans to continue to shrink the state. This will lead to further attacks upon the welfare state, the public sector, local authorities and the NHS.
The government call this a moral crusade. But I know of no “morals” that involves demonising those living on benefits, poor people, people with disabilities and those living in social housing. This so called crusade began by stigmatising these groups and then penalising them with cuts. Why is it that poor people are paying the highest price for the recession when those that caused it benefit? I often think that is only when the welfare state has gone completely will peoples realise why it was originally established.

Tom and his wife Vivsha on the day before they were married

Tom and his wife Vivsha on the day before they were married

I believe that social housing is under attack as part of this policy and that the people who live in social housing are at risk. When everything else that supports people and communities is taken away social housing is often the only thing left to provide an anchor. Our ability to do this is being eroded. Funding for real social housing is almost non-existent. The right to buy and sale of social housing assets is reducing the supply of social housing even further. Those homes that are left will slowly be converted to so called affordable rents which is political newspeak for rents that are too high for people to afford. Recent research has shown that those who used to be housed in social housing are being excluded for financial reasons. All of this shows that we are witnessing the slow death of social housing and until recently we were doing nothing about it.

I am pleased to say that this is no longer the case. People and organisations are coming together to champion social housing and to make the case for Government investment in it. People are arguing that it does not have to be like this and that there is another way. If we are to build the number of houses that are required in the UK we must bring back state investment in social housing. What we did it in the 1950s we can do it again.
There seems to be only one economic doctrine today that says state investment is wrong. This of course is not true and there are other doctrines which champion it. Even if you can’t change doctrines you can change priorities. The current approach is based upon political priorities not economic ones. If we change priorities then state investment in housing could begin again. To put it simply I would rather have investment in social housing that HS2. The case is simple. By providing homes you provide hope, you create jobs, and you save money in revenue costs by providing capital investment. We all know that you can’t build subsidised housing without a subsidy. What we forget is that subsidy is just another word for investment. This is an investment that makes huge returns for today and tomorrow.

My family benefitted from a political consensus in the 1940s and 1950s which understood the value of state investment in social housing. Having survived my traumatic birth I grew up in a number of council houses and once when we had been homeless for 9 months in 1964/65 the council rescued us. I was married from a council house and eventually my parents died in a council bungalow in Leicester. When I cleared their belongings with my one remaining brother, who still lives in social housing, I found a box that contained my Mam’s diaries. I could not bring myself to read them at the time as it was too painful. They were left in the box for 11 years until I was able to read them. It is through them that I now know of my older brother’s fate. I also know how my Mam and Dad felt when they moved into their first council house as a young couple full of hope in 1950 and how much they enjoyed their final years in the security of their last council bungalow. First and foremost it was their home and even though I have been married for 40 years and have lived in a number of places I still regard it as my home.

Toms Mum and Dad in their last council bungalow

Toms Mum and Dad in their last council bungalow

That is why I am willing to fight to defend social housing and to argue the case for investment in it. For me it was a matter of life and death and it still is for many more.