By Kaye Wiggins
Some of Lambeth’s more desirable properties, including historic cottages in Clapham’s Old Town, have since the late 1970s been home to “shortlife” tenants. The residents pay low rents – in some cases, £10 a week – but are responsible for the costs of maintaining the houses themselves.
However, the arrangement is under threat, as Lambeth council is selling the houses at auction – which, in some cases, means evicting tenants. The council claims the money will be used to refurbish other social housing.
In the first of a Brixton Blog series on shortlife housing, tenant Trace Newton-Ingham tells her story.
I came down to London from Norfolk in 1978, with a friend, and was trying to get into art college. I was 18.
We were trying to find rental property and it was impossible to find a flat. All the horror stories of trying to find accommodation that you hear now, were exactly the same then. We couldn’t find anywhere that we could afford at all.
And then one day a life model at my friend’s art school said, there are some empty houses in Clapham and the council are handing keys out for them.
The council had a lot of houses that had been scheduled for demolition but there had been a big fight to get them listed by the Clapham Society. As soon as that happened it meant they couldn’t demolish them any more.
So they suddenly had houses scattered around the place that they couldn’t do anything with. Rather than spend money doing them up, they chose to let them go to co-ops and have no responsibility and no financial outlay. It meant we could live there for free, but we were responsible for doing them up.
So that’s how we ended up here. Being 18, we didn’t have a clue how anything worked.
At first we were in a different house on this street. It was terrible. It had an outside tap and just one working electricity socket. The winter was appalling. There would be frost inside the house because it was so cold.
We moved into another house on this road, and then into this one in 1980. That friend of mine is moving out tomorrow, because of the council’s approach to short-life housing. We’ve lived next door to each other since we were 17.
Anyway, in 1980 when we moved to this house, we formed a co-op. That was because Lambeth council said, form yourself into a co-op and you can stay in the housing. Back then, some of the radical councillors were very pro co-ops.
We immediately started paying rent into the central co-op funds. We all paid the same rent. I can’t remember how much it was, but I think it was about £5 a week. We just plucked the figure out of the air because it was an amount everyone could afford. It meant we had enough money to maintain the houses and refurbish them.
After a couple of years I took on the treasurer’s role at the co-op. That was when I started to appreciate that we weren’t a permanent co-op. So we started discussing becoming one. By the end of the 80s this was very feasible.
We went down the route of officially becoming permanent. We just assumed it would happen. We attended all the right training courses and did everything we were supposed to do.
At the time, everyone looked down their noses at us and said, how can you bear to live in housing like that?
It was embarrassing to begin with that we lived in these houses because people would walk past and talk about them being derelict, and actually, you know, we lived there. It was upsetting but we stuck with it and ended up with houses that we really loved and that we’ve taken care of.
It felt very safe here. For me, that was a big part of the positive side of living here. I had friends who lived on council estates and they’d be scared to go out the doors. I lived on council estates when I was a kid, and I was scared to go out the door. It was so brilliant not to have that fear.
Plus, I like doing things to my own house. We felt that they were our houses because we became personally responsible for the maintenance and upkeep. Everything that a homeowner would have, we had, except we didn’t actually own the home.
We had a lot of artists and musicians in the co-op. I’m an artist. By the late 80s I was self-employed, selling my own stuff, though not for vast sums of money.
That was a massive freedom, that the rent was low enough that people could live in these houses in a community that was very supportive and allowed them to do their art and their music. Nobody was knocked for not making a good weekly wage. It was not an issue.
It sounds like a different world, doesn’t it? It’s mad, really.
Anyway, in the mid-nineties, when we were busy with the paperwork for becoming a permanent co-op, the rug was pulled from under our feet.
The permanency, which we saw as a certainty by that time, was removed.
That was a huge shock. We thought we’d done everything right. We’d done what they’d asked us to do. But because we were never allowed to see the licenses we never knew what our legal position was. We were too naïve to realise there could have been big political strategies going on behind the scenes.
By that time, my health had started failing. In about 1992 or 93 it started, and was gradually going downhill. By 1998 I got very ill and since then I’ve not been able to work at all, so any option of working to get a mortgage or anything like that was removed.
Around 1997 or 1998, there was a scheme for a housing association to buy up short life properties. I refused to join the scheme because you had to sign an agreement without knowing how it would work.
Because of that, a council officer told me I’d be evicted within three months. I thought, I’ll stay and see what they do.
That’s what I’m still doing now, really. It’s sort of bloody-mindedness but I can’t stand being told what to do when I can’t see any reason for it.
So from then on, for me, it’s felt precarious. Since then, we get a letter every 2 or 3 years saying, you’re not supposed to be in these houses, we’re going to evict you. In 2007 or 2008 they told us they’d terminated our licenses. We didn’t even know we had licenses!
We’re not paying any rent now. It ground to a gradual halt as we started getting threats of eviction. Nobody knew what was going on, the instability of it, people couldn’t see the point.
I stopped paying rent but I always kept the place up. I spent £1,500 a few years ago getting the roof done and that came out of my pocket, not the co-op’s. I’ve spent about £20,000 or £30,000 doing this place up over the years.
Some people have joined choice-based lettings, the council’s system for giving you housing. I think some people thought, it’s easier if I just go.
I decided not to go, because I hate the way they’ve been treating me. When I feel bullied I just dig my heels in and refuse to give in to what’s being done to me.
This house is worth about £550,000 or £600,000 even though it’s just a two-up, two-down with tiny rooms.
In some ways we’ve been fortunate to live here and in other ways we haven’t, because we have this terrible sense of insecurity which is undermining in every aspect of your life.
I do understand the point councillor Pete Robbins is making when he says you could sell this house and use the money to improve a lot of other social housing, but I don’t think they’re doing that. I’d argue the council can’t maintain their housing stock anyway.
If I thought the money from selling this house was being used properly, and if I was moved into a property that suited me, then in principle I wouldn’t mind.
But the new property would need to be pretty much like this. I have a carer who stays, so I need a two-bed place. I’m being told my carer can sleep in the living room and doesn’t need a bedroom and I think that’s outrageous.
I know I’m getting defensive because I don’t want to move out of my home of 34 years. But I also think Lambeth council is very useless. That’s the problem. I think they’ll get the money and it’s not going to be used on anything good anyway.
The problem is, the way I’ve lived is very different to how social tenants live. If I was moved into social housing now, I’d want them to take out the kitchen and bathroom and I’ll put in my own. It’s a weird mindset and it doesn’t fit with social housing.
I think different people want different things and there’s a one size fits all mentality going on and it doesn’t work. It’s easier administratively for councils. But maybe there should be different forms of housing for people who want different things.
Some people want to be able to ring the housing office if the tap is leaking but other people would not want that. That’s not catered for or even recognised.
There are very positive things in organising housing in small groups, overseen by its residents, and whether it’s these houses in this street or other situations. So I think the council should support that.
I have no idea what will happen to me next. But I have absolutely no intention of moving out.