I am a single mum living in Hackney, London. Last month, I joined a renters’ union.
After years of housing struggles that have shaped every part of my life, and which are shared by millions of people in this city, the decision to sign up was easy. Nine years ago I had a baby and was faced with the reality that I was never going to know for sure where my son and I would be living for longer than 12 months at a time.
Like more than 1.8m families with children in London households, we rent from a private landlord. That means that every year, two or three months before my contract is due to be re-signed, I’m faced with the same low-level anxiety. Is this it? Will we be asked to leave? Will they put the rent up, and by how much? Will we be able to pay it? Where else can we go?
In these circumstances, you might get lucky and continue to hand over £1,400 per month to pay some else’s mortgage. Or your luck will run out, and you’ll get evicted. It doesn’t matter if you paid your rent every month and looked after your home, if your kids are enrolled at the local school, you’re getting treatment at a local hospital, or depend on a local support network. If the landlord says go - it’s time to go.
This is what happened to me. After more than four years and £54,000 paid in rent, I got issued with a Section 21 notice to leave, also known as a no-fault eviction notice. It said that I had two months to find somewhere else to live. My heart leapt into my throat and I felt nauseous. Our home! But after the initial shock I accepted what was happening and hoped things would be okay. The hunt began for a new home.
When I began to respond to property adverts online I was faced with a barrage of questions. Do you work? Yes. Do you work full time? Yes. Who is the flat for? How old is your son? How much do you earn?
When I tell them my salary I’m shot down. “I am sorry, you need to be earning at least £37,000 a year to rent this flat”. The requirement increases: £41,000, £42,000. I explain that I receive housing benefit to top up my rent, have a UK guarantor, and landlord references to confirm I’ll pay. Not one lettings agent budges.
One tells me they don’t take guarantors for any properties. Another says they had a bad experience with tenants on housing benefit and won’t take any anyone on DSS. One landlady tells me her leasehold forbids renting to anyone on housing benefit. “It’s those people that don’t pay that are ruining it for the rest of you,” I’m told.
Even my letting agent, who knows I am a reliable tenant, cannot find a landlord who is prepared to let their property to me. We face the very real prospect of becoming homeless and being placed in temporary accommodation.
This is despite the fact that I am able, with housing benefit, to pay rent. I am not disabled, a carer or long-term unemployed. My work is not precarious. I have the right to work legally and have access to a support network. What about those trying to support their families on minimum wage jobs, who don’t have contacts to help them out, who are elderly or sick, or have insecure immigration status?
Five months, two court dates and a huge amount of emotional strain later I find a flat. I had to lie about my income, and two others had to lie on my behalf. We stepped back from the edge this time but in the private rented sector it feels like we could fall from the precipice at any time.
All I want is a home: somewhere I can tell my son this is where we live, where you can grow up and learn to face the world. As a private renter I don’t believe I will ever be able to offer this to my son.
I am taking a stand to counter the tired lines and policies of successive governments who have proved time and again that they don’t give a f**k about those of us who will likely spend our lives in the private rented sector. I have joined London Renters Union because power holders have shown they are incapable of making the changes we need. I have joined the union as one of three million renters in London. All of us face exorbitant rents, poor conditions and lifelong insecurity. But together we are powerful. If renters join forces we can win decent conditions and an end to profiteering from people’s basic need for shelter.
I want the right to make a home for my family. I want to see an end to the discrimination against people on housing benefit. An end to no-fault evictions. I want to see the housing benefit cap and market rents scrapped.
Eva Smith is a private renter living in Hackney and a member of London Renters Union, a union for renters in London that is campaigning to end no-fault evictions #endSection21.