Each Monday we host people in our neighbourhood, cooking food and eating together. For some, it’s a bit weird being in another home, others roll with it, bringing or preparing food. Numbers vary from half a dozen to 25 or more. People muck in and somehow we all eat together.
A recent Monday meal and I’m looking round the room. Times are tough and everyone is looking weighed down. I ask Marcia a regular question I’ve been asking her every week for the last few months. It’s about the flat she’s been renting (for 18 years) and the imminent eviction. “Oh, its been sold” she responds deadpan, “not that it means anything…”. The new owner is likely to let them stay she thinks, though they haven’t said that. What they will do if they’re evicted? Don’t know she says. Find another place, “though there’s nothing round here, it’s all too pricey.”
Hackney is becoming expensive, and rented accommodation scarce. Another conversation – this time Trevor. “I can count rented properties available in this area on one hand. Rent has gone up. People will pay. We’re priced out. Landlords are selling up cashing in on the Olympics.” Janice and her young kids are in tonight. Last seen months ago facing eviction and nowhere to go, she and her two disappeared overnight. This isn’t uncommon. A crisis or catastrophe and people vanish, somehow showing up weeks or months later. Janice is back. She’s found a place round. “We’re OK now. We haven’t unpacked. We never unpack. We may have to move out – it’s not worth it.”
Across London the demographics are changing. This week I’ve had more conversations with people making plans to move out. We read about attempts to move 500 families from their homes in Newham to Stoke on Trent. The cost of a flat to rent, has become too much. Research just published finds 700,000 Londoners needing to do two or more jobs to meet living costs. At least 270,000 sofa-surf, sleeping on a friend’s or family’s sofa and almost 130,000 continue living with an ex-partner for financial reasons.
I listen to Marcia. I can see them turfed out of the flat losing not just the place, but the friendships and supportive networks built up over a lifetime ‘round here’. It’s losing your home, pushed out by owners who are selling up, while landlords prepared to increase rents to eye-watering levels, price out others. I’m anticipating Janice disappearing again. Trevor will move out. What do you do?
Some follow a prophetic tradition like that recorded in the Old Book of Amos, where the author lashes out at landlords raising the rent, making life intolerable for the poor. Others campaign for change. We can all lament at the mess. Maybe we can also be inspired by people and churches, on the ground working for change.
In Hackney, the Round Chapel – a United Reform Church – has worked with individuals and churches to raise money to buy a house. This provides affordable accommodation to local missionaries, community and social workers, people working to support the local area. In a context of impossible house prices, its a small, practical and costly expression of community and hospitality. In Bradford people got together to establish ‘Inn Churches’ – growing a volunteer base of over 350 people who together offer hospitality providing almost 2000 temporary beds for homeless people over the winter. It’s a very practical offering of hope.
I’m still feeling hopeless about Marcia, long-term unemployed, beset with health problems, a friend over the years. I imagine it could be OK, maybe even the making of her. But I don’t believe it. It feels this is the last thing she needs right now. As I write she’s facing up to moving out. Out of the blue I get a text from Trevor. He’s been offered a flat with affordable rent just round the corner. It feels like a reprieve, a shock of hope in the gloom. “It’s going to be home, just for now.”