As I progress through life I become more aware of the costs of living a lifestyle that is considered to be unconventional. I have been documenting my recent trials with renting, but this week I have encountered a new hurdle: the HMO licence.
Let’s back up. As a freelance self-employed artist, music and media producer, mid/post-pandemic depending how you look at it, I cannot afford to rent a place by myself in London. It might have been just about doable with the help of Universal Credit, but the government in their infinite wisdom have now lifted the suspension on the Minimum Income Floor, (clearly post-pandemic is the way they look at it.)
The Minimum Income Floor means that as a self-employed person if you don’t manage to find enough work in one month or another, they will assume that you earned a full time minimum wage, even though you didn’t. They will then only give you the amount of benefits that you’d be due if you had earned that amount. Which you didn’t. So in a bad month you could be left unable to pay your rent. Essentially this means you’re better off unemployed than self-employed.
During Covid they suspended this MIF because they rightly assumed that self-employed people would be royally screwed by the pandemic – I’m not suggesting that other groups were not screwed as well – so they gave us a bit of leeway. But come Freedom Day that leeway is over. Nevermind that the budgets of those who employ us have not nearly recovered yet, and that many of us will never get back the regular jobs we lost that used to keep things ticking over.
So the dream of the solitary creative attic is suspended too, for now. At least until the producers of Outlander finally pick up my recent Scottish-inspired track ‘Coming Home,” and I become a household name. Ideally in time for me to have my own household…
Speaking of households… So now I managed to team up with a couple of other wandering musicians looking for homes in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And we found this gorgeous house. A family house you could say – tastefully decorated, spacious, nice garden.
Excitedly I pick up the phone to request a viewing. “Are you related?” says the agent? “No,” I say, “we are friends who wish to share.” “This house is only available to family.” “Well, we are all part of one human family aren’t we?” That’s not how it works though.
HMO is a house of multiple occupancy. This means it contains more than one household – wait, I hear you say. How can you have more than one household in a house? Yes! It doesn’t make grammatical sense – or any other kind of sense.
So one household could constitute a single person, or a couple, or a family. Three single people who have chosen to live together and share space, as a family might – and in some cases a whole lot more than a family might, especially one with teenagers – are considered to be three households.
In order to rent to two or more “households”, a landlord needs to purchase an expensive licence, and change every door to a fire door and install industrial fire alarms. So naturally some landlords are not keen to do this, and therefore we find ourselves in this situation where landlords and tenants alike are worse off.
But why?? Well let’s refer to everyone’s favourite brash high street letting agency. According to Foxtons:
“The purpose of licensing, especially for HMOs, is to ensure that residential accommodation within the Private Rented Sector (PRS) is safe, well managed and of good quality with a particular focus on safety.”
Ah safety. That word again. Stay safe! Stay at home. Stay safe. Except when you don’t have a home. Or you’re a victim of domestic violence. Or your home is the site of a trauma that you are forced to revisit daily. No safety then.
So it’s for our own good. Because as intelligent free-thinking adults we are incapable of making a decision about what we will or will not put up with in terms of living conditions. And it’s fine obviously if you’re all members of the same family, for the standards to be lower.
And somehow these so-called standards did not extend to the flammable cladding that caused the horrific deaths at Grenfell. Something is broken. The system is failing.
In reality what happens is that everyone suffers. As an agent I spoke to said, “the landlords suffer too because a lot of the time a family is not able to afford a house that three professional sharers can. It’s ruining my business.”
This morning it happened again – the second nicest house we had seen – called up excitedly – nope, families only.
I suddenly had a recollection of the 1990’s movie Greencard. That film was sold to me as a romantic comedy, and it never occurred to me at the time I watched it to question the disturbing premise that a solvent single professional woman was not allowed to rent an apartment because she didn’t have a husband.
What is happening here is not entirely different. As in many areas of life, those who do not follow the traditional heteronormative path are penalised. Remember in lockdown when single people basically weren’t allowed to have sex. No one talked about that at the time. Those of us with physical needs had to sneak around feeling ashamed by the intense messaging that we were basically killing old people by seeking out a completely necessary human intimacy.
Not in Holland though incidentally – and other countries, where single people were encouraged to take lovers. But here in the uptight UK single people just didn’t get a mention.
And here it is again. Had I got married and had a child I could rent the apartment of my dreams, like Andie MacDowell’s character in Greencard. But since I chose to pursue an artistic career and stay single, I can’t. Why can’t three single people opt to create a household, or a family together? Why in 2021 is a romantic or sexual relationship the only legal basis for partnership?
It’s hard enough to live in this city as an artist. Like many of my friends in this position I occasionally drool over the rents in other cities and ask myself why I don’t move to Aberdeen or Liverpool or Leeds. And I could, I could. But London is my home. I made it so and I’ve built a life for myself here. Not in the way that some of my friends have, by owning property and having kids. But by the networks I have created, the connections I have formed, the many communities I am part of. I love this city. I love the multiplicity of nationalities, ethnicities, genders, I love that it is a place people from all over the world can come and feel at home.
I love that when things are open, as is starting to happen again, I can find all manner of obscure and delightful art forms, performances, galleries, things I could not have imagined, but somehow exist. This variety feeds me, inspires me to keep creating myself.
Do I want to become an expert on Houses of Multiple Occupancy regulations? You’re damn right I don’t. I want to find a place where I can sleep relatively undisturbed and get cracking on my 4th album. But life deals us these cards and that dictates the game we have to play. So here I am, playing it, once again, not giving up because for me there’s no option.