Karl is a resident caretaker on a North London council estate, where he has worked for about four years now. He works for the Estate services team as a resident caretaker at two North London council estates that include high-rise and low-rise buildings, maisonettes and some council owned houses nearby. He is responsible for over 250 properties altogether. He has always lived in a council estate: as a child with his grandparents, later with his wife and now with his son. In this blog, Karl shares his view on his work giving insight to where he lives.
His job description is varied to the needs of the residents and the council. He does everything from sweeping autumn leaves from the council pavement to clearing stairways, recycling, checking lifts, keeping the outside of the residential areas clean, helping some elderly residents and keeping an eye out for anti-social behaviour on the estate. He says every neighbourhood has a drug problem in inner city London and the estates suffer from anti-social behaviour, gangs, vandalism or things as vile as human faeces on the stairs. He sometimes has to call the police, but does so only when provoked or harassed. It doesn’t happen often.
From the age of eight until today Karl has lived in six different council estates and council houses, which are similar to town houses as opposed to flats. He says in the old days, there used to be the tenants association that brought together the resident’s community, which would also arrange Christmas parties as well as field trips. The concept of tenants association barely exists anymore and Karl thinks the idea of community has vanished. This, he says, may be due to the fact that people move often nowadays and their families are very mixed from various countries around the world. No one bothers to organise to become a force that would implement the demands of the residents in the monthly council meetings like they used to.
Karl enjoys working outside doing physical work and prefers this work to a ‘pen-pushers job,’ as he put it. He has gotten to know some families over the four years and often gets odd demands, like cat sitting or keeping an eye on a flat when its tenants are on holiday.
He believes there is no sense of community because the times have changed. According to him, when he was a kid, kids were not shooting or stabbing each other, nor selling drugs or spending all their time on the computers. He believes that an increase in urban populations and the ‘must have’ culture due to aggressive advertising on TV puts pressure on kids today to become more violent. Now there are isolated families with kids in gangs who struggle to survive in their estates. Karl thinks youngsters of today prefer to draw a knife to having a good old fist fight, since they would rather avoid physical harm.
Karl says it’s very hard to get a council flat or a council house because it is a long bidding process. If you are on top of the waiting list or if you have more points, you have a better chance of getting a council property as a part of the social housing scheme in the UK. Karl waited three months for this two bedroom flat where he lives now but he got it relatively fast because he was already working for the council by then and as a council employee he had more points, thus giving him priority on the long housing list. Many London families can sometimes wait for over a decade for a council flat.
Karl is the first point of contact for the residents on the estates for which he is responsible. He also helps the ill or elderly and those who ask him to help with menial tasks like throwing out their rubbish. Residents are expected to look after their own flats, especially if they are leaseholders. The council provides gas and electricity supplies but the residents are expected to be cautious about safety on their estates too. Plumbing and electrical problems are looked after by the council, as well as all construction issues.
The Decent Homes Programme brought some of these properties up-to-date adding double-glazing and upkeep of these buildings that date from the 1940’s – 1970’s. The roofs often need new tarmac or re-plating the slates. Fly-tipping or communal waste is a common problem. Waste is often left on the stairs and in the common land, which invites foxes and rats. Karl is aware of a lot of things on the estate, but sometimes avoids conflict by clearing up the residents’ messes for them. Communal security and anti-social behaviour are social problems that he would also rather avoid. He’s gotten death threats for confront youths smoking on the stairs. Luckily he has not come across any physical fights, although he has had to move along groups and gangs, who hang around the estate so they can smoke and hangout in communal spaces.
Since Margaret Thatcher’s option of lease holding scheme called ‘right to buy’ in the 1980’s came into effect, a lot of council properties are now privately owned. Karl thinks this is the main cause of the housing crisis in London, because the leaseholders can and often sub-let. Karl says that a lot of people bought properties just to let them out, which in turn proves that they did not need the accommodation in the first place, thus taking it from families who did desperately need it. Council tenants were allowed to pass the council flat to their relatives (but after the 80’s, when lease holders were allowed to pass it to whomever they pleased). Private owners are now a majority where Karl resides, so in effect he is working for the council providing a service for private property owners. This explains why Karl’s estate is fairly quiet and with many middle-class residents.
There is a part-rent part-buy scheme but most pay heavy deposits to become leaseholders. He thinks this option for private ownership is one of the main causes for social housing shortages in London. To solve the ever-increasing hosing demand in London, the council has to build more cheap and affordable accommodation. The issue is that they will also be up for grabs if people become leaseholders on these new properties after living there for a certain number of years.
For new families joining council waiting lists, they would have to be homeless to be re-housed in the social council housing. The council flat in which Karl lived after his divorce was a nightmare, he says. He moved into a flat that was previously a ‘drug den’ and it was falling apart. He had to work on this flat for two years, but before finishing it he found work within the council and soon moved into his current two-bedroom flat.
Karl says that although jobless and homeless people are eligible for a council property, there is a lack of cheap and affordable social hosing in the UK for low-income families. Karl is also concerned about the increase in population, which means that the housing needs are not being met in line with the demand. Therefore, Karl is frustrated that landlords can abuse the system and charge as much rent as they like.
With so many cuts in the social services sector, there is going to be a cap on the amount of rent that the council will pay for a jobless or low-waged person to rent a private property. This, in effect, could make many vulnerable people on low incomes completely homeless because rent is too expensive in many London boroughs to meet the council cap.
While housing associations are not council run, they may buy a large property from the council and be responsible of doing the council’s job. Council property is now a mix of social housing and leaseholders. The lease-holders are then responsible as landlords of the duties that used to be provided by the council. Judging by way it is going, Karl thinks there will soon be no social housing left in London and that the poor will not be able to afford to rent a property in London. They will have to move out towards the suburbs, or ever further out of London altogether.
Karl says that council properties were originally built for people who could not afford homes so he does not understand the concept of buying a council property. Since the private market is too expensive for the average family, they end up putting the deposit down on a council property if they can afford it (because it is cheaper than paying rent). Even a council property in Karl’s area has gone up to half a million pounds sterling. He blames greed as the sole reason behind the British obsession with property ownership. However, Karl says he’ll advise his 15-year-old son to invest in ‘brick and mortar’ in the future because it’s secure unless the housing market goes bust and you lose your job. But it is becoming harder than ever for low-income groups in London to get on the property ladder altogether.
Even though social housing is disappearing altogether, Karl hopes that the council will keep building more houses and high-rise flats. It is unclear however if they will meet the demand of social housing needs in London.
Post by Seemab Gul.