1 April 2023

‘Uprooted: No place like home’: an extract from ‘Broke: Fixing Britain’s poverty crisis’

Posted by Jem Bartholomew

Our Book of the Week is Broke: Fixing Britain’s poverty crisis, a collection of essays exploring the human stories of austerity Britain, with contributions from Cal Flyn, Samira Shackle, Daniel Trilling and more, alongside Joel Goodman’s powerful portraits of the subjects. In this extract from the opening chapter on homelessness and the housing crisis, Jem Bartholemew tells one woman’s story of the precarity of private renting, and hope found in collective action.

In the autumn of 2019, Lizzie Skeaping was travelling home from work when she was handed a red leaflet. It was from the London Renters Union (LRU), an organisation aiming to tilt the scales back in favour of tenants. Lizzie, who has flowing brown hair and was thirty-one at the time, thought it was interesting but didn’t act on it, returning to the home she shared with five other adults in south-east London.

When Lizzie moved into the stock-brick home in 2017, she wasn’t particularly political or engaged in activism. She described herself as a soft-left pragmatist then. She occupied her time with work as a history teacher, playing football and socialising over a few drinks with friends. Lizzie’s house pools all their spending on food and runs a cooking rota; her signature dish is homemade pesto. Her kitchen, I saw when I visited, is decorated with charming Polaroids and a whiteboard with little smiling portraits of all her housemates, past and present, in black pen.

Lizzie’s situation signals the way many people are increasingly living in the UK: locked out of home ownership deep into adult life. There were 1.3 million families in England with children renting privately in 2020/21, more than doubling from 0.57 million in 2003/04. Ageing Britons, too, face the prospect of renting past retirement: the number of over-55s renting privately has more than doubled from 366,000 to 867,000 households over the same period. Without a change of trajectory, private renting will be the future.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the private sector was equipped to deal with the growing numbers. But the consequence of the social housing sell-off and buy-to-let boom since the 1980s, Kim McKee of Stirling University says, is that we have become a nation of small landlords. Half of all tenancies are run by private landlords with four or fewer properties, the 2021 English Private Landlord Survey found. The result? Many landlords can’t afford the repairs necessary to create liveable homes. ‘Being a landlord shouldn’t be a hobby,’ McKee, who is urging for a professionalisation of the sector, told me.

Before Lizzie’s landlord tried to raise the household’s monthly rent by £500, at the start of 2020, she had raised a shopping list of faults with the agency, according to emails shared with me. Kitchen surfaces were rotting, carpets were fag-burned, mould and damp protruded from walls after being painted over. Lizzie felt angry and powerless that the landlord was so intent on hiking the rent after providing such a shoddy home. They reached a sort of impasse: a few minimal repairs were carried out, but not enough to solve the underlying issues, and the rent went up by a smaller amount of £250, to £3,250 a month.

For Lizzie, the frustrations of paying more rent for expanding rot and mould accelerated an awakening out of her mild politics into something more engaged. The pandemic proved to be her call to action. Reading the news, she was overwhelmed by the scale of need – as many people’s incomes dried up overnight but their rent kept being due. Arrears in the private sector had soared: 7 per cent of all renters there were behind in the second quarter of 2021, up from 3 per cent in the same period for 2019/20. Lizzie dug out the LRU flier and got involved.

At 8 a.m. one blue-skied day in August 2021, Lizzie, feeling slightly nervous, travelled towards Elephant and Castle to attend an eviction resistance demonstration. She was told a man called Caspar was being turfed out and bailiffs were expected that day. The LRU was planning to block the eviction. She found about fifteen people, in fluorescent pink jackets, barring access to the doorway. ‘Thank you so much for being here,’ Lizzie recalls Caspar telling her, handing her a chipped mug of tea. The action was a success: someone had tipped off the bailiffs, who decided it wasn’t worth the trip, buying Caspar crucial time to find another place. Lizzie forgot what she’d been nervous about. ‘There was a joyful aspect to it,’ she said. ‘We felt collective power in that moment.’

Lizzie’s new activism tapped into something deep in her subconscious. It was like a door flinging open. She grew up in a private rental, then rarer than today. It was a financially stressed household in Marlborough, her mum a theatre director and her dad a piano tuner, often struggling to make their own rent. As boisterous children, Lizzie and her brother would sometimes play football in the house. But she recalls observing a complete change of character in her mum – who was usually fearless and carefree – when the landlord was visiting.

‘Do you want us to be thrown out?’ Lizzie remembers her mum demanding of the children. Before the landlord arrived, her mum would dust the surfaces, comb Lizzie’s hair and dig out her finest blue dress. When the landlord entered, she became deferential. ‘We were playing a part, it was a play: you got the set ready, you prepared your characters,’ she said. This insecurity lingered deep in Lizzie’s psyche into adulthood. ‘The spectre of the landlord has been a feature of my life since I was a child.’

But Lizzie’s new knowledge, gleaned from LRU training, equipped her with the skills to exorcise this ghost haunting her. So when a letter dropped on her doormat informing the house they were being evicted, Lizzie knew what she must do next. ‘She was full of fight,’ Chloe Windsor, Lizzie’s housemate, told me.


Extract from Jem Bartholomew’s ‘Uprooted: When there’s no place like home,’ Chapter 1 in ‘Broke: Fixing Britain’s poverty crisis,’ edited by Tom Clark, Biteback 2023. Photo by Joel Goodman.

 Jem Bartholomew is an award-winning freelance reporter.

Books mentioned in this blog post