One night when I was living in London, I found myself at a dinner party hosted by some new friends. I was seated next to a fellow, we’ll call him Joe for simplicity sake, whose Australian partner had gone home for a vacation and as my Turkish husband, then fiancée, was working in Turkey, we were a pair of odd socks that conveniently matched together. It is always a rare and fun occasion when you meet a stranger with whom you have an instant and natural rapport and we spent the evening engaging with others at the table, but also excusing ourselves out to the garden for many cheeky cigarettes. Towards the end of the evening with our comradery fully established by food, wine, smokes and the now after-dinner-whiskey, my new acquaintance offer to give me a ‘helpful hint’ regarding my housing situation.
Ironically, we lived in the same sought after neighborhood in very similar ground floor flats. Both had two bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a small garden. It appeared that in many aspects our living accommodations’ were identical except one aspect: price. Joe rented off of the council and I rented off of a private landlord. He paid 150 pounds per week and I paid 400 pounds per week. Joe was hardly a candidate for a council house. He worked as a junior accountant for a Blue Chip company and made as much if not more than me which would put him at double the average UK salary at the time, so how had he qualified for a council house? He hadn’t. He had bought his council house. I can sense my reader’s confusion: how could Joe have bought his council house if he was paying rent to the council? Simple: he had heard of a friend of a friend of a friend who offers council houses for life for the price of what was then £20,000.
Needless to say I was both shocked and intrigued as to how this was possible and prodded him for more details. Joe explained to me that once his friend had told him that he could arrange contact with the person who was offering the houses, he had taken a few weeks to think the prospect over. For one thing, it was a lot of money and secondly, it was very dodgy; most likely illegal. It was also, he thought, too good to be true, but his friend had assured him that he personally knew people who had done it and it was legitimate. Although morally, he took a moment to pause, financially he couldn’t shake the idea from his head. Joe reasoned that if he continued on his current professional trajectory he would, in perhaps 10 years’ time, have saved enough of a down payment to get onto the property ladder. However, what sort of property would that enable him to buy when at the current market prices he would only be able to afford a one bed room flat in central London? If he went further afield he might be able to afford a two bedroom abode but he wanted to live in central London and he wanted to avoid a lengthy commute. He decided to explore the proposition further so he greenlighted his friend to arrange contact with the fixer. All too soon, his friend came back to him with a list of information and documents that Joe would need to submit in order to get the process started. Joe dutifully wrote down information, photocopied personal documents and turned them over to his friend. He then anxiously waited. After a couple of weeks Joe received a phone call from an untraceable number. The caller asked him his name and upon confirmation of his identity, proceeded to spell out the terms: for £20,000 in cash, he would be given a council house for life, no questions asked and no change in status, ever. He was asked in which areas he wanted to live and was told that he would be called back when a few suitable properties had been sourced. Joe could hardly believe that it was that simple, but a few weeks later there came another phone call by a different caller. This caller said that there were three different properties on offer. Joe stated his interest in the property where he now abides and the caller told him that he would be contacted in a few days with instructions as to where and when he should hand over the money.
Joe told me that he hung up the phone from that call with his heart pounding. He was about to give £20,000 to a total stranger who had promised him a home that to buy would cost him three times the amount he would pay in rent over the next 40 years he might expect to live in it. Of course, he would never own the property, but he would be able to save enough money over the course of his life to not even care. Unshackled from the unreasonable rent rates of the Capital he could live like a king. He went to the bank and took out a loan for £10,000 and asked his father for the rest. He actually told his father the reason why he wanted the money and like any parent who wants the best for his child, he agreed to lend his son the money. Finally, a week later another call came. This time the caller told Joe to bring the money in a carrier bag to the corner of a well-known intersection and wait until a car pulled up to collect the money. He was given a code word and told to hand the money over to the driver of a car who had that word. Joe couldn’t believe what he was doing on the morning that he found himself standing on a London street corner with £20,000 well concealed in a plastic carrier bag. He told me that he talked himself out of what he was about to do a thousand times that morning but when the car rolled up and stopped at the curb, when the driver-side window rolled down and the driver uttered the code word, when Joe handed him the money and saw him drive off, he realised he had done the deal.
Now Joe lived a few streets away from me paying £7,200 per year in rent whereas I was paying almost three times that amount per year; almost the exact amount of money he paid for rent controlled freedom. As Joe and I parted company that night and I walked home with his card in my pocket. I pondered whether I could ever do the same as him. Having spent the evening talking with him in depth about his family, girlfriend, job, hopes, dreams, past, present and future, I came to the conclusion that he was a good person. An honest, decent well-raised person, much like I considered myself to be. Far from not being able to match this person with the action he had divulged to me, I understood it fully. Every month I was being crushed by the endless stream of payments it took to live in London. Homeless charities say that we should pay 30 percent of our incomes on housing but in London the percentage is nearing 50. Surge in population, competition for decent properties, greedy landlords, and foreign house buyers, have all priced out the common Joe and Josephine. I was lucky, for apart from holding British citizenship, I also hold Canadian citizenship and I would eventually marry a Turk, so I had options other than a life of housing poverty. I had options that a lot of people born and breed in London do not have. Imagine growing up in a place where you have all of your ties: family, friends, places, memories, attachments, only to discover upon entering adulthood and wanting to move out on your own that you cannot afford to do so. Imagine working hard at a job every day to earn a decent wage only to find that wage doesn’t afford you the basics in life: food, shelter, clothing not to mention entertainment, culture, travel and moreover a family. Sadly it is not just in cities like London that people are now finding themselves in this situation. It is a fact of modern life seen all over the world and which will only get worse year by year as the income divide between the rich and the poor grows larger and larger as each day passes.
The fact that within a local government organisation there is a group of people brazen enough to concoct a scheme like this, that obviously puts a lot of money in their pocket whilst providing a “service” to willing colluders, demonstrates that there is a unabashed demand for which they are confidently providing a supply. Does this not illustrate how desperate the housing situation has become? Granted those running the scheme are opportunists at best and criminals at worst who are cheating the system and the truly needy out of housing but what about those taking them up on their offer? We can judge what Joe did as illegal, corrupt, selfish, unfair, shameful or any other negative adjective you may want to apply, but for me I do not judge him at all. Rather, I see an individual who made a choice to survive in a system that is ultimately working against him. I see an individual who looked into his future and saw the desire for a house in a good area, a road-worthy car, a couple of advantaged children, yearly vacations, comfortable retirement, money in the bank and realised that he could not have all of that without bending the rules a bit. It is said when the going gets tough the tough get going, and I would add, the tough make tough decisions, just like Joe.