In the first of an ongoing series centring on tenants’ experiences of housing and ideas for change is a writing by Melanie. Melanie is a member of Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) Grassroots Poverty Action Group comprising of 14 people from across the UK with lived experience of poverty who work alongside JRF staff to shape its research, policy and campaigning work. She is writing here in an independent capacity. Her story challenges the narrative that people end up in circumstances of poverty by choice or fecklessness. Small decisions can have huge effects. Systems that are supposed to help only engage when harm has been caused and poverty has closed its grasp so tightly that escape seems impossible. Melanie will now recount her own experience of ‘The Housing Trap’.
I am lived for the last 12 years with the shame and discrimination of being in persistent poverty caused by the repossession of my home due to my marriage breakdown with a compulsive gambler. I am living in the unfortunate position of relying on the state for help in all areas of my life, including housing. During this period, I have often heard the belief that people are in poverty due to their laziness and that it is easier to rely on the social system rather than work your way out of it. This old-fashioned and outdated stigma is part of why the poverty trap is so hard to escape and should not still be believed today in 2022.
For several years, I blamed myself for getting into poverty and was always seeking a way of working my way out of it. If only I could get more hours, working two jobs, only to realise this isn’t the way. I finally realised that poverty is not just a personal problem but a societal one. Poverty often has its causes in a personal crisis, such as marital breakdown, health issues, periods of trauma, and circumstances over which we have little to no control. These complications of life are made worse by welfare systems and societal attitudes, which reflect 1950s lifestyles and no longer apply in 2022.
My story of how I got into poverty is not a tale of fecklessness and a lack of hard work. I was bought up to have a strong working ethic, working from 13 years old, realising that if I wanted nice things in life, I had to earn them. Debt was something to be avoided at all costs, albeit it is now unavoidable in today’s society. I supported myself throughout university, struggling to cover my rent, despite being lucky enough to receive a grant. From the age of 22, whilst working full time, I attended night school to qualify in Human Resources, hoping to finally find my forever career. Up to the age of 33, I worked hard building a life, marrying who I thought was the man of my dreams while developing my career. I always believed that short-term hardship was worthwhile for the long-term gain of living the life I wanted.
However, the dream of 1980s Britain fell short in the 2000s. I found the promises made about working hard were empty. Each time I was getting nearer to the life I wanted, it felt like an invisible forcefield was pushing the life I dreamt of further away. The final blow came after two years of purchasing my first home, having borrowed money from my parents. The very day I learned about my husband’s gambling habit was the day I learned I was pregnant. My security was pulled away from me like in a game of snakes and ladders. He had gambled everything I had believed we had invested into our future, and my dreams shattered just like that.
I held onto the belief that despite having an 18-month-old son at the time, within a couple of years, I could get back to work, and I would be back on my feet as I always had been. Others told me how easy it would be as they had done it, albeit not under my circumstances. What I hadn’t accounted for, and what the people who told me they had gotten out of debt could not see, was the impact of my husband’s continued domestic and financial abuse. This personal hell was made worse by the financial crisis of 2008 and the gruelling and ever-changing benefits system. I constantly had the threat of bailiffs at my door, and no longer had control over my life. Without a secure roof over my head, I was fit for nothing and could barely string two sentences together as my mental health was in turmoil. Poverty alienated me from the person I knew I was, and I needed stability to help get me back to who I am.
The Citizens Advice Bureau advised me I had no choice but to let my home be repossessed. The mortgage alone was £1500 per month, driving me deeper into debt. It was thought that this would take 3-6 months to happen. However, the council left me in limbo for three years before I could get any housing help. I only got the help needed by breaking down. Every time I thought I was getting a step closer, another barrier was put in my way. On paper, I may have had a home, but it was getting me into poverty, and I was left waiting to be repossessed. Even with an 18-month-old to look after, I was not deemed a priority by the local authority as I had a roof over my head, albeit one I couldn’t afford to live in. I remember my despair on the first Christmas day alone my heating broke down and I had no means or help to repair it. I had no escape route as I could not sell it despite my best efforts and appeals to the Council to buy it from me at a loss.
My ex continued to get me into more and more debt, not paying bills and getting CCJs against my name, which I could do nothing about. I even had to pay to file for bankruptcy with the hope that doing so would alleviate some of the outstanding issues. This cost over £500 for the privilege of having yet another judgement made about me and my lifestyle. I even had the embarrassment and shame of my neighbours knowing that I could not pay my ground rent and maintenance. I became almost a recluse for fear of bumping into my neighbours. Having been battered and bruised by domestic violence, I had to accept the further abuse by the courts, systems, and services that were supposed to help. This system keeps us in the poverty trap with no choice or ability to escape.
I continually hear people on TV and the streets commenting, “if you forgo a cup of coffee a day, you too can buy a home. It just takes sacrifice”. However, this is not my or many others’ reality. As with all parents, my only aim in life has been to provide for my son and give him the right to choose how he lives his life. However, he, too, has been born into the poverty trap with limited choices. I long for the day when I can own a home again to give my son stability.
With the current economic crisis, more people are going to suffer like me. Our outdated systems and beliefs are costing communities dearly, and money which could be spent on local services is being given freely to landlords*. Housing policy should focus on housing stability through truly affordable home ownership or truly affordable rents. Instead of blaming people in poverty, we must consider how the policy decisions that shape our lives can be changed to help, not hinder, those in circumstances of poverty.
*Melanie has a private rental agreement negotiated by the local authority. The rent is capped to match local housing allowance levels with other incentives offered to the landlord to accept the below-market offer. Melanie reports her rent is only £100 less than the full market rents in her area. She makes the point that councils are in a position where they are not helping to make homes affordable but landlords richer and that this sees “money for other services being gobbled up in housing”.