In 2010, I unexpectedly found myself a single mother, living in social housing on full benefits. Whilst I was grateful for the roof over our heads, it was never my life-goal.
I had become a cliché – a single mother on benefits living in social housing!
For the first time in my life I experienced social shame from the negative social-stigma attached to my new reality.
To me the future looked bleak!
When I saw an advertisement for Scrutiny in Cottsway’s resident’s magazine, I applied – to gain a recent job reference (as I previously worked for 16 years in Los Angeles) and importantly they covered childcare costs. Little did I know this small pro-active step would change the trajectory of my life.
On the day of my interview it was hot and I was heavily pregnant; I almost didn’t show up, but a little voice inside me said I needed to go.
During the first few months of training I was able to take my new-born and breastfeeding was accommodated in meetings. Over the passing months, as my confidence grew, I clung onto the Scrutiny Panel as a lifeline.
Somewhere along the line, I developed a passion for housing – I caught the housing bug!
Housing is like a secret society where everyone within it is passionate about what they do, but somehow, curiously, this fact remains hidden to the outside world.
Cottsway supported my thirst for knowledge, funding a CIH Level 4 qualification in Housing Studies. I am currently the Chair of the Scrutiny Panel, a Board member on the Chartered Institute of Housing’s SE Board, and with the support from Cottsway, I am now in my final year of my MA in Housing Studies at the University of Westminster. This year I became recognised at a Peer Mentor for Tenant Central and I have had many opportunities to speak on Cottsway’s TPAS Award winning Scrutiny model. I want to give back by sharing my personal experience and the benefits I have experienced from becoming involved with my landlord.
My decision to show up that day, when I felt my life was falling apart, was one of the best decisions of my life.
2015 has been a rollercoaster year of highs and lows for me as a social housing tenant.
In January I entered my final semester of my master’s degree in Housing Practice at the University of Westminster.Having been studying since my youngest was 8-months old I could finally see a life beyond motherhood, scrutiny and studies.In early March the Homes for Britain’s Betsy-the-Bus visited Witney, West Oxfordshire.It was exciting for my boys and me to have the relay baton visit us at our Cottsway home and attend the Homes for Britain rally in Witney – hosted by Cottsway Housing Association.
I was also fortunate to attend the Homes for Britain Housing Rally, in London, 17th March 2015.I felt like I was part of and witness to a significant time of change within the sector – I was a part of the ‘rally cry’ and there seemed to be a united positivity permeating the air.It felt like I was in the middle of history being made.
Then the election happened!
No one anticipated or imagined the outcome.The pollster’s predictions were extraordinarily wrong and I felt as if the housing sector took a sharp intake of breath in anticipation of what was to happen next.
Against this new political backdrop, my dissertational research began.I wanted to research the benefits to residents from being involved with their landlord.The Amicus Horizon DCLG report and the Tenants Leading Change report had recently been published, both of which had made a strong business case for landlords to involve residents throughout all aspects of the business to help shape and streamline services.After my experience with Cottsway’s Resident Scrutiny Panel and the myriad of benefits I have gained through my involvement I wanted to know if other involved residents had experienced the same benefits or if I was an anomaly.I am currently writing a 6-page brief for publication on my research findings for both TPAS & HQN, and I am looking forward to speaking on my research at the TPAS AGM in London, in December.
Shortly before my dissertation deadline August 12th I received a letter from the Job Centre Plus (JCP) for an appointment on August 13th.The jubilation of my MA accomplishment was quickly overshadowed by my fear of benefit sanctions if I didn’t find work right away.I didn’t have a moment to take a breath when I was thrust into the reality of what so many others on benefits have been experiencing – ardently looking for work enveloped in the fear of the threat of benefits being sanction if unsuccessful.The usual 6-month review had now turned into every 3 months.
The reality of looking for work as a single mother, living in social housing and desperately wanting to come off of benefits, is hard.
Trying to balance the desire for a career, a need to work, with the reality and demands of being a lone parent – all the while feeling the breath of the government looking over my shoulder thinking I should be doing better and the fear of being sanctioned.Osborne’s summer budget – cutting working tax credits and the pay-to-stay penalty if I earn more than £30,000.00 per year – has made me question what have I worked this hard for?
My life goal was not to be a single mum, living in social housing and on benefits.However I refused to allow my new situation to be my forever reality.
I found my passion through my RSP involvement and studying for my MA.The quandary that I now find myself in, with the governmental legislation, is I cannot receive more than £20,000.00 in benefits per year, however; once I start work I am penalised with a reduction in working tax credits, and furthermore; if I earn more than £30,000.00, I will be penalised once again having to ‘pay-to-stay’ in my home with a market rent. I happen to live in one of the most affluent areas outside of London and my rent would increase by several hundred pounds per month.This begs the question why would I spend £850 plus a month on rent when I could exercise my ‘right-to-buy’ which (after some preliminary research) could potentially reduce my market-rent significantly.This makes no sense to me!If these measures become a reality I would have no other choice but to invoke my ‘right-to-buy’.The government asserts it wants to encourage and reward ‘hard working’ citizens, however; its policies revealed in the budget do not align with this proclamation.
I am grateful for my home and being provided with a safe place for me the raise my boys.I have been working hard to better my circumstances for my children and I feel now I am ready to re-enter the work place I find myself in a catch-22 with the moving goal posts of housing policy.
I am passionate about housing and the work we do in our sector and I want to be able to give back without being penalised for it.
this article was first published by 24 Housing, December 2015
As I sit here thinking about what I am going to say regarding my experience as a tenant of social housing and Housing Day, I am both grateful that I have a safe roof over my head for me and my children, but at the same time I am deeply disturbed by the beating our sector has taken over the last few years. The successfully orchestrated demonization of social housing tenants and benefit claimants has been beautifully politicked by our government. I have felt an unpleasant mood shift within our society – an utter distain for ‘those’ people who are living in social housing and in receipt of benefits. These so-called people (myself included) have all been tarnished with the same brush as scroungers and benefit cheats. The inconvenient truth is that the majority of people in receipt of housing benefit and tax credits are working families. Housing Day provides tenants and landlords a platform to stand up and counteract the negative media’s portrayal by telling the positive side – Housing Day is an opportunity to repaint the story so to speak. When I wrote my Housing Day story last year it was a pivotal moment for me; it freed me from the shame I had attached to my circumstances. It opened my eyes to the need of such a platform that showcases the many success stories and the profound differences social housing has made on people’s lives and within their communities.
I attended a music concert in Oxford last Friday and as I was paying for my parking ticket there was a young female huddled up in the corner trying to brace herself against the cold night setting in. I reached into my purse and handed her some coins and looked into her eyes and told her to stay safe. I felt so inadequate in that moment – inadequate but also grateful that I had somewhere warm and safe to return to at the end of the night. The other feeling I experienced was shame – shame that I couldn’t do more, shame that my country wasn’t doing more, and shame that there is a growing apathy within our society that somehow it is her fault for her circumstances. I don’t know her story, but I know mine and when I found myself a single mother of two boys living in social housing on benefits I was full of gratitude but also shame from the fear of the harsh and unfair judgment of others. It was never my life goal to be a cliché and be reliant upon welfare and I have felt a deep sense of shame surrounding my circumstances. I encountered my first Troll on Twitter last week who questioned the #proudtenant hashtag I was using – this person said living off of other people’s taxes and the government is not something to be proud of and that I should instead be grateful. I am exceedingly grateful I am not homeless with my children sleeping on the streets, or fleeing a war zone, however; the use of the word ‘proud’ to me is the opposite of shame, which is what I felt before I told my Housing Day story.
The lead up to Christmas is my favourite time of year and my children are beginning to get excited with all of the rituals leading up to the day including; school activities, concerts, Christmas lights being switched on, our tree going up, the decorations, family, meeting Santa and of course presents. As the nights are getting darker and colder, I can’t shake the stark reality that many people within our society don’t have the luxury of a safe, clean and secure, warm roof over their heads this Christmas time. Shelter predicts 100,000 children will be homeless this Christmas. I can no longer standby silenced by shame or turn a blind eye in feigned ignorance. Housing Day has enabled me to own my truth, and has been the catalyst that has opened my eyes to the responsibility I have to use my voice to speak out and to stand for something.
Mahatma Ghandi said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
I believe we can collectively make a difference if we stand up and tell our stories and start to change the conversation.
My thoughts for housing day – first written and published for Housing Day 2015