A Stranger in My Own Home

Photo: Max Sanderson

About fifteen minutes after I arrived home from work, the doorbell rang. As I looked through the pane glass of my front door, three strangers peered back at me. It was okay though; I’d been expecting them. For the last three months, the house I’m renting has been on the property market and they were here for a viewing.

Usually when strangers come to tour around my house with a chipper estate agent in tow, I feel like a fly on the wall. It’s like I’m sat on my sofa wrapped up in an invisibility cloak, while they imagine their life inside my home, without my possessions or presence. This time round though, things were different. Toward the end of their visit, one of the prospective buyers turned toward me.

“What are the people like in this area?”, she asked, with an air of innocence. “Do most people here rent or own their property?”.

I didn’t think anything about the question at the time — it seemed fairly innocent. I told them I wasn’t sure, but it was probably a mixture of the two. What’s it to me, right? I was happy to get them out of my kitchen so I could start cooking dinner. Hours later though, the nuanced meaning of their question started to ruminate. Why did she want to know if the people in my area rented or owned their home?

We live in a terraced house, with buildings above, to the left, and to the right of us. It’s the sort of thin-walled place where I wake up at 7am each morning, which is when my neighbour turns their blender on to make a breakfast smoothie. So the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like their question was rooted in a very particular view. It felt like the potential buyers perceived people who rent to be loud, rowdy, and a nuisance, and people who own property to be just like them: polite, clean, and easy to live around. Why else would they ask?

I wasn’t sure, so I spent the rest of the evening grappling with that assumption. In doing so, my mind started to race. Regardless of wealth, people are inherently different. Plenty of people who own their house are loud, obnoxious nuisances, as are plenty of people who rent. As someone who obsessively cleans the house and respects the neighbours, I was concerned that I was being tarnished with a very stereotypical brush, based on my financial standing. More than that though, I found myself returning to a fear that’s been omnipresent since leaving home: what will my future be like, will I feel secure when I get there, and will I own a house.

The short answer to the last question is: no, like most people my age, I will probably never own a house. That’s something I’ve succumbed to in the last few years. But the others are a little less certain. The optimist inside of me believes I will feel secure when I’m older. But the realist inside of me, the voice that speaks my fears, is getting louder and louder.

I don’t come from a particularly well-off background. Until the age of six, my parents slept on a sofa bed in the lounge and my sister and I slept on a bunk-bed in the house’s only bedroom. We never went on holiday, our car always broke down, and when school broke up for summer we would stay at a friend’s house while my mum and dad went to work.

When my parents split up and my mum remarried, my sister and I moved into a slightly larger house. For a while, life was better. We went on holiday; we ate out; our car didn’t break down. But the small wealth that my step dad brought to the family rarely trickled down to us in a way that went beyond putting a roof over our head. Since the age of thirteen, it’s been necessary to me to have some form of job, starting with a paper round. By the time my eighteenth birthday came around, I was working in a newsagents and a pub on weeknight evenings, and in a hotel kitchen on the weekend — which gave me the money I needed to buy the clothes and cinema trips my mum couldn’t afford.

Having a job as a teenager isn’t a rare occurrence; lots of people from different backgrounds have them. But when I went to university and couldn’t find time to work, the importance a job brought to my wellbeing became clear. Without one, I couldn’t afford to do anything. My student loan didn’t cover my rent — and, more importantly, my step dad earned enough money that I couldn’t apply for a maintenance grant either. With an entire family to provide for, he helped out where he could — which I’m massively thankful for — but since I didn’t live under his roof anymore, he was under no obligation to provide for me. At the same time, my dad had lost his job and was essentially homeless, living in the spare room at my nan’s house, so he couldn’t help me either. I was on my own.

I spent my first year of university holed up in a dorm room, surviving on potato waffles and chicken nuggets. For lunch, I would steal crisps from the university store. I could’ve eaten better, but the small amount of money I had budgeted for each week was spent on a train fare back home, where I would visit friends and my girlfriend. I went out a grand total of three times in first year. Looking back on it, it was a stupid decision, but one that I don’t regret because I know why I did it.

By second year, I wasn’t travelling home anymore. I had also started to work at a café, which meant I was subsisting on something more wholesome than chicken nuggets too. But by this time, final year and the prospect of having to find something to do after university was already looming. My mum had already told me I would have to pay rent if I came back home — and besides, I wanted to go to London. That was were all the writing jobs were. So I spent all my free time hustling and eventually landed an internship with VICE, where they reimbursed the train journey I would make from Bournemouth to London each morning and evening. Perhaps it was a moment of serendipity, but the fact my travel was paid for felt more like an act of divine intervention. There was no way my family could afford the £30 daily train fare to get to London.

That three-month internship eventually turned into a full-time job. For the next nine months, I would bash out articles on hip-hop in the daytime and write my dissertation in the evenings. I didn’t see my friends. Just like my first year of university, I didn’t go out either. The process was exhausting, but I knew that it was my only ticket to being able to move to London. Without it, I’m genuinely not sure what would have happened to me. My Mum couldn’t afford to send me to London to work through the rigmarole of unpaid internships. My dad was still living at my nan’s house and had been unemployed for the last five or so years, so he couldn’t help either. Somehow, everything fell into place.

I’ve been in London for two and a half years now and to this day, I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be where I am. There’s a view near my house where you can see the city and each time I look at it, my body exhales with what feels like an immense sense of pride that I’m able to live here. But being proud of your achievements isn’t enough, is it? Pride won’t pay my rent when these prospective buyers purchase my home and inevitably raise the rent to a price I can’t afford. The sense I’m just a paycheque away from being kicked out is increasingly palpable.

There’s a rhetoric in politics that puts across the idea that those who work hard will be able to live comfortably. Yet while I feel like I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, the sense that things are only going to get worse is growing. In fact, I can’t even remember a day where I haven’t thought about my future here. Some people will be okay; there are twenty six year olds who are incredibly lucky to have parents who will support them through thick and thin. But when shit hits the fan, I know I’m going to be alone, at least in terms of financial stability. And that’s what scares me. Can I really keep renting forever?

The reports seemingly come on a daily basis: only 26% of young adults will be on the property ladder by 2025; generation rent giving up on owning a home; millennials need to save £800 a month into a pension. But it’s more than that. While I’ve succumbed to the idea of never owning a house, it’s more difficult to succumb to the idea of never having a family. Because this isn’t just generation rent, is it? This is a generation that won’t be able to afford to have children.

Granted, these are western, twenty first century problems. Across the world, there are people going through hardships that are infinitely worse than the above. I can afford to eat well and sleep safely in a bed. But that doesn’t change the fact that these concerns sit firmly on the horizon of my future. Or that it’s a view that’s hard to look beyond. More than that, I’m stressed about the future of my own family. My dad now rents a room he found on spareroom.co.uk; he doesn’t’ have a pension; in some ways he’s in the same position as me, but subsiding on an even lower wage. What will happen when he can’t work? Will he be okay? It’s difficult not to fear the unknown. Yet as I grow older, that fear is becoming overwhelming.

These are the thoughts that go through my head when I read something about how millennials are too over-expectant. It’s the journey I’m reminded of each time someone comes to my house and stereotypes me as a lesser person, because I am destined to rent property for the rest of my life, while they’re lucky enough to purchase the home I have lived in away from me. Part of me wanted to write this piece to evoke some sort of sympathy from those people, as though some benevolent benefactor will swoop in and solve all life’s problems. That’s not going to happen though. I just needed to get these thoughts out from inside my body, so they don’t keep churning around anymore. This shit is scary. It feels like the only antidote is to talk about it.