After caring for his elderly mum a 50-year-old builder faces eviction from a council flat. A tall, broad-chested man with rounded shoulders, close cropped and a gold chin-stud approaches the red brick county court in West London for the second time in six months. Simon, 51, wears a pastel pink cotton shirt beneath a dark Parka for his second court appearance.
- This is the second article in a series of three. You can read the first here
- The series was first published by Shine A Light at openDemocracy here
- Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is currently shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Journalism
At the far end of the waiting room there’s a woman with shoulder-length black hair and glasses. He’s seen her before. She’s the one from the council who wants him out.
There’s another woman, younger, suited and carrying a full lever arch file. She is the council’s barrister, hired to prepare an expert case for Simon’s eviction.
Simon was working for a furniture warehouse in Hastings when his mum fell ill three years ago. She was 76 and frail, living alone on the top floor of an old Victorian terrace house, and found it difficult to go out without help. For a while Simon would visit once a month to take her shopping and run other errands. But when his work contract ended and his marriage began to fall apart, Simon decided to move to London and look after his mother full time. He moved into her flat, his childhood home, and helped with cooking, cleaning and shopping.
One day while Simon was out, his mum suffered a bad fall. She was in the kitchen when her legs gave way. The downstairs neighbour remembers a loud thud. He called Simon, then called an ambulance. Simon’s mother spent a month in hospital and died four days before Christmas. This was 2013.
“We were all under the impression that she was going to get stable and come home,” Simon says. “It was horrible. Christmas day I was just sitting there, and sitting there. The next three months I just did not know whether I was coming or going.”
Simon’s mother’s home was a council flat. In January he called the council and told them she had died. He heard nothing more until one day a few weeks later.
A heavy knock at the door, the woman from the council. She demanded Simon’s keys and told him it was time to move on. “I’m not giving the keys back,” said Simon. “I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
Simon was five when his family moved into that flat in the large Victorian townhouse in Notting Hill, West London, an area once known for its slum housing and the corrupt landlord Peter Rachman. Simon’s family were council tenants paying a subsidised rent. The house was split into two flats, and the family of six lived in three bedrooms on the top floor. Simon’s dad Charlie was the local milkman. Long after he retired he’d spend hours in the street chatting to neighbours he’d known for decades.
They were a close knit family. Simon left home in his early twenties and moved to a flat a few streets away from his parents. “My Missus used to go down on a Thursday with the baby to see my sister, my mum and dad, and my brother. It was a regular thing when the kids were little.” Both his own grown-up children still live in the area with their families.
Simon left London after splitting with his first wife and eventually resettled in Hastings. For most of his life, he earned decent money self-employed in removals and construction work. But lately he’d struggled to get regular jobs. Sometimes there’d be weeks and months without anything. Now, after 30 years working independently, Simon wants a secure, 9 to 5 job.A few days after the knock at the door Simon received an eviction notice. He took the notice to Hammersmith town hall, a bland building with row upon row of brown tinted windows. Inside, Simon spoke to an officer at the council’s housing advice centre.
He was told: There’s nothing we can do for you at the moment because you are not homeless. Simon replied: This letter is telling me I am going to court and I going to be homeless.
The council officer said: Until you go to court and they give you that final notice, we cannot do anything to help you.
“But then I am going to be out on the street with nowhere to live,” Simon said. “Can’t we get the ball rolling now, so when the time comes, the process has started?”
Baffled, he offered to hand the keys back, making himself officially homeless.
Wrong move. That would make him intentionally homeless, removing any duty the council might have to re-house him.
“You can’t win either way,” Simon says, shaking his head. “You are just bouncing from wall to wall. Deep down, I knew it was going to go that way.” Simon kept the keys and waited for the eviction process to begin.
Simon thought he might qualify for a one-bedroom council flat or bedsit, but this was unlikely for many reasons. There is a shortage of social homes in the borough, and Hammersmith & Fulham council has been rapidly selling council properties and was even accused of wanting to get rid of social housing altogether. Simon has no interest in politics, local or national. “I do not understand it at all. It’s not anything to do with me. I am not on a pension and I don’t own my own house, so politics don’t concern me whatsoever,” he shrugs, an apologetic smile on his face.
The private rental market in Notting Hill proved as hopeless. Simon’s income from freelance building work is less than the £350 a week needed to rent a tiny one-bedroom flat. “I said to the fella in the estate agents, ‘If I find a flat for £400 a week, how do I go about it if I only earn £300, £400 a month? How can you do it?’”
Notting Hill still feels like home to Simon. People stop him in the street and ask: “Are you Charlie the milkman’s son?” A few doors down from his family’s old home an identical three-bedroom flat recently sold for £730K. The bidding for former council one-bed in need of a new kitchen and bathroom on the same street starts at £340K.
The timber yard where Simon sold building materials for much of his twenties is now a row of expensive shops, including a biscuiteers boutique and icing café, and a homewares and fashion store called Couverture & the Garbstore. The family-run greasy spoon where he once bought bacon rolls for 70p is now a retro coffee shop. No more cheap butties; instead, variations of eggs benedict for £8-a-plate.
Simon wants to stay. He likes having family nearby and doesn’t relish a return to monthly trips to see his children and grandchildren. He’s tried local hostels, but they don’t allow pets. Simon has had his copper-haired Staffie for 10 years. “She’s like one of my kids. If I had to get rid of her, I don’t think she’s going to survive.”
That winter work stopped coming in. It had been one year since Simon’s mother died and he faced another miserable Christmas. He struggled to pay the council’s £20 a day occupancy fee. A council letter said he owed around £5,000 in unpaid rent.
Selling his truck offered brief respite. The money from the sale was “near enough done” by the time of his second court appearance in February 2015, one year after the first knock at the door. There was an outstanding bailiff’s bill to pay. His brother-in-law paid his last phone bill and gave him £30 for food. “All I want now is a permanent 9-5 job. I can just go in and do a week’s work, get a week’s money, pay a week’s rent. Then I know where I stand. That’s what I want. I am not getting any younger.”
It’s unusually quiet at West London County Court, which means Simon gets twenty minutes with the duty solicitor, Sara, a sharp young woman from Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre. She beckons him into a small windowless room next to the waiting room.
Simon sits down, leaning forward, places his hands — they’re tattooed with his grandchildren’s names — on the desk. He tells Sara his story, starting with his mum’s death. Sara is nodding, now and then interrupting with questions. She asks how many times he went to the town hall, what did they say. She scribbles Simon’s responses. Sara spots the support Simon should have received but didn’t. “There is an allocations issue,” she says. “They should have written you a letter and told you about the allocations policy.”
The council’s official policy stipulates that in a succession case where a tenant doesn’t qualify, they should be considered for the housing list. Simon can’t inherit his mother’s council tenancy, because she had already inherited it from his dad and only one succession is allowed. When Simon went to the town hall, he should have been given information about the allocations policy.
Sara leaves the room and rushes over to the council officer Simon recognised earlier. She comes back ten minutes later, frowning. The council’s lawyer won’t budge and wants to go ahead with the hearing in front of a judge.
Simon sits with his hands folded next to Sara at one end of the dark wooden bench. To their left sit the council officer and her barrister, flicking importantly through a packed folder. The well-spoken, austere judge sits two levels above them.
There is some initial confusion over Simon’s first court appearance, which took place last October and resulted in an adjournment. It was a busy day and Simon can’t remember which duty solicitor represented him. That hearing was over in minutes; he hadn’t understood much of it.
The council’s lawyer stands, a confident, smartly dressed woman. The situation remains the same, she says, the council seeks possession with notice quit. They want Simon out. Simon keeps his eyes on the judge, the legal jargon means little to him.
Sara stands, she raises the allocations issue. She speaks with clarity and certainty, pushing her unruly blonde hair behind her ears. Sara asks for an adjournment to give Simon the chance to apply for a council property under the allocations policy. “The defendant [Simon] has approached the local authority about his situation,” she says. “They haven’t advised him of their allocation scheme. There is a policy where in a succession case, if a tenant doesn’t qualify they can be considered for the housing list.” Simon was never told this.
The judge agrees to Sara’s request. “I won’t shut the door in his face immediately,” he says. The hearing is postponed for six weeks to allow Simon time to apply for housing.
Outside courtroom, the waiting area is still quiet. “Did you understand that?” Sara asks.
“No,” Simon says, shaking his head and laughing. He is just relieved. He had expected to leave court homeless; now he has a second chance.
Back in the interview room they sit down. Sara is frank, her tone almost brusque. You must get housing benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance sorted today, she says, then you can qualify for legal aid. “The reality is you are not going to be successful in keeping the property. And they are probably not going to give you somewhere else.” Simon will have to find a solution to his housing problem.
Simon stops smiling. “Last time I went to the Jobcentre I felt unwelcome,” he says. “I don’t know what to do. I need a job and need to do a CV, but I don’t know where to start.”
“If there are barriers, just push through them,” Sara says, more than once, and you get the sense she’s said it before. “At least we are through today, the fact that they have been disorganised has helped you today.”
Simon thanks her and leaves the court. “You hear on the telly about people losing their homes, but you never see the full reason why. You just think, how can you get like that? Well, you can. Here I am. It’s just something I’ve got to deal with. If they move me out I don’t know what I am going to do. I honestly don’t know.”
- Tenants’ names have been changed.
- This is Part Two of a three part series on housing in Coalition Britain.
- See Part One: Losing your home: one day at Coventry County Court.
Original illustrations by Patrick Koduah. Patrick is a London based animator and illustrator whose prizewinning work includes projects exhibited in the Embassy of Japan, commissioned portraiture of Prince Michael of Kent and music video animation for a recent Rolling Stone Magazine Band of the Year.
Rebecca is a freelance journalist and writer in residence at Lacuna: Writing InJustice. Her reporting on asylum and undocumented migration was shortlisted for the 2012 George Orwell Prize for Political Writing (blog category) and the 2013 Speaking Together Media Award