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Mean Streets

 

Poor quality, cramped and expensive housing: The harsh reality of moving to Britain.


 

An accommodation crisis faces Irish people coming to live and work in Britain. As we reported last week many Irish workers are arriving with little awareness of the high start-up costs and the shortage of accommodation. In the most extreme cases they can run out of money very quickly, have no access to benefits and find themselves homeless or sleeping rough, a report from the Crosscare Migrant Project warned. And when people do find somewhere to live they end up paying large sums for poor quality, cramped accommodation with little hope of moving up the property ladder because of the high deposits and advanced rent payments demanded by private landlords.

 

Today we reveal the extent of the problem nationwide — with other major cities including Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, reporting a massive housing problem. And we also highlight the human cost of the crisis, with the sobering story of one young man’s depressing experience. In London, Leslie Ryan, a housing officer at the London Irish Centre said: “People underestimate the initial expense involved in moving to Britain. People stick it out for a long time at home. They hope to avoid immigration, spend a lot of their savings in Ireland and then arrive here strapped. People might think £1,000 is enough money to arrive over with. It’s not.”

 

In Liverpool, Breege McDaid, from Irish Community Care on Merseyside, said: Landlords are stricter, rents are higher, there’s a lot of low quality accommodation and a lot of Irish people want to live in the city centre. People don’t have the fall back position of staying with family and friends because their support network is at home. And when they do find somewhere to live the accommodation can be smaller than what they are used to. Space becomes a side issue.”

 

And in Birmingham, Norah Cox from Irish in Birmingham, said: “Prices have gone up, availability is less and there’s not much building going on.” The impact on emigrants, as our special report this week reveals, can be devastating. Newly-arrived Stephen Ward, from Co. Down, explains how he was almost driven to despair trying to find somewhere to live — before he was eventually directed to an Irish housing support organisation in London. Meanwhile, there are warnings that things are going to worsen…

 

Advisory services are now pointing to the introduction of benefit caps in April 2013 which will have a harsh impact on people living in social housing. The austerity-driven measure will drive more and more people into an already over-subscribed and cramped private housing market place, it is predicted. Adding to an already dire situation with potentially catastrophic circumstances for not just the Irish in Britain but everyone looking for somewhere to stay in the country’s overcrowded towns and cities.

 

Stephen Ward has been sleeping on a sofa at a friend’s house for nearly three weeks. It wasn’t the start to London he expected; but then he didn’t expect it to be so difficult to find somewhere to live. This is London, after all!

 

Picture the scenario. From the window of the aeroplane the city stretches out to infinity in every direction — a grand stage for a glut of reality TV shows like Location, Location, Location, Property Ladder and Homes Under the Hammer. Finding somewhere to live? Piece of cake! So the plane lands, you grab a copy of the Evening Standard, have a quick scan of the property listings, toast your new town with a few scoops, then settle on the sofa to nurse a sore head — just for a few days until you find your feet. The days pass, so do the weeks and before long you’re not toasting your new home but cursing it. Your neck hurts from the arm of the couch, your feet ache from tip-toeing about all the time and your new room doubles as the recreation area by day as well as that not so comfortable rest area by night. Welcome home? Correction, welcome to your new life in Britain. Stephen is not alone.

 

For many Irish people arriving in Britain, this is very a familiar story. Because London’s streets are not paved with gold, but people…and lots of them. Free movement around Europe and the draw of London’s durable economy has made Britain the convenient country of choice for the continent’s upwardly mobile — not just plane after plane-load leaving from Ireland.

 

But when it comes to housing, supply is short, demand high. Ditto rent and council tax costs, not to mention the financial outlay needed to get to the first rung of said Property Ladder. In some areas the outlay feels like it could plug a budget deficit. Irish welfare groups based in Britain and support agencies in Ireland say securing accommodation is now the single biggest issue facing Irish emigrants to Britain. Money is tight, while property finite, often small and sometimes of poor quality. The market place is full of home-run opportunities for landlords while the bleachers are bulging with desperate would-be tenants, trying to enter the field of play. You can buy your way in…if you have enough money. Many don’t. Many arrive unprepared, armed with neither money nor knowledge of how things work and the time it takes for a wheel full of spokes like National Insurance and Bank Account numbers to turn.

 

 

Stephen had ticked the boxes when he arrived and had a big mark in the one that counts, or so he thought. He had secured a nursing job in a hospital before he arrived from Banbridge in Co. Down. He thought that everything else would fall neatly into place. A few days on the couch, a bit of rooting about on the web after collecting that coveted first paycheque — but the weeks passed while he waited for the hospital to clear his paperwork and before long he was out of cash and sofa time. “I ended up in a desperate situation,” he says. “With a job lined up I thought everything would fall into place. But after a few weeks I just about had enough money to get the Tube up to the London Irish Centre in Camden. I was close to tears to be honest. I didn’t figure it would take so long for my paperwork to be processed and didn’t bring enough money from Ireland to get me through that start-up period. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

 

The experience chimes with a recent report by Crosscare Migrant Project which revealed that finding somewhere to live and arriving with enough money to live in the interim are among the most acute problems faced by thousands of newly-arrived emigrants. “People underestimate the initial expense involved in moving to Britain,” says Lesly Ryan, a housing officer at the London Irish Centre. “People stick it out for a long time at home. They hope to avoid emigration, spend a lot of their savings in Ireland and then arrive here strapped. People might think £1,000 is enough money to arrive over with. It’s not.”

 

One man who knows just how tough the property market has become is William MacGowan who has worked as an auctioneer in North West London for the last 22 years. MacGowan said the current demand for housing far outweighs supply. He is extending his business reach further into Greater London in order to secure accommodation for his clients. “It is the most competitive I have seen the market in over 20 years,” he says. “There’s nearly nothing to be had in North West London right now. The opening up of Europe has made Britain far more accessible, banks aren’t lending money to build and there’s just not enough accommodation to meet the needs of all the people coming in. The shortage of work means it’s more of an issue because people just don’t have the money. Tenants are in a worse position to do deals with landlords and the day is gone where you would have a list of properties to choose from. People think because of the size of the cities here they are going to have a huge choice but London can become a very small place when you are looking for somewhere to live. When you are on a budget you take whatever you can pull-off.”

 

And it is not just London that faces a housing crisis. Breege McDaid from Irish Community Care in Merseyside said securing accommodation for Irish clients in Liverpool has become an issue. “A lot of people are fine but it’s a big area for us because it’s more difficult now. Landlords are stricter, rents are higher, there’s a lot of low-quality accommodation and a lot of Irish people want to live in the city centre. “People don’t have the fallback position of staying with family and friends because their support network is at home. And when they do find somewhere to live, the accommodation can be smaller than what they are used to. Space becomes a side issue.” It’s a similar story in Birmingham. Norah Cox from the Irish in Birmingham said there is a shortage of property there too and more and more people coming into the city. “Prices have gone up, availability is less and there’s not much building going on. It’s not just Irish people who are being affected. It’s everybody.”

 

Back in Camden, the London Irish Centre directed Stephen to Innisfree Housing Association, who provide supported accommodation for their clients, 60 per cent of whom are Irish. “I lived in London before, for seven years,” explains the 27-year-old, “but returned to Ireland for two years, so when I was coming back I knew what the property market was like but I just ran out of money. I was skint. But the guys in Innisfree managed to find me a room in one of their houses in West London. There are five other people in the house and all of them came there through Innisfree. They provide support with the deposit and you just start paying rent once you are working. “It was a comfort to know I’d be living with other Irish people, people who know where you are coming from, have similar interests in sports like the GAA, and music. You would have concerns about sharing space with so many people, but it’s something you have to accept as part of city life here.

 

“The cost of accommodation means you will have to be earning big money before you can afford to have your own place. But the bedrooms are big, there’s a garden. The people are nice, hard-working.” Jean O’Rourke, a Housing Officer with Innisfree, explained you need both money and time to adjust. “The initial start-up costs of finding somewhere to live would surpass most people’s expectations. Paying a month deposit and typically, six weeks up front, that’s the first thing people don’t realise. Then there’s the actual experience of actually living here, of adapting to big city life. Houses and flats are typically small, people live in less space than they are used to and the standard of accommodation is not always very high.”

 

Take it from Stephen Ward, the best approach is to do your planning before you leave. “To be fair, you’re at nothing if you arrive in Britain now with a couple of grand in your back pocket,” he says. “You need that much to get you through the settling in period, to cover your deposit and rent up-front. If you don’t…well, there are some great support services or you better find a friend with a good sofa.”

 

 

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