Thursday, 22 May 2014

Artigras 2014


Last weekend Ashford high street was invaded by a small army of talented crafts people for Artigras - an arts festival organised by The Centre for Creativity & Enterprise. There were craft stalls, face painting and live music, plus the high street had been decorated with various art installations and yarn bombings! So much fun to see dreary Ashford brightened up with a bit of crafty goodness, the weather was fantastic and it was a great opportunity to buy handmade and get to know some of the amazingly talented people in the area. 


Some good friends of mine had craft stalls and I promised them all I would include them in my blog, but they are so talented and so unique that squeezing them into this blog post wouldn't do them justice so I've decided to showcase their talents in separate posts over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

In the mean time, check out all that the Centre for Creativity & Enterprise do. If you're a local creative business person then you quite literally NEED to know them. They run business workshops, blogging workshops, they provide art installations for office space, they are a public gallery and they provide a forum for local artists and crafts people to sell their creations. They also have meeting rooms for hire and provide hot desk workstations. There is so much going on there and it's developing all the time so pop in and see them or check out their online shop and website.
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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

An Open Letter to My Landlord

Dear Mrs. Landlord,

When Mr. Letting Agent phoned me in February and asked if we'd like to move out of our house, I was surprised to say the least.

You see, the purpose of a legally binding one year contract is that there is a fixed period of time (ie. one year) that we can feel secure in our home. Unfortunately, over the years, the idea of a truly 'long term let' has disappeared and tenants can often only have a contract for up to one year. We live in hope each year that Mrs. Landlord wants to renew our contract, and if she doesn't then we're forced to move. Again.

Mr. Letting Agent informed us that your son had had some kind of personal crisis and that he needed a home. I was sorry to hear that, but indeed we did not wish to move. We had only moved in the previous June. We were just beginning to feel settled. This was our daughter's first home. Her first room. We had formed friendships with our neighbours. We liked our house. We liked our street. We could not afford to move.

I asked whether this meant you would be likely to renew our contract at the end of June, but Mr. Letting Agent assured me that he was sure your son's crisis would be sorted out by June and that everything would go back to normal.

So when Mr. Letting Agent emailed in April to say that you did not wish to renew our contract we were devastated. We had ten weeks to find a new property. But you see, it costs a lot of money to move, and we had only moved the previous year. We're not like you, you see, we don't have investment properties dotted about the place, piles of money in savings accounts, lots of assets and capital. If we did, we wouldn't be renting a house from you.

We're hardworking people. My husband works full-time in an entry level position and after our daughter was born last year, I gave up work to become self-employed and build a freelance writing career. It's going really well actually, thanks for asking, but it does mean that my income tips us over income thresholds which mean we're not entitled to any benefits. It means that some months we are rich and some months we are poor so really we need to keep our expenditures low so that we're covered in those times of famine.

But you see, the housing market has changed since we moved last year:
  • Rents have shot through the roof so there's nothing really available for the amount that we pay now. We pay you £625 rent, but we'll be paying our new landlord £675.
  • There's less houses around, more competition, so we can't get the same space for the same money.
  • Because the market is less secure, letting agents have upped their deposits so whereas last year we put down £625 deposit which we will hopefully get back, to move we have to pay six week's rent as deposit on our new property - £930.
It was very nice of you to offer a £400 incentive  towards our admin fees if we moved out four weeks early. Thankfully we have found somewhere to live so we will certainly take you up on that offer. But you see, because I'm now self-employed the referencing agencies won't account for my income. So we needed to find a guarantor.

We have some great people in our lives so thankfully this wasn't a problem - but not everyone knows somebody who earns 36 times the rent in a year. It also meant that we had to pay an extra £120 to have a credit check done on our guarantor, so your £400 didn't quite cover our fees, plus you still haven't actually given it to us yet so we still had to find the money from somewhere.

So, for our deposit, our admin fees and our first month's rent on the new property we needed over £2000. Sure, you're giving us £400. Sure, you will hopefully return 100% of our deposit to help cover these costs. But we still need that money upfront and, you see, we're not like you, we didn't have £2000 sitting in the bank, waiting until our landlord decided to kick us out.

But that's not the end of the story, is it? Today I found out that we're not the only family you're turfing out of their home.

Because you let out another property to another family. An apartment. And you actually want to move your son into the apartment rather than our house. So you decided, in your landlord wisdom, that you would move that family into our house.

I found this out today because the mother of that young family phoned Mr. Letting Agent in tears because her life is being turned upside down. He then decided to phone me to find out if we could move even earlier than planned.

Now, for the sake of this young mum, I would love to help. But I can't. It takes time, planning and money to move house. It requires days of packing. Days of cleaning in the hope of getting back our deposit. Hiring a van. Taking time off work. Recruiting the help of friends, family and neighbours. I can not move at the drop of a hat. I also need to move after pay day so that my future rent is taken at the right time in the month - there's lots to consider.

So I realised, we're actually the lucky ones. Sure, it's inconvenient. Sure, it's expensive. But at least we have had the choice of where we move to. This poor family have been turfed out of their home - presumably they haven't lived there that long otherwise you would just not renew their contract - and moved into a house that they've never even viewed!

Where do you get off, just turfing young families out of their homes?

Quite frankly, Mrs. Landlord, your son's personal crisis isn't my problem. It's not this other family's problem. And if he's over the age of 18, it's not your problem either. I understand you want to help him out, but the answer is not to start breaking contracts, playing musical houses and ruining people's lives. If you can't stand his presence in your own home then you are within your rights to evict him and it becomes the council's responsibility. Harsh. But true.

If you want to rent out properties, you have to abide by your contracts, no matter what your personal circumstance. And if you can't do that then you shouldn't be in the rental market at all. It is people like you that give landlords a bad name. Landlords should require to be licensed and they should be blacklisted if they fail to provide good quality housing within the rules of their own contracts.

I am fed up of jumping through hoops for people like you. I am fed up of bringing my family up in an environment that lacks security, where we could be forced to move every single year. But it seems that that is my destiny because our income doesn't allow us to save for a deposit, and even if we had a deposit, the lenders wouldn't lend us enough to buy a cardboard box.

So well done you for getting on the property ladder. Well done for joining the property investment game. But you're not doing anyone any favours. You're not some hero providing affordable housing for the poor, far from it. You're an absolute cowboy who doesn't seem to understand that young families need to put down roots. They need to have security. They need to live in damp free homes, safe homes, secure homes. And the longer landlords like you are in the game, the worse it's going to get for people like us.

So, Mrs. Landlord, if you will insist on continuing to rent out properties let me give you some friendly advice:
  • Contracts are legally binding. You can't just wake up one day and decide to break them.
  • You are obliged to take care of the upkeep of your properties. When I point out damp problems at every single property inspection, it's probably a sign that there is an ongoing issue that needs addressing.
  • You are providing a service that we, as tenants, pay for. Therefore, you should be running your investment properties as a business. We are your customer. If you want good tenants, provide a decent service.
  • Just because we can't afford to buy a house does not mean that we're uneducated, stupid, benefit scrounging individuals living as part of society's underclass. We are educated, we know what we're doing, we know our rights. You fulfil your side of the bargain, and we will fulfil ours.
  • You've bought your property as an investment. If you look after your investment you will gain a bigger return - that's business. So commit to the upkeep of your properties, commit to gaining decent, long term tenants and you will have a property that increases in value with a reliable income. It's not rocket science.
Thanks for your time, thanks for your house. I sincerely hope that you look after the poor family who you have so far treated so badly. And I sincerely hope your son understands the upheaval he has caused. How blessed he is to have a mum who is so willing to ruin other people's lives for the benefit of his own.

But for us, we can be glad we got out when we could, we can be glad that although we might be £2000 poorer, we are moving to a nice house that we like, in the right area and we hope we can stay in it for many years to come.

Yours sincerely,

I should state that this is in no way a personal attack on our landlord herself - she has been very apologetic of the circumstances we find ourselves in and has been a good landlord who we've had little cause to deal with thus far. This is more a commentary to raise awareness for the issues that faced by private tenants, the continual costs involved with renting and the lack of security left by one year contracts. Ours is by no means the worst renting story you'll find, but I'm sure many can relate and many will agree that private tenants deserve a better deal.
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Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Prayerful Stitches

Knitting has always been a spiritual experience for me.

There's something incredibly calming and meditative about it. Now, if you met me, you will know that I am not the hippy, meditative type. You would probably know that I love Jesus and that I have a strong faith, but you would not put me down as a meditating yoga-bunny who drinks herbal tea and speaks in soft, drawn out tones. I'm usually surrounded by chaos, am bright and chipper and love living an active, fast paced life.

Which is why knitting has become a bit of a meditative ritual.

Knitting allows me to stop, empty my mind of all the chaos, sit still for a substantial amount of time and focus. As I wrap, push and pull the yarn, over and over again, I slow down and my mind is cleared of everything else, allowing me to focus in on every tiny stitch which will eventually combine to create something bigger and beautiful.

And then I find myself praying through every stitch. Maybe I'm making a baby blanket and each stitch carries a prayer for the recipient. Maybe I'm just enjoying the process and each stitch carries a prayer for myself as I cease to think about my problems and start to pray through them.

After half an hour or so, it is amazing how much clearer the world seems and how much better I feel.

My life has felt a bit chaotic of late. We've had notice on our house which means we're moving again for the fourth time in four years. We've had a family bereavement. We've been under financial strain. Work has been full-on. Just life stuff. But as I stitch and think and pray, I am encouraged that God is in my tomorrow, He knows where we are headed, none of this has come as a surprise to Him. He knows and He cares, and there is nothing that is too big for Him to handle, even when it all feels a bit too much for us! 

Turns out God is a bit of a keen knitter as well:
"For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well." ~ Psalm 139:13-14
I like to think of God, sitting up in heaven with his knitting needles, stitching us all together. Like any handmade item, you were created with care, time and stitched together intimately and beautifully. You're not off some mass-produced, cheap, Primarni production line! You're a bespoke, hand stitched, unique, perfect creation! And because God's works are always wonderful, we can look at the future confidently and know that He knows what is to come.
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