Upstairs, my landlord is sleeping. We think that her bedroom might be right above our own. As our heartbeats slow and sleep takes over, maybe we all synchronise. Separated by bits of wood and concrete, fabric and air, we’re sleeping together in the same townhouse, our dreams mingling.
Marjorie is an 81-year-old Jamaican woman who likes to spend long afternoons in her garden listening to Christian radio. The garden is south-facing, it soaks up the sun like a sponge – it’s the perfect place to bask. We learnt that during lockdown, when we crept in yard by yard. It felt illicit but it shouldn’t have; we rented this place because it was advertised with a garden. And we didn’t think sharing it with Marjorie would be too much of a problem, especially during a pandemic. Not even the scroogiest of landlords would take issue with their tenants using their own garden during quarantine, surely. But Marjorie took issue, and several altercations and a slashed hose later, we received our Section 21 notice to repossess. Marjorie wanted us out by December 9.
I thought about writing to Marjorie, a long, handwritten letter full of appeals to her humanity, our shared humanity, a screed of questions so that I might better understand the inner workings of her mind, if only by asking them. For seven years I had disappeared myself or been disappeared from different homes in Hackney. Taking flight to take another risk, plunging myself into uncertain intimacies. Shared traumas and suspicions around dinner tables, kitchen drugs, love affairs, the creeping tendrils of pressure, control, manipulation and a heart once open snapped shut. Renters are thrown together in this city and there is nothing romantic about it because it is not truly desired or chosen.
In the early days I did romanticise these brave new shared housing worlds, like so many of my queer friends and acquaintances searching tentatively for urban families in which to recover lost adolescences. It was (meant to be) the dream, the goal, living with fellow misfits, cooking together, sharing our joys and our vices, trauma-bonding the shit out of everyone who’d show up for dinner. But in these quasi-voluntary constellations of care and knowing, power bubbles like a broth. Triangulation, theatrical alliances, meetings are held in your absence, suddenly your framed print is taken off the sitting room wall, you duck and run and you think you’re finally out of view, and now whenever you bump into each other in the laundromat it’s like you never cooked that birthday lasagne for them at great expense.
"It was appropriate to think about landlords as greedy miners of love, shovelling people together to collect their wages until the inevitable disintegration and cycle rebeginning."
Capital ferments. It releases gases that leak from landlord to ‘lead tenant’. It froths, a foamy scum, from the sewer of accumulation to the air we breathe and the water we drink in these shared spaces. Each cup more bitter as we move further and further from what we really desire: proximities, intimacies, vulnerabilities and bonds we actually choose, that make us feel safe. I followed these questions about precarity’s intimacies into my PhD research in 2018. In some way I just wanted to help myself understand what kept going wrong. And what I found were people renting from private landlords, housing associations and the council, all working so hard to connect with the people they shared their homes with but so, so far from the deep, earth-wired desires they had for love and intimacy. Like me, they craved the feeling of being seen and held. But beyond that, they were desperate for solitude.
Twenty-eight-year-old Maja shared a windowless room in a live-work warehouse with her boyfriend in which they both worked, ate and slept. Their relationship had become platonic, parental, cycling through resentful outbursts about unwanted dependency and clutter. In her last place, one of Maja’s housemates had taken on the role of informal property manager, collecting rent and utility money that Maja said had since mysteriously disappeared. Eventually, she said, this housemate forced her to leave.
These uncertain interpersonal power relations were especially mirrored in the stories of tenants who were renting from so-called mates. Twenty-nine-year-old Jonathan, for example, described living briefly with an old friend who owned the house. Upon realising she was charging beneath market rates, the owner abruptly raised the rent, armed with mealy-mouthed justifications that ultimately forced him and his girlfriend out of their home. Landlords who had no pre-existing relationship with their tenants displayed similarly emotionally erratic, manipulative behaviour. Hannah, a 24-year-old barista and freelance events runner, told me that her landlord had suddenly threatened her household with eviction because they had dared to complain about a months-long lack of heating. Via a series of lengthy text messages, her landlord flip-flopped between rage, emotional distress, regret and pleading, eventually manipulating the household into apologising for having mentioned it.
Thrown together by the exigencies of a rentier economy founded upon the false scarcity of space, my research found that dynamics between housemates were generally eons from communality. Claire, a 32-year-old supply teacher, lived in a house with five strangers with no communal space other than a kitchen, where each occupant had their own numbered food cupboard. With single beds in each bedroom, Claire told me she’d found it easier to have a long-distance relationship online than attempt to have anyone round – the crushing awkwardness of her tiny sleeping space functioning as the only place to get to know somebody was too much hassle. Atomised yet all-too-close, Claire described feeling suspicious of her housemates for their early morning laundry, their requests for help with learning English, or their seeming incapacity to follow their landlord’s screed of intrusive rules. This house was not a place for sociality, for intimacy or bonding, it was somewhere to collect REM cycles and plan your escape.
Escape, however, was not always an option, especially for the renters I met who lived in social housing. At 25, Faiz still lived with his parents and sister in the council-rented flat where he’d grown up. While he was priced out of the private rented sector, he was also scared to leave home in case the Bedroom Tax – a penalty brought in by the Tory/Lib Dem government in 2012 for social housing tenants who have a spare room – plunged his parents into arrears and they got evicted. Faiz described his parents as controlling, and that he couldn’t bring dates or friends round. Each day was a quest for both solitude and connection that wouldn’t cost him 8 pounds or however much three coffees cost in Hackney these days. His conversations with an ex-girlfriend were whispered down the phone or communicated via Facebook stories on his Uber Eats shift.
I initially tried to make sense of stories like these by considering the rentier landscape of London as some kind of intimate political economy, where love is extracted and exchanged for surplus value in short-term bursts of connection and attempted home-making. And the more it breaks down, the better: short tenancies make for higher rents. It was appropriate to think about landlords as greedy miners of love, shovelling people together to collect their wages until the inevitable disintegration and cycle rebeginning. And much of this picture is true, especially where letting agents and property developers are concerned – where the corporate identity of capital makes for easily fashioned enemies, fat cats in suits, or anonymous avatars in tagged Twitter threads that resolutely never engage.
"For our demands to succeed, we must paradoxically destroy the borders of capital that conceal and insulate every-person from vulnerability and from being seen."
But somebody like Marjorie is a far cry from such institutions. An 81-year-old curtain-twitcher with not many hobbies beyond the ability to take my home away, she’s also a church-going elder, a member of her local community, living in the Hackney house she’s been in for decades and resentful of the fact she needs two dykes living downstairs in order to pay the bills. Dozing a few feet above me, her acoustic hymns on the radio, Marjorie’s fingers are ready to dial our letting agent’s number to tell them that we’ve left the gate open again. Her dehumanisation of us as simply money that seeps from the basement to her bank account kept us suspended in a state of fear around losing this flat, right up until those fears became reality. I see that fear mirrored in the stories and experiences shared by my respondents, like I can feel the cortisol that stops them going to sleep properly at night, that intervenes in their embraces, deadens their desires or constructs walls of self-protection from betrayal, broken trust and breached boundaries. Everybody I spoke to was in brace position. How can you love in a brace position?
Yet behind that stance, as we all brace for impact, is so much desire – for safety and space for love and thriving, but also desire to undo the self-debasement that goes along with positions of power like Marjorie’s. I wanted to visualise this desire more clearly, so I took to drawing cartoon vignettes of my participants’ reflections. Here, their memories and dreams – sometimes seemingly so peripheral to their more overarching stories – could be given a little more breathing space. I drew Faiz’s heartbreak as he saw his ex-girlfriend meet someone she could properly date, I drew Maja’s daily live/work/embrace choreography, Jonathan’s shattered sense of safety, the wounding of capital’s betrayals. Making these comics felt intimate, if only to me. But more than that, focusing in on these struggles captured the emergence of renters’ relational desires. And it’s this emergence, in its everyday intimate practice, that keeps us connected, even throughout the unevenness of our experiences.
We lie, side by side, in these broken-down rooms next door to people who have incredible amounts of unhealed pain and yet huge amounts of power over us. I don’t know Marjorie’s beginning or middle or end. But I know she’s an unhappy person who doesn’t get on with many people. And I would bet my probably-not-protected deposit that the £16k she rakes in from us every year is the only thing keeping her afloat – at least, it was until she decided to get rid of us on a whim during a nationwide economic collapse where for the first time in decades rents have actually gone down. I resent the scraps of compassion I feel for this person who treats me like shit, who takes most of my wages and is evicting me in the middle of a pandemic. Is it just a facet of my privilege or relative security that I can even speculate or theorise about her as anything except a parasite kept alive only by my labour? Capital has cleaved violent distance between her and I, all the while we are neighbours. The ramifications of these relations in the cramped spaces of rented homes in Hackney is the friction of insecurity, crowded minds, dampened trust and broken hearts. If we attuned to our desires for vulnerability, connection and intimacy, the violence of rentier society would still persist. What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that this kind of intimate attunement is a powerful device for developing ourselves as both renters and political subjects. People deserve boundaries and we should demand them. But for our demands to succeed, we must paradoxically destroy the borders of capital that conceal and insulate every-person from vulnerability and from being seen. Only when the intimate catastrophe of landlordism has perished to the winds of history can someone like Marjorie also begin to heal. Until then, our hearts will continue to beat out of step.
Image: Signs displayed in the author's window for the benefit of passers-by, (c) Faith Taylor
"The Beating Heart of Capital" first appeared in print in issue 14, 'Being Safe is Scary'