I arrived at Islington Town Hall, early and awkwardly alone. The ceremony was attended by glowing families, partners, former refugees and a handful of lone young professionals, who seriously harshed the graduation-type vibe of the occasion. When I took my oath to the Queen they played the Beatles, and I stood alone, shaking an Islington Councillor’s hand as I received my Certificate of Nationality and the freelance photographer took a photo that he would later ask me to purchase for £10.
After almost 7 years , I was British. Whatever that meant.
They were not an easy 7 years, I arrived a year before the housing crash, fresh-faced from Korea and ready to start my studies at the LSE. Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister; the economy was going to grow forever. But that quickly changed. In subsequent years I found myself holding down two jobs, an unpaid internship and my studies to ‘get my foot in the door’ and struggling to pay off my Canadian student debt as the value of the pound dropped. I prayed repeatedly the latest round of redundancies wouldn’t hit me, and I went home in sadness as I lost first my grandmother and then my father.
Labour’s open arms to immigrants shut quickly with the new Coalition government. I could no longer count on doing my time and earning my passport as increasingly fellow migrants like myself were refused on the smallest excuses. I found myself weeping at the Home Office’s immigration centre one December day in 2011 in Croydon when they suggested my application for indefinite leave to remain would be rejected due to the prolonged absences I took when my close relatives had died.
During those 7 years I felt I grew to understand the UK, and that the UK shaped and adjusted the adult I was becoming. Now that I could stay forever – what should I do?
And so I decided to buy a flat. I mostly did this as I suddenly had the opportunity – a new job with a good salary, a loan from my mother, a good prospect of finding somewhere. The hardened truth that home ownership does make SENSE.
I did not realise that I was both endorsing the national obsession with property ownership and embarking on the most frustratingly British of bureaucratic nightmares. It was to become a baptism by fire, courtesy of my adopted homeland. I knew now, what I was getting into, I’d probably refrain from trying at all.
In Canada, housing purchases are completed within 60 to 90 days of the initial offer. There are no surveys or valuations, and the process is legally binding from the moment your offer is accepted. No gazumping. (almost) no cash-buyers.
I began looking in January of 2014, one of the worst times since the housing boom of 2005/2006 to begin looking. Soaring prices, fanatical and desperate Londoners finally able to access credit after those dark years. I would struggle to get agents to even register my details once they heard my budget, and I would consistently call them every Wednesday, hoping to be booked in for some random open house they had over the weekend.
I saw flats where 9 people lived in a 3 bedroom maisonette in Stratford. I had a soft drink thrown on me from the window of a passing car while walking from a viewing in Forest Hill. I was taken so far into Upton Park I couldn’t imagine living there as a woman alone. I made 4 offers on ex-council flats, only to be swept away by cash-buyers paying far above the valuation.
The worst came when Foxtons took me to a flat on the market for 30k more than a flat I had just offered upon. It was located in an almost identical building, a maisonette in a high rise right by Homerton Station. ‘Its just come on the market’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen inside’.
As the door opened we were met by total darkness. As the agent flipped various electrical switches to no avail I observed 4 very large plastic drums (the kind bodies are disposed of in Breaking Bad) in the foyer, along with 2 large fridge freezers. The kitchen had dishes piled high and a rank odour.
As our eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed that all the windows in the lounge had been blacked out with rubbish bins and tape. It was permanently dark – but I began to make out piles of clothing, up to the ceiling filling the room. It was overflowing. It was the home of a hoarder, put on the market, as is.
“I can’t go in there”, I said. The young agent breathed a sigh of relief saying “I’m scared too.”
Worse was the conversational mundanity, the constant need to give progress updates and boring details over and over again. Genuine friends asked because they cared, and expressed concern or interest where appropriate. But I suddenly had strange acquaintances and non-friends taking special interest in me. They wanted to ‘perv’ on my progress, snoop at my viewings and budget, monitor my success. They were the ones desperate to buy with no reasonable prospects of ever being able to afford it, they were the ones who might pull down a fellow crab in a barrel who had managed to pull herself above the fray, given the opportunity. They were desperately jealous and deeply suspicious and smiled without their eyes.
I did eventually have an offer accepted on a flat, and I currently wait in limbo for us to exchange contracts sometime in the next month. I am, inadvertently, making the family in the flat homeless, and I believe it will be a year start to finish before this is finished. Will it be worth it? To have a home secure from the exploitation of private landlords and London’s rising rents?