Kieran Yates is now a homeowner, but that doesn’t mean she’s removed herself from the fight for better housing. Image: Ione Gamble
It’s a strange thing to look back on all the places you’ve called home. Sit down with a pen and paper and make a list. Before speaking to author Kieran Yates about her new book: All the Houses I’ve Ever Lived In, I made mine. I counted 18 homes by the age of 29. Is that normal?
Maybe, maybe not. But Yates has me well beaten. By the age of 25, she’d lived in 20 different houses across the country. There’s the childhood flat in a car showroom that had floor-to-ceiling windows. Then there are housemate auditions in her 20s that enable tenants to discriminate on the basis of race, class, sexuality – reproducing some of the systemic disparities of our society.
And then there are the floors she has slept on in between, pointing to the impact continually moving home has on our ability to take care of ourselves in the present.
Among her own experiences, Yates has interwoven the experiences of everyone from the inhabitants of steel shipping containers trying to find a cheap temporary solution, to survivors and bereaved family members of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
By knitting together her own personal experiences with those of others, Yates paints a picture of how Britain’s housing crisis is creating lives that are shunted from house to house, and the psychological ruptures and disruptions that relentless moving gives us.
And the sad reality is that experiences like hers (and mine and quite probably yours) are becoming increasingly normalised. This is because “we don’t have good long-term solutions to think about how we live today,” says Yates.
“When I was in my 20s going through housemate auditions and learning close up how the internet plays such a role in the optimised idea of what a housemate is, I felt that was completely normal,” she explains.
“And when I lived in a mouldy room, I thought that was completely normal to be demonised and to be told that you should just open a window.
“But it was in the writing of my own personal experience that I checked myself and I was like: ‘No, that isn’t that isn’t fucking normal.’ Actually, an injustice has been done there. I just didn’t realise how to advocate for it at the time.’”
Yates’s experiences, told in personal detail, are so relatable to anyone who has faced the housing insecurity intrinsic to renting in Britain today. Like Yates, I know exactly the feeling of remembering “with a jolt” a once-loved item of clothing and wondering which home it was left in.
It’s in details such as these that Yates brings a level of heartfelt depth rarely seen in discussions of the housing crisis. Hers is a “book about home, not housing”.
But something I haven’t experienced, as a white person, is how “racism is embedded in the industrial housing complex”. In her book, Yates covers the ground from the violent racism in majority white estates to her experience of living in a house share as the only person of colour and the microaggressions that can bring.
“People that look like me are not usually people that dominate these conversations,” says Yates, who is a British-Asian writer and journalist. “If you’re a Black or brown person in this country, you talk about it, you’re aware of it, you feel it.”
There is a deep feeling of powerlessness at the heart of being a renter today, at the mercy of a system that often feels like landlords and letting agents hold each and every card. I recently had the experience of having my rent raised by 22 per cent, actually a negotiation down from a proposed 33 per cent hike. This forced me, heartbroken, to begin the search for home number 19, only to give up when faced with the scarcity of house share rooms available, and figure out a way to absorb this huge additional cost.
With rents rising at an average rate of 17 per cent throughout 2022, according to Zoopla, and the £1,000-a-month room becoming a norm in London, renters are living in a time of permanent instability. But even in this wreckage, Yates has found people fighting back.
“Rent strikes are controversial but guess what, people win,” she says. “And bailiff resistance is controversial, but guess what, people win. And confronting an estate agent or a racist landlord is very precarious work, but guess what, people win.”
It is in her local branch of the London Renters Union that Yates says she has found resistance, where people share the knowledge necessary not only to navigate this wasteland, but to stand up to it. By sharing an email template, translating housing details into another language, people can support each other to advocate for themselves.
In communities like these, she says, “unpacking admin for each other suddenly becomes like a radical act of love”.
It’s in her descriptions of community aid that Yates injects a glorious dose of love and joy and hope. This is what is so special about All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In: the side notes of kindness and community, told with beauty, folded between the pages.
It’s important not to be blind to the “community and looking after each other that we have had to do because the government has not done it for us”, she explains.
Now, aged 35, Yates is a homeowner. She’s quick to give transparency to her situation, however, explaining that it was gained through her book deal and partner’s generational wealth.
It frustrates her that many homeowners, particularly on the left, feel a sense of guilt over having seemingly made it out of the woods. Having a stable home is being sold to us as a luxury, which makes it harder to see it as a right for everyone.
There should be no “acquiring castles and raising the drawbridge”, she says. “As a homeowner, it’s important that I use that privilege to go and advocate for people in temporary accommodation, to go and advocate for a landlord register to help private renters who are dealing with disrepair claims that do not get seen.”
While All the Houses I’ve Ever Lived In is in many ways a nostalgic look at Yates’s past, it presents a vision for how things should be, for everyone living in Britain.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.
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