‘I swapped £580 a month rent for a converted horse-box – the housing crisis forced us to look for alternative options’

A growing number are being priced out of private renting, with some living as van dwellers in converted vehicles


Wednesday, 25th September 2019,

Beccy, a 36 year-old from Bristol, works part time as a sustainable travel officer. She is really passionate about her work but chooses not to do it full-time so she can also dedicate time to climate crisis action group Extinction Rebellion.

All of this, she says, is possible because for the last three years she has reduced her cost of living. Previously a private renter paying £580 a month, she now lives in a converted 1990 horsebox lorry. She paid £2,500 for it and estimates spending a total of £7,000 converting it.

She says it costs her £255 a month to run including rent for her park-up, water, insurance, gas, vehicle tax, wifi, fuel and trips to the laundrette as she doesn’t have a washing machine on board. “In terms of what I’m saving on rent, it pays for itself,” she tells i.

These monthly savings enable Beccy to do more of what she loves, which also includes volunteering with the Land Justice Network – a campaign group that argues for fairer distribution of land in Britain.

What’s more, it feels like home. “My ex-boyfriend and I spent about six months converting the lorry. It’s like a log cabin now, we used lots of reclaimed wood. It feels very homely. We were keen to avoid the plastic fantastic feeling of so many motorhomes.”

The inside of Beccy’s converted horse box

The catalyst for Beccy’s lifestyle change was the constant, claustrophobic awareness of rising house prices in Bristol.

“Back in 2014, my ex-boyfriend and I started talking about other ways to live,” she explains. “We wanted to escape the rental/mortgage trap but still have our own home. We would really have struggled to buy a house in the UK and didn’t want to sign up to 30 or 40 years of financial pressure to pay it off regardless. For our generation and younger generations a mortgage is either inaccessible or incarcerating. As people who value our freedom and a good work-life balance, we needed to find a more affordable way to have our own home.”

The housing situation is, at Bristol City Council’s own admission, particularly bad in this part of the south west. As they noted in a report last year: “The average house price in Bristol was £282,624, some 21.4 per cent higher than the UK average.” The latest figures forecast house and rental prices will continue to increase here.

Beccy’s shed from the inside

With younger generations today buying homes later than their parents and grandparents did and often at a higher price in relation to their wages, Beccy’s concerns are very real.

“We have a culture in the UK where you aspire to buy your own home whatever the cost,” she adds, “but many people can’t get past paying their rent every month to save up for a house. It just seems like a complete waste of money to handover so much of your earnings to pay for someone else’s house.”

Living in a van wasn’t necessarily her first choice, though. She also looked at shipping containers but ruled that option out “due to the issue of obtaining planning permission and the cost of land”. She couldn’t afford to buy a boat, another obvious alternative, and so she settled on converting a lorry.

Of course, for some communities, a nomadic life on the road is nothing new. The UK’s Gypsy and Traveller communities have a long heritage and according to the latest Government data, they make up 22,662 caravans in England alone.

Beccy and others like her who have looked to van dwelling more recently in search of a more affordable way of life are part of what is sometimes referred to as the “new traveller” movement by sociologists like Rhiannon Craft at Cardiff University.

Beccy says she has everything she needs, down to a compost toilet and “a small shower which also doubles up as coat storage when its not in use”. The only snag is that every night, she must think about where to park her home.

Beccy’s shower and toilet

“I have a semi permanent park-up which is quite public but on private land. I have been really lucky to find it as it’s incredibly hard to find places to park off the street,” she explains. She is very careful not to reveal the exact location because Bristol’s van dwellers are currently at loggerheads with Bristol City Council. Earlier this month, the council announced a new policy for moving on what they call these “encampments”.

Over the last year, according to a council report, it has moved what it calls “encampments” of 200 converted vans on from more than 12 locations on residential streets around the city because of concerns they were having “a significant impact on public health and safety”. As such, the council now has a policy in partnership with Avon and Somerset Police of intervening when they believe an encampment is “unauthorised”, a danger to health and safety or causing problems for the local community.

“The City has experienced a relatively high level of encampments including those of vehicle dwellers and gypsies and travellers – some of these have caused considerable social tensions and environmental impact which needs effective management,” the report reads. “Between January 2016 and November 2017 Bristol City Council had approximately 100 vehicle dwellers living on the highway at any one time. There were also 21 Gypsy, Roma and Traveller encampments across the City. The number of occupied vehicles on the highway is currently estimated to be 200.”

Mark* is a 37-year-old truck driver from Bristol. He has also been living in a converted lorry with his wife for three years.

In response, to this Craft has put together a petition with more than 1,000 signatures arguing that the council’s policies were “discriminatory”. She thinks van dwellers need permanent sites.

“The public has been quite divided on the issue,” she tells i. “Many wanted to see better accommodation of van dwellers via site provision, which echoes calls what people have been saying for decades since that was repealed under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJPOA). However, others wanted authorities to get tougher.”

Craft says the housing crisis in Bristol is “unusually pronounced” and as a result, “many people have been providing for themselves via van dwelling in the absence of adequate state intervention.”

“If we actually consider van dwelling a kind of housing – which it is and has been for many communities for a long time – we can see that this is a housing crisis in itself. There is a real shortage of sites and authorised stopping places, and many travellers have been forced into bricks and mortar against their will,” she adds.

The interior of Mark’s converted truck

Mark* is a 37-year-old truck driver from Bristol. He has also been living in a converted lorry with his wife for three years. He tells i that it was poor standards in the private rented sector that pushed them to make the move.

“The biggest reason was that our rented flat, which we had lived in for about five years, was in really bad condition. There was a huge mould problem. There was black mould everywhere and the landlord didn’t do anything to sort it out – he didn’t want to spend the money to sort it out. There was also rising damp.”

The final straw came, Mark says, when their landlord said he was going to put the rent up. “We just thought, why are we being asked to pay more money for a flat which isn’t up to being lived in? We started looking at other flats in the area but in the five year period that we had been renting our flat, prices had skyrocketed. We were paying about £550 a month and prices had almost doubled. We were looking at £900 a month for a one bedroom flat which we couldn’t afford at all.”

Mark had some money saved and he and his wife calculated that it would be cheaper over the long term to buy a lorry and convert it than to continue private renting. He says their physical and mental health has now improved, and he questions the council’s argument that van dwelling that van dwelling is not a safe, long term option.

The living space of their converted truck

“I’ve never been healthier in my life,” Mark adds, “I’m not working 50 or 60 hours a week to pay for a rented flat. I’ve actually even joined the gym since I stopped renting because I’ve got the money to do it. Living in a mouldy flat is not healthy.”

Beccy agrees. “The housing market has changed,” she concludes. “We need new innovative solutions which allow people to choose alternative lifestyles and are affordable.” She thinks those who choose to live in vans in Bristol should have the right to permanent or semi-permanent places to park them.

“The best thing about living in a vehicle is having a cosy little home that is my own,” she says. “People often think it would be the freedom to move around but for me, the freedom comes not with the ability to move my home but to limit the financial pressures and have more time to volunteer and pursue other things.”

Mark’s converted lorry

A Bristol City Council spokesperson told i: “Earlier this month, we adopted a new policy for dealing with different types of encampments, which takes into account the fact that rough sleeping and living in a vehicle can be very different circumstances, and for some people, vehicle dwelling is a lifestyle choice.”

“We have considered providing a permanent site for vehicle dwellers; however, we have a duty of care to everyone in the city and don’t believe that sleeping in a vehicle is necessarily a safe, long term option. However, where vehicle dwellers are not causing problems for their neighbours, then we will respect their choices and allow them to stay where they are in the short term. Ultimately, we are committed to helping people find more sustainable housing options and where people are living in vehicles due to the housing crisis we will ensure that they are aware of their rights to apply for housing.”

Anna Minton: Private equity firms gobble up property and wreak havoc on tenants’ lives

Multibillion-pound firms like Blackstone have become leading property players. People who need homes are paying the price

Anna Minton Fri 20 Sep 2019 08.12 BST

Parents at the Fount nursery in London’s East End were taken aback recently when fees for their children’s care went up by more than £200 a month.

The reason for the price hike? The nursery is based in a former railway arch and there had been a massive 49.2% increase in rent by the new landlord, US private equity firm Blackstone, following a £1.5bn sell-off by Network Rail of network arches around the UK.

Blackstone and Telereal Trillium

 Blackstone and Telereal Trillium’s ‘dodgy hand-shaker’ acquisition of arches from Network Rail has been controversial. Photograph: Jack Taylor

On 13 September, the Commons public accounts committee issued a scathing report on the controversial sale of thousands of railway arches to a joint venture between Blackstone and Telereal Trillium. The MPs accused Network Rail of selling off a profitable asset for short-term gain, with a loss of income of at least £80m and potentially up to £160m a year. They also said the sale would mean fewer rights for future tenants, as well as denying existing tenants the option to extend their leases.

Rachel Munro-Peebles, who owns the nursery, faced a difficult decision: close the nursery or increase fees. She describes Blackstone as “ruthless”, pursuing a hardcore increase in rent that threatens the survival of her business. Hence the unpleasant news for parents.

But few of them would realise what they have in common with similar rent rises faced by a baker in Berlin, a bar owner in Toronto, and tenants in housing in Stockholm or Madrid.

The common factor is £6.7bn private equity behemoth Blackstone, now reported to be the biggest landlord in the world. It manages assets worth £123bn, including property in parts of Berlin, Toronto, Madrid, Dublin and Stockholm, where it is the biggest private owner of low-income housing

Local battles against rising rents, such as the protests against plans to redevelop railway arches in Brixton, where only nine of the original 39 businesses remain, are often reported as struggles against gentrification. But this is not gentrification. This is not about working-class areas being taken over by incoming hipsters and middle-class residents and businesses.

This is another phenomenon entirely. This is about how global private equity firms have become leading players in the property market since the 2008 crash. This was predicted by the late geographer Neil Smith in the 1970s, who argued that when the gap becomes big enough between the rent a property earns and what it could earn if redeveloped for new residents, private capital would flow in, attracted by the potential to make large profits.

The result is that since the financial crisis, many parts of London and other cities have become unrecognisable. UN special rapporteur on housing and human rights Leilani Farha says the commodification of real estate by private equity investors in recent years had made housing for many people increasingly expensive and precarious. “Landlords have become faceless corporations wreaking havoc with tenants’ right to security,” said Farha earlier this year, in a stinging critique of the role of companies like Blackstone in contributing to the global housing crisis.

She has written to Blackstone and to government officials in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and the US, accusing the company of undertaking “aggressive evictions” to protect its rental income streams, shrinking the pool of affordable housing in some areas and effectively pushing low- and middle-income tenants from their homes. Her work on this has also been highlighted in a recent documentary by Swedish film-maker Fredrik Gertten.

On its website, Blackstone, which disputed the claims and said the UN report contained “numerous false claims, significant factual errors and inaccurate conclusions”, tells investors it seeks to “acquire high quality investments at discounts to replacement cost” – corporate speak for buying up assets cheap. It particularly favours what economists call “distressed markets”, as these have the greatest potential for capital growth. This includes repossessed homes in the US and Spain as well as increased activity in the UK – the company recently made a controversial move into the UK’s low-income housing market through for-profit housing provider Sage.

Following the financial crash Stephen Schwarzman, the company’s billionaire chief executive, described Blackstone’s strategy in Europe as “basically waiting to see how beaten up people’s psyches get, and where they’re willing to sell assets … You want to wait until there’s really blood in the streets.” Schwarzman recently gave Oxford University £150m – its largest single donation since the Renaissance – to fund a humanities centre that will be named after him. It’s a move to burnish his image that is unlikely to allay concerns about his company’s activities.

Meanwhile, despite reassurances from the company that now owns so many former railway arches, local communities remain fearful, including Munro-Peebles, who says Blackstone isn’t listening to any of its tenants. “How are we supposed to survive?”