The housing emergency in Totnes (and beyond): Sandra’s story, part 1

When we say Atmos will build 62 truly affordable homes, and that Totnes is experiencing a
housing emergency, it is easy to lose sight of the human stories behind that. So @SaputoInc, we’re going to tell you one of those stories. Let’s call our teller ‘Sandra’…

It matters that you hear her story, Saputo Inc. Your actions in selling this site from under her feet mean that her chance of finding decent, secure, affordable housing in #Totnes are now all but gone. You need to hear the human legacy of your decision from her, in her own words.

“When I moved to Totnes 12 years ago, I remember bumping into someone who said “oh you’re
moving down – well, expect to be moving a lot”. I thought “what a strange thing to say”. Now that
I’ve been here 12 years, I know what she meant.

The housing situation here is very unstable. People are constantly being booted out by landlords who want their properties back either for the summer, or to rent them out on AirBnB for more money, or because they want to move back from wherever they are.

First two years I was here, I moved twice with my then 4 year old son, because each time they wanted to sell the property or to move into it. Finally I ended up moving into a place and the first thing I asked them was, “is this a long term rental?” “Yes” they said. 

Having had those experiences of trying to build a home and being booted out, it meant that for the first two years I didn’t do anything to the garden, fearing that they would be giving me notice soon.

It’s never your home. You’re simply at the whim of you landlords’ needs. After 2 years I started growing a garden and painted the walls. If I pay you 800 pounds a month, I’m painting the walls. I was making it a home but every now and then the landlady would call … and say they’re thinking maybe they’ll come back at some point from New Zealand. So in the back of my mind I also knew that this was never really going to be my home. If they decided to come back, we would have to go.

After 6 years, even though I’d met my landlady and said “please, I’ve a son still at school, do give us plenty of notice, it’s hard to find somewhere else here particularly as a single mum”, one Friday evening at 6pm we got a letter through the door, giving us 2 months to quit.

I sat on the sofa with my son. We just cried. He said, “Mum, this is where we grew up”. I can’t believe how much it still hurts. Just two months notice. Nobody bothered to pick up the phone and talk to us.

She must have known before that date that she was coming back, she could have given us six months notice. They could have said “take your time, find something that’s right”. But no, just a letter from the agent.

I asked them very politely “could you please extend this to July because it would be much better if we didn’t have to move while my son was at school. They said “no”. I spoke to the housing officer at the Council, they said “stay where you are”.

“We can’t help you if you move and make yourself homeless”.

So I took their advice, even though it didn’t feel like I had a home anymore.

Various events then conspired so that they sent me a letter saying, “Oh, you can stay actually we’re really sorry we should have said straightaway”, but only because of difficulties to do with renovating
the house, only out of selfishness.

I said yes I’d be very happy to stay just let me know when you’re moving. They gave me permission to stay till April 2020.

I come back from my holidays end of August, and there’s a letter saying, “sign here, that you’re committed to stay till April 2020”. The contract stated that if I left before April 2020, found the perfect place, I’d be liable for all that rent. Can you believe it?

They were willing to give me two months notice, but when it comes to protecting their finances they want me to commit from September to April 2020 to make sure that they don’t lose out on their rent. I rang the agent I said, “there is no way I’m signing this”.

In October 2019 they sent me a solicitors letter kicking me out in December 2019. Christmas time. 1st of January 2020 I needed to be out. At that point I just gave up. There was no communication with these people at all.

So, on Boxing Day 2019, I moved out of our home into temporary accommodation because I couldn’t find anywhere else to live that was affordable and decent.

We then spent 8 months living in short term accommodation while I looked for a better place. Then we had lockdown, and things went mad with the housing market in Totnes because so many people decided to move to the southwest.

There’s no way I can find anywhere, apart from shitty, damp places with night storage heaters, which will cost an absolute bomb.

A friend of mine said take a break from this housing nightmare, come and live in my spare room. My son had to go live with his dad and because I was at a distance I could no longer parent him and it affected his school work.

I was there for about seven weeks till I found the bedsit I’m now in – a little studio with a tiny kitchen. My son can’t live with me, he sleeps on the floor when he stays, and eventually he said “Mum I don’t want to sleep on the floor anymore”. Very reasonable.

We see each other a few times a week; I can’t really parent him like this. About a month ago I was offered a 3 bed house for £1000 a month. I thought, OK we’ll share the house, we’ll get a lodger in so we can pay the rent.

On the morning, when I was going to see it, I got a phone call to say “we spoke to the agent who said we should really be able to get 1300 or 1400 for it. Would that work for you?”

To be continued...

Originally tweeted by AtmosTotnes (Totnes Community Development Society) (@AtmosTotnes) on 19/08/2021.

Atmos Totnes is a once-in-a-generation chance to develop a key part of Totnes in a way that is for the people, not just for profit. It is the name of the community-led project to re-develop the former Dairy Crest site next to Totnes rail station (a derelict brownfield industrial site). The project began in 2007 with the closure of the Totnes Creameries. It is the work of Totnes Community Development Society(TCDS)
Atmos has taken an old milk processing factory in Totnes and, led by an exemplary and highly creative community consultation process, has redesigned it as a vibrant,  mixed use development, designed to be the heart of a new economy for Totnes.
The site was unexpectedly sold by its new owner Saputo Dairy UK Ltd, to Fastglobe Mastics, an Essex-based company, in a deal brokered by Totnes-based ‘land agent’ Mr Patrick Gillies, of Bruce Gillies Ltd. TCDS are continuing to pursue their legal rights in relation to the site in order to bring the site back into community ownership.

You can visit the website for more information.

If you have a story to tell about the housing situation in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset or Somerset, please contact us: editor_@westcountrybylines.co.uk