The Mattress Problem

Having written recently about long commuting, I am looking forward to finding a place to live in the city where I now work. This has propelled me once again into the British housing crisis. I’m resigned to paying over half my pre-tax income to pay someone else’s mortgage to have somewhere basic but reasonable to live in. so once again I have to deal with the mattress problem. The mattress problem is that most rented flats come ‘furnished’ and landlords are often very reluctant to remove their crappy furniture and their disgusting post reasonable use mattresses. The problem is compounded by the housing crisis, where flats are taken within 48 hours of being advertised, so there is no pressure on landlords to make flats reasonably habitable, this has become the tenants responsibility.

In my last rented place, the landlord insisted I stored his mattress in the room,  I then just bought a cheap 12 month life mattress to sleep on and disposed of it in landfill when I left. I even spent the first week or so sleeping on the floor, the mattress was that bad.

This begs the question of how did British housing get into this ridiculous situation? Basically housing has not responded to the changes in the economy. Traditionally we largely lived in the communities we grew up in and secured ‘jobs for life’ locally, so the housing system was built around the idea of homes where people would live long term, if not all their lives. However, the modern economy is built around maximising flexibility in the labour market, where people are expected to move around the world to find roles that suit our inevitable specialisations. Much of the work is by contract, for example I have a 12 month work contract and after that I may move somewhere completely different. We are now expected to move to find work, as globalisation has led to service hubs. Indeed in Powys, where I’m from, the local hospitals have gone and the current debate is over whether our small towns should have high schools. Some studies/ the council suggest that having a hub school is cheaper even with the costs of busing all the children back and forth around the county. Or maybe ultimately the idea isthe transport costs can be passed onto parents rather than the state. My point is that even if you are a doctor, a nurse or a schoolteacher, these days you have to be prepared to move to your specialised hub to work, which compounds the housing pressure at the hubs.

Anyway, I am essentially looking for somewhere temporary to live, which brings me to subject of furniture. Traditionally,  furniture (beds, tables, chairs) were expensive items that stayed with you for life and indeed furniture was often handed down within families; it was well made by craftsmen. Also equipment such as stoves, heating equipment, toilets, baths, fridges and washing facilities for clothes were part of the building or designed into it. So, in rented accommodation these things were often provided and often continue to be so in a very different world. Indeed in student accommodation, which I have a lot of experience of living in, it is convenient not having to lug big bulky furniture in and out of homes and transport across the country every six months.

The thing that has changed is that the cost of producing furniture has plummeted with mass production and furniture is no longer well made, and is no longer expected to last a life time or even a home move. Combined with this is the increase of people in transient temporary homes, leading to a glut of second hand furniture, people buy furniture to suit a home, it won’t fit nicely into the nooks and crannies of a new home so either gets sold cheaply or goes to land-fill dumps. As a society we are a society of consumers, we all have different lifestyles and preferences, so we now expect furniture to suit us, rather than adjust to fit the furniture.  We increasingly live in smaller spaces, so further require furniture that makes use of space efficiently, rather than having little used bulky furniture cluttering up the limited space.

Due to the housing crisis, mattresses represent arguably the thorniest issue in rented accommodation, they are big bulky items that are not easy to transport around the world. A good traditional Western mattress lasts about ten years and provides a comfortable bed to sleep on. However, lugging them around corners, up and down stairs, into vans, in and out of cold storage facilities really reduces their life expectancy. Also reducing their life expectancy is different people sleeping on them. The problem with a good mattress is that they are relatively expensive. A good new mattress is equivalent to a months rent, which for a 12 month let is a significant cost for the landlord and there is no guarantee the tenants will look after it up to a six year expectancy, so landlords provide cheap mattresses that last a year (about a weeks rent), then often they try and persuade tenants to use them beyond their natural life. So landlords do ask people to store unsuitable mattresses, because there is a reasonable chance the next tenant will be more tolerant of a bad mattress, even if the springs have popped out as in my case.

The upshot of this is that lots of cheap mattresses are produced which end up in skips and landfill every year. There is a huge environmental cost to this, as most of the materials are not recyclable and mattresses contain nasty chemicals from their manufacture (particularly the cheap ones). The solution is perhaps to leave tenants provide their own mattresses, yet it is taking a long time for most landlords to accept this solution. However as beds come in all shapes and sizes this often means tenants replacing their mattress every year. The housing ‘market’ hasn’t provided a solution to this problem.

Having browsed the internet for a solution, the answer seems to be futons, the traditional roll-up Japanese mattress, comfortable and easy transportable. I just need to find either an unfurnished flat or a landlord prepared to take away the bed to the tip or store. Why hasn’t this solution been widely accepted? It may be that British people don’t like sleeping on the floor. Traditional British beds are raised above the floor. As children we fear the monsters that live under the bed, and we kind of deal with this by accepting that the monsters won’t come out of their space, the area under the bed is after all only filled with monsters when the lights go out. If there is no space, where do the monsters go? uh oh! Part of the reason for raised beds is to not be troubled by rats at night, as a rat will rarely climb onto a bed with a large mammal sleeping on it. The rats are the monsters, but in most housing these days rat infestations are rare, rather than a part of life.

Of course, these problems also exist for home owners, it costs around £10,000 just to pay all the various costs of moving and then buy new furniture. It is simply not worth the effort of doing this, when transactions take months to complete, that more and more people are looking for 12 month lets in new cities and often letting out their home where they actually want to settle long term, and ahem, finding somewhere to store their furniture, or leave it for the tenants, including the mattresses.

It just seems that the humble mattress, we all need something to sleep on, represents so many of the problems of modern society and Britain has been so slow in developing a work around for the problems of mattresses. My experience of landlords is that they expect tenants to live in conditions they wouldn’t put up with themselves, which is morally wrong; landlords should provide accommodation they would be happy to live in themselves, they are receiving an income from their property after all, even if it is mainly just paying off a mortgage. The problem with this is that we all have different requirements, especially in bedding and furnishings, so such choices should be left to the tenant, who will know their own needs, whenever possible.