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House hunting when your name’s not Sophie

16 Oct 2015

House hunting for shared accommodation in London is possibly one of the most stressful experiences you could go through in this city. You can sift through the ads on SpareRoom, Gumtree and schedule a viewing at 10 am and, by 10.30, it’s gone. The rejection emails and texts become monotonous – if you even get a reply, let alone if you have a name that’s ‘unusual’ aka not English. If you have an ‘exotic’ name, an “Oh. I’m not even going to try and pronounce it, ‘cause I won’t say it properly!” name, then you virtually have no chance.

Take my name for example: Yero. Short for a thirteen-letter name meaning “God has answered my prayers”, or as I used to put it when I was younger: “What on earth were my parents smoking when they named me this.” Since birth, I have always been known as Yero and made these awkward jokes in school like “nod your head and row the boat – yeah row”. It’s not hard to pronounce. It’s just not English.  In fact, it’s universal. There’s a retired Spanish footballer called Jero, a Senegalese footballer who plays for Israel called Yero, and one of my favourite singers is my almost namesake, the late Italian-American Timi Yuro. All successful and brilliant in their own right.

Immigrants in London have been struggling to find accommodation in the city for decades, lifetimes in fact. A Runnymede Trust survey of 750 people found that 29% of Black people seeking private housing had experienced discrimination, in comparison to the 1% of White people who had too. These statistics aren’t shocking. Of course the new Immigration Bill will discriminate against house hunters with foreign sounding names.

I’ve had the luxury of not having to think about flat hunting in London for a while, from signing a lease three years ago in a slightly-living-above-our-means two bed flat in Hackney with my sister, I’ve also studied in other countries and major cities like Havana and New York and always had a room to go back to. Now I’m looking outside of Hackney as I’m fully aware with the current housing crisis, and the extortionate prices in zones 1-2, I’m not going to be able to hold down a job in the arts as well as pay the hefty rent.

Straight to Gumtree, I set my budget as half of what my room is worth now – £450pcm. Walthamstow, my birthplace. I’ve not forgotten I was born in Newham General Hospital and brought back to a little flat on a treelined road in E17, North-east London full of Afghan, Ghanaian, Polish immigrants – I wanted to go back to my roots. Walthamstow has a cute village now with lots of award winning estate agents, I better get in there quick. I found the perfect room, spacious with just one other tenant who is out of the house 7am-8pm. Perfect for a writer. I eagerly text ‘Christian’ the usual spiel about how clean, tidy and conscientious I was and got an immediate response from the landlord:

Room Texts

 room texts 2

I was not upset. Just angry, I felt a bit sick too. I was just shocked that this landlord didn’t even try and disguise his racism and islamophobia. He was so nonchalant about it as if he was just asking questions all landlords need to.

So let’s break this down:

“Where are you from?” He’s not even gonna be subtle about this. Okay.

“Sorry if you feel offended” is the equivalent of sorry, not sorry.

“I just wanted to know the cultural differences.” So a halal cheeky Nando’s then every once in a while? Little does Christian know, I have a predominantly plant-based diet. I could’ve brought back the quinoa from Nando’s everyone’s talking about. If I had replied ‘my parents are from Nigeria’, and left out the fact that they are Christians, are there not Muslim Nigerians on this planet?

“I may not be able to provide facilities to a Muslim person.” So, prayer mat is not included in the £450 all-inclusive rent. Got it.

It’s funny; I’m getting a flurry of tweets and texts and support with disbelief, how could this be happening in 2015, let alone in multicultural, progressive, forward thinking London? People from all over the globe are asking me if I’m okay. Of course I’m okay – this is everyday racism. This is what many of us have to go through on a daily basis. Standing in the queue in Sainsbury’s, applying for an MA. The “where are you froms” and questioning of my identity are just a little bit more subtle than this landlord’s. It’s only been twenty-three years, but I’m going to be Black woman called Yero for the rest of my life. And in this current climate, possibly renting for the rest of my life. Am I supposed to go by my middle name, Selina when corresponding with landlords? But won’t the landlord think I’m Greek and ask me about my cultural differences?

Asking where I’m from is a reminder that I’m not from here. To all of the people who are tweeting me their outrage, this isn’t out of the blue. It’s happens everyday – it’s life. It would be nice to have this outrage every day though.  I did have a lucky escape, imagine if I only found out a week into my tenancy that my landlord did not want to consider the prospect of living with Muslim people. It’s sad that someone will actually take Christian’s room, but thank God it’s not me. I actually have a viewing this evening in Clapton, the landlord is polite, funny, and has a non-English name. In fact, my prospective housemate is called Sophie.