New lease of life: how to redecorate a rental property on a budget

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New lease of life: how to redecorate a rental property on a budget. You don’t have to be a home owner or have lots of money to create a ‘natural and nourishing home’, says Africa Daley-Clarke

In the middle of the wall in Africa Daley-Clarke’s living room is a print illustrating the passengers disembarking from the Empire Windrush. Before moving into her flat last June, she sold all of the art on her gallery wall to fund the purchase of this new print. Three of Daley-Clarke’s grandparents took a similar journey from the West Indies in the early 1960s: it’s a journey she is reminded of every time she sees the print, and an image she hopes her daughters will remember growing up with.

Daley-Clarke, 29, lives with her husband, Jermel, 33, and two young daughters – Israel, 4, and Ezra, 2 – in a social housing flat in Islington, north London. The street they live on comprises mostly detached Victorian villas. The property they live in has been split into three apartments. Here, on the first floor, in a two-bedroom flat with a front room, kitchen, bathroom and small balcony, Daley-Carke has created what she describes as a “natural, nourishing home” for her young family. “I never want my family to go without because we can’t afford to live in a bigger home,” she says. “But really, we don’t need any more.”

Through her social media channel, @thevitamindproject, she talks openly about home ownership and the stigma of living in social housing. “When I was growing up, I genuinely didn’t know that people rented privately,” she recalls. “I thought you either owned your home or you lived in social housing.” It wasn’t until her early 20s that she realised the opposite was also true: friends and colleagues who rented privately had very little understanding of social housing.

“There is nothing to prevent anyone from applying for social housing,” she says, before going on to explain the “very fair” points-based system housing associations use to allocate properties. The rent – which is non-subsidised and non-profit – is pegged to local salaries and their tenancy is secure for five years. “All of that is rarely talked about,” says Daley-Clarke, “and I think that is where the stigma comes from – from not understanding that not everyone has the same start in life, and from not understanding that privilege comes in so many different shapes and forms.”

According to a 2019 report by the English Housing Survey, the nationwide shortage of social housing has lead to the highest levels of overcrowding since records began 24 years ago. Daley-Clarke recalls her own experience of leaving home at 16 and living in temporary accommodation for seven years before her name eventually made its way to the top of the waiting list. Her first rented home was a one-bedroom flat in King’s Cross. While living there she met her husband and started a family. It was another three years before a two-bedroom property became available.

When the call finally came to view their current flat, Daley-Clarke agreed to the tenancy on the spot, knowing it could be another three years before the next two-bedroom property became available.

“It was in such a bad state of disrepair that six other families had already turned it down,” she recalls. While the housing association has a duty to ensure its properties are safe, anything deemed cosmetic is left to the tenants.

The home Daley-Clarke has created bears little resemblance to the flat she first saw last June. Earthy tones, second-hand furniture, natural fabrics and abundant plant life fill the space with warmth and character. Daley-Clarke manages an interior design showroom: her eye for design is apparent throughout.

Having moved in, the couple prioritised the girls’ bedroom. They painted the walls white and set up a second-hand Ikea bed and cot, draping the frame in natural fabrics in shades of turmeric, terracotta and grey. Their toys (mostly wooden, mostly second-hand) are corralled in easy-to-reach baskets and drawers and their books are displayed in an alcove created by removing the bedroom door, freeing up the dead space behind.

By week three, they had also decorated the main living and dining area, filling it with plants and furniture from their previous flat. (The only new additions are the gigantic banana plant and dining table.) The hallway has been papered in a busy bamboo print that reminded Daley-Clarke of the set in Only Fools and Horses. The master bedroom is still a work in progress.

The couple invested two-years’ of savings in the renovation of the bathroom and kitchen, both of which were dilapidated, cold and clinical. The work was undertaken concurrently in just 10 days. “If you’re living in the space at the same time with two small children, you’ve got to do it quickly,” says Daley-Clarke. In the kitchen, Jermel built the work surface and open shelving from reclaimed scaffolding boards. The bathroom has been turned into a cosseting, tactile space with irregular teal tiles and a patterned terracotta floor that wraps over the side of the bath, creating the illusion of a built-in tub.

“Even if we have to leave this flat after five years, we took the decision to invest in our home from the outset – to treat it like our forever home,” she says. (She makes the point that their renovation costs equated to about 10% of what they’d need to pay for a deposit on a similar two-bedroom flat.)

For Daley-Clarke and her family, their home is a safe place for memories to be made and savoured. “Paying fair, affordable rent has given us the freedom to plan financially,” she says. “It’s enabled us to both work full-time and support our family without relying on housing benefits. It’s given us breathing space.”

Renovate a rental… Africa Daley-Clarke’s top tips

Contact your council If you are planning to do any structural work on a social housing property, it will need to be pre-approved by your council or housing association. Social housing tenants are subject to yearly inspections and must provide safety certificates for any structural works carried out.

Buying for the future When buying furniture or appliances, make sure you buy with intention. Save up and buy the best you can afford, not the first thing you see.

Space-saving solutions We have hardly any floor space in our kitchen, but we also have beautiful 3m-high ceilings, so we’ve stacked our open shelving high to maximise storage. We’ve also maximised floorspace in the living room by fixing two shelving systems to the wall and using a row of vintage theatre seats in place of a second sofa. They fold up when not in use, which frees up more precious floor space.