A young Victor da Cunha with his mother and sister outside their home in London
As part of our #HousingDay untold stories series, Curo Chief Executive, Victor da Cunha, recounts his childhood in London where social housing provided his parents with stability, security and opportunity for their family.
When I was four, my parents did something amazing. With nothing but the clothes they were wearing and some clean towels in a suitcase, they began a new life in a country where they couldn’t even speak the language. You see, where I was born, people were suppressed, poor and illiterate. At the time, people were not allowed to congregate; any more than two were quickly dispersed.
My dad talks about the many people who vanished; some for simply saying they didn’t earn enough to feed their family. One story he repeats often is about a man in his town that read to others unable to read, and was forced to wear shoes with nails pointing inwards. He talks of a place where people were scared to speak openly because you never knew who was listening... brother would tell on brother, neighbour on neighbour, in a society built on fear.
My parents worked initially for a wealthy couple in Cambridge; housemaid and butler. They were happy to start a new life, even if that meant temporarily being without any worldly goods and without their two young children. They wanted to make a new start, to give us the opportunities they never had: to go to school; to have a career; to speak freely.
As the year passed, and their desire to be reunited with my sister and me grew, they had to move on. They couldn’t have us living with them in Cambridge, so they upped sticks and moved to London.
They moved, mainly out of desperation, to a private rented flat in south London; a dive of a place with loads of other, mainly single, desperate people. I remember seeing my parents for the first time after that year. As bad as the place was, it was home with them in it and it didn't really matter that it was a poorly maintained fire trap, over-occupied with no security of tenure.
We lived on the top floor of a three storey end of terrace. Our rooms were divided by communal corridors and a shared kitchen and WC. We were there for only a short while, but long enough for us to be involved in a dangerous kitchen fire whilst my parents were out working one of their five jobs.
Our next place was bigger, but not any nicer. We lived on the ground floor of a four storey Victorian house. Six other flats were above us and all of them used the communal corridor that went past our dispersed rooms. I slept with my sister in a bunk bed in the dining room. The door was locked from the outside by key at night. My parents slept across the corridor where the TV was and so it doubled as our living room during the day. Along the communal corridor, again under lock and key, was our kitchen and within that, our own bathroom and WC. In the winter, because no heating was fitted anywhere, the bathroom was freezing and it quickly developed ghastly black mould which environmental health got involved with.
In the mornings my sister and I would unlock the various doors, she would boil water for us to wash and we would move around the various rooms to get ready. I would end up in hospital at the age of seven, with 3rd degree burns, as a result of that ridiculous routine.
Throughout this, my mum and dad worked hard but their dream was a council house. It meant stability and security. Regularly they would make their way to Lambeth Town Hall to check progress on the waiting list. Eventually, after a couple of years, we began to get offers of housing.
Three offers was what we were entitled to and it was the last one they settled on; a flat on the fourth and top floor of Wisden House, Oval.
It was great. My sister and I had a bedroom each, big enough for us to study in and it didn't need to be locked at night. It had a kitchen the family could eat in, a toilet and bathroom which had hot water, a front room with no mum and dad sleeping and it was warmed with a spanking new central heating system. More than that, no one else used our corridor and the place didn’t smell bad or have mould everywhere. It was virtually paradise and next door, to top it off, lived other children to play with.
Looking back, my mum and dad were right to aspire to that home; it was clean, in good order, safe, secure and affordable. We stayed there until I was 14, most of my formative years, before my parents opted to exercise the portable right to buy. My parents did an amazing thing, and the opportunities that my sister and I had were boosted in no short measure by the stability of that place.
So, rather than being embarrassed about it, I’m very happy to recognise and celebrate the important part it played in my life. It’s a story of opportunity that thousands of other people share in common with my family, and a story that many others will become familiar with in the future.