THE HOUSING TIMEBOMB
23,0000 homes lie empty as thousands on waiting list: Shelter says we need 50,000 new council houses
Report by Judith Duffy
LIVING in a decent home is the top priority for Scots, according to a recent poll.
New figures uncovered by the Sunday Herald show that more than double the number of social homes have been sold by councils and housing associations than have been built over the past five years.
And it is feared the pressure on social housing could get worse as families who own their homes struggle to pay mortgages amid rising unemployment, the squeeze on household budgets, and cuts to pay and benefits.
The Scottish Government has pledged to build 30,000 new “affordable” homes over five years, including 20,000 social homes. But, according to Shelter Scotland, at least 50,000 new socially-rented homes are needed over that time frame to begin to meet the country’s requirements.
Meanwhile, demand for housing is predicted to increase over the next two decades, with a rising population and more people living alone or in small households.
Graeme Brown, director of housing and homelessness charity Shelter Scotland, said the need for a decent home was a priority for people of all ages, including children.
“We do a lot of family support work and kids say they want somewhere safe and secure to live – not just in terms of a house but the neighbourhood,” he said. “They want somewhere permanent, somewhere they can call home. It is not a bad aspiration to have.”
Over the next few pages the Sunday Herald examines the extent of the crisis.
THE EMPTY HOUSES: SCANDAL OF THOUSANDS OF HOMES LYING EMPTY
BACK in the 1980s, Brucefield Park in Easterhouse was used as a model of how to encourage people to own their own homes, with properties offered for sale at low prices. But over three decades, the once tidy estate became increasingly rundown and a magnet for slum landlords and drug addicts.
Efforts are now being made to renovate Brucefield Park, with one of the biggest problems facing the area being the number of long-abandoned properties which lie boarded up alongside decent properties.
Kenny Halliday, director of Lochfield Park Housing Association, which has stepped into help the estate, said around 60 homes – one-quarter of the total number of properties – had been empty at one stage.
He said: “We have got 500 people on our waiting list for our houses. If there were good houses across the road I’m sure people would be quite happy to move into them.”
The 60 boarded-up homes in Brucefield are among around 23,000 privately-owned homes across Scotland which have been lying abandoned for six months or more, at a time when housing demand is outstripping supply.
The problem is being tackled through a project, funded by the Scottish Government and facilitated by Shelter Scotland, which works with councils to encourage owners to bring the properties back into use.
The idea of owning a “forgotten” property lying somewhere may seem alien to most people, but Kristen Hubert, co-ordinator of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, said there was a variety of reasons why it can happen.
“One reason that crops up a lot is people who have inherited the property – they didn’t intend to be a property owner and they don’t have the skills or the information to do the right thing with it,” she said. “People may have a fear of becoming a landlord but they don’t want to sell the property or they don’t have the money to renovate but have this perception that you can’t sell without renovating. For other people homes are just something else they own.”
While it costs around £100,000 to build a new home, refurbishing an existing property averages at between £6000 to £25,000.
The Scottish Government has proposed allowing councils to charge up to twice as much council tax on long-term empty properties to tackle the issue. Currently, owners are charged between 50%-90% of the standard charge.
The empty properties in Brucefield have long been a blight on the area and for the owner-occupiers living next to them. Halliday said bringing them back into use would be a key piece of the jigsaw in improving the area.
“There are probably around 130 of the original owners who are still living there and have seen the area deteriorate,” he said. “Now they are seeing something getting done, so they are really quite hopeful.”
THE HOMELESS: FEARS OVER ABILITY OF COUNCILS TO MEET OBLIGATIONS TO HOUSE HOMELESS
NATALIE Cassidy doesn’t fit the typical stereotype of a homeless person. The 24-year-old was classed as unintentionally homeless in April this year after being forced to move out of a private let bungalow which was infested with damp and mould and severely affecting the health of her and her four-year-old son, Aiden. They are now part of the 25,000 households on the council housing list in Edinburgh. In 2010-11, just over 1600 lets were available in the city.
Cassidy, who has temporarily moved into her mum’s flat, said she has no idea how long she will be waiting for a home of her own.
“I never thought I would be making a homeless application,” she said. “I was glad the council took us on because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just want somewhere I can settle without having problems all the time. Aiden has not had a proper living environment for months now.”
In 2003, the Scottish Parliament passed groundbreaking legislation which means all unintentionally homeless people should be entitled to settled accommodation by the end of this year.
This was previously an obligation only for applicants assessed as both unintentionally homeless and in “priority need”. The category of “priority need” will be abolished from December 31, 2012.
As of February this year, out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, nine had met the commitment early, with another eight predicting they will soon meet the target.
In 2010-11, just over 55,000 made homeless applications to their local council. Between April to September 2011, the number of applications was just under 12,000, a drop of 20% compared to the same period in 2010.
Graeme Brown of Shelter Scotland said the 2012 homelessness commitment was a progressive piece of legislation, but cautioned that the challenge was to now make sure there was an adequate supply of housing to meet the demand.
“That is a critical part of this jigsaw which needs to be filled in,” he said. “There are 160,000 people on council waiting lists, over 40,000 people assessed as homeless, and about 10,000 households in temporary accommodation across Scotland just now.
“If you have set up the right to housing, you then have to fulfil that obligation to people by ensuring the supply is there.”
Elaine Murray, housing spokeswoman for Labour, said the homelessness target had cross-party support, but added: “The trouble is that without the supply of housing it is just an entitlement. It is not actually a house and what people need is a house.
“Given the sort of waiting lists we have got across the country in many areas, it will be very difficult for councils or registered social landlords to be able to have the stock available.”
WELFARE REFORMS: EVICTION FEARS OVER CHANGES
CONCERNS have been raised that a series of changes to housing benefits being introduced by the UK Government could lead to increased arrears and evictions, as thousands of already struggling Scots are pushed deeper into poverty.
The reforms include a “bedroom tax”, which will cut the housing benefit of any working-age tenant in social housing deemed to be under-occupying their home by an average of between £27 and £65 per month.
Maureen Watson, policy director of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, said the “unjust” changes through the welfare reform legislation would bring increased financial stress for tenants and social landlords, increased homelessness and greater demand for advice services.
“What we are really worried about is the Government penalising some of Scotland’s poorest families for “under-occupying” their homes, when they have nowhere else to move to,” she said.
“There is a shortage of smaller, alternative affordable accommodation in Scotland. This bedroom tax is an extra burden on some of the poorest households in Scotland.”
Another reform introduced in January this year means single people under the age of 35 – instead of the previous limit of 25 – will now only receive enough Local Housing Allowance to cover sharing a property, not renting their own home.
Vicki Kelly, 26, who has been living in a one-bedroom flat in Dundee for the past year, is among those affected by this change. From the end of this month she will have to find £57 a month to cover a shortfall in her rent. She has been seeking work for the past year, but currently claims benefits and has only around £61 a week to live off.
“I assume they want me to find new housing, but it is not like it is easy to get new housing in Dundee,” she said.
Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed the welfare reforms will “change lives for the better” and end a “benefits culture” which deters people from seeking employment.
But Keith Dryburgh of Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) said they were concerned the welfare reforms, together with budget cuts and an increasing number of people in need, will result in a “perfect storm of challenges for housing providers”.
THE ECONOMY: SURGE IN CREDIT FOR ESSENTIALS
THE economic crisis has brought a tide of rising unemployment, Government cutbacks and soaring costs of living, leaving many families struggling to hang on to their home. One recent survey found one in seven people in Scotland are now relying on credit cards and overdrafts to pay their mortgage or rent.
Graeme Brown, Shelter Scotland’s director, said such issues were creating a “toxic brew” for the housing market.
“Despite the fact we have had the deepest and sharpest recession since the 1930s in 2008, it is only this year that some of those impacts are really beginning to bubble through into household budgets,” he said.
“For example, we are seeing in our law service a 40% increase this year alone in the number of people approaching us saying they are having difficulties and maybe facing repossessions.
“That is a worrying sign, particularly with interest rates at this low level because, of course, what you don’t want is people who are in housing then joining the list and actually making it even longer.
“There is a number of things all happening at the same time and that is putting real pressures on households and people’s ability to continue to pay rent or mortgage.”
One typical example is Claire and her husband, who live in Dundee, and have three children under the age of 12. The couple, who didn’t want their surname reported, have been struggling since his hours at a building company were cut, leaving the family with just £171 a month to live on after covering bills totalling £700 a month.
She said: “The cost of living has really gone up while our income has gone down. The situation is very stressful and we are struggling every day to get by. All it will take is another small rise in prices or interest rates to push us over the edge.”
The slowdown in the building sector also impacts on the wider economy. For every £10 million invested in housing it is estimated that at least 160 jobs are sustained.
Since the onset of the financial crisis, around 26,000 jobs directly linked to the home-building industry in Scotland have been lost. The number of new homes built has fallen from around 26,000 in 2007 to just over 11,000 in 2010.
Philip Hogg, chief executive of home-building industry body Homes for Scotland, said the main challenge was the lack of availability of mortgage finance, which has particularly affected first-time buyers – the “lifeblood” of the home-building industry.
He said: “This issue remains the single biggest obstacle to recovery in the housing market.
GENERATION RENT: DEMANDS FOR REFORM
RENTING has long been viewed as second-best to owning a home. But the private rented sector in Scotland has nearly doubled in size since 1999, due to the increase in buy-to-let landlords and difficulties in securing a mortgage. Of the 2.4 million dwellings in Scotland, around 11% are now privately rented, compared to 5% just over a decade ago. Earlier this month the Scottish Government launched a consultation to improve the private rented sector system for tenants and landlords.
In Germany, long-term tenancies are standard with high levels of security against eviction and protection against unexpected rent increases.
John Blackwood, director of the Scottish Association of Landlords, said many landlords would welcome longer tenancies in Scotland. But he added: “We need to have reassurance we could get the tenants out. Another concern is anti-social behaviour, as landlords have no power to take action.”
One issue currently being addressed is charges made by some letting agents, with the Scottish Government proposing a ban on upfront charges on tenants.
An investigation by Shelter Scotland found 26 out of 30 letting agents charged upfront fees for reference checks, credit checks and “general administration”, which ranged from £16.80 to £180.
Scott Kuku, 31, was charged £320 by a letting agent which he used to try to rent a flat in Edinburgh last year. He had to go to court to get his money refunded after the agent refused to return the cash, even though he was not given the lease on the flat. He said: “I didn’t care about the money, it was more about not being taking advantage of.”
SOCIAL HOUSING: EXTENSION OF ‘PRESSURED AREA’ STATUS TO BOOST SUPPLY
MORE than 150,000 households across Scotland are on council or housing association waiting lists for a permanent home of their own. But the lack of socially-rented accommodation means that wait can stretch to months or years.
Shelter Scotland estimates that around 10,000 newbuild socially-rented homes a year are needed over the course of the current parliament to meet demand.
In their 2011 election manifesto, the SNP pledged to build 6000 new socially-rented homes a year, over the next five years. But the Government has come under attack for since altering that to 30,000 “affordable homes”. An affordable home isn’t necessarily a council or housing association property. Of 30,000 affordable homes, 20,000 are guaranteed as social homes.
Jim Hume, Liberal Democrat housing spokesman, said: “That is not exactly what they had in their manifesto. They were aware of the budget they had when they made those manifesto commitments.”
One key issue affecting the supply of social housing stock has been the right of council tenants to buy their home for a discount, first introduced in the 1980s. Eligibility for right-to-buy has become increasingly restricted in recent years, but new figures obtained by the Sunday Herald show 13,214 social homes have been sold by councils and housing associations over the past five years.
According to the information provided by 29 out of 32 councils and housing associations just over 5000 new social homes were added to their housing stock over the same period.
At least 13 local authorities now have “pressured area” status in place to ensure there is enough social rented accommodation available. This puts on hold the right of some tenants to buy their homes in areas of high demand.
When pressured area status was first introduced in the Eastwood area of Renfrewshire in 2005, for example, 57% of council houses had been sold through right-to-buy. The whole area of Perth and Kinross was designated as “pressured” for 10 years by the council in February.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it had been “absolutely clear” on the aim of delivering at least 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years. He added: “We are on track to deliver over 6000 affordable homes per year, of which over 4000 will be social homes. We are also helping councils achieve and, crucially, maintain the 2012 homelessness target with at least £710m earmarked over the next three years to boost the supply of affordable housing.”