London Mayor: A referendum on housing

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Woodberry Down estate. Pic: Paul McGowan

On the final day of our series on the London Mayoral Election we look at what many are calling the election’s defining battleground: how to solve the housing crisis.

London is in the grip of the worst housing crisis for generations. In recent polling, 67 per cent of Londoners said housing should be the greatest priority for the incoming Mayor. For Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate, and Sadiq Khan, for Labour, this is the issue that will determine who gets to run the city for the next four years.

Put simply, demand for housing far outstrips supply. House building has decreased significantly since the 1970s, with social housing particularly affected. A generation of Londoners are being priced out of owning a home they can call their own. Can Sadiq or Zac reverse the trend?

When Boris Johnson was re-elected, his initial house-building target was 32,000 homes a year. He later increased his target to 49,000 per year, but has fallen well short of that number with just 20,520 new homes being built in 2014/15. Meanwhile, the population of London has continued to grow.

Both the Labour and Conservative mayoral candidates have set themselves the same target as Johnson. They want to build 50,000 new homes a year (Sadiq has scaled back his initial promise, which was to build 80,000 a year). But to reach the magic number, they will have to more than double the current number of homes being built in the city.

In any case, the housing crisis is more complicated than just building new homes; accommodation must also be affordable, while gentrification – poorer residents being priced out as housing is regenerated – is also a problem.

David Cameron recently highlighted Woodberry Down, an estate in Hackney that is currently being regenerated by developer Berkeley Homes, as a model for how the country’s housing crisis could be solved. A mix of social housing, private rented accommodation and privately owned homes, it was, he said, a “successful regeneration scheme”.

ELL visited the estate to ask the residents for their experiences of housing in London, and to see how each of the main mayoral candidate’s policies might help them.

Hasan Mustafa: Priced out of privately rented flats on the estate

Hasan Mustafa can no longer afford to live in Woodberry Down due to regeneration. Pic: Douglas Pyper

Hasan Mustafa cannot afford to live in Woodberry Down due to regeneration. Pic: Douglas Pyper

Hasan Mustafa runs the local butcher’s, Jolly Meats, on Seven Sisters Road. Mustafa, with the help of his father, has run the butcher’s in Woodberry Down for 20 years. He now lives in Tottenham after living on the estate with his father-in-law for four years and says he could never afford to live in Woodberry Down now.

“Berkeley Homes is here just to make money and that’s all I can see. The local community is distanced from each other. The rich and the poor are very separated,” said Mustafa.

“My father-in-law is still here. He’s happy. He was moved out of his first home into an older block being promised he’d be in a new block in three years. But that was eight or 10 years ago.”

He claims local business hasn’t benefited from the changes with customer levels remaining the same, but rent increasing significantly.

When asked if he wanted his shop to remain in Woodberry Down, Mustafa said: “Hopefully. I’m trying. We’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve done it for my old man. This is us. It’s home.”

The bigger picture

Like many Londoners, Hasan can’t afford to buy – under Boris Johnson’s tenure the average cost of a home in London has risen 44 per cent, while wages have not kept pace with this inflation.

Over the past 12 months, the price of private rent in London has increased 3.9 percent. According to the Office for National Statistics the price of renting in London has increased every month since October 2010.

What would Sadiq and Zac do to help Hasan Mustafa?

Sadiq has pledged the to make rent one-third of average local wages for those who are struggling to rent privately.

Zac has said that a “significant proportion” of new homes will only be made available to rent and not for sale, cutting out private landlords.

Martin Polimis and Patricia Best: From affordable social housing to ‘struggling housing’

Martin Polimis isn't happy that he has to pay expensive communal heating bills. Pic Douglas Pyper

Martin Polimis isn’t happy that he has to pay expensive communal heating bills. Pic Douglas Pyper

Retired painter Martin Polimis lived in social housing on the estate for 10 years, and was rehoused in the estate after its regeneration three years ago. His stylish new flat overlooks a park and is spotless inside. Now in his 70s, Polimis’ bike is parked in his bedroom. When he recovers from a recent operation he’ll be keeping fit by riding it around the local park.

In his neat new living room, surrounded by a prized hi-fi system and old records, Polimis is mindful not to complain too much about the changes to Woodberry Down, but does say he is struggling to pay his utility bills: “I think its alright. I don’t see any problem with it. The only problem, I think, is my heating. I don’t know why it is so expensive.” Social housing tenants on the estate used to have individual heating systems; the new flats in his block have a shared system, so individual flats all pay the same regardless of their individual energy usage.

Patricia Best is a Woodberry Down resident struggling to pay her utilities bills. Pic: Douglas Pyper

Patricia Best is a Woodberry Down resident struggling to pay her utilities bills. Pic: Douglas Pyper

Patricia Best is also happy with her new flat, but struggling to pay her bills. She has lived in Woodberry Down for 52 years and is now a full-time carer for her disabled son.

After being rehoused on the estate, her rent has gone up “big time”, but the main issue is her utility bills. “What really works out expensive is the utilities. If it wasn’t for my brother I’d be out of here. I wouldn’t be able to cope. Nobody uses the central heating because it is so expensive.

“I must say the new places are absolutely beautiful. I can’t deny it,” she said, but she doesn’t feel it is affordable for people like her. “Affordable housing is out of the window,” said Patricia, “This isn’t affordable. It’s struggling housing. For everybody.”

The bigger picture

“Affordable housing” is an umbrella term for all forms of social housing, including everything from “social rented” housing, defined by the government as housing that is rented at 50% of market value, to “affordable rented”, defined as housing rented at 80% of market value. The problem with all forms of “affordable housing” is that it is not as affordable as the name would suggest and there isn’t enough of it.

Housing associations and local authorities are no longer building as much “social rented” homes as they used to, replacing them, instead, with “affordable rented” homes and “shared ownership” as they have done in Woodberry Down.

What would Zac and Sadiq do to help Martin and Patricia?

Zac has tried to address the problem of inaffordability by securing an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill in January requiring every council house forcibly sold in London to be replaced by two new affordable ones.

Sadiq has promised to make half of all new homes “genuinely affordable” to rent or buy.

Sharmayne Seepersad and Veronica Mensah: The impact of gentrification

Sharmayne Seepersad fought to return to Woodberry Down after being decanted to Surrey. Pic: Douglas Pyper

Sharmayne Seepersad fought to return to Woodberry Down after being decanted to Surrey. Pic: Paul McGowan

Sharmayne Seepersad moved to Woodberry Down 27 years ago on part-buy-part-rent. When the flat she was in was demolished prior to regeneration, she was moved to temporary accommodation in Birtley, Surrey, while she waited for completion of the new flats on the estate.

Throughout the regeneration Seepersad has agitated for the rights of the residents and has attempted to make sure they were dealt with fairly by the developers.

She claims her move to faraway Surrey for a year was “punishment for helping the residents”, and that the temporary flat was in a “horrible” state. “When I got there one of the beds had faeces, one had urine, one had blood,” she said.

Seepersad was moved back to temporary accommodation in Woodberry Down, to an apartment with no washing machine or cooker. She has been making meals for herself and two adult children on a George Foreman grill and washing her clothes at her ex-husband’s house.

After contacting the Local Government Ombudsman, she was offered an “ultimatum move”, telling her to accept the flat being offered or she would be removed from the housing list.

She wanted to move back “very, very much” but because there was a problem with her immigration status, she could not make the move without housing benefits. This would result in her losing her secure tenancy as she would fall into rent arrears. She has been told that she has no recourse to public funds.

While Seepersad’s story is that of temporary removal, Veronica Mensah has been priced out of Woodberry Down and now only comes back to visit friends. “A lot of us long-standing residents had to move out,” she said.

Mensah now lives in Ipswich, after living in Woodberry Down since 1979 – she bought her flat there under the right to buy scheme. “The prices of the new flats were so astronomically high, that as a lease-holder, I wouldn’t of been able to afford a 1-bedroom flat.”

This left Mensah with a difficult choice. She decided to do the “right thing” and leave behind her friends and parents, who she was “supporting in their day-to-day living”, to move out of London to somewhere she could afford. In her eyes the “only people who have gained from the regeneration are the investors. They’re not solving the housing problems. They’re just here to make money.”

The bigger picture

“Gentrification” has become the maxim of London’s housing crisis. Londoners complain local communities are being destroyed as long-term tenants are priced out of their neighbourhoods and replaced by those who can afford to live there. It’s a grievance that is heard repeatedly in Woodberry Down, where some residents believe regeneration is just another word for gentrification. Average wages have not kept up with house prices throughout the capital, with Kensington and Chelsea being the most extreme case.

What would Sadiq and Zac do to help Sharmayne and Patricia?

To combat gentrification Sadiq and Zac are both proposing a “first dibs” policy for Londoners. The aim is to give people the chance to buy or part-buy part-rent new homes before they are offered to overseas investors. Sadiq has spoken more about this, and says he this process will cut the cost of living and allow those who have been renting for five years to move into home ownership.

Berkeley Homes 

When the queries raised by the residents were put to Berkeley they said: “We have, however, always welcomed an open dialogue with the local community and work closely with the Woodberry Down Community Organisation (WDCO) to ensure residents’ concerns are addressed.”

The developers said that they make “no profit” for the provision of heating the homes and “the introduction of district heating is a planning requirement”.

The prices of Berkeley homes are more expensive than the homes they are replacing but the developers say that, in accordance with Hackney council, “a specific shared equity product is being built to allow existing leaseholders the option to stay at Woodberry Down.”

Hackney Council

The council were keen to stress that they work hard to re-house anyone on the estate as part of the regeneration project saying: “All tenants who have to move from their existing homes are offered a brand new home at Woodberry Down or they can opt to be rehoused elsewhere in Hackney.”

Hackney council does admit that the process is different for home owners on the estate and that it can be “unsettling for people” but they “we work closely with individuals to explain the process and help them plan ahead”.

The prices of the new homes are, inevitably, higher than their old homes, though. The council does say it offers help: “If a leaseholder has to move the Council pays full market value for their property. The Council appoints a professional valuer to assess the market value of the property and also offers to cover the costs of the leaseholder appointing their own independent valuer to obtain their own assessment, should they wish. These two valuers then negotiate the final price, if there is a difference in their assessments.

“Newly built homes are generally higher value than existing ex-Council properties, and so to enable owner-occupiers to remain living at Woodberry Down there is a shared equity scheme which is open to all leaseholders who live on the estate. Under this scheme leaseholders own a proportion of the new property and don’t have to pay rent on the proportion they don’t own.”

With regards to Sharmayne, the council said: “Any accusation that her move to Croydon was related to her criticism of the estate regeneration programme is complete nonsense.

“As part of Phase 2 of the regeneration, it was necessary to demolish the property in which Ms Seepersad lived. In such instances the council works hard to find alternative homes for residents which meet their genuine need. All other tenants in Phase 2 were successfully moved before demolition, most of them to brand new homes on the estate which they are very happy with.

“Ms Seepersad was offered a new home on the estate which met her needs. She chose not to take this this home, so was placed in temporary accommodation in Croydon, which was the only appropriate property the council had available at the time. She was offered other options on the Woodberry Down estate during this time, which she also turned down. She in now back living on the estate.”

Genesis Housing Association

Genesis, who are in charge of utilities on the estate, have said: “It is most likely that when residents lived in old blocks on the estate, before they were rehoused to new developments, they paid standard heating charges as an element of their rent. This was unmetered and had no correlation to actual usage, meaning that those residents who used a lot of heat paid the same as those who used very little.

“New regulations mean that meters need to be fitted in the new properties and such communal heating charges are no longer possible. In line with this, Genesis bill residents in the new development based their actual energy usage. Meter readings are taken remotely and we benchmark our standing charges and unit rates per kwh to ensure they are competitive compared to the overall market.”

Conclusion

After spending time with residents mired in a London “success story” it is hard to see how the new Mayor will enact the sweeping transformation the city needs, regardless of who wins the election. But the one thing that we do know is that this election will be won and lost on whichever candidate can best sell his vision to Londoners on how to solve this housing crisis.

Reporting team: Paul McGowan and Douglas Pyper

See other articles in the series here:

Meet the candidates

Who really elects the London Mayor?

Meet the volunteers

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