Affordable schmordable

Channel 4’s Dispatches programme tonight (“Getting rich from the housing crisis“) focused on one part of the many housing issues plaguing the UK: how Housing Associations (and their executives) are getting rich from selling off social housing stock or through rather elastic interpretations of “affordable”. While these narratives are certainly not new, the show offered an interesting angle with its focus on the dubious practices of organisations that are meant to protect social tenant welfare. And it showed experiences that we could really empathise with: tenancy insecurity, isolation, social cleansing, to name a few.

The programme itself was timely but, overall, poorly executed – there was too much of a focus on the executives’ pay cheques (which were admittedly shockingly high), and not enough of a focus on root causes: government cuts, over reliance on “the market” to fill gaps, a housing policy skewed towards ownership, and a society obsessed with properties-as-investment.

However, the quality of the journalism of the programme is not the focus here, it’s the messages that we want to explore.

“Affordable” has lost all of its meaning

Dispatches explained that what affordable means in the case of housing is a sale at 80% of its market value. As with our experiences in WD and SHC, there is no way many tenants here would be able to get a mortgage, let alone be able to pay what classes these days as an “affordable” rent.

“Affordable” in these parts today would see some of the 3 bed houses on the estate being sold for £200,000, as the current average house price in LS26 8 is £307,000. For renting, the market average is £750 – with a 20% “social rent” cut taking that to £600 per calendar month. Add to that the costs of living (below) and you would have monthly house-running outgoings of £899, which doesn’t even include bus passes/car costs, food shopping and child care. These rates are utterly unaffordable for many of the residents here, who are on minimum wage or a pension.

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Costs taken for a current property on Shelly Crescent in the Oulton estate, via Zoopla

And as far as Pemberstone’s current development plans stand, only 15% of the 71 new houses (11) would meet this criteria anyway. The rest will be £300,000+ with a £15,000 minimum deposit or, if they are rented out, £750 pcm+ rents.

Seriously, how have we got to a stage where, by the logic of the 15% “affordable” housing policy, 85% of buyers/renters are apparently happy and able to pay “unaffordable” rates for their homes? I can’t imagine that’s a word often used in the windows of estate agents.

Death by vacancy

Theme two that struck home was the instrumentalisation of the empty property.

There is a housing crisis in England… Homelessness is on the rise. The number of individuals and families living in “temporary” emergency B&Bs while waiting for council properties has exceeded 51,500. One woman in the show waiting for a council property had 95 people above her on the list. All of these lists are going to get 70 families higher if Pemberstone’s planning application is approved.

Such worryingly high numbers. And yet…

So many of the Housing Association (HA) apartment blocks featured in the programme had vacant flats. Why? Because the HAs were biding their time until the remaining residents sell or die, so that they can knock down the blocks and redevelop or sell them on. This under-utilisation of vacant homes owned by (ostensibly) social organisations is utterly shameful and inexcusable in a period where social housing stock is declining.

In our case here in WD and SHC, tenant turnover and vacant homes are used to make assertions about the desirability of the properties: “See! No-one wants them!” Pemberstone have said on more than one occasion. Well, if you ignore maintenance issues until breaking point, neglect refurbishment, and keep tenants in a state of insecurity, then it stands to reason people are reluctant to take on or stay in some of the properties.

But… Just as a good workman should never blame his tools, a good investment fund should never blame their assets. The vacancies are not a justification for demolition, but evidence of poor maintenance and management. In management-speak this could be read as managed decline (where companies run down work to minimise costs as they’re winding up an operation).


Cuts, deregulation and distance

As well as highlighting these (ever-growing) examples of companies putting profits before people, it’s also important to dig deeper and look at the roots of problem. While companies like Pemberstone and the HAs featured in tonight’s Dispatches are certainly acting with their executives (rather than their tenants) in mind, “the market” they freely operate within isn’t some autonomous entity that they connivingly manipulate.

It’s a socio-economic system enabled by government policies (or lack thereof).

This is done through, among other things: cuts that have forced many councils to sell their housing stock in order to plug other gaps; deregulation or no regulation around tenancies; and a decades-old political ideology that frames a home (rented or owned) not as a human right, but as an economic opportunity for private landlords, and a cash cow for big investors.

Looking at some of those executives in the show, and even Emily Thornberry, Labour MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary, some of the roots of those regulatory gaps and the incessant trust of (mainly Tory) governments in “the market” must come from the sheer distance these decision-making individuals have from working class life in an unprotected tenancy on a low income/pension, with a family. Maybe that’s an unfair assumption about their personal histories, but I’m not sure what a more generous reading of the situation would look like.

Either way, it’s clear that a full change of direction is needed if we’re to get housing back on track to being a humbly enjoyed right for everyone, not a money-making opportunity for the few.




Fundraising success!

This Saturday saw our first efforts at campaign fundraising at a Rothwell Carnival, and we were privileged to have our first champion fundraiser: Esme, daughter of Labour Cllr Karen Bruce and her husband Stuart.

Esme the ‘nasty landlord’

We are all too familiar with the figure of the ‘nasty landlord’ and Esme kindly volunteered to dress up as one (sporting a fantastic curly moustache – a sure sign of nastiness). Carnival-goers threw wet sponges at her for a small fee, and she raised a brilliant £13.60 for the cause, which got us off to a great start.

John Davis presenting Cindy Readman the cheque from Unite

We were also honoured to be presented with a cheque of £100 from Unite the Union for our campaign. This was presented to us by John Davis from Hands off Our Homes, a tireless supporter of #SaveOurHomesLS26.

Huge thanks to Esme, Unite, John and all the sponge-throwers at the carnival. It will enable us to keep fighting this planning application at the local and national level.

If you’d like to donate, we’ll be updating the ‘How to Help’ page with our account details shortly. If you wish to donate right away, or have any great ideas for future fundraising activities, get in touch on the ‘Contact’ page.

Paul and Liz Murgatroyd of Wordsworth Drive. Liz was our star signature-gatherer!

The good, the bad and the Airey

These last few weeks have seen no developments on Pemberstone’s planning application, but a lot of activity and news around the sides.

The Good

There was fantastic news from down south, as the Foxhill Residents’ Association won their court battle against Bath and Northeast Somerset Council. The council had approved plans submitted by housing association Curo to redevelop the estate, which would have caused a loss of more than 200 social houses. The campaign was given a further boost as the High Court ordered the Council to pay the Residents’ Association £14,000 in compensation.

In what might prove to be very relevant for #SaveOurHomesLS26 as we continue our challenge against Pemberstone’s redevelopment plans, Mr Justice Lewis of The High Court stated that “the council did not in fact have due regard to the impact on the elderly and disabled persons of granting an application which might lead to demolition of their existing homes“.

Huge congratulations to campaigners in Foxhill! We are motivated by your victory and will take lessons from your approach. Take note Leeds City Council, tenants’ voices must be heard.

The Bad

Unsurprisingly, this award goes to Pemberstone. This time, though, the news comes from across the Pennines in Manchester.

As tower blocks across the country are found to have the same dangerous flammable material cloaking their exterior as Grenfell, removal becomes a top safety priority. But who should pay? Surely it should be the developers, property owners or councils that decided on the use of flammable cladding material, that own the properties, and/or who have reaped millions of pounds in profit from renting/leasing flats out? Not according to Pemberstone.

The multimillion pound investment company are taking hundreds of residents to court to force them to pay £10,000 each, rather than footing the bill themselves or approaching the original property developer LendLease for the money. The leaseholders and tenants in Vallea Court and Cypress Place towers in Manchester’s Green Quarter are understandably livid but fear business interests will win out as the local government are failing to show much support.

Pemberstone reportedly was not aware of the dangers of the cladding when they purchased the towers – an admission of ignorance that sounds wearily familiar to residents of #SaveOurHomesLS26, who experience the daily realities of Pemberstone making assumptions of the condition of their homes without, as far as we are aware, ever having visited themselves or conducted full surveys.

Either way, ignorance is not an excuse for a property owner to push risk, responsibility, and costs onto tenants when the issue is about something as serious as fire safety. We stand in solidarity with Vallea Court and Cypress Place residents as they challenge this in court.

The Airey

On a lighter note, we were visited by the wonderful C20 society this weekend – an organisation dedicated to the preservation of 20th century architecture. Several months ago they wrote a strong objection to the Planning Application, citing the rarity of this number of Airey houses in modern Britain and explaining their significance in the nation’s post-war history. You can see their press release here.

The sun came out for us again, as Residents’ Association Chair Cindy Readman and other neighbours walked them around, talking them through the history of the houses and our community. We were also joined by the Leeds Civic Trust who offered their support and excellent ideas for the campaign.

We are delighted to have such important local and national organisations on our side, seeking to preserve architectural heritage and a community that is itself a key part of local coal mining and labour history. More updates to follow on this visit, but in the meantime, here are a few photos of the day:

Glossy obfuscation from Pemberstone

A few weeks ago we received a glossy “Update” leaflet from Pemberstone about the development. I use the term “update” lightly here, as it mostly contained recycled PR from their previous statements and very little new information, let alone reassurances.

Still, it provides Pemberstone with brightly-coloured proof to the Council that they’re keeping the community informed, right? Erm, no. It only proves that their Communications Strategy hasn’t moved beyond “drop a leaflet through the letterbox and run before they see you”.

So, what did it say within these inappropriately cheery coloured boxes?

There’s Something About Airey

The general gist is that these Airey houses have reached the end of their life span and must be replaced by more modern homes that meet contemporary specifications. But none of these assertions are based on concrete evidence of the state of the properties. There have been no structural surveys of the occupied properties. If they have occurred in the vacant ones, Pemberstone has not shared the results, which suggests either no surveys have been done, or the buildings are structurally sound.

As we have highlighted previously, so many of Pemberstone’s assertions about the structural quality of our homes is based on general information about some Airey houses in the UK. There are also many Airey homes across the country that are structurally sound and happily occupied. Airey houses are listed under the Housing Act 1985, which was formulated mainly to legislate the provision of refurbishment grants and assistance for people who had bought them under Right to Buy prior to 1985 – it was never intended to be justification for demolition (information source: Prefab Museum).

The quotation Pemberstone gives from Martin Farrington, Director for City Development at Leeds City Council, inadvertently undermines their case as it admits that “full surveys [on the Oulton estate] have not taken place”. So how can Pemberstone or LCC know that these houses are not structurally sound? Either commission a survey or accept residents’ experiences of living in these homes for decades. These unsubstantiated assertions should stop until then.

[As a side note, in the interests of fairness given that the planning application is ongoing, it should be a concern for Leeds City Council that Pemberstone are misusing a quotation from Martin Farrington of LCC in support of their assertion of structural weakness when there is no evidence of such.]

It Ain’t Half Cold Mum

A second statement not backed up by sufficient evidence is that the property manager, Watson, have overseen a “programme of rolling maintenance”. This ambiguous statement cleverly offers no indication of frequency or activities. Elsewhere on the leaflet they state that Pemberstone “recently carried out work to replace windows, heating systems and install extra insulation”. But that certainly hasn’t been on all of the properties.

What they appear to be referring to in the examples they give are the improvements they make to vacant properties in order to let them out. Long term tenants, however, have experienced no such regular maintenance.

One long term resident noted that, since 1990, her house has only been painted twice. She asked for double glazing ten years ago, and finally received it this year after repeatedly chasing. As far as we are aware, no houses on the estate have all double glazed windows, and many are still waiting for heating system upgrades.

Another resident reported a broken boiler and no hot water to Pemberstone’s management company Watson on 29 January 2017 (a freezing month). It took two more days for them to send a plumber, only for the family to be told that the boiler was irreparable, must be taken away (causing no heating), and a new one can’t be brought for another couple of days. A week with no hot water or heating.

Elsewhere on this blog we shared the recent story of a burst pipe in the vacant No. 50. Water was gushing through the ceiling and the outside wall for several days and the emergency plumber had to break in to turn it off, as they couldn’t get the keys from a non-responsive Watson. Without repairing the property, the management agent then put a “To Let” sign up.

Perhaps this sight is why Pemberstone are struggling to rent the vacant homes…

Thus the concerns Pemberstone expressed in the leaflet over meeting basic energy and maintenance standards ring a little hollow.

Energy Efficiency Ratings on a sample of the properties (on the EPC website) suggest only basic remedial work needs to be done to get them up to Energy Performance Standards. Why has this not been done on a rolling priority basis for all houses in the years Pemberstone have owned the properties? Only they can answer that. But in the meantime, Pemberstone must stop asserting that these houses are not fit for purpose.

No Country for Old Tenants

The third and final thing we will deconstruct (though there are many more points of contention) is their mustard-coloured reassurance text box: “What will happen if planning permission is granted?” The short answer to this question is: still no bleedin’ clue. Despite the header suggesting we might get some concrete answers, the only concrete we can be certain of is the walls of our houses. In fact, the box is littered with words like “potential”, “could be”, and “may be”. Hardly reassurance.

In the details of the box it falls back on the old chestnut of “natural turnover” and fails to take into account the significant proportion of tenants have been there long term. If the houses are to be demolished in phases over 15 years, does that mean those on protected tenancies will have to move around the estate several times before they get one of the “affordable” homes? This is not feasible for retirees in their 60s, 70s and 80s. What about those not on protected or regulated tenancies, who make up the majority of tenants? The leaflet seems to be avoiding the word “eviction” but that’s exactly what will happen to dozens of families who don’t fall under tenant protections and who stand in the way of Pemberstone’s bulldozer, no matter how “phased” the demolition might be.

The point we have repeatedly made is that families on this estate have nowhere else to go – there are no council houses in Leeds and market rentals near our schools and jobs are now unaffordable on a minimum wage or pension.

And as for those in protected tenancies, their assurances and numbers don’t add up. While they state in this leaflet that the 13 households on regulated tenancies will get the “affordable houses” on the estate, they are only offering to build 11 of them. Are they proposing a house share for some of the families? And there are two levels of tenant protection that families in those 13 households share, will both levels get guaranteed rehousing in the estate? But then there’s actually no certainty that the “affordable” homes within the new development will be rented out – legislation only speaks of affordability in sales terms and Pemberstone (or whoever owns them hence) might choose not to let.

So, all in all, this “update” wasn’t worth the glossy paper it was printed on. Residents will continue to worry about the security of their future within the homes and in the community, and Pemberstone will continue as planned.

Joining the Justice for Grenfell March in Leeds

A year ago yesterday was the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower, London, that took 72 lives and shattered hundreds more. It’s hard to find the words to talk about this deeply sad event without confronting an array of emotions: anger at the apparent management negligence of this council property, disbelief that fire safety was either deliberately disregarded or negligently overlooked, distress when reading about the wonderful people that lost their lives that night, empathy for the families that have to pick up the pieces, and solidarity for the survivors and the wider community fighting for justice.

A public inquiry is under way that will explore what led to such a tragedy, and how to prevent another. This is running alongside a criminal investigation, which is looking into possible individual and corporate negligence. The results of these investigations will not be out for many years, but we don’t need them to know that something is desperately wrong with the housing sector in the UK.

We have discovered since the Grenfell fire that many more tower blocks are clad in this cheaper, but highly flammable, material. We are also seeing, a year on, that so many families who survived the disaster are still in temporary accommodation. This situation speaks to a wider problem with which we are all familiar: there is simply not enough council housing across the country. Not in overall numbers, and especially not in boroughs with high land value.

Solidarity marches were held across the country yesterday to commemorate the tragedy and raise a collective voice demanding justice and change. SaveOurHomesLS26 Campaign Activists Cindy Readman and Hazell Field attended yesterday’s march in Leeds attended on behalf of our community and raised their voices to share our story about housing insecurity in Oulton.

The victims of Grenfell and their families deserve justice. And we all, as a nation, deserve housing that is available when we need it, and that is safe and secure over the longer term.

March for our homes!

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Cindy giving a brilliant speech on the steps of Leeds Art Gallery

On what turned out to be a glorious sunny day in Leeds city centre yesterday, residents from Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive joined Leeds Trade Union on a march through the city. We had placards, banners and even four-legged supporters – and it was really great to see so much interest and support for our campaign to prevent Pemberstone from demolishing these historic, affordable family homes.

Chair of the Resident Action Group gave a fantastic speech which got much applause, and our leaflets were snapped up. We are so happy to be a part of such a vibrant Leeds community focused on issues of social justice – long may it continue!

Thanks to all of those who turned out in solidarity for our campaign, and who listened to our concerns. And a huge thank you to Leeds Trade Union, who invited us on this demo. The fight continues!

Mark, Mavis, Sue, Robert, John and Leia the protest dog with our banner
Cindy speech
Cindy telling the crowd about our campaign
Dog and billboard
Leia the protest dog showing her solidarity
March for our homes!





The mental health impacts of the eviction threat

The UK’s housing crisis is at the top of the news a lot these days, and rightly so. Home ownership has plummeted in recent years, rents have skyrocketed, and there are simply not enough new houses being built. As property has become a lucrative investment, we are seeing more and more landlords like Pemberstone, booting families out and “redeveloping” to increase the value of their assets – too often at the cost of poorer people.

But, as well as the economic costs that households have to absorb in these situations, there is the hidden cost of mental health, too.

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It seems like stating the obvious that this eviction threat has created chronic anxiety in our Oulton estate. But what does that actually mean, day to day? It has manifested itself differently for different people here and, while it’s a difficult subject to speak about given its deeply personal nature, it must be acknowledged as a fall out from Pemberstone’s redevelopment plans.

Firstly, many on the estate are feeling a form of constant, unrelenting unease and stress. This is hitting children, the elderly, and residents with dependents the hardest. Neighbours have reported that their children are struggling to sleep, as they feel powerless in the face of something they don’t understand. For them, it’s not just seeing a worried mum or dad that makes them upset, it’s the potential of changing schools, losing friends and changing what they’ve known their whole life.

Others have reported that the stress is worsening existing health conditions, both physical and mental. One of our neighbours, who has lived on the estate his whole life, and who currently cares for his elderly parents, says that he has previously experienced poor mental health, and the eviction threat is once again pushing him to the edge: he is more angry, more upset, and drinking more, because he doesn’t know how else to cope with this relentless anxiety. Another neighbour feels that the constant sense of unease and fear is worsening her chronic back condition, which is contributing to more sleepless nights, difficult days in the office, and a tearfulness that the slightest thing can provoke.

The eviction threat is putting strains on family relations and friendships, as everyone’s concerns rebound off each other, creating an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Problems that might previously have been shared (and halved) among close relatives, become secrets, hidden to shield them from the additional burden. In one family, a son kept his redundancy secret from his parents for fear of adding to their woes, just hoping that he could find a job in the meantime. He couldn’t.

There is also that constant guilt that many feel about not doing enough for the campaign. Refreshing the campaign Facebook page, sending more Tweets, writing more emails, trying to get more news coverage. They always feel switched on, thinking :”what if that one more makes all the difference – how can I turn off my computer now?” It is eating away at family time, and means that residents never have a moment of peace.

Anxiety, stress, tearfulness, sleeplessness, anger, secrets, guilt. Suffering doesn’t start at the moment of eviction. For the residents of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close it began the moment the pamphlet dropped through the letterbox last September.