The North Street Development, Social Cleansing in Lewes

THE SOCIAL CLEANSING OF LEWES AND THE NATIONAL PARK

 

The social cleansing of Lewes

Lewes- the major town within the South Downs National Park, is fast becoming a no-go area for people on low or even moderate incomes. The number on the housing waiting list is growing rapidly and homelessness is rising remorselessly. For those who are home owners with manageable or no mortgages things are better, but for those without things are grim.

James Gardner of Homelink told me

“From our point of view, the most damning statistic is that out of all the people we offer to help with rent/deposit etc. barely a third manage to obtain a tenancy. Now it may be that a small minority of successful applicants find alternative sources of help but the vast majority do not. The obstacles are great: many landlords do not accept people on housing benefit;many agents/landlords require a guarantor earning the kind of money that few of our applicants are likely to know; those who are in work are often not earning enough to pay the rent.

The result is overcrowding; the breaking up of relationships which increases the number of people looking for tenancies; the rise in evictions, especially of the young from the family home and the general deterioration of peoples’ mental health. Another trend is that families facing eviction with young children are increasingly finding it difficult to find a place within the two months allowed by Section 21. Because of the shortage of affordable housing, we believe that people need a minimum of three months to find a place”

There are a number of reasons for this:
• Even before recent economic changes, Lewes was a low wage area for those who did not have professional jobs. Recent economic changes have made this situation worse. A significant proportion of the population has to live on very low incomes, even when working. According to the most recent census the median household income in Lewes town in 2011 was £28,469 pa.
• House prices have risen well above the ability of many people to afford a home.
• Private sector rents have risen well above rates of increase in wages.
• Roughly one third of the council housing in the district has been lost to the rental market through the right to buy.
• The benefit system makes it very difficult for people on high rents to be able to afford to work.- especially if they are in low paid jobs.

If we want social diversity to continue in the town then genuinely affordable housing is vital. The council’s own research suggests that 50% of any development should be affordable if any significant dent is to be made in the level of need.

There have been a number of other reasons why the need for affordable housing has increased.

• The bedroom tax has increased the need for more smaller affordable dwellings than currently exist in the town
• The failure to develop affordable housing in the recent past has resulted in a huge build-up of need, particularly among young people.
• There is an increasing number of older people and research suggests that a large proportion of this group needs level access housing. (However approximately 80% of older people in the town are owner occupiers who could buy suitable property rather than rent it.)

The nature of the need

Not surprisingly the numbers on the housing waiting and transfer lists have rocketed. According to Lewes District Council’s latest figures there are 2142 households seeking affordable rented housing in the district.

There are over 400 households seeking affordable rented housing in Lewes town (the highest proportion of the population in the district seeking this.) This figure is an indication of the need for ordinary or sheltered housing rather than extra care. This number appears to be increasing all the time.

Research done by Lewes District Council (LDC) shows “huge unmet demand from young people for one bedroomed accommodation”. There is also a need for accommodation for older people.

Research done by the council of the need of pensioners on the waiting and transfer lists shows:
75% want ordinary housing
25% want ordinary sheltered housing
0% want care housing

Key needs are step free access and getting help in own home rather than moving.

It is good that all dwellings will conform to lifetime home standards, but it should be pointed out that these standards do not require step free access. See http://www.lifetimehomes.org.uk/pages/5b-communal-lifts.html and http://www.lifetimehomes.org.uk/pages/5a-communal-stairs.html

What about the need for extra care housing?

In the light of the information that I have outlined above, I’m surprised that extra care housing has been including in the proposals for affordable housing, since this will reduce the amount of generally available rented housing. I’m even more surprised that just under 30% of all affordable housing is proposed as extra care.

The only documents that I can identify which might justify this are the survey of older people’s housing needs by LDC which is available from their web site and an assessment of need done by East Sussex County Council (ESCC) which I have obtained under freedom of information legislation and which is available from me on request.

• Some of the arguments appear to be circular. On the first page the ESCC report reports Lewes District Council as saying that there is a need for care housing. But LDC does not say how they found out about this need. Where did they find out? Probably from the county council.
• The waiting list for the current extra care scheme in Peacehaven is given by ESCC as 7 households, as opposed to the thousands on the general waiting list (including about 400 waiting for somewhere in Lewes) (I understand that take up of the new scheme in Seaford has been less than expected.)
• According to LDC less than 5% of the 204 people on the waiting list seeking sheltered housing of any kind are interested in shared ownership. This suggests that shared ownership will not meet housing need for older people.
• Locality is a key issue in enabling people to have regular visits from relatives and friends. But the ESCC survey shows that out of 36 people who had been living in Lewes town prior to going into a care home, 30 of them got places in Lewes or Ringmer. Similarly, or 24 people needing a nursing home, 21 found a place in Lewes.
• No account appears to have been taken of the fact that much of the demand in the north of the district is likely to be soaked up by the newly approved extra care scheme in the rural north of the district.
• No account seems to have been taken of the difficulties in letting the recently opened extra care scheme in Seaford, which resulted in the preferred provider of extra care facilities in North Street ( a body which is the extra care provider in Seaford) pulling out of the scheme.
• According to ESCC in 2012 15 people were getting 15 or more hours of care a week in their homes, with 3 more in Ringmer. You can take this as an indication of need for care housing, but it is more likely to be an indication of the ongoing need for more care in ordinary housing.
• As the quote from the LDC strategy in the ESCC points out, there is currently no lack of private housing schemes for older people in Lewes town. This suggests that the 80% of pensioners who are owner occupiers are already well catered for.

It is also important not to equate a need for change with a need for care housing. For example in its conclusion the ESCC document says “Lewes DC data also confirms there is demand for alternative older people’s housing”. That is true, but what the LDC survey showed that older people wanted was housing with level access rather than extra care housing. There was also some demand for traditional sheltered housing.

Lewes council seems to be taking the position that, since there is some general needs housing in the town then this in itself is sufficient reason to provide something different. They say:

“there are already a significant number of affordable general needs properties within Lewes Town, but there is currently no provision of affordable Extra Care housing. Therefore the Housing Authority will actively support plans for one well-designed Extra Care housing scheme proposed within the Town” (letter from LDC to me)

Care housing is always better than a care home, so it is always possible to make a case for providing more. But when there are 400 households on the general waiting list, households are facing huge pressure to downsize because of initiatives like the bedroom tax and when the young people who should be the future of the town are being forced to leave, it is not, in my view, the priority.

It is tempting to suggest that the need for extra care may be a need for the developers to fill as significant proportion as possible of affordable housing with tenants who can be guaranteed not to behave in ways that will put off buyers. It may also be the case that the developers will wish to use the common facilities in the extra care scheme (which may be at least notionally open to the public) to count towards their commitment to provide “public good” even though these facilities are likely to be paid for from other sources

The need to free up existing accommodation

There has been general concern that people may be “over-occupying” larger accommodation and that there is a need to free up existing properties. Indeed the bedroom tax was introduced to deal with this problem (although it does not apply to pensioners)

Although LDC has managed to deal with the initial problems caused by the tax, it will hit many tenants in future immediately a child leaves home. This will free up existing housing, but only if there is a smaller place available. It is also likely that many pensioners would downsize if suitable level access housing were made available.

However the provision of extra care places is less likely to result in larger accommodation being freed up. LDC has written to me to say that 2/3 of residents of extra care schemes in East Sussex were already occupying one bedroomed accommodation before they moved. It is probable that accommodation freed up by those going into extra care would have been freed up anyway as people went into a care home. An evaluation done by ESCC of their extra care schemes shows that about 2/3 would otherwise be in care homes. From reading the evaluation it looks to me as if many of the rest had moved in in the expectation that they would need this level of care shortly. As ESCC put it on page 31 of their “Pathways to Support and Independence” document “Extra Care provides a level of accommodation commensurate with residential care.”

WHAT IS AFFORDABLE HOUSING?

Real world affordability

To start examining the question of affordability let’s have a look at someone who is thinking about working a few extra hours to boost their income. When someone’s income is at the level they would get out of work benefits they get full housing benefit, but if they earn more their money gets reduced.

For each extra £1 of income:

32p is lost in tax and national insurance, leaving 68p,

65% of the 68p lost in a reduction of universal credit, a further reduction of 44p, leaving 24p,

a further reduction of council tax benefit of 20% of the 68p lost in a reduction of council tax assistance- a further reduction of 13p, leaving 11p

From this 11p people will have to meet any extra work expenses, for example transport costs if they are working extra days.

You can see that, while the rent is high enough for the person to need housing benefit they are caught in a poverty trap.

(This calculation relies on the introduction of Universal Credit, which is designed to “make work pay”. Under the current system the figures are worse in some circumstances)

You can see that it is vital that tenants on low incomes have rents that are low enough to enable them to get out of the poverty trap. Once their income is above the level at which they have to claim housing benefit they will start to keep a significant percentage of their income.

Affordability at various rent levels

Since many of the proposed lettings are one bedroomed properties for single people this is the option that I want to look at.

An examination of property web sites in August 2014 suggests that the median one bedroomed flat is £175 per week.

The local housing allowance (LHA)(private sector housing benefit limit) for couples and single people over 35 in a one bedroomed flat is £151.50

80% of £175- the market rent is £140

60% of 175- the market rent is £105

Social rents paid by current council tenants for a one bedroomed flat are around £90 or less

(Where the landlord is not a registered social provider and the tenant is single and under 35 the LHA is usually £79.48- the amount that the council will pay for a room in a house, even if the tenant has a one bedroomed flat.)

 

To give you a comparison, someone on £7 per hour might expect to take home about £250 for a 40 hour week allowing for a small amount of tax and national insurance. At rents of £140 and above they would still be caught in the poverty trap. Even at the lower rents they would still be paying a substantial proportion of their income in rent.

CURRENT RENT LEVELS

Subsequent to undertaking this research I have reviewed rents on offer as at 16/3/15. In order to avoid duplication I used the Rightmove site, excluding especially luxurious properties.

This is what I found

There are three figures on each line below, for each size of accommodation.  The first gives you the mean market rent.  The second gives you 80% of this, the third gives you 60%

1 bedroomed £180@ £144 £108

2 bedroomed £254@ £203@ £121

3 bedroomed £28@8 £230@ £173

4 bedroomed £437@ £350@ £262

In my view it is particularly important that rents be kept well below market level in high rent/low income areas like Lewes. 80% of market rent is not affordable. It will not curb the social cleansing of the town.

I suggest that the very maximum that could be considered affordable is 60% and even this is debatable.

*The level of rent has increased slightly since last year but I have not amended the figures because the sample is quite small.

@ Rents marked with this symbol are more than the local housing allowance, the highest rent that can be met in benefit payments.

Real world affordability for shared ownership.

Shared ownership is not for people on the very lowest incomes, but it is useful to look at how someone on the median income of £28k or below might benefit from shared ownership

Under shared ownership you buy a share in the property and rent the rest (rent is typically 2.75% of the value of the share you have not bought. You must also pay for repairs and maintenance (typically £800- 1200 per year)

In September 2014 Affinity Sutton were offering shared ownership properties in Clayhill Court. Lewes. They said that the Minimum salary required for a one bedroomed property was £28,500 (single) and £32,500 (joint) This appears to be for a 30% share in the property. Obviously a larger share or a larger property would cost more.

Hyde Housing have a calculator in their site that suggests that for a two bedroomed flat valued at typical Lewes price of £250,000 a fifty percent share would cost you £695 per month in mortgage, £286 in rent and £80 per month service charge, £12,732 a year.

It looks to me as if shared ownership is out of reach for Lewes residents at below median incomes. Existing tenants with incomes significantly above this would normally do better using the “right to buy”.

Official “affordability”

The definition of “affordable” used in legislation and by the Homes and Communities Agency is a technical one rather than a real world one.

The definition can be found in the National Planning Policy Framework, which also provides a definition of Intermediate housing (which is not the same thing)

“Affordable rented housing is let by local authorities or private registered providers of social housing to households who are eligible for social rented housing. Affordable Rent is subject to rent controls that require a rent of no more than 80% of the local market rent (including service charges, where applicable). (My emphasis)

Intermediate housing is homes for sale and rent provided at a cost above social
rent, but below market levels subject to the criteria in the Affordable Housing
definition above. These can include shared equity (shared ownership and equity
loans), other low cost homes for sale and intermediate rent, but not affordable
rented housing.”

The Homes and Communities Agency can provide grants to fund officially “affordable” housing. In practice they are reluctant to provide funding where the rent is less than 60% of the market value. It is can also be more difficult to get funding where developers are funding a scheme, as is the case here.

Where a scheme that obtains planning permission on the grounds that affordable housing will be provided, the housing concerned must meet this definition.

Is Extra Care Housing “affordable” in the technical sense?

Up until now I have never seen an extra care scheme referred to as affordable housing. Most commentators accept that it is not.

I now have more experience of costs than most people in the field. My experience is that it is not generally possible to make the finances of an extra care without charging rent and services eligible for housing benefit of less than about £250 per week without a very substantial subsidy. Sometimes costs may be more than this. If more than one bedroom is provided the charges will be higher.

On top of this there will be service charges for things that are not eligible for housing benefit, such as meals, fuel in the resident’s flats, support and care.

I am advised by staff at the Peacehaven scheme that residents are asked to pay £170 per week(plus care and support costs) This is well above an officially “affordable rent” This figure has only been achievable because of funding from the Homes and Communities Agency (which is probably not available) and with a substantial subsidy from ESCC which the county council confirms would not be available in a new scheme. I believe that £250 per week would be closer to the likely charge including service charges for this scheme. Care and support costs would be on top of this

LDC has told me that it thinks rents will be affordable because residents can claim housing benefit on part of the charges, but this is not relevant to the official definition of “affordability”.

I can see no way that an extra care scheme can be provided as “affordable housing”.

All too often I have seen extra care schemes promoted with over-optimistic estimates of what charges need to be made and what subsidies are available. I note that the original preferred operator of the extra care scheme has now pulled out, probably because of the difficulty of making the scheme stack up financially.

Once the scheme if finally under construction it becomes clear that the financial situation is not viable. As a result a number of things happen:

1) Rents on rental properties rise considerably to the extent that they become clearly unaffordable.
2) An increasing number of extra care places are delivered as either shared ownership or full leasehold properties (where the resident buys a lease in the same way that they might buy a lease on a normal flat.)

Only those with capital can afford the second option since mortgages are rarely available. Shared ownership and leasehold schemes are attractive to more affluent potential residents because the capital value of the home is ignored in assessing ability to pay for care and support charges (in contrast to the situation in care homes where residents are expected to sell former homes to pay the costs). However this comes at a considerable cost to the public purse, which is expected to pay up for care- hardly a desirable solution.

IN CONCLUSION

1. Given the level of housing need in Lewes 50% or more affordable rents would be a significant contribution to the housing needs of the town.
2. A significant proportion of the affordable housing should be level access. If necessary this should be funded by increasing the density to a level similar to nearby streets.
3. In the context of low Lewes area wages it is clear that rents of 80% of market rents are not affordable in any real sense. Rents need to be much lower than this.
4. In the Lewes context of low wages and high housing costs it is unlikely that shared ownership will be appropriate for groups in housing need unless the total market value can be reduced substantially below the usual prices in the area.
5. Any extra care provision needs to be over and above the provision of affordable housing.

Chris Smith March 2015.

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