Locals in Devon and Cornwall are being pushed to the verge of homelessness by an unprecedented housing crisis turbocharged by the pandemic. This phenomenon has seen renters priced out of tourist hotspots as their homes are converted to lucrative holiday lets. Some have been forcibly evicted from their homes and have struggled to find alternative housing provision in the communities they love due to a chronic shortage.
Suzie, a single mother, has lived in the coastal town of Looe in Southeast Cornwall with her two daughters for the past three years. She was recently given notice by her current landlord to leave her home within the next six weeks.
‘There is absolutely nowhere to rent within the town,’ says Suzie, who, like many locals, works a minimum wage job in retail to provide for her kids. ‘I have worked so hard to give this life to my children and they will be absolutely devastated if we cannot reside within the area.’
Being forced to move from the community she loves has had a predictably huge emotional toll. ‘I’m crying in despair most nights once the girls have gone to bed. I’m trying so hard to keep it together for them. We love our community and have made some amazing friendships since we’ve been here. I don’t understand why this should be allowed happen to people.’
The current crisis is also having a detrimental impact on the local economy as businesses are struggling to attract workers due to a chronic shortage of permanent accommodation. ‘Half the homes in Looe are completely vacant throughout the winter months. It’s like a ghost town,’ Suzie says.
Britain has had a major housing crisis for a while now, but the situation in tourist hotspots like Cornwall has reached unprecedented levels in the last year. Communities are being torn apart, while businesses that serve tourists are struggling to find staff.
At present, there are just 52 houses available to rent in Cornwall listed on the Rightmove website. In contrast, Airbnb, the popular holiday rental site, boasts over 10,000 active listings in Cornwall. In fact, there are as many live Airbnb listings right now as there are council homes in the whole of Cornwall. Short-term high-profit lets are clearly being prioritised over affordable housing.
In 2020, there were nearly 12,000 households on Cornwall Council’s housing waiting list. As demand soars for holiday homes, local people are being priced out of the area.
Both Linda and her husband were born in Exmoor, North Devon, and have lived in the same area for over fifty years.
‘We’ve been in this rental property for ten years and had no problems until we received an eviction notice,’ says Linda. ‘We’ve been looking for an alternative property for over eight months and not even a remotely suitable property has become available. We can’t even find a caravan.’ Linda goes on to explain that her husband has terminal cancer, and that she is his carer.
‘Anything that is built is aimed at people with lots of money,’ she explains. ‘Our neighbourhoods are dying because long-term residents are being pushed out. There is no community, no jobs, no soul.’ In the past year, house prices have risen significantly in North Devon, with some pockets seeing rises of 18%.
Emma, who has lived in North Devon all her life, was given a Section 21 eviction notice in June.
‘It’s a nightmare to find anywhere,’ she says. For her and others like her, home ownership remains a distant fantasy. ‘House prices have never been relative to the average income in the area, which is why I have always chosen to rent. And renting is so expensive that there’s no chance to save for a deposit.’
An Unprecedented Crisis
For Liana, a local nurse who has lived and worked in Bideford since 2001, the housing crisis has never been this bad.
‘When I moved to North Devon, there were loads of houses to buy or rent. Covid has had a massive impact. We need decent affordable housing for local people; instead houses are being sold as holiday homes.’
Liana and her four teenage children moved into rented accommodation in 2019. Two years later, they have been given notice that they have until 27 November to move out, and finding an alternative rental property has been incredibly difficult. ‘There is literally nothing either big enough or affordable enough for us. I am checking daily for anything remotely suitable, but I’ve had no luck. We as a family cannot settle. I’m constantly worrying about being homeless.’
Carla and her husband and have lived in a rental property in Devon for the past five years.
‘We got given our notice on 2 June – our wedding anniversary,’ Carla says. ‘Our landlord owns four houses along our road and has chosen to sell the rental we are in.’
Carla explains that local residents on low wages are being priced out of the area as they can’t afford to match the higher offers made by wealthy second-home owners when it comes to buying homes. ‘The exact same house two doors down went for £232,000 in February last year. The landlord wants to sell the property we are in for £350,000 – a ridiculous amount of money.’
Coupling with the pandemic, the housing crisis has created multiple levels of hardship for many in North Devon.
‘Myself and my husband both lost our fathers unexpectedly in July,’ says Carla. ‘This has compounded everything, and the stress levels along with grieving for our dads is hard. We’re trying to protect our kids from the reality of being homeless.’
Carla recently set up an eco-cleaning business, which has given her a glimpse of how holiday lets and second homes are dominating the housing market and creating a crisis.
‘I have had so many enquiries this season for cleaners, and all the properties are second homes and Airbnbs,’ she explains. ‘Some of these houses were only sold in the past year.
‘I find it so frustrating. My family are on the verge of being made homeless and I’m seeing all these properties that would make good family homes for families like mine.’
The Fight Back
It’s clear that more can be done to address the present crisis. Many residents in Cornwall and Devon are calling on the government and local authorities to intervene against unregulated second home ownership and Airbnbs, which are having a detrimental impact on local people. There are growing calls for the national government to give local authorities the power to tax and regulate their holiday lets market, so more homes are made available for people who need one.
Emma is clear on what she feels the government can and should be doing. ‘They should apply a tax on homes that are not occupied full-time, and second homeowners should be charged extra council tax,’ she says. ‘Councils can also identify empty buildings and take them over for local housing.
‘Airbnbs need to be regulated and only a certain percentage allowed in an area. The infrastructure needs to be looked at to see if the area can deal with them,’ she adds. ‘We desperately need to stop private homes being turned into businesses.’
The current situation in Devon and Cornwall is an acute reminder of the worst consequences of the housing crisis. It serves as a microcosm of a society where profit is prioritised over people’s lives, with devastating results for working-class communities. For too long, rural communities have suffered from an undersupply of affordable homes. Now, more than ever, we need decent, affordable, and secure housing for all.