openDemocracyUK: Feature

10,000 Airbnbs and nowhere to live: Cornwall’s housing crisis

How a summer of staycations hit the renters living in one of the UK’s most desirable destinations

Indra Warnes
2 September 2021, 12.01am
As holidaymakers flocked to Cornwall, renters were left struggling to find anywhere to live
Kevin Britland / Alamy Stock Photo

Cornwall is a county of two halves. Green fields and bright blue seas. Tourists and locals. A playground for the rich and famous, and the second poorest region in northern Europe. More than 18,000 empty homes and 16,000 people on a waiting list for council housing. Some 10,000 Airbnbs and, at one point last month, fewer than 50 homes available to rent.

The county’s long-established housing shortage has been worsened by COVID-19. A new-found ability to work remotely delivered an influx of buyers to the area, which along with the stamp duty holiday, led house prices to soar. Of the eight UK postcodes where the average house price rose by more than £100,000 in the past year, three were in Cornwall – and the county overtook London as the most searched place on property website Rightmove. Many landlords saw flashing dollar signs, and quickly put properties up for sale. Others realised the potential to make money amid a boom in staycations – week-long rentals in Cornish towns have been reported to cost up to £8,000 – and turfed out tenants to establish holiday lets.

All of this created a perfect storm: a county so desirable that almost no one can live there. Sophie, an estate agent with 17 years’ experience in Cornwall who asked if we could withhold her surname, told me she has “never seen the demand as high and supply so low”. This has resulted in “extreme responses to any [rental] property we put online”, she said, with “between 75 and 100” enquiries on each.

“We are seeing a lot of desperate people, which is leading to properties going above the advertised rental price,” Sophie added, explaining this is “not something I have ever seen before”.

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‘It’s just a nightmare’

Maddy King is one such desperate person. When we spoke in mid-August, Maddy was isolating at home in the coastal town of Falmouth. It was the third time one of her six housemates had tested positive for COVID, locking the whole house down, and it was bad timing: she had less than four weeks until she needed to move out, and was suddenly unable to go to any house viewings for ten days.

The 23-year-old gardener, who also works part-time in a local pub, moved into her current home a year ago, when she relocated from Plymouth to begin a horticultural course in nearby Camborne. “I didn’t really plan far ahead this time last year,” she said, of her house search last summer. “But there were so many places available that it was just fine. This year it’s just a nightmare.”

This time around, aware of a shortage in rental properties nearby, Maddy hoped to line up a new house well before she needed to move. “I’ve been looking [at property websites] every single day pretty much, and I’m on email lists for property listings that come up,” she said. “I was trying to plan a place to move into two months in advance, but, literally, there were zero listings at all for renting in Falmouth.

“At one point I thought I might live somewhere else for a bit; I’ve looked in Newquay, Penzance,” she said – but she quickly realised the housing shortfall was affecting the entire county.

Living in a tent is ‘my only other option right now’

Slowly, demand is beginning to ease, Maddy said, but “only in the past one to two weeks”. In mid-July, there were just 41 properties available to rent in all of Cornwall on Rightmove, though at the time of writing, this figure stands at 108 – 99 of which are ‘long-term’ rentals, which typically refers to tenancies of more than six months.

Tellingly, though, many of the properties now appearing on property websites have “the typical set-up, where you’ve got two single beds in one of the rooms, that holiday homes do”, Maddy said, and are available only from “mid-October” – the end of the peak staycation season.

These should be no good for Maddy, whose move-out date is 6 September. Yet when we spoke again at the end of August, she was resigned to a new plan: living in her tent in a nearby campsite for a month, with her belongings stored in her car. She described this as “my only other option right now”.

Maddy was hopeful that “more places should come up in three weeks or a month’s time, come the end of the holiday season”. Until then, she said, she was hoping “for good weather for the next few weeks”.

‘I’m at my wit’s end’

A mile or so down the road from Maddy, Mike Osborne is also desperately seeking somewhere to live. A 50-year-old charity worker and father of five, he’s been renting his current home in Penryn, an ancient market town in south Cornwall, for more than four years.

On the day we spoke in mid-August, Mike had another call in the afternoon – one that had been court-ordered, with his landlord and a judge. Mike was served a Section 21 order last November, after his landlord put the property on the market and found an investment buyer, who apparently wants to turn the house into student accommodation. In normal circumstances, this would have meant Mike had two months to leave the property, but a temporary rule change introduced to prevent homelessness during COVID-19 meant the notice period was extended to six months.

Still, though, Mike struggled to find anywhere to move to. “There were very few houses actually on the market between September and Christmas,” he told me, explaining that during this period, anti-COVID measures meant most estate agents were unwilling to show people around rental properties, instead directing them to online, pre-recorded video tours.

“Come the New Year, more agents were amenable to viewings,” he said, “but the rental market went absolutely berserk.”

Literally, there were zero listings at all for renting in Falmouth

Some would say this is an understatement. Often, Mike told me, properties were being let “within 24 to 48 hours [of being advertised], with tenants agreeing to take on properties without viewing”. Sophie, the estate agent, confirmed to me that this has become commonplace, though she discourages it, and said that she is also “seeing people bid higher than the asking rent”.

By the end of March, Mike was getting really worried. “My landlord was on at me like, ‘What's going on? Why haven't you found a house?’” He felt as though there was a perception that he wasn’t trying hard enough, when in reality he was repeatedly going through applications that were “almost like applying for a job”, and hearing nothing back. “It's very difficult not to take it personally. You know how cogs start turning in your head,” Mike said, adding that he was often left wondering: “Is it because I'm a single parent?”

All of this took its toll on Mike, who still lives in the property, despite the date by which he was supposed to move out having passed. “I was starting to suffer with anxiety and depression,” he said. “It's got to the point where I'm at my wit’s end with it all, and just want it to go away.”

Holiday blues

Maddy and Mike are not alone – and the problem is not limited to Cornwall. Rather, renters in many of the UK’s beauty spots and coastal towns are feeling the effects of two summers of staycations. According to research published by campaign group Generation Rent last month, rental listings in south-west England, which includes Cornwall, fell by 49% between July 2019 and July 2021. In that same period, the average rent rose by 23%. In Wales, which is reportedly this year’s most popular UK destination, listings fell by 53% while rents increased by 26%.

Asked how this can be tackled, Dan Wilson Craw, Generation Rent’s deputy director, has a number of suggestions – starting with withdrawing mortgage interest relief. He explained: “If you've got a mortgage and you're a holiday-let provider, you can deduct mortgage interest payments from your tax bill from your taxable income. And so your tax bill ends up lower as a result.”

This is on top of a tax loophole that, according to estimates from property agent Colliers, costs Cornwall more than £18m in lost council tax each year. In England, second-home owners who plan to rent their property as a holiday let for more than 140 days annually pay business rates, which exempts them from paying council tax. However, there is no need to provide proof that the home is being let out, nor any checks from the government. Worse still, an estimated 96% of the more than 60,000 holiday lets on the business rates list qualify for ‘small business rates relief’ – meaning they pay nothing at all.

In March, the government promised to close this loophole, but, as Wilson Craw explained, is yet to provide any further details of how it will do this, or a timeframe for doing so.

A tax loophole is estimated to cost Cornwall more than £18m in lost council tax each year

Other solutions Wilson Craw mentioned include giving councils increased powers to regulate their own holiday lets, a proper landlord register that includes holiday lets, and, perhaps most obviously, building more houses. “Affordable houses,” he stressed, “particularly council houses.”

With more than 16,000 people reportedly waiting for council housing in Cornwall and average wait times of nine months, it’s not enough to wait for private developers to build more homes, said Wilson Craw. Building social housing will ensure “that the homes are actually occupied by people who need them, rather than risking privately built market homes to be just snapped up by second homeowners”.

Cornwall Council’s leader, Linda Taylor, recognised the strain being put on renters, and described addressing the county’s housing shortfall as “the top priority”. Measures the council says it is taking include “buying existing homes to use as social housing”, “building more council houses as well as affordable homes for local people”, and “offering loans to bring empty homes back into use”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government said: “We’ve introduced a series of measures to help mitigate against the adverse effect large numbers of second homes can have on some areas.

“This includes higher rates of stamp duty for buyers of second homes and tightening tax rules for second property owners, meaning they can only register for business rates if their properties are genuine holiday lets.

“We’ve delivered more than 542,000 affordable homes since 2010 and are investing more than £12 billion in affordable housing over the next five years, and our First Homes scheme will provide new, discounted homes, prioritised for local first-time buyers.”

“This year is certainly an anomaly,” Wilson Craw acknowledged. “But with climate change and the green agenda, we can sort of expect there to be more desire to holiday in the UK… The domestic tourism industry is not going to go away after 2021.”

It’s true that this year placed exceptional strain on the UK’s most popular destinations, and our fragile housing market buckled under the weight of ice cream-wielding tourists. Now, as September rolls around and the last of the holidaymakers reluctantly pack up to head home, we cannot merely paper over the cracks their arrival exposed.

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