Housing Crisis at the Periphery

by Alasdair Flett

When 23-year-old Charlie Fender took to Facebook to vent her frustration about the housing situation for young people in her hometown of Stromness, she didn’t bargain on sparking a county-wide debate about the detrimental effects of short-term letting in Orkney on the property market. I spoke to her about the reaction her comments received and her hopes for the future.

After parking some way up the road from our pre-arranged café meetup to avoid charges, I have time to contemplate the changes on the harbour front since I last visited the islands’ second town, and I notice the newly-erected shed that has sprung up in the courtyard with currently vacant display freezers for the sale of ice cream. Charlie tells me these will fill up come summer when the throngs of tourists descend on the pierhead, which is reflective of the shift in orientation going on across Orkney for the canny investor. It seems to encapsulate an enterprising spirit that is disruptive and destructive when indiscriminately applied to the accommodation sector where “every second or third house on the street is being used as [an] Airbnb or holiday let”.

No stranger to making her voice heard, Charlie informs me of another moment in the media spotlight, when her post in the “Glasgow Gals” discussion forum led to an appearance on The Nine. That time she spoke out against the practice of being charged hundreds of pounds by SAAS (Student Award Association Scotland) for dropping out of a college course.

Charlie would like to set up home here in Stromness with her partner and is currently living with her father as she attempts to accumulate the savings necessary to secure a property. At the moment this is proving near impossible. Like many of her friends, she has returned from the city and is struggling to accrue the funds needed in the low-wage economy of Orkney. She could earn less than a pound extra an hour if she chose to take on managerial responsibility at the local Co-op. Otherwise, the opportunities here are few and far between, so she has decided to commute through to Kirkwall for a salaried role in a bank, adding the expense of running a car to her outgoings.

Many in Scotland argue that short-term lets and platforms like Airbnb have affected the housing market on both the supply and demand sides of the equation, particularly around affordability. For Charlie, at least, it’s not about getting on the fabled “property ladder”; it’s about putting down roots in the community. Not a natural in the limelight, she has found the “engagement” with her protest encouraging and disheartening in equal measure. One multiple-property-owning individual went so far as to plead her victimisation in the affair (this post was subsequently deleted).

Some accused Charlie of jealousy and others misinterpreted the post as a nativist expression of the anti-incomer stance so prevalent in the isles. These bad faith responses have not caused her to regret having shaken things up, however. She tells me that her first realisation of the impact of Airbnb on the social fabric of towns was speaking to some older locals in a Copenhagen bar at the end of last year. They were utterly horrified when her friends told them where they were staying in one such apartment; they blamed the company’s business model for destroying their community.

This is not just a generational problem then. The current European-wide housing crisis will not go away with what The Economist crudely calls “Peak Death” in 2034, when most baby boomers, who are reluctant to downsize for financial reasons, will pass away and millennials will be firmly middle-aged. As people live longer, there is a lack of accommodation suitable for retirees and although many co-housing pilot schemes exist, with one proposed for St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney, they are not yet a widespread phenomenon.

But why is there such a desire to own a home in Britain in the first place? Why has home ownership become such an important political goal over the last 40-odd years? For 37 per cent of the population, this is an entirely unrealistic dream. And only a quarter of those aged between 25 and 35 on middle incomes now own their home compared with two thirds in the 1990s.

It’s a problem with our conception of ownership more generally. Although we don’t seem to have a problem with the National Health Service’s morphing into “our NHS”, public perception of council housing is not of collective ownership and national treasure, but of having the council as a landlord. The same unresponsive landlord that paved the way for the inferno of Grenfell and gave Airbnb carte blanche to take over your town.