Editor’s letter: ‘Homes, homes everywhere but not a place to live’

Waltham Forest’s affordable housing inquiry paints a worrying picture of the borough’s future, argues Echo editor Victoria Munro

Stock image (Credit: Unsplash/Nikola Johnny Mirkovic)

“We had three months to find a new place to live but there was nothing,” said a renter in Wood Street. “We’d call agents and the place would be gone before it was listed… You have to make a decision knowing almost nothing.”

A Walthamstow homeowner described feeling similarly stuck, explaining: “We bought our house through right to buy, it has increased in value, but so has everywhere else. We want to move to Chingford but we can’t afford it.”

Meanwhile, a social housing tenant in Lea Bridge was desperate to swap properties with someone but was finding it “impossible”. “No-one wants to live where I live,” they said, “I don’t want to live where I live.”

These accounts were given to an independent inquiry into Waltham Forest’s housing crisis, which has now presented its results to Waltham Forest Council.

The council launched the Affordable Housing Commission, led by a panel of eight “experts” from both inside and outside the housing industry, in January this year, asking them to produce recommendations for the next decade of house-building in the borough.

What their report depicts, however, is a borough that consistently outperforms most of London when it comes to building homes – but still finds it increasingly difficult to house its residents.

Between 2011 and 2022, more than 9,000 homes were built in Waltham Forest, of which almost 3,000 were available for less than the market price, bringing the total number of homes in the borough to more than 105,000.

(Credit: Waltham Forest Council)

At the same time, however, the borough experienced the fastest growth in house prices in London, with the average price more than doubling since 2011. Data from 2019 showed a typical resident would have to spend 44% of their basic pay on rent.

Unsurprisingly, this has begun to have a significant effect on who can – and cannot – afford to live in Waltham Forest. One renter told the commission they felt the council was “importing richer people in the borough” without “doing much to provide for people” who already live here, while a Walthamstow resident said the council’s housing strategy “feels like people deciding what they want London to look like”.

A tenant in social housing, who accepted the council needs “first class passengers to make the flight viable”, insisted: “The problem is [the council is] only delivering for the first class passengers here.”

While the council would protest it is doing as much as it can to support low-income residents, the data clearly supports the impression that rich people are moving in, while poorer residents are moving on.

The proportion of Waltham Forest residents in “higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations” – generally considered a key harbinger of gentrification – grew by 70% in the decade up to 2021, the second biggest increase in London after Newham.

These well-heeled professionals were most likely to move into the borough’s ten “high growth” areas, namely: Blackhorse Road, Sutherland Road, Highams Park, North Higham Hill, Walthamstow Dog Track, Walthamstow Central, Temple Mills, Wood Street, Lea Bridge, and St James Street. In the average Waltham Forest neighbourhood, they make up just 14% of residents, while in Blackhorse Road, for example, they account for close to a third.

(Credit: WF Council)

These residents, despite their greater earnings, are frequently moving into Waltham Forest after getting priced out of other London boroughs. Since 2012, more than 10,000 households have moved into the borough from Hackney alone. At the same time, poorer residents are being priced out to Redbridge or areas outside of London like Epping Forest.

The data suggests those being forced out are most often the borough’s Black residents, the only ethnic group to have decreased in absolute terms in the last decade. More than 3,000 Black people have moved out of the borough since 2011, with the biggest decreases in areas of Walthamstow and Temple Mills in Leyton. At the same time, the proportion of White people has grown, now making up more than half of the borough.

The majority of new homes being built in the borough are doing little to help the problem. The report states that “many of the new developments available to rent would require household incomes significantly above” the borough average. Even when it comes to new affordable homes, a “significant amount” is still “only likely to be affordable to higher-earning eligible residents”, which one Walthamstow resident described as “a slap in the face to people living here”.

(Credit: WF Council)

The current financial climate also means private developers are likely to get even more resistant to building discounted housing. The report states that “build costs are forecast to increase over the coming years, meaning that high levels of affordable housing may be less viable to developers in the short-term”, while house prices are expected to drop over the next two years.

At the same time, those specifically looking to build affordable homes, such as the council, housing associations and charities, are finding their task even harder. They are grappling with a rise in the cost of borrowing and “wider cost pressures associated with their existing [homes], such as damp, mould, and cladding issues”.

The report imagines a hypothetical housing scheme with 100 homes, built on two acres of land and expected to meet the Mayor of London’s target of 35% affordable homes. A private developer who built the scheme would lose an estimated £3.7million.

(Credit: WF Council)

What complicates this picture, however, is that it considers “all costs”, including the profit the developer expects to make. If only the cost of building the properties is included, the same scheme would make a profit of £13m.

This leads to situations like Countryside, the developer currently rebuilding Walthamstow’s Marlowe Road Estate, insisting it could not afford to increase the percentage of affordable homes from 45 to 50%, despite being set to make a £14m profit from the project. In this case, after ten months of negotiations, the council eventually backed down.

Many who spoke to the Affordable Housing Commission were keen to see the council take a more hard line with private developers. As one Lea Bridge resident pointed out: “It’s obviously a popular area to build, the council should be making more of that and holding developers to account. Make them deliver.”

Following the original publication of this article, the council’s cabinet member for housing and regeneration said the housing crisis is a “national scandal that requires massive government action to build the homes we so desperately need”.

He highlighted that the report found Waltham Forest had “the highest proportion of affordable home delivery in London” – with 35% of new homes built since 2011 offered at a discount, compared to a London average of 21%.

He added: “We have already committed to building 1,000 council homes over the next four years. Last year alone, we built 190 new council homes – the second highest figure in London – and, over the past ten years, 1,500 new homes have been built for residents on the housing waiting list.

“Significant infrastructure improvements have also been unlocked by our housing growth, such as Leyton Station, new health centres, Fellowship Square, Coronation Square, and library investment among others.”

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