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Brighton, the epitome of the housing crisis

Despite its comfortable image, the seaside city faces a unique convergence of every single aspect of the national housing shortage  - and 10 new people present as homeless every single day.


January 26 2024, 11.13am

Toby Sedgwick is 34. Like most young professionals his age, he’s stuck renting despite making a good salary. Worse, he’s renting in Brighton: one of the most unaffordable cities in England. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, renters in Brighton were already paying more than a third of their income on rent before the cost of living crisis hit. Rents in the city have almost doubled in the last decade and are still rising yearly, by around 13% per cent between 2022 and 2023.

Owners are also stretched. The property website Rightmove reports that a family home in Brighton now costs £534,288, around double the national average. And according to the housing charity Shelter, Brighton and Hove is one of the UK’s top 30 local area hotspots for homelessness in England, ranked 23rd for homelessness nationally, with a higher rate of unhoused people than many central London boroughs. It has more than 3,000 homeless residents and an average of 88 people sleeping rough on its streets every night. But despite this, 54% of the city’s homes are under-occupied, with hundreds of thousands of bedrooms remaining unused every night. The city’s housing system isn’t working.

Sedgwick and his partner have been forced out of the small city centre to the suburb of Portslade. They’re already priced out again and are now looking to move to nearby Worthing, even further away from their jobs. “My partner works for the NHS and she’s having to commute nearly an hour in the morning now,” he explains. “But we just can’t afford it anymore.”

The pair have both been renting privately since they were teenagers, but neither have a good experience to share. “I think that’s fairly representative,” he says. “This is the standard now, rather than the outlier. Everywhere I’ve lived has been over-costed, mouldy or in disrepair, or I’ve been evicted. It’s the same story you’ll get again and again and again. If you dispute a rent increase, or if you ask for repairs, they can just evict you.”

"The city’s children are disappearing. In the last year, the council has had to close at least two primary schools and shrink the size of others by removing class groups."

His experiences motivated him to take a job working for the community union ACORN, which campaigns on housing and community development issues, including agitating for the introduction of rent controls. The union has almost 1,000 members in Brighton and Hove alone - no surprise when the local authority is currently accepting 10 people presenting as homeless every single day.

“The vast majority of them are presenting because they are being evicted. In the 1970s or 80s they would have been in council homes. They’re being evicted due to landlords selling up and there’s nowhere for them to go. They’re either leaving Brighton or they are presenting as homeless to the council, being put in temporary or emergency accommodation,” Sedgwick says. “That’s one of the reasons ACORN has grown so much. We’re growing because people aren’t being listened to. The people who are affecting our lives - landlords - have quite a lot of power, money and media influence. We don’t have that as ordinary people, but we have power together.”

Brighton is one of the top five most expensive places in the UK for living costs, alongside London, Cambridge, Oxford and Guildford, but with lower average incomes than all those areas. Brighton’s house prices are high: within £20,000 of the London average, even though local salaries average at just £31,000, according to Payscale, compared with £42,000 a year in London. Sold prices were up 12% last year, even as the housing market began to dip nationally. And while Liverpool, for example, has the most acute housing shortage, with a deficit of around a quarter of a million homes, prices relative to incomes are more favourable. Brighton is unique. Every single pressure on the housing system is being felt at once in the relatively small administrative area of Brighton and Hove.

The city has become a hub for housing activism because in recent years it has become the epicentre of the UK housing crisis. From rising private rents to shrinking social housing provision, from evictions and street homeless to a middle class flight due to the utterly unaffordable cost of family housing on the open market, to the corrosive effect of Airbnb and holiday lets, every facet is felt sharply here.

Changing the feel of the city

The effect on the population and character of the city is immense, and constantly in flux. When families move out of the city and their homes are too expensive for younger households with young children, the properties often become houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) for younger and poorer house sharers who rent by the room. The city’s children are disappearing. In the last year, the council has had to close at least two primary schools and shrink the size of others by removing class groups. School funding is based on pupil enrolment meaning those surviving schools are also losing funding. Even the most desirable catchment areas in this seaside idyll are now under significant pressure.

Shelley Baker, headteacher at the Varndean secondary school in the north of the city, says her school had lost 10 students over just one summer holiday in 2023 due to housing costs. As the school is popular and oversubscribed, the places have already been filled by pupils on its waiting list. At Varndean, most families departing were households looking to buy, but pushed out of Brighton by the high cost of family housing. Whereas families would previously move to the suburbs of the city when they had children, now they are looking in Worthing or elsewhere in mid-Sussex. Some, Baker reports, are even moving to the Midlands or north of England despite having no local connections, just to find cheaper homes.

“Brighton is quite a productive place. But we’re seeing businesses gradually being pushed out because landowners think we can make more profit selling to developers."

“It just feels like we’re attracting pupils from further afield because there are fewer places in the city. Two [primaries] are shutting this year because of the falling number of children in the area and that’s going to hit secondaries at some point,” Baker says. “There are fewer families and it just changes the tone of the city. We’ve got a really fantastic sixth form college and they’re reaching further afield too.”

The proliferation of student accommodation has also turned former family-friendly areas into younger and poorer wards, which then become less attractive to other incoming families. Meanwhile the further out children move as their families secure affordable housing, the harder it is to access their education - particularly for the poorest households in social rented or emergency accommodation, which may be allocated a long way from their original area of the city.

“Children have to pay to come to school. If they forget their bus ID they have to pay the adult fee, and we have a number of children who just won’t come to school because they can’t afford it,” Baker says. 

Community impact

Other aspects of the city’s culture have also been hit. Previously homeless, long-term resident Danile Harris is a veteran of Brighton’s LGBTQ+ scene. He says the lack of affordable housing means the entire spirit of the city’s nightlife has been destroyed. 

“I first went out on the scene in the late 1990s and you would see queues half a mile to get into a nightclub,” Danile tells The Lead. “Today, you don’t see anything like that. It’s just a ghost town. It does seem like the number of the LGBTQ+ people has reduced. And birth rates are dropping in the city because people can’t afford it. We’re literally looking at a severe issue with our society with how we’re going to function going forward.”

Harris is now a member of another housing lobby group in the city, the Brighton Housing Coalition, and supports LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness by acting as a peer-to-peer advocate to help them navigate the services of more than 100 homelessness charities and services in the city. More than a third of the city’s homeless people identify as LGBTQ+ and yet there is no specific emergency accommodation available to meet their needs. 

One of the jobs of the coalition is to observe and record exactly what is happening to the city’s housing stock, particularly for marginalised communities and the poorest residents. The group has charted an incoming wave of around 5,000 households from London to Brighton each year, largely bringing with them housing wealth and pushing up the cost of property on the open market. It is inevitably causing community tensions.

“Housing is pretty much at the centre of all the problems we have in society, and some people [in Brighton] get very wealthy out of housing,” says Charles Harrison, interim chair of Brighton Housing Coalition. One of the biggest problems for the city is that although new development is desperately needed to increase the housing stock, local residents often oppose it because they fear it will be more unaffordable property for wealthy outsiders, or will immediately be lost to AirBnb. These are not unreasonable concerns.

 “All these resources have been poured into flats which, if done the right way, could go a long way to solving the crisis,” bemoans Harrison. But, of course, they haven’t. “Brighton is quite a productive place. We had all sorts of manufacturing works and our industrial estates in the railways sidings with workshops, but we’re seeing those gradually being pushed out because the landowners think we can make more profit selling these to developers. The places that are left are unaffordable, and it becomes a ghost town.”

Existing owners are trapped 

The local council has also tried to meet the needs of lower income residents by supporting the development of shared ownership properties. However, just like elsewhere in the country, that has only caused more issues for the local market. 

The Lead spoke to one shared owner, who wished to remain anonymous, who like many of their neighbours in their central Brighton development is unable to sell their property because mortgage lenders will not lend as the service charges exceed financial tests for affordable housing criteria. That means it is almost impossible to fulfil the strict low income plus affordability requirements for shared ownership in the city, reducing to almost zero the number of part-buyers available to sell on to. That leaves existing owners trapped, unable to sell and move on unless they can afford to buy the housing association out and take full ownership.

“My basic housing costs without bills are now over 50% of my salary as a university lecturer,” the resident told us. “And I don’t even have a mortgage as I was able to put my life savings into buying my 25% share. But many of my neighbours are young and now have enormous mortgage payments.”

Many residents are hopeful that the change of local political administration, from the Green Party to Labour, in 2023 may yet lead to some significant policy change on housing. The Green Party’s efforts have been condemned by ACORN and other local groups who spoke to The Lead as “catastrophically wrong” for failing to engage with local tenant campaign groups while bowing to the pressure of the private landlord lobby. The Greens dropped a promise to introduce landlord licensing for all private sector properties, proposed in 2019, after a legal challenge was threatened. The city’s renters were left feeling marginalised; they felt the decision proved that they were indeed very low on the party’s priorities. 

That same promise has been made once again by the Labour administration, and a paper setting out the proposal is currently making its way through the council’s housing committee and up to the executive. Widespread opposition still exists, however; the council will have a battle on its hands. 

One landlord who owns three properties in Brighton, and who shares concerns about the quality of some operators in the city, is still sceptical about the plan, believing it will only conceal the extent of poor practice, not root it out. 

She tells The Lead:“Whilst we want to eliminate bad practice and rogue landlords, I suspect that anyone who is already in the property industry - and that might include those who are not always working to the book or not looking after their properties so well - will be granted a landlord licence, thereby making the whole thing futile.” 

"The bigger issue is that regular residents, such as hospital staff, teachers and social workers, simply cannot afford to live in Brighton."

The landlord in question is a self-employed creative whose work is supported by her income from local property, and chose not to reveal her identity because of negative attitudes towards private landlords in Brighton. “Landlords are not always faceless money-making enterprises; a lot of them are relatively small investors trying to support their families like anyone else in small business,” she added. “There is already a lot of financial pressure on landlords in this current high-interest, high-taxation market, with the introduction of ‘section 24’ [a new law which phased out tax relief on buy-to-let mortgages] having meant many are already selling up.” She believes introducing a licence could end up pushing up rents for tenants by encouraging more landlords to sell, creating extra demand in a city already low on supply. 

But landlords like her have a tough opponent in Labour councillor Gill Williams, chair of Brighton and Hove’s housing and new homes committee. She is a veteran of the community union ACORN and has a strong commitment to addressing the most acute issues in Brighton’s housing market as an immediate priority for her party.
Williams has already written to Labour leader Keir Starmer, ahead of a general election later this year, demanding other flexibilities for councils to take control of their areas, such as the introduction of local rent controls or rent caps.

“We cannot do one thing, there’s a myriad of measures that we absolutely must take,” she says. Building new social housing is a key priority - “We built 319 this year but it’s a drop in the ocean” - but that of course requires support from national government. In the meantime, the council is pursuing a buy-back scheme, returning all ex-council properties to the public sector when they come up for sale. Again, though, more central government funding is needed to make this a meaningful exercise. 

What can be done?

There is more hope for the proposed mandatory landlord licensing scheme, which is being introduced in four council wards initially with plans to rapidly expand it to the entire borough. The council has capped the cost of the scheme at less than £3 a week and is spending extra resources on staff to manage and monitor the scheme. Williams believes it will “make a massive difference to the confidence of private renters.” That’s important, but it won’t bring down the cost of rent. And it won’t take the unique issues of being a renter in a seaside resort.

Under its last administration, the local authority already introduced a “principle residents’ planning policy” to ban new luxury developments being immediately sold up by developers to become second homes and Airbnb lets. Of course, that doesn’t stop almost immediate second onward sale and hasn’t solved the problem of properties sitting empty for much of the year.

“It does make the crisis worse because we’re getting lots of lovely developers [in] but it’s not helping our people at all. With the Airbnb lets, you’ll see a whole street with only one person that lives there and it’s totally destroying them,” Williams admits. “I’m going to use whatever powers we’ve got to stop that.” She has proposed another registration scheme for Airbnb-type lets because, as she admits, “we don’t really even know where they are, and they’re not subject to any health and safety like other holiday lets. I’m really keen to tackle that because it’s dangerous for one thing”.

The bigger issue is that regular residents, such as hospital staff, teachers and social workers, simply cannot afford to live in Brighton. Williams accepts this, but has no short-term answer. She says: “The impact is so significant that in a few years time Brighton is going to look very different and not for the better and this is the reason why housing is the first and foremost thing you fix in a city.”

If Williams wants ideas on other policies she might trial, she could find inspiration in the city’s Citizens UK. The national community activist NGO has a particular interest in Brighton. Assistant director Seb Chapleau sets out the core of the problem that Brighton faces as he sees it: “Faith institutions are shrinking, and community life is at risk. People don’t have vibrant places to meet anymore, their friends and neighbours are moving elsewhere.” So his organisation is seeking to come up with solutions that can be tested in Brighton and Hove and potentially used nationally to shake up the housing market.

Chapleau is an advocate of a living rent scheme, which may be possible in Brighton if Williams negotiates the local freedoms she wants out of a future Labour government in Westminster. This would mean private tenants would all pay a rent based on the median income of the city, rather than driven by the market alone. There is already a small pilot of a similar scheme taking place in the London Borough of Lewisham, though it too is in its earliest days. Brighton council has recently opened discussions on such a move. 

Another option, he says, is to prioritise building properties for sale using the community land trust model. By separating the price of the land (which remains in community ownership) from the cost of the house itself, buying a property would become much more affordable for local families and the asset could not be stripped.

The council may be open to being creative, but with national finances still stripped to the bone, they may have few practical options. Finding its backbone may be just as important for the council as uncovering new sources of funding. As Toby Sedgwick says: “The landlord lobby is very happy to throw their weight around legally. In one way or another councils have got to stand up to them and say - enough.”

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