It was an “exceptional summer” for Cornwall with the G7 and a record number of visitors – but for whom? Cornwall has paid a high price for its luminous beauty, as shoppers shun cities and people prefer vacations in Britain to overseas. So many people want to stay here – and buy here – the housing stock is woefully depleted. The average salary is just over £ 25,000 in Cornwall, largely precarious, seasonal and poorly paid; the average house price is £ 275,000 and rising. In parts of Cornwall, prices have gone up 20 percent this year.
So people are praising. But homeowners sell their privately rented homes at the top of the market. Estate agents are circulating leaflets calling it a “once in a lifetime opportunity” and promising that 80% of buyers come from outside the region, happy to pay the best rates. They add £ 100,000 to an offer without taking a break, pricing the premises. They sweep the housing stock and use it half the year or rent it out on Airbnb or both. Why rent a house from a local family for £ 800 per month when you can do it in a week in high season with Airbnb, whose philosophy was to ‘know the community’. Now more and more – what community? In coastal villages, the lights are literally off.
As the winter haze settles over the sea and the Duchy empties of visitors, what happens next? Nothing pretty enough to match the scenery. All over Cornwall, families are receiving eviction notices because their homes are being sold under their orders. These are often working families or single parents receiving benefits, many of whom work part-time, but face discrimination in the housing market because their marriage has broken down or because they have left a abuser. You are materially safer if you stay with an abuser, and I wonder how many do. Because there is no accommodation. As of this writing, there are 100 family homes for rent on Rightmove across the Duchy: a Duchy 80 miles long, with a full-time population of half a million people. Turn to Airbnb in St Ives, however, and there are three times as many vacation rentals available. In Redruth, which is not a typical tourist area, there are again three times as many Airbnb rentals available as there are houses to rent across Cornwall. And if you have a private rental, there is no incentive for the owner to maintain it safely. If you go, hundreds hope to take your place. So they don’t maintain it, or they treat it like a favor.
If you are deported – and you have to wait until you are deported to receive help from the council; you have to force eviction on your children – it is very unlikely that you will get a communal house locally or quickly. Rather, there is emergency housing, which can be a hundred miles from family, friends and work. These relationships aren’t a luxury, and only a fool would say they are. They are the basis of a secure life. I know families of working parents – caregivers, city councilors, teachers – who live in hotels, three per room, their meals delivered by charities, their animals given to strangers. It costs the council £ 6million a year. As a mitigation, he lodges singles in shacks in a hollow in Truro and calls it a victory. In a way, it is. Many young people are living in tents in Cornwall. In the summer, it’s manageable. In winter, it’s dangerous.
When a house for rent arrives on Rightmove, there will be 50 requests per morning, sometimes more. And if you’re lucky and get a rental property, you better not have a pet: and Cornish people love their pets. At Mousehole, a long-term rental – the only rental – had a no pets and no children policy. I do not know why. Who prefers to stroke a rug than a child or a dachshund? Maybe people think tenants should be grateful for the possibility of paying a mortgage, not theirs. Even if you see life as a business – and one real estate agent recently called St Ives “a business” – you cannot think of “successful economic units” emerging from precarious housing. Rather, it is a melting pot for anxiety, dysfunction and hopelessness. It’s not extraordinary either, not now, not here. It’s normal, and within that normality is the only hope I can find.
There are signals that the crisis is gaining national attention: because workers with families are living in cheap hotels while vacation rentals are empty. It is a crisis that is reaching its climax, and the cost is human misery for the homeless and, for the government, a scandal it deserves. Cornwall is also a blue wall: and we are promised action by a new Conservative county council. It promises more social housing; and we are talking about national action against the scourge of second homes. We are waiting for this action, but if it comes, it will be too late for many. A wave of evictions is expected in January: before the Christmas tree is picked up. Then what ?