Developers are exploiting loopholes in planning regulations to avoid providing affordable housing in the city, figures obtained by BirminghamLive have revealed.
In a joint investigation with HuffPost UK, Birmingham City Council is failing its promise to secure affordable housing as part of new developments - barely achieving ten per cent of its promised 35 per cent figure.
Figures obtained in a Freedom of Information request show that of the 4,768 houses approved for development in 2016/17, just 425 approved were lower cost housing.
Housing experts say the lack of affordable housing impacts everyone – from those attempting to get on the first rung of the housing ladder, those in the private renting sectors whose rents are soaring due to high demand, and those waiting on the social housing list.
But house builders are allowed to sidestep rules on affordable housing if they can show that providing discounted homes would stop the development making a profit.
Like many others his age stuck in private renting, Craig Griffiths, 36, assumed he would have a house by now. The Birmingham hair stylist has been renting for a “depressing” 18 years, and despite saving £14,000 is no closer to buying a place of his own.
He’s just one of the many people in the city struggling to get on the housing ladder, directly affected impacted by a lack of affordable homes.
Mr Griffiths says he has been told that he might need a deposit of between £35,000 and £50,000 to buy and he’ll likely have to move out of the city to find somewhere he can afford.
He says: “It’s so depressing, and my rent keeps going up. My friend’s pay £400 a month on their mortgages whereas I pay £750. I’m that desperate to get on the housing ladder that I am going to have to consider moving up to an hour away from where my work is, and where all my friends live.”
Buying is important to him as he believes it will give him security when he is older, especially as he is freelance and therefore doesn’t have a pension or get sick pay.
He says it annoys him that Birmingham doesn’t seem to be addressing the issue. “When I go and visit my Mum in Shropshire, there are so many new houses and flats going up, whereas here in Birmingham, it’s all old people’s homes or luxury apartments. I saw some flats being built and got excited but then saw they were going for £250,000.”
Last year, the housing charity Shelter revealed that during 2015/16, Birmingham developers behind the construction of 2,916 homes were able to backtrack on promises to deliver 1,003 of them at the affordable rate by arguing their profits would be unfairly hit.
For Jess Taylor, 28, the lack of affordable homes mean she isn’t just priced out of buying in Birmingham, but also from renting there.
The illustrator, who grew up in the city, is currently living in a one-bed flat in Dudley, which is around 40 minutes away from the city centre. She currently pays around £300-£400 less than if she were to rent somewhere similar in Birmingham, where small one-beds or studio flats are rented for around £800.
Taylor, who is also saving for a house deposit, says: “There are ugly truths with renting that are never brought up. Landlords have the right to kick you out with little to no notice, unless you can afford lengthy court proceedings. It’s like living under a guillotine, waiting for it to drop. It’s honestly hell … Tenants have few rights and little recourse.”
“I just want security. I’m tired of wondering if the next letting agent will be as bad, or if the next landlord will be nice enough to fix maintenance issues.”
The problem also impacts on people trying to get social housing. In the West Midlands, there are 97,526 households on the social housing waiting list, according to figures from 2017, but there are just 37,840 available lettings. In Birmingham alone – a deficit of 3,135 social rent lettings.
One of those waiting is Gemma, 35, from Kings Heath, who is currently sofa surfing while her 11-year-old son, who is autistic, lives with his grandmother. She ended up homeless three months ago after her mother died and the family decided to sell her home, which she had been living in. She is also dealing with the trauma of her boyfriend – and father of her child – recently taking his own life.
“I sleep on a different sofa every day. I could go to a homeless shelter but you could get placed anywhere and I have to keep my job and stay near my son,” Gemma, who works as a care worker in a nursing home at nights, says.
“I’m on the housing list but the council is not very helpful due to a lack of houses. It’s too difficult to get the deposit to privately rent. I just need a little help to get me and my son back together.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, knows that stories like Gemma’s are all too common. She says the social housing waiting list “a national scandal” that is happening right across the country including in Birmingham and the West Midlands.
“People are being condemned to a life of unstable and expensive renting, forcing them out of areas they can no longer afford to live in,” she says. “But if we want to build enough genuinely affordable housing, we need to be prepared to pay for it.
“This means bringing down the mammoth cost of land. And getting rid of planning loopholes that make it too easy for developers to wriggle out of building affordable homes.”
So what can be done to solve the problem? Birmingham Labour councillor Peter Griffiths, who was until May the city’s cabinet member for housing, argues that the council should be more forensic in its analysis of developers’ figures.
He also suggests linking affordable housing contributions directly to to the profitability of building projects.
By far the biggest developer of housing in the city is the council itself, under its Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust arm. But even it has to sell about 50% of the 1,000 plus homes a year it is building to fund further building.
Griffiths, who is now on his second spell on the city’s planning committee, is sceptical about the viability assessments that developers have to do to prove that they could not afford to build if forced to discount homes, and wants to get more of them independently audited.
In some cases he has found figures to be questionable. Affordable housing is supposed to be below 80% of market value, yet he says that some developers make assumptions of 60% just to tip the development into a loss on paper and excuse themselves the discount.
“I’ve been down to Lancaster House (the council’s planning department) to see viability assessments in the past and some of them are based on affordable housing being 60% of market rent … You can easily pick holes in the assessments - they’re written on the back of a fag packet.”
Birmingham City Council has built about 500 homes a year for the last five years - but that is far from enough and it is still selling far more council houses that it is building.
City housing director Robert James l said: “The Council’s nationally recognised and award-winning, Birmingham Housing Municipal Trust, is the largest house builder in Birmingham.
"As such, around 40% of the houses built by the Council are sold on the open market, 80% being sold to first time buyers, the balance of 60% being made available for social or affordable rent.
"This split is intentional to create housing opportunities both for aspiring first time buyers like Mr Griffiths, who are looking to get on the housing ladder, and to provide genuinely affordable rented homes for those who need them. The council is committed to building a further 2,000 new homes over the next four years through the Trust.
“This is just one of the ways that the council is looking to meet its commitment to secure affordable housing for the citizens of Birmingham. Further schemes and activities are taking place however, it needs to be recognised that this is a national issue which will not be resolved by a single authority.
"To resolve this housing crisis and build appropriate levels of affordable housing, it will take a combined effort from government, local authorities, the private and third sectors. Everybody needs to play their part.”
Jess Taylor says the solution should be simple. Birmingham Council – and the government – should choose to prioritise building affordable homes to fix the problem.
“I think all new homes should hall under affordable brackets. Thirty-five per cet isn’t enough. I’m 28 and only have one friend who is a homeowner, and she bought it with the help of parents.
“We’re looking at a generation of people not earning enough to buy, stuck renting, and the answer is to create less affordable housing than already mandated? Madness.”