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Community / People ‘left in limbo’ in struggle to get onto the property ladder

IT HAS been described by some as the “elephant in the room” – the barriers first-time buyers in Shetland are facing as they struggle to get their foot on the property ladder.

With a buoyant property market, expensive private rents and a long waiting list for social housing, many of Shetland’s younger generation are struggling to find a place to call their own home.

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One such person is Disa Hunter from Lerwick, who has been thinking about buying a home for the past few years.

But the amount houses are selling for in Shetland is deterring the 29-year-old from bidding for a home.

Estate agents have reported a hot market, with the Covid pandemic seemingly attracting extra interest in local housing from outside Shetland.

But increased competition has increased sale prices, and this is leaving those without a large deposit or a bulging bank balance adrift – with a lack of available or affordable housing seen as a potential spark for migration out of Shetland.

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Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) housing manager Anita Jamieson concedes that, with the pandemic intensifying things, there is “no quick fix”.

Hunter rented privately after finishing university, but she then moved back in with her parents to save up enough money for a deposit.

However, with a desire to stay in Lerwick to be close to family and her work, she feels unable to compete with the amount of money over the asking price properties tend to go for.

Disa Hunter.

“I feel buying a house right now is hopeless,” Hunter said. “I’ve not even entertained the idea of putting an offer in for anywhere as the percentage tends to go over the asking price.

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“I also feel like I can’t buy in town as the prices of houses are too expensive. It’s frustrating as I want to be in town to be close to my family and friends and to be near my work.”

For many who do not meet the criteria for social housing, it is can be a Catch-22 situation: the cost of renting means they are unable to save enough to finance buying a house.

Hunter said a five per cent deposit mortgage scheme, designed to help first-time buyers struggling to save up the initial lump sum because of the high cost of living and rent, is not much help. “People are still outbidding way over the asking price and I can’t compete.”

She added: “I feel like I’m getting forced to move onto the mainland as I can afford to buy a house there. However, I want to stay in Shetland to be close to my family.”

Hunter suggested one solution could be low or zero interest loans for young people to be able to get onto the property market.

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“Although we have schemes like Hjaltland [Housing Association] I feel it’s not useful for individuals like myself who don’t meet the points system.”

The SIC recently encouraged people to respond to a new survey on housing. It will inform a “new plan for homes and communities in Shetland, setting out the priorities by the council and partners to tackle the main housing issues”.

Meanwhile hundreds of new social housing units are set to be built over the coming years at Staney Hill and the Knab in Lerwick.

Both projects will look to offer affordable housing in addition to rented homes – with the Knab scheme in particular targeting “younger working people”.

People are given points when applying for social housing through the council, and priority is given to people with no fixed abode or an insecure tenancy. 

One question in the study, though, revolved around what should homes and communities look and feel like in Shetland in 2040 – which does not appear to be much help for those looking for a home now.

The survey links to the ‘Housing to 2040’ vision for Scotland, launched by the Scottish Government earlier this year.

Councillor Alastair Cooper, who chairs the SIC’s development committee, said with the “current pressures in the housing market there has never been a more important time for the community of Shetland to have their say in shaping the future of local housing”.

But Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart believes more must be done at a national level.

“We appear to be in a perfect storm of a heated property market, high private property rentals, increasingly high costs of construction materials, lack of social housing and a lack of affordable housing,” she said.

“The Scottish Government is watching as young people are kept from taking the first rung on the housing ladder. Half a million homes were sold under Right to Buy in Scotland, and the Scottish Government has no plans to build enough homes to fill the gap.

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“I have repeatedly raised the issue of islands housing and young people with the cabinet secretary. All the current situation proves to do is play a significant role in island depopulation.

“I do not want to see any more young people driven away from their home islands due to a lack of housing.”

Public sociology lecturer at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University Karl Johnson said a lack of affordable housing for young people and a restrictive local infrastructure inevitably results in folk leaving Shetland – something made more attractive by the education and employment opportunities available south.

Karl Johnson, who lived in Brae before moving south.

Johnson, who is from Shetland, said: “Our identity and wellbeing rely upon a sense of belonging, partly anchored by feeling belonging to a place, a role, and the people we interact with everyday – leading to the sense that we have a purpose and a future in our community. Belonging is an ongoing, shared group project.

“Without a home to call their own, without seeing that their presence is valued and their future protected, and with limited options for a purpose and personal development, people are likely to go elsewhere in search of belonging.”

He reiterated that properties being scooped up for holiday lets and second homes “offer little benefit to the sustainability of our communities in the long-term” – and that investment and future planning is needed for when there is an ageing population with a limited workforce and skillset.

“In particular, parts of the Highlands and Islands are crying out for more social housing, affordable property, and financial support for new builds and restoring former croft houses – explicitly for locals to actually live in, rather than to rent out to holidaymakers,” Johnson said.

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“Many areas, however, risk being reduced to ‘rustic visitor attractions’, trapped in stasis rather than vibrant and growing.

“Central government recognises the issues but offers little in the way of serious solutions, while the local authority has neither the remit nor the resources to address the full extent of the situation itself.

“Increasingly though, examples of progressive community-led developments are being seen in other parts of rural Scotland, such as the protection for resident first-time buyers offered by the Hebridean Housing Partnership as a ‘social landlord’, or the proposed zero-carbon housing development for staff at Comrie Croft in Perthshire.”

SIC housing manager Jamieson said national pressures were amplified locally due to the geography, economic drivers and composition of the isles’ housing market.

She added the council was “very aware” of a number of people who are struggling to juggle renting with potentially buying.

The council is also reporting issues with material supply and costs, as well as contractor capacity, for its own housing stock. “This is leading to longer void periods, slower turnover of stock, reduced housing options for applicants and pressure on temporary accommodation,” a recent report to councillors said.

Housing executive manager Anita Jamieson.
Shetland Islands Council housing executive manager Anita Jamieson.

Meanwhile Jamieson said the Office for National Statistics has published a 10.2 per cent increase in UK house prices for the year to 31 March 2021.

“Shetland has a small and quite limited private rented market at only four per cent of the housing stock, compared to around 13 per cent across Scotland,” she added.

“Normally, the rental property market meets the needs of those who are unable to gain an allocation through social housing providers and those who cannot afford to buy in the open market.”

Jamieson acknowledged that the Covid pandemic has affected all aspects of the housing market over the past two years.

“We are in the process of refreshing the local housing strategy to set future priorities for housing in Shetland,” Jamieson continued.

“This is alongside the work that is already being done on housing investment and finding solutions to diversify the market.

“Staff in the council’s housing service are trained in a housing options approach and can offer professional advice to anyone who needs assistance.

“There are also Scottish Government incentive schemes available for open market purchase and these can be found on the council website.”

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