‘Nowhere for them to live’: the Devon families pushed out by Airbnb

Hardship and heartbreak as Devon families lose homes to Airbnb lets.

Some of those who have been evicted are living in camper vans, caravans, even on boats. There are families who have been booted out of their homes crammed together in holiday park chalets or single rooms while others have had no choice but to give up and leave the area completely.

Steven Morris www.theguardian.com 

The dramatic rise of short-term holiday lets in Woolacombe and neighbouring villages and towns in north Devon is causing hardship, heartache and anger as landlords and investors cash in and local people are squeezed out.

“It’s really dire,” said Emma Hookway, a founder of the North Devon and Torridge Housing Crisis campaign group. “I constantly come across people in tears after they have been kicked out of rented accommodation because landlords want to turn places into holiday lets.”

Hookway, a 43-year-old cleaner, began the group after she and her young son were forced to leave their rented house. They eventually found a flat above a working men’s club. “It felt soul-destroying moving back into a small flat in my 40s. But I had to suck it up and now I realise that, actually, we are the lucky ones.

“Tourism here has boomed, especially since Covid. Landlords who were making £1,000 a month renting to a tenant can make that in a week now and investors are snapping up properties to make money out of them. It’s easy money for them.”

Renting out through Airbnb in the area is lucrative. Two-bedroom flats in the modern Oceanpoint and Narracott developments in Woolacombe will cost about £1,200 a week this autumn. A small studio above the Tides Inn is almost £100 a night.

But there is, undoubtedly, a price to pay for the community.

Another member of the campaign group, Graham Bell, who works at a local hospital, said key workers were being forced out. “We lose nurses and teachers who grew up here because they can’t find anywhere to live. They move to Exeter, Bristol or further afield. Families are being pushed into holiday parks, hotels, B&Bs. Children are having to sit their exams while living in caravan parks. Education and life chances are being affected.”

One emergency worker in his 30s, who asked not to be named, described how he and his partner were evicted from their flat in Woolacombe and now lived in a van on a campsite. “We’re making that work for now but it’s not ideal. It’s not what we want long term. It feels like a downward spiral for the area. How are they going to find people to staff the hospitals, the fire station, the shops if nothing is done?”

A woman with a small child who is being compelled to move out of her Woolacombe home this winter after almost a decade summed up her feelings as “heartbroken, scared and helpless”. Another parent who has been given notice to leave said she was “genuinely terrified” at the prospect of becoming homeless.

Dan Stokes, 40, who works as a chef in Woolacombe, has struggled to find stable accommodation. “There are dozens of applications for every rented place.” It means there are acute staff shortages in hospitality. “Probably most businesses have 60 or 70% of the staff they need because there’s nowhere for them to live.”

Stokes said he knew of a hospitality worker who lived in a camper van in Woolacombe and a family of three – two parents and a grownup son – who shared one room. “Something has got to be done.”

The feel of the place is changing. Locals say they cannot afford the “London prices” charged in many pubs, bars and restaurants and there are frequently complaints about the behaviour of short-let visitors – loud music, excessive drinking, antisocial behaviour (often when hot tubs are involved).

According to North Devon council’s figures, 47% of places in the Mortehoe parish, which includes Woolacombe, are second homes or holiday lets. The figure for the nearby village of Georgeham is 45%. In 2020-21, the number of section 21 eviction notices issued by landlords to tenants in north Devon was 39; in 2021-22 it was 103.

The council’s chief executive, Ken Miles, has been busy drafting a report in response to the UK government’s call for evidence on holiday lets. The draft report says the council is “particularly concerned about community cohesion in areas where there is a high intensity of short-term holiday lets”.

Examples Miles cites include a primary school struggling to maintain enough pupil numbers to remain viable and he points out a road in Georgeham where only one dwelling is occupied in the winter. “Communities cannot be sustained with that level of holiday use,” the draft report says.

It goes on to highlight the case of a senior college worker in north Devon who has to live 40 miles away and an employee of a local care home who had to give up her job when she was evicted.

The report says that in recent years “the nature of the tourist accommodation offer has changed with the rise in prominence of sites such as Airbnb”. It suggests consideration of a licensing scheme for holiday lets and perhaps the requirement to apply for planning consent for change of use where residential premises are converted to holiday lets to allow more control.

Malcolm Wilkinson, the council’s lead member for coastal communities and a resident of Woolacombe for half a century, said there was some good news. A community land trust has been formed to build 21 affordable homes for local people next to the village hall. “We hope that will help a little,” he said.

Tensions are surfacing. One second-home owner, who rents her place out when she and her partner are not there, said a guest recently left early because they did not feel welcome by local people. “They were told that tourists weren’t wanted,” she said.

The owner, who asked not to be named, said she did not make huge profits and employed a local cleaner and used local companies for laundry and building work.

She argued that Woolacombe had long been a tourist destination. “Our guests use local attractions, cafes, restaurants and shops. I don’t know what would happen to the place if there weren’t any visitors.”

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