Buyer’s Remorse: The Truth about Shared Ownership

All I’ve ever wanted is peace and security. I’m the grave side of forty, I live in London, I’m single and I struggle to overcome the appalling financial penalty that incurs. Home ownership remains an aspiration for lone members of my beaten generation. We live in the long shadow of the right-to-buy and nimbyism. The supply of homes and demand for the same are strangers and never the twain shall meet. My generation endures the Orwellian redefining of the word “affordable” – the construction industry’s thigh slapper at our expense.

Social inequality profiteers, now enjoying mortgage-free living, are bankrolled by the poor. We’re their income streams, their lifestyle guarantors. Renting out part of your home or buying-to-let is the easiest buck an idle asset-rich homeowner ever made. Social injustice hasn’t been this brazen, obnoxious and naturalised since the 19th century. And the children of those who’ve done well from this crime against the general population have the gall to cry foul when the Tory Party forgets itself and threatens their unearned inheritance, as it did, hilariously, during the 2017 Election campaign.

What follows is a story of a con vested on a would-be home owner; a man denied a stable home for the best part of twenty years. You’re warned that it contains descriptions of reckless stupidity that some readers may find distressing.

I was desperate to own a stake in my home city. The alternative, moving away, deracinating myself, felt monstrously unjust. So in desperation, I opted for a very modern compromise; a scam talked up by those desperate you drop any demands for cheap homes and accept the housing market as it is – a position that protects those aforementioned asset-rich home owners. The wheeze in question, Shared Ownership, is a half-way, or rather, half-owned house. In my desperation, I got drunk on the promise, telling myself it would liberate me from the tyranny of absurd market rents and, with bitter retrospective irony, unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords.

And so it was I made a Faustian pact with a Housing Association ostensibly constituted to help me. Before it was merged out of existence in May 2017 (many of them club together and rebrand, it’s a neat way of washing away a stained reputation), the old HA boasted core values: “caring, honesty, innovation and customer service”. Surely they, as the custodians of one of London’s new communities, would be a reputable pimp, committed to the wellbeing of their tenants? Yes, I’d still be one of those, despite the life savings I’d be sinking into new bricks and mortar.

I’d be an odd tenant for sure, saddled with all the responsibilities of home ownership and none of the perks, but a tenant nonetheless. This is what they skip over in the marketing materials. You may think you’re buying into home ownership and will get the attendant privileges, but to the HA you’re just a pretentious dependent, and you get housed accordingly – not set apart from the least socially conscientious families, but imprisoned within the same boundaries. This, you discover later, is how an association fulfils its social housing credentials and maintains its charitable status. You also learn that the thinking that populates these developments is socially illiterate and ruinous.

My flat was in one of London’s new village schemes. “Village” connotes community, urban space, tranquillity and harmony. It invokes a decluttered past, the bucolic, a rural idyll. But a car doesn’t become a horse if you hang a licence plate around its cock, and this village was nothing of the kind. In reality: a reboot of the council estate it replaced. It would import the estate’s tenants, families that came pre-loaded with an entitled attitude to their subsidised housing and environs, and unchecked aggression toward the new middle classes moving in opposite.

They’d had a lifetime’s practice in the delicate art of testing boundaries and ignoring authority. The readymade nucleus of this community didn’t give two fucks about complaints and threats of punitive action. They’d seen and heard it all before, and besides, this was their home. Why adapt for the newbies? Because they’d invested every penny they had in the hope of a peaceful home of their own you say? Careful, that sounds like coded snobbery and an apology for imposing community values on those who have none.

The promise of a building exclusively for shared owners, i.e. those with similar lifestyles and expectations, was an outright, sinister lie – a gag told by the off-plan marketing team, who knew very well buyers would be locked in with social housing families – loud, inconsiderate, hostile and destructive, facing them the way Jimmy Stewart watched Raymond Burr. This revelation, on the day I was handed my keys, became the defining fact of my residency.

The marketing literature had, of course, omitted this crucial detail. Come, it said, enjoy a beautiful communal garden, “perfect for summer evenings and weekends outside” in a building designed exclusively for shared owners, i.e. a group with a diverse tenancy profile. The building may have been designed for us but the HA that acquired it had no intention of populating it that way. Backing onto that garden were the social housing families and their intemperate offspring. I’d been groomed to expect them elsewhere, “in the social housing portions of the development”, to quote the disingenuous language used at point of sale. Now we were locked together, with a single communal space between us, and there would be no escape from their noise, littering, vandalism, home invading kids (no really, they’d run into the ground floor flats of single young women, then mock them when asked to leave), and the grinding indifference of the parent-tenants who’d sit indoors, enjoying their subsidised housing, while their children tore up the space outside.

Said space, for the avoidance of doubt, was theoretically the responsibility of all tenants but only one kind, the humble leaseholder, paid for its upkeep and repair – that’s the service charge you hear so much about. To know the same while you watched the kids of social housing tenants vandalise the space, was one thing. To discover later that CCTV only covered the entrances to the garden, and this was the HA’s excuse to spread the cost for repairing the additional damage, knowing leaseholders would pay most (if not all of) the bill, was quite another. An oily middle manager would later explain that the liability of social housing tenants couldn’t be proven, nor the fact, known to the dogs in the street, that they were now the exclusive, unsupervised occupiers of the disputed territory. When I suggested the CCTV turned on the entrances, recording who went in and out, would prove exactly that, I was met with silence.

A divide had been created. It was between those who had a stake in the building, so were incentivised to maintain it and promote community cohesion, and those who had none, so were not. This was an unholy fusion, a cut and shut of lifestyles, but it wasn’t an admin error on the Housing Association’s part, it was policy. So why do it? Why populate a building in a way that guarantees social conflict? Why make the non-statutory parts of each tenancy – leasehold and social housing, different when it came to the crucial definition of what constituted nuisance noise in the same communal area? Thoughtlessness? Mercenary calculation? A mechanism to guarantee a certain amount of churn on the Shared Ownership side and the healthy movement of appreciating capital? Take your pick, but the result was Hell on Earth.

Getting the HA to accept any responsibility for this, or honour their role as landlord to provide the peace and quiet sold, proved mission impossible. Whatever they thought privately, and one imagines the social illiteracy and stupidity of the set up was apparent almost immediately, the HA’s line, from the get-go, was one of denial, obfuscation, the invocation of thought terminating cliché – “kids are kids”, and interminably long periods of silence; a position designed to run down the residency clock and minimise, if not expunge, any legal liability for the disaster vested on leaseholders.

A six-month complaints process, a brick wall, was the first attempt at crushing dissent. When that got us nowhere, with political answers to specific questions deemed “sufficient”, a long review of the management arrangements governing the building concluded nothing was to be done. The HA’s legal advisors decreed, using clips of audio recordings, divorced from their proper context – 40 plus hours of said noise a week, every week, for six consecutive months of each year, that the kids didn’t exceed statutory nuisance noise levels. A judge, we were told, would be unlikely to order enforcement action under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act; a claim, they gambled, we’d be unlikely to test due to the huge legal costs involved. When Winston Smith questioned Big Brother he was told he didn’t exist. It turns out our social problems didn’t exist either.

The HA chose to concentrate, in an act of wilful ignorance, on their alleged inability to enforce leasehold tenants’ notional right to peace and protection from anti-social activity, due to the difficultly in taking action against the people they’d housed opposite me. That they’d engineered a situation that made enforcement problematic both practically and politically (imagine the headlines – “HA Evicts Poor Families from New Homes!”, “HA tells Slum Clearance Families, ‘You’re Scum’ and Sends Them Packing”) didn’t seem to occur to those administering the mess. That it occurred to someone before the fact was obvious. Organisations that aren’t anticipating problems don’t lie to prospective buyers.

The regulatory regime was a safety net made of rice noodles. The government created bodies, carefully constituted to give HA’s the latitude they needed to mismanage the sector in the interests of construction and the market – the Homes and Communities Agency quango that regulates Housing Associations, and Housing Ombudsman – proved toothless and useless, applying neither close scrutiny or intelligence to their judgements. They concentrated on evidence of tick-boxing rather than outcomes and impact – a charter that allows an association to mark their own homework. Not only did they find my HA was “under no obligation” to reveal how a building was populated, a licence to lie, not to mention music to the ears of snake oil salesmen everywhere, they also concluded these fraudsters had acted properly simply by following their own ineffective and socially divisive internal processes. What were they? Relying on neighbour on neighbour reports to identify wrongdoing, and sanctioning individuals rather than taking steps to change the behaviour of a specific tenant group, which like all groups, conditions the actions of the greatest number of people.

The HA held the belated report (that had taken 15 months to produce due to understaffing) up as evidence that they’d done nothing wrong (literally, when they finally deigned to meet me after 2 years), but doing the minimum necessary to look busy and taking effective and transformative action is not the same thing. The HA had no greater friend than the regulatory regime that was supposed to hold it to account.

With no prospect of the situation improving and official collusion making mincemeat of my complaint, I duly played my part and sold up, which thanks to the HA’s go slow bureaucracy and indifferent solicitors, took nine resource sapping months. I was forced to abandon the principle that had informed my purchase, namely that I’d be buying in to a home not an investment. My tormentors, my negligent and cynical landlords, made a tidy profit and took an estate agent sized commission, despite doing no work. Their outlook, antithetical to the ethos of community building, their alleged reason to exist, won out. A certain amount of churn is healthy in the Shared Owned sector – it keeps the HAs flush while destroying any incentive they have to improve the lifestyle prospects of those controlling moving capital.

What of my fellow leaseholders, you ask? My New Village experience opened a timely window on post-Thatcherite society. I may believe in community, in solidarity, but the majority of my atomised shared owners had either forgotten this principle or never knew it. None, it seemed, had the appetite for a long fight, or any fight. The problem that blighted my life for 28 months only became salient for them when the Housing Association doubled down on their cynicism and attempted to bill leaseholders for repairs to vandalism caused by the kids of social housing tenants. By then I was on my way out and they were on their own.

These scabs, happy to let their neighbours suffer, if there was no impact on their daily existence, saw their flats as ISAs. They kept quiet, knowing they’d be moving on in a few short years with an inflated bank balance as reward for the HA successfully flogging this duff product to the next poor sod pursuing their property owning dream.

To be sure that deal was understood, the Housing Association had dealt with dissent ruthlessly. I spoke to a young neighbour, a primary school teacher, who told a story about inadvertently adding steam to our pressure cooker, having plucked up the courage to have a social gathering on her balcony, four months into her residency. The family opposite, affronted by half-hearted calls for them and their immediate neighbours to practice respect and silence, knuckles dragging, saw a chance for revenge and came out threatening violence. My fellow leaseholder complained, only to find her feral opponent had pre-empted her, getting in first.

In the awful mediation that followed, another inversion of a process that’s supposed to protect residents, spearheaded by the HA’s hapless and cold Anti-Social Behaviour team, she was reprimanded for having the audacity to act like she part-owned the place, taking outrageous liberties like inviting friends around, and was brought to tears by a landlord that (erroneously) threatened her with eviction if she ever showed up on their radar again. Curiously, she opted to further suffer in silence.

The parents of the children who tormented us, having been given a tacit greenlight to dismiss their neighbours’ misery, intuited their cherubs could be weaponised to kill complaints. One resident, who photographed a night-time congregation of kids, following the HA’s claim said gatherings didn’t happen, was branded a paedophile by the insta-mob that formed moments later. More threats. More intimidation.

When it was put to the HA that their attitude and management of this clusterfuck had both conditioned and exacerbated the situation, they adopted lines that would endure, no matter how discredited by experience and accrued evidence. They bore no responsibility for the scenario, they said, and their piecemeal responses were immaterial to it running on and on. It was, they argued disingenuously, a simple dispute between neighbours, one we had to own, as they certainly didn’t want it – not a consequence of their cynicism and stupidity.

Thanks to my former landlord, my old new village became, in no time at all, a place of suspicion and fear, conditioned by the tabloid imagination, and cynically rigged to disadvantage those who shout least while paying most. The organisation that branded a new sink estate a village, has now itself rebranded. But whatever it calls itself, or indeed the divisive community it mismanages, it’s created a place that’s post-fact, post-law, post-common sense, and available to move into now for those quick enough to snag a re-sale.

As for me, I remain in search of peace and security, the simple pleasures of home. I do not expect to find them while I’m young enough to enjoy them. I may never enjoy them. That’s the certain fate today’s Housing market and its profiteers have inflicted on me and so many others.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Goodness, a trying and no doubt damaging experience. I hope you feel some modicum of relief now that you have departed such a wretched hovel.

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