Paul Eaton and Helen Caines get the keys to their new house in Chilmark Glade at the end of the month. And they’re looking forward to moving in. Paul knows how he wants to personalise their new place.
“I have a couple of panorama photos, which we took when we were snowboarding in Scotland. To be able to put those personal things up on our wall is fantastic. I really can’t wait,” said Paul.
The couple has successfully applied for one of twelve new-build properties offered by Tamar Housing Association under the national Rent Plus initiative. Under this scheme, tenants have the chance to buy their homes once they have lived there for at least five years. If they choose to buy, they will be gifted a sizeable cash deposit to help their purchase.
It means a lot to Paul and Helen. For the first time in their relationship, they’ll have a home of their own. “Helen and I got together later in life,” said Paul. “We have been together for ten years but by the time we were aged thirty, house prices in Bournemouth were so high that it was impossible to pay rent and save at the same time.”
The couple wanted to move to Shaftesbury, so they could raise their 4-year-old daughter, Freya, near to Helen’s relatives. And after years of waiting, Helen will finally be able to decorate her new home, according to her taste. “I want to put wooden flooring downstairs and then carpet upstairs. In a rented property you have to have what you have,” Helen said. “This is a canvas where we can decide what flooring, carpet or style we want. This is a first time we have ever done it.”
The family say they will now feel more secure and not just in terms of tenancy. “Being able to put the paddling pool out in the garden is everything to me,” said Helen. “It is secure, so I’ll be able to let Freya go out and not worry about people walking into our garden. At the moment we don’t have a secure garden. I’m looking forward to letting her have the run of the house.”
Helen’s family are now on the property ladder but the dream of home ownership has become a nightmare for many North Dorset residents. “It saddens me when people, especially those my age, have given up on the idea of ever owning their own home,” said Shaftesbury Mayor and District Councillor Piers Brown.
Piers attended Friday’s launch of Rent Plus in Shaftesbury, on the Persimmon development. Councillor Brown is 23 years of age and he says he’s aware of concerns over affordable housing, particularly within his generation. “If I speak to most of my friends about the possibility of getting on the housing ladder they say it is not going to happen for them. They’ve written it off for the next ten or fifteen years already, because it is so difficult,” Piers said.
“The average house in North Dorset costs just over £200,000. A 10% deposit is £20,000. That’s a colossal amount of money, especially for somebody who is just starting their career. We have one of the highest ratios between average earnings and average house prices in North Dorset. It makes it almost as difficult as it can be,” he said.
Julie Barnett is the Chief Executive of Tamar Housing, who have offered the properties under the Rent Plus scheme. She’s pleased to offer tenants peace of mind through longer leases. “At the very least you will five years of security here. Our experience of private sector renting is that people can move four or five times during a five-year period, if the landlord decides to sell the property. Clearly we’re not going to do that. You get security as well as the opportunity to purchase,” Julie said.
“It’s not a right-to-buy, but the tenants have an opportunity to buy in year five, ten, fifteen or twenty. If they take that opportunity, then the pension fund, which is funding these properties, will give them a 10% deposit. If they save the difference from affordable to private sector rent, which is about 20%, put that in a Help-To-Buy ISA and then take their 10% deposit, they have a really good chance of purchasing the home,” Julie explained.
The pension fund buys the properties from the developer. In Shaftesbury, that was Persimmon. The housing association encouraged potential tenants to register their interest online. “After that, the properties are advertised through Choice Based Lettings, which is like the council waiting list. You have to be registered with the council, so you have to meet that criteria,” Julie said.
Applicants are then scored, according to their circumstances. “Much like allocating affordable housing, we take people that meet the criteria ‘income-wise’. We do it from the top of the list down, checking whether they have been on the list longer or whether they are in high need. There are multiple factors,” Julie said.
Paul says that process that he followed wasn’t too onerous. “We just had to go through all of our finances, to make sure that we could save enough, that it was possible at the end of the tenure. And that was it,” he said.
An applicant’s local connections are important too, according to Julie. “It’s one of our ‘must have’ criteria,” she said.
There are twelve homes, including four flats, being offered as part of this first Rent Plus scheme in Shaftesbury. Demand for a home on Chilmark Glade was high. “They were oversubscribed. There were nearly 100 people from the first advertisement,” said Julie. “If you are in private-sector rented accommodation and you don’t have a deposit, you don’t have a lot of choices,” she added.
North Dorset District Councillor, Jo Francis, attended the event and said that she was impressed by what she has seen of the scheme. “The people that apply for these Rent Plus homes have to be in employment,” Cllr Francis said. Since being offered his new home, Paul has found a new position, working in data and systems management for Olives Et Al in Sturminster Newton.
Although Paul and Helen can soon decorate their home to their taste, the housing association will look after the buildings until the tenants become owners. “We have very strict repairs, maintenance and improvement policies in place and they will be managed like any other good, affordable housing,” said Julie.
Jo Francis believes that this option to own encourages tenants to show pride in the property. “They are more engaged. They take more ownership. There’s more responsibility to take care of the homes and their environment,” Jo said.
North Dorset’s MP, Simon Hoare, said that he was pleased this approach to affordable housing is being offered in his constituency. “I think they have a very acute and well-defined social conscience and an understanding of what housing can do. The model that they have, building up a war chest that allows people to move onto the next stage of the housing career, is a good one. It is to be welcomed. I’m delighted to see them trying it out in North Dorset and I hope that it’s a start of many more projects, which I am convinced have a real opportunity of meeting a growing and acute housing need in North Dorset,” Mr Hoare said.
Julie says that her housing association would like to offer more opportunities here. “If we can get more sites in Shaftesbury and North Dorset as a whole, then we would be more than happy to do them,” she said.
During the launch event there were speeches that touched on housing strategy and policy. But it was Paul who really summed up the difference that Rent Plus will make for his family. “We’re looking forward to being able to make it a home, as opposed to just somewhere we live,” Paul said.