By Patricia L. Foster
This is a story about Bevendean, a small urban community on the edge of Brighton, England. Our story is summarized from a research paper by Joanna Sage and colleagues that appeared in 2012 in the journal Housing Studies1. The paper documents how this low-income community, situated close to two universities (Brighton and Sussex), was rapidly destroyed by an influx of student housing. This influx was the result of a change in government policy; that policy facilitated individual greed.
Bevendean originally was a “council housing” estate built in the 1930s. Council houses were government-subsidized housing developments built and maintained by the local council (township) and rented to low-income residents. Council housing was prevalent in the UK until recently, but was changed dramatically in 1979 by the Thatcher government’s passage of “right to buy” legislation allowing tenants to buy their houses at below market rates.
While this legislation meant that renters could become homeowners, it also opened up an unrestricted resale market. That was the first important event that led to the “studentification” of Bevendean.
The university student population grew, as it did elsewhere in the UK, and housing for students available in other, more desirable areas of Brighton filled up, resulting in increased housing prices and rents. This made Bevendean vulnerable to predatory development. One particularly aggressive developer played a key role in driving out the original low-income residents and converting Bevendean into a student enclave.
Bevendean was typical of council developments, consisting of modest “semi-detached” and “detached” single-family houses of one or two stories. Such houses can be converted easily and cheaply to multi-occupancy by gutting and reconfiguring the interior and, perhaps, building on a modest expansion. Such conversions did not require the licensing that a larger structure would. By renting to multiple occupants, the minimum investment for conversion would yield a maximum return.
The aforementioned aggressive developer was the first to recognize this opportunity. The developer rapidly bought and converted many of these modest homes into multi-occupancy housing and then rented them to students at prices unaffordable to low- and modest-income residents. Other developers followed. In the seven years from 2001 to 2008, the student population of Bevendean increased 125%. Today Bevendean is about 30% rentals.
This rapid studentification led to an exodus of former residents, escalating the turnover of housing. Potential buyers were priced out of the market by the deep-pocketed developers. In addition, houses ceased to come onto the open market. A seller would contact an “estate agent” (realtor) who would contact a developer, and the sale would go through.
The responses of the remaining residents to surveys taken in 2007-2008 describe the erosion of the community due to the influx of students. The permanent residents complained of intolerable noise, trash that was left out, and (typically English) neglect of gardens. They felt the losses of families with children and the neighborhood support structure for the elderly were particularly destructive to the community. Current home-owners in Bevendean continue to complain about students ruining their neighborhoods.
Three important take-away lessons from this story are relevant to the Bloomington administration’s current push to allow plexes in the core neighborhoods close to the university:
- A single decision – namely, the decision to allow renters to buy their council houses without any subsequent restrictions on resale – resulted in an inevitable and irreversible erosion and replacement of a community.
- Small, affordable houses are the most vulnerable to conversion into multi-occupancy rentals.
- The opportunity for unrestrained greed is a key driver of the irreversible conversion of modest residential neighborhoods into unaffordable rentals.
1. Sage, J., Smith, D., Hubbard, P., The diverse geographies of studentification: living alongside people not like us. Housing Studies, 2012. 27(8).