‘People live in vans’: Porthmadog examines controversial issue of second homes | Wales

Even on a blustery November day, it’s easy to see why so many people over the years have bought second homes in the port city of Porthmadog in North Wales.

Wedged between the beautiful Glaslyn Estuary and the towering mountains of Eryri–Snowdonia – there is stunning scenery around every turn as well as a bustling town center with great cafes, pubs and independent shops.

“It’s beautiful”, said Craig ab Iago, cabinet member of Gwynedd Housing Council. “But there is an urgency here, a massive wave of problems. It’s out of control.

That emergency is the number of homeless people, which has increased by 47% in Gwynedd over the past two years. “It’s hidden. You don’t see people sleeping on the streets,” Ab Iago said. “But people are sleeping on couches, in hotels, in guesthouses, in vans. It’s immoral that some people have a second home here while others don’t.

Gwynedd Council’s Plaid Cymru-controlled cabinet voted for council tax bonuses this week increased to 150% next year and the £3million raised will be used to tackle homelessness. The full council, which is controlled by Plaid Cymru, will make a final decision next week.

Elaine Thomas, who works at Porthmadog Toy Shop, says visitors make the town viable. But on the other hand, her 25-year-old son still lives at home. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

Council tax premiums on second homes in Gwynedd are currently set at 100% and discussion has tended to focus on whether this has an impact on the home sales market. The rationale for introducing the bounty is to free up housing for local people, to stop community burnout, which affects the viability of the Welsh language.

But the council now argues that another vital issue is the impact of the number of second homes on the rental sector. People who cannot afford to buy are renting, so the number of available properties is shrinking and the number of homeless people is skyrocketing.

Ab Iago said now is the time to act. “There is no point in us complaining as we watch our young people leave and see our communities, our language and our culture die. It’s about taking control. »

He has sympathy for some second home owners, those who have been in the area for years and have community ties, although he definitely has a problem with others who take over homes and rent on sites like Airbnb for handsome profits. . “They are the ones I fight with.”

He tells stories of homelessness, like the mother he knows who sleeps in her mother’s living room with three children while her husband goes to bed with his parents. “You have to tell them they’re looking at a two-year wait. It’s heartbreaking.

Bethan (pseudonym) has spent months living in guesthouses and a budget hotel on the outskirts of Porthmadog with her baby boy. She returned to Gwynedd, pregnant, to look after her father.

Porthmadog Travelodge.
“It’s hidden,” says councilor Craig ab Iago of the crisis. Some homeless people live at Porthmadog Travelodge. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

“I went to live with him, but things didn’t work out,” said Bethan, who is in her mid-20s. “So I needed to find somewhere.” The council had nothing permanent so she was forced into temporary searches. “I was at the hotel for three or four months. Not ideal with a baby. All I had was a kettle in the room. Having to go out and find three meals a day was a challenge.

She is now in a “detention house” inland, miles from any family. It takes him two hours on foot and by bus to reach his father. “I am grateful to have a roof over my head. I will not complain. But she has no idea when she might be able to move into permanent accommodation. “I’m in a priority group and I lived in a hotel with a baby. I’m thinking of the people behind me on the list. When are they going to find accommodation? And I wonder who the hell is ahead of me. C ‘crazy.”

It is striking how stoic people living in temporary accommodation are. A man who has lived at the Porthmadog Travelodge for a month said he was happy to be dry. “I have a bed, a kettle, it’s ok.”

A young shop worker from Porthmadog said she was couch surfing with friends and had given up hope of living in the area permanently. “It’s not going to happen. It makes me sad but you have to be practical. She thinks she’ll end up across the border in Manchester or Liverpool.

Heddyr Gregory, spokesperson for Shelter Cymru, said the crisis was worsening. “There are 89,000 households on the waiting list for social care homes in Wales. There are even waiting lists for temporary accommodation. More than 8,000 people are in temporary accommodation, including 2,500 children.

Gregory said landlords were selling rented accommodation in places such as Porthmadog “in droves”. Some fear a housing crash or are stung by rising interest rates; others are coming out before new regulations giving more rights to Welsh tenants come into force. They sell to Airbnb investors and people outside Gwynedd who realize they can work from home anywhere, and since the pandemic are more inclined to do so.

Neil McLean, Realtor
‘When a [rental] property comes up, we’ll have 20 candidates for it,” says Neil McLean, a real estate agent. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

Bob Parry’s Estate Agents’ window in Porthmadog confirms the problem in the rented section. All rented houses have “let agreed” pasted through them. “We don’t have anything available at the moment,” said Neil McLean, a senior sales negotiator. “When a property comes up, we’ll have 20 applicants for it.”

But he doesn’t think the council tax premium increase will work. “If you have the money to buy a second home, you have the money to pay council tax,” he said.

Many businesses in Porthmadog fear that if second home owners move out and tourism is affected, the town will suffer.

Elaine Thomas, who works at the toy store, said visitors make the town viable. But on the other hand, her 25-year-old son was still living at home. “I don’t see him moving. There is a real housing shortage and it needs to be addressed.

A Welsh Government spokesman said giving local authorities the power to raise council tax premiums was part of “a set of integrated solutions”. The spokesperson added: “We believe that everyone has the right to decent and affordable housing to buy or rent in their own community so they can live and work locally. We pledge to take immediate and drastic action using the systems of town planning, property and taxation to achieve this.

Paul Featherstone, retired fish farmer
Paul Featherstone, a retired fish farmer, has a second home – a one-bedroom apartment on the quay – and has been visiting the town since 1969. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

Some second home owners are leaving Porthmadog. A dozen homes on South Snowdon Wharf, where many flats and houses are second homes, are up for sale.

Paul Featherstone, 66, a retired fish farmer who has a second home – a one-bedroom flat on the quayside – said he was hurt that people like him were being targeted. He is already paying the 100% premium, meaning his bill is £3,000 a year, double what a permanent resident pays. “I can live with that,” he said. “I see this as my additional contribution.”

But further hikes – council tax premiums for second homes could be raised to 300% under new rules introduced by the Welsh government – ​​rankle. “I’ve been coming here since 1969. I love it and always felt part of the community. These places were built as second homes, so I didn’t take a place from a local person. This talk of new ascents makes me feel like a stranger. It makes me sad. It is not fair.”

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