Who are we building houses for?
On World Homeless Day last week, shared, perhaps appropriately or ironically with World Mental Health Day, I found myself at the bottom of Leith Walk looking again at the site of the proposed controversial development there.
There’s been a very strong and very good local campaign challenging the idea that what we need is more student housing when the price is the removal of local business and charities – whose added value to the community is way more than the jobs they provide or the products they sell.
Communities need places for people to linger, to spend time together, to speak of the value of those who live there; to hold their history and speak of their future. Simply as they were, the row of shops on the site with its combination of local traders, pubs, cafes, charity shops, and in particular the brilliant Punjabi Junction run by the wonderful Sikh Sanjog, did all those things. It seems to me that for a developer to ignore the impact of these things being lost is a dereliction of duty of care. Their presence was part of the heartbeat of the community, and what will be built to replace them will not replace what has been removed.
Of course, in a city with over 100,000 students attending 6 universities we do need more student housing which is safe and affordable. Students add a great deal to the life of the city. But when the housing they need is built to the detriment of the city, it undoes the positive impact of their presence. We need to take a wider and deeper view to planning, and when campaigns as thoughtful and deep rooted in the community as the one arguing for the protection for the bottom Leith Walk speak up we need to listen differently – for their views speak of more than “aye been” and “never change”.
In the same way, the overabundance of Airbnb listings in Edinburgh – 18,105 at the last count – means that any benefit to the city economically is lost when the price of housing is so driven up it makes the city even more unaffordable for many of its residents and future residents – including many of those students for whom those new houses are being built. With 3,000 people a night in temporary accommodation, many trapped because there is a lack of housing to move on to, we need to think carefully about how we can maximise the opportunity of the resources now being used for Airbnb in other ways. I don’t mean by coercion but by incentivising different choices for those who have accommodation to spare where others are in need. Examples like the Rock Trust’s Night Stop and Perth and Kinross’s Home First model.
If World Homeless Day is to become redundant we need to see connections where at present we make decisions in silos. We also need to understand what it will take to help folk with resources to make decisions which add a different type of value to our city and its citizens, especially to those who live in our communities and those who live on its edges.