Glossy ads present a rosy picture of shared ownership. But some first-time buyers are discovering the reality doesn’t live up to the rhetoric. Why are shared owners demanding greater transparency from housing associations and the National Housing Federation? This article breaks down some home truths about shared ownership, and what one housing campaigner is doing about it.
Shared ownership isn’t shared and it isn’t ownership. It’s arguable to what degree it constitutes affordable housing. Yet housing associations market this complex tenure with the same degree of levity with which a company might sell, say, comic books or whoopee cushions. The National Housing Federation (Nat Fed) marketing campaign promotes shared ownership schemes with slogans including: ‘Painting every wall luminous green’ and ‘Cooking in your pants on Sundays’.
My younger self would have enjoyed the jocular tone of Nat Fed advertising. My older self thinks the campaign does home buyers a great dis-service by failing to live up to laudable claims of ‘myth busting’ and ‘explaining what shared ownership means’. Taking out a mortgage could be one of the most expensive decisions first-time buyers will ever make. And, if they get it wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic.
An advertorial published during Shared Ownership Week 2020 included a quote from first-time buyer, Laura: “I think a lot of people don’t understand it, they think there’s a catch. There isn’t.” And there’s the problem in a nutshell… It’s perhaps a moot point exactly what constitutes a ‘catch’ but there’s no shortage of possibilities.
For a start, shared owners are often surprised to discover they don’t ‘own’ their home in any meaningful sense. The ‘part buy, part rent’ slogan is widely used in promoting shared ownership. But legal experts suggest that such terminology is potentially misleading as it misrepresents the legal form of the tenure. One law firm, Walker Morris (in a 2017 article ‘Shared Ownership: Risks and Rewards for Lenders’) say: ‘It is incorrect, and therefore misleading and potentially an offence in contravention of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008) for housing associations, landlords, developers or lenders to advertise or refer to shared ownership schemes as ‘part buy, part rent’, or indeed by using any other terminology or slogan which suggests that the customer purchases anything other than an assured tenancy leasehold interest at any time prior to the 100% staircasing stage’.
The Nat Fed campaign appears to confuse a marketing strategy (defining ‘it’s yours’ as ‘not sharing’) with the legal reality (it’s not ‘yours’ and there are therefore risks of forfeiture, possession, and loss of or reduction in equity).
Shared ownership isn’t even that good an investment. The Homes England model contract specified a minimum lease length of 99 years for flats up until 2016, and 125 years thereafter. Shared owners have been shocked to discover a need for expensive lease extensions with no benefit other than to maintain the market value of their home. And, of course, some simply can’t afford to do so, and find themselves in possession of a devaluing asset. The London Mayor recently addressed this issue by unveiling a plan to ensure all shared ownership homes built in the capital as part of the new Affordable Homes Programme are sold with a 999-year lease as standard. But this doesn’t address problems faced outside London and also by legacy owners, many stranded with an increasingly unsuitable and undesirable housing product.
It gets worse. Shared owners have no statutory right to lease extension unless they’ve staircased to 100%. I contacted Mike Shone, Homes England’s Monitoring and Reporting Manager, in 2019 to ask what percentage of shared owners achieve full staircasing. The response: ‘Unfortunately this is not something that is recorded by Homes England or the Regulator of Social Housing’. But Parliamentary Research briefing CBP-8828 reports: ‘The increasing costs of shared ownership have made it more challenging for households to progress to full ownership. Around 4,000 households staircased to 100% ownership in 2018/19, equivalent to 2.3% of all shared-equity homes owned by housing associations’.
What about much vaunted affordability claims? These appear reliant on comparison with private rental or open market purchases over a relatively short timescale. They don’t factor in whole life cycle costs such as lease extension; rents that increase annually regardless of whether average market rents are increasing, static, or even declining; and full 100% liability for service and management charges regardless of the % share purchased. (Fire safety remediation costs are too complex to go into here but are self-evidently a source of huge emotional and financial distress for affected shared owners).
Housing sector professionals appear to believe that lawyers should provide information on such issues. Wanda Goldvag, chair of the Leasehold Advisory Service (LEASE), interviewed on Radio 4’s consumer affairs programme You and Yours in January 2019 said: “lawyers have an absolute duty to explain complex clauses to people”.
But it’s hard to understand such reliance on lawyers. Research funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Exploring experiences of shared ownership, 2015) found that: ‘Modern conveyancing practice is not equipped to provide information to buyers about the specifics of shared ownership leases. […] That increases the onus on providers to provide relevant, simple and clear information to buyers’.
Shared ownership is pitched as the ‘affordable’ route into housing. Marketing rhetoric implies that ALL buyers benefit from shared ownership as a ‘step onto the housing ladder’. But this is over-simplistic and fails to recognise that the wider housing market creates both winners and losers.
Moreover, a rapidly rising property market will benefit buyers who interpret ‘a step onto the housing ladder’ as obtaining a first property as an investment generating a gain to help buy their next property, but will disadvantage buyers who interpret it as an opportunity to purchase their forever home in staircasing instalments (the original intention of the scheme per the 1979 Conservative election manifesto). And the converse is equally true.
Whilst risks and opportunities arising from property markets are clearly not restricted to first-time buyers purchasing shared ownership homes, this demographic is particularly vulnerable to financial difficulties and poor outcomes arising from inadequate information and advice.
Housing associations have a dilemma; too much transparency could compromise achievement of sales targets. It’s pragmatic to assume housing associations will continue to place emphasis on short-term benefits to shift units. And, unless there are fundamental changes to the shared ownership model, many shared owners will continue to discover that shared ownership isn’t anywhere near as affordable as those glossy ads suggest.
Could the shared ownership model be improved? Could it be made more affordable? To some degree perhaps… A sector-wide commitment to cease taking advantage of the 2019 Zucconi precedent (a discretionary change in the method for calculating leasehold extension premiums which creates a windfall for housing associations, but pushes lease extension even further out of reach for many shared owners) would help some. Widespread adoption of the London Mayor’s proposal for 999-year leases as standard would render lease extension costs obsolete (except for increasingly disadvantaged legacy owners, of course!).
But here’s the rub… housing associations’ overall funding model has historically depended in part on profits arising from shared ownership schemes (for example, the receipts from staircasing shares sold at current market value rather than original market value) to generate cross-subsidy for social rented homes. So the financial interests of individual shared owners are directly in conflict with the wider objectives of housing associations. Shared owners are discovering they are, in many respects, the benefactors of affordable housing rather than the recipients they thought they were. It’s complicated!
If I had to choose one key policy reform…? “To stop using the term affordable for housing that isn’t” (a phrase I’ve stolen from Tom Murtha). To stop using the term ‘shared’ for housing that isn’t. And to stop using the term ‘ownership’ for housing that isn’t. Though that may not happen anytime soon. First-time buyers, shared owners and leaseholders deserve better. Which is why I’ve created a Crowdfunder project to raise funds for an independent shared ownership website with comprehensive information, analysis, and signposting to sources of professional expertise and advice. The Crowdfunder ends at 2.52pm on 9th February 2021.