by CJ Stone
Sydenham Street has become the haunt of second homes and Airbnb establishments
As people know, I was a postman in Whitstable for many years. During that time I delivered to all parts of the town, from Seasalter to Chestfield. In the last few years my round covered areas of central Whitstable, including Sydenham Street, Fountain Street and the harbour.
As a postal worker you get an insight into the makeup of an area, the people who live there and the kind of changes taking place.
Sydenham Street is an example of this. In case you don’t know, it’s one of the Victorian terraced streets that abut Harbour Street at the bottom end of town. Nearby streets include Albert Street and Woodlawn Street.
When I first moved to Whitstable, back in the 80s, this was one of the cheapest parts of the town to live in and was overwhelmingly working class. These days it has acquired a certain cachet with incomers and house prices have gone up due, to a large degree, to its proximity to the beach and to the centre of town.
More and more people want to move to Whitstable, and Sydenham Street is one of the prime areas to buy in to.
It is also one of those streets that has become the haunt of second homes and Airbnb establishments.
I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a post on Facebook. It was from someone who had recently bought a house in Sydenham Street that they were intending to let out as an Airbnb holiday cottage. They were looking for someone nearby to run the business “with” them — to help with bookings, cleaning and co-ordination. They described this as “a nice little part-time job for a local Whitstable resident”.
They had bought the place originally to move in there, being a fan of the area they said, but Covid-19 had got in the way of their plans.
There’s a couple of things to unpack in there. Firstly, the person isn’t really looking for someone to “help run it”, as they say: they are looking for an employee. There would be no equality in the relationship. One person — the owner — would have power. The other person would be little more than a glorified cleaner, with a few other administrative tasks thrown into the mix.
The other point is that this person obviously has another property somewhere, or they would have no choice but to move in. In other words, this is a second home… maybe even a third or a fourth home. Or a 20th. Who knows? There’s no saying how many other properties this person owns.
What is certain is that the town doesn’t need another Airbnb. There are already more than 300 of them in and around Whitstable, ranging in price from £426 a night, £2,976 a week, at the top end, to £41 a night for the cheapest. Admittedly this is during the summer holidays, so prices are at a premium right now. Presumably they would be a lot more affordable later in the year.
That’s still a hefty amount, though. I wonder how much of that £2,976 a week the cleaner would expect to get? Almost certainly not much more than the minimum wage, which currently stands at £8.72 an hour for people over the age of 25. A person would have to work more than 341 hours in a week to earn as much as the owner would get for just that one property.
But this isn’t really about the difference between the incomes of property owners and minimum-wage earners: it’s about the effect that all these second homes and Airbnb properties are having on the town.
Sydenham Street is a case in point. It still has its residue of older working-class residents, but these are getting fewer and fewer. There are also a number of newer residents who have bought into the terrace-house lifestyle: the old-fashioned open-door approach to neighbours, where everyone knows everyone else’s name and will often stop for a chat.
This was made evident to me by the number of people who would take in other people’s parcels. Most people would accept a knock at the door with alacrity, but there were one or two exceptions. A few people were quite rude about it. But you got to know which of the houses were empty or second homes and Airbnb, and I watched as these increased over the years.
You can always tell the Airbnb. There’s a certain kind of grey plastic blind they have, which is generally closed. The lived-in houses have a lived-in look, with windows that you can see into. There are other pointers too, like the shades of pastel grey or blue they are generally painted in and the signs in the window saying: “This way to the beach.”
I took a count last week. It could be that as many as a third of the properties in Sydenham Street are Airbnb or some such equivalent these days. What is certainly true is that numbers are growing and that this is eating the heart out of the town.
Certain streets in the town are almost entirely empty, consisting of second homes that are unoccupied for most of the year.
You wonder what people are buying into exactly? It is certainly not the community, as the community is being effectively undermined by the spiralling house prices and the emptying-out of our streets. How can you stop to chat with a neighbour when the neighbour doesn’t exist, except as a constantly changing set of visitors, staying for a few nights at most?
Many people born and brought up in the town can no longer afford to live here. Younger people have little choice: they either move out or stay living with their parents. There’s an almost palpable resentment from the less well-off members of the community at the effect this is having, which breaks out in occasional episodes of violence. Many people have become strangers in their own town.
Just to be clear, this is not to denigrate all Airbnb hosts, only those who do so out of second homes. There are plenty of people who let out bedrooms in their own homes, or converted garages, or annexes, who are earning an honest living from the trade. The problem is people who buy up houses in order to let them out at inflated prices and who then export the money out of town while depriving local people of a place to live.
I don’t know what the solution is. Partly the pressure on house prices is due to the ludicrous rise in house prices in London, which is due, in turn, to the very rich (and occasionally criminal) using property as a way of storing value. The only houses that get built these days are at the luxury end of the market. Social housing is a thing of the past.
What is certain is that it can’t go on. Something has to change. The scruffy, friendly, bohemian little town I moved into all those years ago is in danger of changing beyond all recognition.
CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.
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