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New Rules to Fight Gentrification

British authorities proposed a radical solution in September 2001 to the increase in the cost of houses within Exmoor National Park, in the area off the south shore of Bristol Channel in southwestern England. No more outsiders would be allowed to buy second homes.

The proposed rules would also keep extensions to houses small, to keep the prices from going up.

"The average property in the national park, which straddles the borders of Somerset and Devon, costs £187,603 [$262,644]," according to Simon de Bruxelles, writing in the London Times. "An increase of nearly one third in three years has priced locals out of the market."

The radical new rule against outsiders is geared to fight gentrification. According to the London Times, "As many as 85 percent of recent sales are from buyers outside the Southwest and in some villages nearly half of the homes are holiday cottages occupied for just a few weeks a year."

By comparison, in the town of Stony Creek, where I live in the Adirondack Park in the State of New York in the U.S.A., the privately owned land, which comprises about half the area, is divided approximately equally between local residents and out-of-town people. Many of the local residents are retirees who once occupied their houses as second homes.

Because of the poor economy, caused largely by New York State owning half of the land and keeping it as wilderness and the state's tight Adirondack Park land use restrictions, local job opportunities in the Adirondacks are poor and home values are low. In the Adirondacks, home values are driven substantially higher by buyers of second homes, who consider the houses to be bargains, although costs may be higher than many people born and raised locally can afford. When local people born and raised in the Adirondacks get married, they often buy a used mobile home and manage to buy a plot of land for it, allowing them to stay in the area with a home investment of $10,000 to $30,000. Although they can make do with their relatively self-sufficient way of life, there is a constant outflow of local young people because of the lack of jobs in the Adirondacks and promise of better employment elsewhere.

The article in the London Times did not shed any light on whether the British authorities were concerned that the National Park status might have had a role in gentrifying the area.

The British park authority conducts an annual property survey. In September, the survey showed that the price of terraced cottages in Exmoor villages had increased by 30 percent in the past year to an average of £106,900 [$114,300], bringing the houses to 52 percent above the regional average and 61 percent above the United Kingdom average. But local workers earn about 75 percent of the average national wages according to the Times.

According to a local real estate agent in Exeter, who was quoted in the Times, the new rules will be very difficult to enforce and "would have a devastating effect on house prices." This broker, Richard Addington, thought it "would seriously reduce the ability to buy and sell within the park" and even wondered if human rights laws would be violated.

Another real estate broker, James Green of an agency in Dulverton, who was interview for the Times article, said that 85 percent of his customers are from outside the southwest. He pointed out, "I have just sold a nice three bedroom cottage to a stockbroker from London for £270,000 [$378,000]...If it had only been for sale to locals the price might have been £100,000 [$140,000] less."

"If someone buys a property in good faith with no restrictions why should they not be able to sell it to whoever they want?" he said.

The authorities are concerned that houses are unoccupied most of the time. They also intend to require that people who inherit houses keep them occupied full time, even if they don't live there themselves. They would need government permission to avoid leasing the houses out full time.

Skeptics are wondering how enforceable the requirement that only local people will be allowed to buy houses will be. But, according to the Times, the chief planner for the park said that the "cutting edge" proposal will build on the definition by the Greater London Council of a "temporary accommodation" as one occupied less than 90 consecutive days and will draw on enforcement personnel already in place to monitor agricultural tenancies.

The proposed rules for Britain's Exmoor National Park may find application here in the U. S. someday if people who value the preservation of private property rights are not vigilant. American environmentalists often draw inspiration from programs developed in England and mainland Europe, such as greenways, hard-edged hamlets, and regional eco-parks where people supposedly live in harmony with the parklike surroundings. Second home developments in the Adirondacks are a sore spot with preservationists.

However, there seems to be no concern among American preservationists about whether local rural people can afford houses in a market inflated by buyers from outside the region. Perhaps this is because the charm of cottages occupied by countryside people is not a dominant Adirondack landscape feature or one considered worth preserving. Adirondack people apparently prefer newer mobile homes to the modest wood structures of earlier generations.

It will be interesting to see whether some twist of the British proposal for anti-gentrification regulations catches the fancy of American preservationists.

Carol W. LaGrasse, February 28, 2002

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