When Ralitsa Angelova learned she was going to become a homeowner, her reaction was simple: “It was just… wow,” she said. “It felt untrue.”
Alex Ingram was equally gobsmacked. Over the years, most of the 41-year-old’s friends had somehow managed to squeeze themselves onto the property ladder and he had become resigned to being left behind. “I had not thought that a stable home was something I could achieve, not unless I won the lottery or something like that,” he said.
Ingram and Angelova are proof that you don’t need to earn a six-figure salary and/or have the bank of mum and dad behind you in order to buy a London property. Their stylish, modern homes at Citizen’s House in Sydenham cost, respectively, £215,000 and £272,500 — yes, you read that right — and are the result of a long-term campaign to bring more affordable homes to London.
The developer was the London Community Land Trust (CLT), a not-for-profit founded in 2007, born out of a campaign to include more community-led housing at the Olympic site at Stratford.
Its model is simple: persuade London councils, the Greater London Authority, and Transport for London to hand over plots of unused land on which to build “genuinely affordable” homes.
The building costs — £2.5 million in the case of Citizen’s House — are covered by grants from the GLA, by selling “community shares” to supporters (who should get their money back plus a little interest), and by conventional borrowing.
Once completed, sale prices are based not on the local housing market (an average flat in SE26 sells for almost £400,000, according to Rightmove) but on local wages — the whole point is that the homes should be affordable to average earners.
I feel content that we are in a home that we are paying off, rather than our money just going on rent
Angelova, 33, who works at a local hospice, and her husband Antonio Angelov, 47, were renting a “very small” two-bedroom flat for £1,200pcm in Penge. Towards the end of 2021, Angelov, a driver who provides hospital transfers for patients, spotted an advert for Citizen’s House in a local paper.
They filled in an application form and learned early last year that they had been successful.
The timing couldn’t have been any better because shortly afterwards the couple, who have a two-year-old son, Giovanni, learned Angelova was pregnant with Angelo, now four months old.
The couple had to put down a deposit of about £30,000 on their £272,500 home, and their mortgage payments are £1,100 pcm. “I feel tired but amazingly content that we are in a home we are going to be paying off, rather than our money just going on rent,” said Angelova. “It is an amazing feeling. Without a home you feel so insecure. We have a foundation to have hopes now.”
400 applications for 11 flats
Oliver Bulleid, executive director of the London CLT, said the whole point of its work is to help average earners onto the housing ladder. To be eligible for a home they need to have local links, and be able to prove they are in housing need — they may be stuck in overcrowded accommodation or renting a substandard property or fear eviction.
Being able to demonstrate some sort of community involvement also helps, which, since 400 people made initial applications for the 11 homes at Citizen’s House, is worth knowing.
Ingram ticked all the boxes because, as well as his day job as a researcher for the London Assembly, he works for a south London charity promoting cycling for disabled people at weekends. He was also thoroughly priced off the property ladder, with an income of about £39,000 per annum.
During his almost two decades in the capital he had got used to moving from one shared flat to another.
His final rental — although he did not know it at the time — was a £750pcm flat-share in Forest Hill.
“It had some nice spaces, but it was in disrepair,” he said. “There were cracks in the windows; the window in my room didn’t close.
“And it had all the usual problems — the bathroom wasn’t well ventilated, and with four people the kitchen always felt a bit too full. My room was quite small — I had a stack of boxes as tall as the ceiling in one corner, and my desk was in front of the bookcase.”
Ingram heard about Citizen’s House on social media and — without much expectation of success — decided to fill in an application form at the end of 2021. Last year he was selected to buy a one-bedroom flat priced at £215,000.
Ingram’s two jobs earn him enough to command a maximum mortgage of about £160,000.
This meant he had to bridge the gap with a substantial deposit of £53,000 made up of years of savings plus some money from an inheritance. His monthly mortgage payments now are about the same as his former rent, although because he is now living alone his bills are a bit higher.
Affordable for the future
When the time comes to move on Ingram, and his neighbours, will work with the CLT to find a buyer who fits its buying criteria. If average local incomes have increased, they stand to make a modest profit because the property’s price will be increased by the same percentage.
“I feel very lucky and fortunate, I was just shocked that it could happen,” says Ingram. “And this flat should be as affordable for the next person when I leave it as it is now.”
His one concern about buying in London is that, all around him, the housing crisis is threatening to ruin the creative, vibrant, exciting London he loves.
“One option I had was to move out of London but I didn’t want to,” he said. “I like being here. But I do see that everything that is special and different about London is under threat because of the cost of housing. We need a lot more things like this.”
Janet Emmanuel couldn’t agree more. She got involved with the project when the CLT was still at the stage of searching the area for building sites, and is now on its board. As assistant head teacher of Sydenham School she is painfully aware of the impact the housing crisis has on the lives of some of her students.
“A student who lived around the corner is suddenly on the other side of London, families don’t have much space so there is not a quiet place to do homework,” she said. “One child told me she had spent the night waiting in A&E with her family, because it was warm.”
As well as providing affordable housing, the CLT is keen to operate in a very different way to conventional commercial house builders.
After Lewisham council agreed to donate the site, the CLT shortlisted three teams of architects, and hosted an event so that locals could meet them. There was then a reality TV-style public vote to pick a winner.
Mellis Haward, director at Archio, said she was extremely flattered to be selected and what residents told her that day has influenced the final design. She said: “They told me they often used [the site] as a route to walk between Forest Hill and Sydenham, but that it was quite a scary spot. We wanted to make it a lovely public space that would feel safe.”
The building is stepped to avoid the new flats overlooking existing homes, and around it are paved areas, benches, and trees. “We had assumed the locals would want lots of planting, maybe some allotments,” said Haward. “What they actually wanted was somewhere they could sit, children could ride their bikes and scooters safely, maybe have a barbecue.”
The flats themselves have been designed with real care. Hallways have windows and are wide enough to fit a desk and double as a workspace, all the flats are double or triple aspect, and the balconies are deliberately zigzagged across the façade of the building so residents can see — and chat to — each other.
“Working on this project was everything that regeneration ought to be,” said Haward. “It was done with people, not to people.”
Working on this project was everything that regeneration ought to be… it was done with people, not to people
And now for the bad news. London needs a massive injection of new homes — the Mayor estimates that 66,000 must be built each and every year just to keep up with current housing needs. Since its inception almost 16 years ago, the London CLT has completed 34 homes.
Bulleid said that the real solution is for councils to start building homes again, on a grand scale. “We are looking to provide additionality,” he says.
His hope is that with two successful developments under its belt, more councils will be now willing to get on board with the CLT vision — plans are already being worked up for more than 100 homes across Southwark, Greenwich, Lambeth, and Tower Hamlets.
“We have demonstrated that we can deliver a community-led project on a small site,” he said. “And there are many, many of these sites around.”
What are Community Land Trusts?
Community Land Trusts (CLTs) were born in the US as a part of the civil rights movement — a way to create affordable homes for African-Americans in the rural south.
The idea moved to the UK in the early 2000s. There are now around 550 CLTs in England and Wales. They have, to date, completed 1,100 homes — and there are more than 7,000 in the pipeline.
In south London, the Rural Urban Synthesis Society is working to redevelop a derelict school building in Lewisham into 33 eco homes. Their future residents have worked on the site, earning a discount when it comes to buy the properties. For more information see theruss.org.
If you are interested in founding a CLT there are local “enabler hubs” to help you understand how to go about setting one up, how to find land, and where to look for funding.
For more information contact the Community Land Trust Network (communitylandtrusts.org.uk).