Hitting a brick wall

UNDER THE THRESHOLD: Owning property in Greater London is hard for many

As the cost of living continues to outstrip earning power, finding affordable housing has never been so difficult. Along with nurses, social workers, policeman and other essential workers, teachers are among the hardest hit, as despite their professional status, they command a modest salary, at least in the early part of their career.

With the national average cost of a house now pound;161,940, the prospect of owning one is a pipe dream for many young teachers, whose starting salaries range from pound;18,105 to pound;21, 522 in inner-London. The situation is particularly depressing in London and the South East; the average cost of a house in Greater London stands at pound;241,670, with the South East not far behind at pound;214,967.

"I love living in London, but I can't see me ever being able to buy anywhere," says Isabel Stephens, who lives and teaches at a primary school in south-east London. "I've been teaching for three years and with my responsibility point and the fringe allowance, my salary isn't bad, but I'd struggle to get the mortgage for a small flat around here, even in a dodgy area. I'm still shelling out for student loans and paying pound;80 a week for rent, plus bills, so I can't save much. I'm single at the moment, but my only hope is that I'll meet someone in the future and then we'll be able to buy together."

But its not just singles who are struggling. Vicki Lightfoot teaches at a primary school in Bishops Stortford, where she rents a two-bedroom house with her engineer boyfriend, who earns what she describes as a "very good salary". Nevertheless, the couple can't afford to buy a similar property, unless they move further out and commute.

"I'm in my fourth year of teaching, I have a management point, plus fringe allowance, plus my partner's salary, but the most we could afford around here would be a tiny one-bedroom flat. The house next door sold for pound;180,000, which is an impossible amount for a first time buyer. Eventually, I suppose we will have to move further out, but I've got friends here and I'm not keen on commuting."

According to Patrick Nash, chief executive at the Teacher Support Network, her story is not unusual. "Lack of affordable housing is an issue for teachers, particularly in and around the capital," he says. "Along with a range of other key workers, they are finding themselves priced out of the market. This directly impacts on the recruitment and retention of teachers in parts of the country with high costs of living."

However, there are a growing number of initiatives aimed at helping teachers find affordable housing. The Key Worker Living Programme offers teachers and other key workers equity loans of up to pound;50,000 towards buying a home, higher equity loans of up to pound;100,000 for teachers likely to be the future leaders of London schools, and shared ownership (part-buy, part-rent) of newly built properties. There is also intermediate renting at subsidised rates.

To qualify for the higher equity loans, teachers must work in a public-funded school in Greater London and be in a field such as advanced skills teaching, leadership or a shortage subject.

Those interested in shared ownership can contact housing associations in the borough where they teach, as key workers have priority for most shared ownership schemes.

But is advisable to look at the small print before you apply. Last year, Ms Lightfoot applied for an equity loan through a housing association, but after months of form filling, phone calls and chasing, she was turned down.

"They finally decided we weren't eligible because we'd paid off our student loans and had some savings," she says. "I felt we were being penalised for being sensible. I wasn't impressed with the whole process anyway - it was administrative nightmare. When you found a place you liked, it had to be approved by them before you could make an offer, which meant you could easily end up missing out on a house you liked."

Charlotte Willis was similarly unimpressed with the service she received.

"I've just bought my first house and had to borrow from my parents and take on a big mortgage to do it," says the PE teacher who lives and works in Colchester, Essex. "I did try to contact local housing organisations to find out if about schemes to help teachers, but I was told the nearest place I could access was 45 minutes away, where there were some purpose-built houses for teachers. When I asked for more information to be sent, it never arrived. I also contacted a company advertised in the national press. They never returned my calls and when I finally got through, was told I wasn't eligible."

But Steve Nunn, assistant director of Tower Homes - a housing association that specialises in shared and home ownership schemes - insists their experiences are the exception rather than the rule. "We've helped many teachers find affordable housing - and there are many opportunities out there.

"It has been recognised that in the past getting around the system was difficult. But since April last year, this has been streamlined. The Government's Key Worker Living Scheme offers a one-stop shop for advice, information and applications for schemes in London, the South East and the east of England."

To find out more about the key worker living scheme, visit: www.keyworkerliving.co.ukFor help on affordable housing in other parts of the UK, the Teacher Support Network website has advice on housing and financial matters. Visit: www.teachersupport.info

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