FOR those looking at rural Scotland through the prism of their idyllic escape, the housing crisis is an abstract concept – a mild irritation when the hotel is only able to offer a limited number of bookings or the coffee shop owner is running 10 orders behind because they are short-staffed.

However, for those of us experiencing the loss of key workers, staff, volunteers, friends, family and active community members, the crisis is all too real.

That was brought home last week in Tiree when community organisations received a letter from a group of three people who will be forced to leave the island if their housing situation cannot be resolved. The landlord of their current rental is returning to live in Tiree full time and gave ample notice but Louise, her fiancé and her sister have now been searching in vain for a property for almost a year. Repeated appeals have failed. Buying is just out of reach and what is available to rent is either entirely unsuitable or on the wrong side of affordable.

This is the letter. Printed in full, because nothing turns the abstract into the tangible like a real example: “I have written this story what feels like 100 times but just giving it one last go. At the end of July we will become homeless and will have to move from Tiree to another location not of our choosing.

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“Our small family includes three members of the five-member Tiree Coastguard Rescue Team, one member of the six-member Scottish Fire and Rescue team, one future nurse, two school janitors, one Met Office employee, one editor of the local paper, one senior social care worker at Tigh a Rudha, one Meals On Wheels volunteer, one foodbank volunteer, one Heart Start volunteer, one hospitality worker, three fully trained community first responders, one member of Tiree Medical Practice staff, three British Divers Marine Life medics, three people who love this island very much and would like to grow and raise their families here.

“We have explored every possible option on this island for accommodation, we are constantly outpriced on anything that might become available to buy and with zero movement in the social housing stock we do not stand a chance among others who are in similar positions to ourselves. I am aware of at least three people who have similar points scoring on the social housing list and two of which are formally registered as homeless. This doesn’t seem fair or correct when there are a number of properties lying empty.

“In a mainland setting, the deposit we have could purchase a property outright. On Tiree, it does not even touch the edges.

“There is no quick fix to this issue and although I believe there will be a solution in the future, sadly I think we will be long gone – along with others of a similar age group and demographic to ourselves – when it comes to fruition.

The National: The housing crisis is pushing those without deep pockets out of TireeThe housing crisis is pushing those without deep pockets out of Tiree (Image: David Oliver)

“There will be a whole generation of people forced to leave Tiree due to this housing crisis. A generation who are the island’s key workers and population growers.”

That is the grim reality. Between them, this family performs 21 roles in the community. That’s 21 spaces to fill. 21 critical tasks which may not get done.

In Tiree, we are in the early stages of progressing our own housing development – but that is a long and slow process. We are actively looking into solutions which might help in the short to medium term, but again, the wheels grind slowly. We need to get creative at both local and national levels.

At a national level, we could start by addressing the lending rules and interest levels which make it so hard for those stringing multiple jobs together or on short-term contracts to get a mortgage. How could we make it easier? That’s not a question I can answer, but I bet someone clever could, if their motivation was to help rather than hoard.

There are houses on the market, but even supposing a community trust could buy them, they would have to be instantly retrofitted to meet the standards for long-term letting before anyone could step inside. The same would apply to those willing to convert from their current use to being a long-term let. The Government acknowledging a housing crisis and then making it harder to rent property out long-term is depressingly unsurprising.

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In Scotland, the minimum Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating for a long-term letting property is currently set at E. The Scottish Government has proposed plans to gradually increase these requirements, aiming to achieve a minimum EPC rating of C for all new tenancies by 2025 and for all existing tenancies by 2028. To get most older properties to a C across the islands is going to require enormous amounts of work – and money. It’s something that any development trust or social landlord has to bear in mind when considering purchases.

I recently suggested to our local MSP that the time might have come to consider areas which are acknowledged to be crisis areas to have a derogated status – where properties bought by a community organisation at a low EPC rating could be put on long-term let with a set deadline for upgrade. At least people could be immediately housed. Right now, we seem to be content with homelessness or draughty caravans, but not with a property at an F rating.

Short-term lets give us tourist beds, but also take houses out of the local stock. A few years ago, I wondered whether there was a way to square that circle, so I set up an island-run accommodation booking platform, isleHoliday.

The concept was simple – that people who owned letting properties in the islands could sign up for an instant book service, in a very similar fashion to Airbnb. The commission from bookings would go back into the parent social enterprise and be reinvested into the Scottish islands.

The National: Soroby Bay on Tiree

I WAS naive enough to think that a low-effort way to give back to the community that you are profiting from would appeal to people’s conscience. More fool me. To say it fell flat would be an understatement. “I do enough,” said those who do no more than pay a cleaner. Others didn’t want extra admin or didn’t like the website colour scheme. I heard every excuse in the book.

At least these properties bring people to Tiree to spend money. Even if the bottom fell out of the tourism industry in Tiree, we’d still be left with an inordinate number of houses which are owned by people who don’t mind paying for a property they barely use.

Those holiday homes are the most galling properties – the ones which just sit, mainly empty, doing nothing more than raising local blood pressure every time we drive past them. The double council tax will register barely a blip on their radar. The easiest solution to our housing crisis in the short to medium term is for those people to start finding their conscience and let people rent their houses.

It’s also the least likely, because to put none too fine a point on it, that conscience seems to be sadly lacking. Everyone has a justification for their extra house – whether it’s that they want two weeks a year in the place their ancestors came from, or whether they want to build a retirement pot. Whatever it is, it’s good for them, but it’s killing our communities.

From my bedroom window, I can see a house that sleeps 10 which sits empty all winter, and two houses which sleep four and sit empty all winter. From my kitchen window, I see five other houses. All of which are second homes. Only one is a short-term let. I’d put money on it that every owner would tell me how much they love Tiree.

It’s about time that those same people who purport to love our islands start helping us save them.