On the one hand there has been a housing crisis in London (and in the rest of England) for at least the last ten years. On the other, churches have a long history of both practical and campaigning responses to housing and homelessness. The situation we face today is as bad as it has ever been, and is set to deteriorate as welfare reform bites and the economy continues to flatline. But it’s not enough to be prophets of doom and gloom. Now is the moment to shine a light on housing, to challenge the morality of failing policies and to take whatever action we can ourselves to remedy the situation.
Failure to build enough homes each year to keep up with the growth in the number of households has finally combined with changes to the benefit system to create the perfect storm. We are now on the edge of a housing precipice the like of which has not been seen since the post WWII need to replace all the dwellings lost to bombing raids. The churches have always responded to housing need whether by providing basic food and shelter, by founding housing associations, or by offering advice and assistance. (Exactly the activities that the Catholic Housing Aid Society, one of the constituent bodies of Housing Justice, carried out from its foundation in 1956.)
Our motivations are a complex mix of humanitarian compassion, practical necessity (how do I help this caller at the vicarage door), and theological imperative (there are many Biblical references, but Isaiah 58:6 and Matthew 25:40 are good places to start). People in the pews (and even the pulpit) are just as likely as anyone else to have benefited from rising house prices, to be buy-to-let landlords, or to be struggling to match rising living costs with a falling income.
So on October 10th (World Homelessness Day) more than 80 people from a wide range of churches gathered to discuss how churches should respond to the deepening crisis of affordable housing in London; a crisis that is impacting most heavily on the poorest amongst us. We met against a backdrop of rising homelessness and an avalanche of impending welfare benefit changes. More and more people are sleeping on the streets – in July and August outreach teams met 1,869 people in London, up 17% from the same period last year. Meanwhile between April and June 2012 12,860 households (more than 36,000 people) were accepted by local authorities in England as homeless, more than 21% of them because their shorthold tenancy had come to an end. A report in Thursday’s (11.10.12) Manchester Evening News revealed that less than 1 in 4 properties available for rent were within the range of Housing Benefit, showing that the problem is more than a London concern. And at the Conservative Party conference ministers continued to heap blame and shame upon benefit recipients, with the Chancellor contrasting people who ‘sleep off a life on benefits’ with ‘hard working tax payers’ and suggesting that the whole of the welfare benefits bill is spent on people who are out of work, apparently forgetting that the majority of benefits go to people who are low paid, pensioners or sick and disabled.
A key concern is the unfairness of caps on Housing Benefit (in action now for over a year) which are forcing people out of their homes and failing to bring down rents. While economic and political orthodoxy has it that it was the removal of rent regulation in 1988 that caused the expansion of the private rented sector in Britain in fact several other factors were at work. Social housing was being rapidly shrunk by Right to Buy. Lending controls were removed and buy-to-let mortgages became available. Residential property became the most popular form of private investment and the social status of landlords has greatly improved from the days of Rigsby in Rising Damp. The experience of other countries, Eire for example, where rent regulation is successfully in operation, is that the key factor in increasing the supply of private rented accommodation is the confidence of landlords that they can remove unwanted tenants when necessary. The conclusion: rent regulation is a viable alternative to benefit capping as a means of reducing the Houisng Benefit bill.
So how should the churches respond? For effective change to happen we need to change the discourse in our society about both benefit claimants and about wealth gained through house price appreciation. This has to begin with listening to ourselves and altering how we speak of these things in our homes, churches and our media (even the Church Times!). So we need to remember that a homeless person may well be as clean, well read and abstemious as you or I and should not always be represented as dirty, ignorant and addicted. And that the wealth I have gained through the increasing value of my house is actually less the fruit of my labours than the banker’s bonus is of his – and less likely to be fairly taxed.
Churches (and individual Christians) can commit to campaigning for the household benefit cap in London to reflect average incomes (and higher housing costs) in London by the simple means of adding a London Weighting to the national average calculation, and for private sector rent increases to be limited to the annual increase in the Consumer Prices Index as a minimalist, but effective, form of rent regulation.
There is a real possibility for churches and denominations to work together to maximise the use of their land and property in London for social and mutual housing projects, like cooperatives and community land trusts. In the same way that social housing in London in the 19th century was shaped by the actions of private philanthropists like Octavia Hill, there is an opportunity for the provision of genuinely and permanently affordable housing to be created through the gifting of church land and property to community land trusts or to housing cooperatives. Here London churches would be following the example of rural areas, for example in the diocese of Salisbury glebe land has been used to create new social housing in villages.
Finally, a group led by Houisng Justice will investigate the possibility of setting up a new ethical Lettings Agency or Cooperative to allow small landlords to let to benefit claimants and formerly homeless people with a greater degree of ease and confidence.
Now is the moment for churches to once again rise to the challenge of a housing crisis. If we unite our voices, mobilise our resources and focus our activities we really can lift up the dignity of our fellow citizens who have the misfortune to claim benefits, challenge the unfairness of government policies, and take action to make a lasting difference to the provision of affordable housing. The question is, are you up for it?

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Comments
  1. tjmcfee says:

    I like your post. It seems like many places in the world are having housing/homeless problems. I wrote a post recently about how small homes communities may be the answer. My blog is at brainsections.wordpress.com and the post is titled Housing in the small time.

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