Posts Tagged ‘Government’

There is a story about how, if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly bring it to the boil, the frog doesn’t realise its danger until the water is close to boiling and the poor reptile has died. This is a really good analogy for the slow build-up of Britain’s housing crisis over the last 35 years. For most of the population – people who own their homes outright, are buying with a mortgage taken out some time ago, or who rent from their Local Authority or a Housing Association – the facts of the national housing crisis do not impinge on their daily lives.

There are three inter-related aspects to it – we do not have sufficient homes for the needs of our population; the homes we have are too expensive (whether to rent or to buy); we are not building new homes at a fast enough rate. None of these issues has been successfully tackled by any Government of any persuasion since the mid-seventies – and I have to admit to having little confidence that the plans put forward by the current Conservative Government will be any more likely to solve the problem.

So if we cannot rely on the Government to resolve the housing crisis, what can we do? If there was a single silver bullet it would surely have been deployed by now. Pretty much everything has been tried apart from massive investment by central government and that seems an unlikely prospect before 2020. So the answer is must be that we need to pick up on all the small (or even medium-sized)things that individuals, Housing Associations, Local Authorities, churches and communities can do. The focus has to be on incremental changes rather than big bold solutions; and, I think, on partnerships rather than solo developments.

It is no secret that many Housing Associations have been founded by churches or by groups of Christians, or that Christian philanthropists (think of Rowntree, Leverhulme and Octavia Hill) have been behind many of the innovations in social housing provision from the dissolution of the monasteries onwards. Inspired by this and encouraged by Archbishop Justin Welby’s speech to the National Federation,  Housing Justice have worked with the Centre for Theology and Community,  (funded by Chapter 1 and Quaker Housing Trust) to research and publish a report called, “Our Common Heritage”, which sets out the possibilities that could be realised if we can build on the shared heritage of the churches and of Housing Associations. In the report we identify six practical ways in which Housing Associations and churches are already working together and which could be replicated more widely:

  • Building social housing on church land (e.g. converting redundant church or vicarage sites)
  • Involving Church volunteers in support for Housing Association residents (everything from parent and toddler groups to job clubs)
  • Addressing the spiritual needs of Housing Association tenants (this often already happens for residents of supported housing for the elderly)
  • Campaigning together on housing issues (locally and nationally – and note that most church congregations include some Council members…)
  • Providing social housing for key church workers (e.g. youth workers)
  • Church investment in housing provision (an ideal form of ethical investment).

But it’s all very well to list what can be done – and even to give examples – the real question is how do we make this happen; how can we nudge, inspire and enable people and churches to join with Housing Associations to tackle the Britain’s housing crisis? One of the biggest barriers we found was ignorance – neither churches nor Housing Associations know enough about the other to think of them as natural partners.

I think there is a two step process needed here. The first step is to share information and stories about the reality of the crisis. The more we can talk about real life experiences of housing need and housing unaffordability, the more real the housing crisis will become for those who are lucky enough to have a secure home that meets their needs and that they can afford to pay for. The second step is for Housing Associations to consciously seek to work in partnership with churches and other faith communities, to do what we can. Housing Justice stands ready to facilitate these small steps that will begin to make the housing crisis history.

For more information or to download the report go to www.housingjustice.org.uk or call 020 3544 8094.

Even as an irrepressible optimist I am struggling to find any reasons to be cheerful about the prospects for homelessness and housing in 2013.
The seriously dark clouds on the horizon all relate to the impact of caps on benefits and changes to the welfare system. These clouds began to gather in 2011 but the hurricane will hit in 2013. The first gale will blow in in April when the Overall Benefit Cap is introduced, effectively removing any social safety net for families with three or more children and predicted to lead to increases in homelessness and overcrowding, especially in London.
Letters have gone out from Local Authorities to households they believe will be hit by this cap and at Housing Justice we have been sharing the pain as families and agencies contact us to see if we can help. Last week we were emailed by Sarah, a single parent, who wrote, “ I have received an eviction notice from my landlord. My rent is £350 a week so when the benefit cap comes in it will leave me with £150 a week to look after my three children, one aged three and twins nearly two, so he is doing it now before I get in arrears. There will be nowhere affordable to privately rent in Islington or surrounding boroughs. I am really scared, the only support I have is in Islington and my daughter goes to a Catholic Nursery attached to the church we go to. I have an appointment with Housing Options team tomorrow but I know its going to be very difficult to get a council house in the borough.” We were able to advise Sarah to ask about a discretionary payment, and but this will only buy a year’s grace before the situation arises again.
Also in April people of working age living in Council and Housing Association properties will begin to be charged for their ‘spare’ rooms (aka the bedroom tax). This will cause real hardship, especially in the Midlands and the North where there really are no smaller properties for people to move to if they wish to avoid this new tax.
Meanwhile homelessness is undeniably on the increase. The latest figures for street homelessness in London (CHAIN data for September and October 2012) show 26% more people were found sleeping out, and the most recent numbers for homeless households in England record nearly 53,000 households (including more than 75,000 children) as homeless and in temporary accommodation. Even more disturbing is the fact that there has been a 185% increase in the number of homeless families kept in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks. This is early evidence of a system close to breaking point and comes before any further side effects of the introduction of Universal Credit in October 2013, or holding the benefit increases to 1% regardless of inflation.
At Housing Justice we are also gathering evidence of the effects of the cuts in benefits already introduced. Since January 2012 people between 25 and 34 have no longer been allowed sufficient Housing Benefit to enable them to rent self contained accommodation. This change to the Shared Accommodation Rate is already beginning to bite. For example, Fiona was living in private rented accommodation in Haringey for a year, but when her benefit was reduced she was evicted. She ended up rough sleeping and was referred to the Outreach Team, but was not found because, for safety, she kept changing her sleeping place. She has been referred to a hostel but there is a waiting list, which means she will remain homeless for at least another two months.
It certainly feels like the Government is operating the opposite of an option for the poor in its efforts to reduce our national deficit.
So, apart from battening down the hatches how can we as Church respond? Firstly, through prayer for people who are bearing the brunt of these changes, people who are homeless or overcrowded or getting deeper into debt. And not just private prayer; these prayers should be articulated in our intercessions at mass Sunday by Sunday. Poverty and Homelessness Action Week (26th January to 3rd February) is a good place to start (resources available to download from http://www.actionweek.org.uk).
Secondly, through practical action, for example, providing food banks and night shelters, taking in lodgers, letting property to benefit claimants and working together with other denominations to maximise the use of our 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.
Finally, we need to raise our voices in protest against the unfair burden of cuts being placed on some of the most vulnerable in our society and in favour of the building of genuinely affordable housing in our communities. If the Church doesn’t speak up for the option for the poor that is a functioning social safety net, who will?
More ideas for practical action and protest can be found on the Housing Justice website: http://www.housingjustice.org.uk.

I hope that as you read this you are somewhere warm and comfortable and where you feel secure – or that at least you have somewhere like that to return to. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens do not have this luxury. Rough sleeping, the visible iceberg tip of homelessness, has been increasing month on month for more than a year now. The first victims of the Coalition Government’s benefit cuts, people between 26 and 34 in age whose Housing Benefit no longer covers the cost of independent accommodation, have begun to turn up homeless at church-run drop ins. As the Night Shelters Housing Justice supports have opened for the new winter season they are quickly filling up with street homeless people, and with those who have run out of friend’s floors to sleep on.
And all this before the worst of the planned cuts in benefits have begun. All over our country there are families where a cloud has been cast over Christmas by the receipt of a letter informing them that from 1st April the money they receive will be cut by the Overall Benefit Cap. Whatever the size, ages and particular needs of the family they will be limited to £500 per week to pay for all their wants. People who were already making hard decisions about whether to heat their home or have sufficient to eat are now faced with the additional worry of whether to scrimp further to pay the rent or try to find somewhere else (somewhere smaller and cheaper) to live. This is the backdrop for the announcement by the Chancellor that benefit increases will no longer be linked to inflation but instead will be fixed at 1% for the next three years. If we really believe that, as the Psalmist says, the Lord hears the cry of the poor, then a thunderous roar must be rising up from Britain as so many poor and marginalised people are made to bear the brunt of cuts to reduce our national deficit.
But what are we to do? How should we respond? First with practical help and hospitality: we can give food, clothes and a warm welcome to the homeless, hungry and needy people who turn to our churches and charities for help and support. (There are more suggestions for practical help at http://www.housingjustice.org.uk.) Second with prayer, mindfulness and attention: be aware of the people around you at work, in the shops, in the street – recognise the dignity, the troubles, and the peace in them. Finally be prepared to stand up for those who are labelled as scroungers and shirkers – a truly fair society is one where poor and homeless people are the last to be scapegoated and penalised.