Posts Tagged ‘housing’

It is sixty years since two Catholic women, Maisie Ward and Molly Walsh, decided that something practical needed to be done to prevent homelessness and help families and individuals into secure affordable accommodation. Maisie Ward was a writer, theologian and the daughter of a prominent Catholic publisher. Molly Walsh and her husband, Bob, ran a House of Hospitality during the depression.  Molly and Maisie met through the Catholic Evidence Guild. They shared a concern about the needs of young families in Britain after the war. Especially as they saw the damage done to children who were being brought up in dreadful slum conditions and the lasting impact on family life. Molly and Maisie joined forces to persuade the Catholic Church to respond to the needs of people who were homeless or living in poverty – a witness of the Catholic community to the problem, but a service to the entire community.

Over the years many Catholics, usually married women, up and down the country, joined forces with Maisie and Molly to run support and advice services from their homes. That was the birth of CHAS, the Catholic Housing Aid Society. In the early days they raised money to buy parish-based houses to convert into flats for families in need.  They also raised money for people to use as a deposit on a home and, indeed, often secretly guaranteed the loan. They brought together groups of volunteer professionals, such as bank managers and surveyors, to give free advice to low income families who were trying to move into home ownership but were experiencing difficulty in finding reliable, honest and affordable advice.    And they established half-way houses, where people could rent accommodation for a few years, but the rent they paid included a compulsory “savings” element which was returned to them at the end of their tenancy so they had a lump sum to use as a deposit on a property.

Sixty years on Housing Justice, as the successor organisation to CHAS, continues to work to meet a need that is tragically, just as great today. As part of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations we are re-issuing “Homelessness: a fact and a scandal” first published in 1990. The problem described then is very similar to the problem as it exists today – but the political and social context in which we are operating is very different. There have been huge changes in attitudes to poverty and to the role of the state as provider of a welfare safety net. But there has also been a big increase in the number of church linked projects, like the winter night shelters Housing Justice supports, and in the number of volunteers from faith communities of all stripes who want to do something to make a real difference. The times are ripe for change.

So maybe, just maybe this is the time when the battle to end homelessness in England is about to make another leap forward. There are three developments that I present in evidence.

The first is the CLG committee’s Homelessness Inquiry. This is an in depth look at the causes of homelessness and the effectiveness of the work being done to tackle it by the voluntary sector and by Local Authorities. It is currently hearing selected oral evidence but it is still open to late submissions if you want to send one.

The second is the independent review of homelessness legislation published on26th April by Crisis. Again this is an in depth review by experts from across the spectrum of Local Authorities and third sector organisations. The focus here is on the legal duties owed to homeless people in England. Even though there is not complete agreement about the recommendations there is broad consensus and the appendix proposes detailed amendments to the current legislative position including the institution of a duty to prevent homelessness.

So far so good – and perhaps you are all thinking that we have been here before. The third element though is a minister who is engaging both with the sector and with the not so usual suspects. Marcus Jones may have got off to a rocky start at Homeless Link’s conference in 2015 but he has made up for it since. He has read the reports, visited projects, talked to people with experience of homelessness and seems to be genuinely committed to finding better ways to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. Of course this is all on the back of changes that have already taken place in Scotland and are underway in Wales, but I don’t mind if we English are followers rather than leaders here so long as we get there in the end.

Housing in Britain is in crisis. We have a broken housing market where even rising prices – e.g. in London – do not cause sufficient homes to be built to satisfy our needs (every year around 100,000 more households are created than new homes are built). There are not enough homes of the right size in the right places at a genuinely affordable cost. So homes lie empty in one area while families live in appallingly overcrowded conditions in another. Private rents are rising out of control, subsidised by Housing Benefit, and more and more people are being evicted when their short-term tenancies end. The so called Bedroom Tax penalises people in social housing even when there are no smaller properties for them to move into. And changes to the benefit system are contributing to homelessness and housing insecurity.
Against this backdrop Housing Justice is helping parishes across the country take practical steps to make a difference. We know It’s a huge problem but it is one where even a small parish or joint churches project can make a big difference.
Ever since the Catholic Housing Aid Society was founded in 1956 we have been pursuing our vision – that everyone should have a home that truly meets their needs. Over the years we’ve changed our activities to meet the changing needs of people who need help with their housing. Where rough sleeping and sofa surfing are a big problem Housing Justice can help set up a Night Shelter to provide basic accommodation and food through the winter months – and link the shelter guests into local services to help them move off the street into proper accommodation. There are around 50 church and community Night Shelters across England and Wales but more are needed. (You can see some videos about Night Shelters in action on our website: http://goo.gl/cZnXK.)
Folk are always willing to help but often need some guidance about the best way to do so. That’s why every year Housing Justice trains thousands of volunteers who go on to help in Night Shelters, soup kitchens, day centres and drop ins. The next stage though is providing help for people who have just moved off the streets and into housing. Our Mentoring and Befriending project trains and supports volunteers (and helps set up new projects) to be mentors and befrienders for people who are newly housed. The volunteers help people settle in to their new life and new community in practical ways, doing things like negotiating the process of opening a bank account, writing an attractive CV, finding work or volunteering opportunities, and building new social circles. We run our own scheme in London (new volunteers are always welcome) and support projects across the country.
There are even ways in which a parish can make a difference to the supply of genuinely affordable housing in its community. The biggest contribution is through the work of our Faith in Affordable Housing team, Judith Derbyshire and Sharon Lee. These two dynamic women support parishes, dioceses and religious orders through the process of converting empty churches, presbyteries and other buildings into new social housing. There are some great examples of what can be achieved here: http://goo.gl/fpDmC. But if you don’t have a building or any land to spare there are still ways to have an impact. Even one person taking in a lodger or a buy-to-let landlord deciding to rent to a family claiming benefits or at a lower than market rent will make a difference to people living in your community.
If this article has inspired you to find out more a representative of Housing Justice will be pleased to come and talk to you, your group, your church or local churches together organisation. Or you can come to see us at one of the Roadshows we are holding this year. The first one is in Liverpool on 22nd May, then Birmingham on 12th June, and Rayleigh (Essex) on 28th June. At the roadshows there will be a chance to find out about the problem locally and nationally as well as to be informed about how you can make a difference.
Contact us on 0203544 8094 or email info@housingjustice.org.uk.
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.

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?

How can we build the affordable, secure housing we need? This is the question I was asked to address at Housing Justice’s national conference in Sheffield in June 2012. It is a topic directly linked to Housing Justice’s vision – that everyone should have a home that truly meets their needs; and to our mission – to encourage and enable churches and individual Christians to play their part in bringing that vision to reality. And it cuts to the heart of efforts to end homelessness – one of the prerequisites must be that there are homes for people to live in whatever their other needs for support, health care and employment.

I proceeded by demolishing four of the myths that seem to me to be barriers to England having an adequate supply of affordable, secure homes.

  • Myth 1: we don’t need to build more homes – we already have enough to go round

It’s true that there appear to be more existing homes in England than the number of homeless households.  In fact the number of empty homes alone is greater than the number of homeless households; there are about 50,000 households in temporary accommodation, plus about 500,000 hidden homeless people and 1,300 rough sleepers, as against 720,000 empty homes (279,000 empty for more than six months) and 245,384 second homes. However homes, like hospital beds and hotel rooms, require a certain level of vacancies in order for the system to flow smoothly. Some second homes are needed, for example, for people who work away from their family home during the week. It also doesn’t take great powers of observation or analytical skill to discover that the empty homes are not all in the right place, or the right size, or the right cost.

Meanwhile the number of households is increasing at the rate of about 250,000 per year while net housing supply grew by only 121,200 last year. This gap between the rate of household formation and the rate of house building has been happening every year for at least the last ten years and so there is a growing backlog. In addition house building has not recovered from the 2008 economic crisis with, for example,  only 118,000 completions in 2009 and 117,870 in 2011. On top of this UK domestic property has become a safe haven investment for the wealthy from troubled Eurozone economies like Greece and Spain, as well as for investors from countries like China, and for British people seeking a safer and higher return than they can find on the stock market or in a deposit account. These purchasers are keeping property prices high in London and the South East in particular. To add insult to injury, many of these investment properties are neither regularly occupied by their owners nor let out to tenants. Finally it is important to remember that houses, especially modern ones, do not last for ever and so there is always a replacement requirement.

These facts lie behind the calculation by IPPR (published in March 2011) that by 2025 we will have a shortfall of about 750,000 homes. The worst gap between demand and supply is, unsurprisingly, in London, the second worst in Yorks and Humber. The North West is the only region with something approaching equilibrium.

So we do need to build more homes.

  • Myth 2: Britain is full – there is no room for more houses

Land utilisation surveys have been carried out in England since the pioneering work of Dudley Stamp in the 1930s. At first they were done using Ordinance Survey maps. Today digital imaging and satellite technology mean that the surveys are very accurate and reveal the truth – that England is nowhere near as built up as you think it is. In their 2012 report, Arrested Development, the Centre for Cities use a great analogy. Imagine England to be a football pitch. If 10% of the land is built up this equates to the penalty area. That total includes gardens, roads, paths, railways, industry, shops and housing. In fact, housing accounts for just over 1% of the total land available. If we doubled the amount of land used for housing it would still be less than 2.5% of the total.

So there is plenty of space to build providing we develop sensitively and with relatively high density – this is not meant to be an encouragement of urban sprawl.

  • Myth 3: We can’t afford more social housing because the bill for housing support is too high and needs to be brought under control.

It is perfectly true that the cost of housing support is out of control. It is especially disturbing that even with the swingeing cuts being rolled out by the Government the bill for Local Housing Allowance/Housing Benefit is till rising.

But let’s roll back a bit. Providing social housing is a valid policy response to market failure. It is also true to say that the market has not (arguably has never) produced adequate housing for the whole population. In fact social housing was first created as a response to this problem of housing need soon after the dissolution of the monasteries in Tudor England. There are currently two visible aspects of housing market failure in England. The first is a shortage of housing (see Myth 1 above). The second is the unaffordability of housing for many people (this applies to both purchase prices and rents). Previously the provision of social housing was the main response to this aspect of market failure. Today Local Housing Allowance (like its predecessor, Housing Benefit) is the chief policy remedy for this aspect of market failure. Thus the housing support (Local Housing Allowance/Housing Benefit) bill, even after cuts have begun to bite, is around £23bn a year, while public spending on new social house building is only £4.5bn a year.

What would be the outcome if some of the £23bn was diverted into building new social housing? Investment in social house building would create jobs (in building and related trades) and the housing support bill would reduce each time someone transferred from Houisng Benefit in the private rented sector to a cheaper social or affordable tenancy (minimum saving of 20% for each household where affordable rents are 80% of equivalent market rents; much greater savings where the new tenancy is at the target rent or where affordable rent has been set at a lower level as in London for example).

What could be the mechanism to reduce the housing support bill without making even harsher cuts in Housing Benefit? One possibility is to give Local Authorities the power to introduce local fair rent regulations for a limited period (perhaps 3 or 5 years), with any savings being spent on new housing in that area. Another is the system of affordable housing grants suggested in the recent IPPR report, Together at home: A new strategy for housing.

Whatever the mechanism, more social housing would both save money and boost the economy.

  • Myth 4: Renting is always inferior to buying.

The chief positives about home ownership are stability and the likelihood of asset growth. How can renting compete with this?

Greater stability could be introduced into the private rented sector through increased security of tenure, perhaps following the example of the private rental situation in Germany or Holland. If tenants had five year rather than six month tenancies as standard and had greater freedom to maintain and decorate their homes there would inevitably be a much greater sense of stability, and commitment to the local community, than at present.

The cost of renting long term relative to buying should always be lower; reflecting the fact that tenants have less security of tenure and no access to the asset in the property they occupy. Currently renting in the private sector is often more expensive than the mortgage payment on an equivalent property. The introduction of fair rent regulation for tenancies longer than six months could address this so that renting is not more expensive than buying. This would increase the ability of tenants to save (whether towards the purchase of a house or through investment in other assets).

The question of asset accumulation can be addressed through the promotion of new or existing asset classes. One option is the development of vehicles to encourage more widespread investment in industry and commerce. This would have the added benefit of solving the problem that so much of our savings and investment are currently tied up in our homes that there is a drag on the UK economy (the last thing we need at the moment). Alternatively new and improved shared and mutual and cooperative property ownership schemes could allow tenants to grow community assets linked to their homes and communities.

Finally a better quality, more attractive rental market would help to stabilise house prices, reducing the compulsion to own a home as an investment asset.

With all this in place renting need not be inferior to buying.

So how can we build the affordable, secure housing we need?

First, Housing Justice members, churches, and individual Christians should all shout the truth from the rooftops:

    • We don’t have enough homes to go round and the situation is deteriorating
    • There is enough space in England to build the homes we need without concreting over the countryside
    • It will be more cost effective and boost the economy if we build more social housing
    • Renting can be an attractive option providing both security and affordability – homes are not the only available investment assets

Second, all of us need to promote appropriate development in our area. We can do this by finding out what sort of homes our community needs (the Local Authority’s Houisng Strategy is a good place to start) and by taking responsibility for lobbying to make sure that they are built – there should be no more churches leading the nimby charge against the development of affordable housing.

Third, we need to lobby (nationally and locally) for fair rents, for investment in social housing and for improved security of tenure and conditions for private renters. The Government need to know that public opinion supports the building of more affordable housing, and they won’t know if we don’t tell them.

Finally, we need to think collectively about how to develop new asset classes to break the link between investment and housing and to turn the focus back to creating the homes we need. Churches have been prominent in the Credit Union movement; what role could churches play in developing community assets for tenants?