Posts Tagged ‘social housing’

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.

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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?