Teach the Commissioners a lesson

by
02 November 2006

Churches can act to prevent housing problems before they get worse, says Paul Donovan

The decision of the Church Commissioners to sell off its Octavia Hill estates caused reverberations across the country ( News, 21 October, 10 February). The deal reached completion on Monday of last week, without any announcement from the Church. Tenants fear that the sale of the social-housing stock to commercial companies will result in rents rising beyond their means.

Tenants of properties in Stoke Newington, Maida Vale, and Waterloo, sold last year by the Church Commissioners for £70 million to a joint venture between a registered social landlord and property company, have found their rents going up substantially — by six per cent from April, and a further six per cent again next year.

Ironically, the latest sale was going through while housing charities were campaigning for action to help the 100,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation. The charities insist that early action could head off much suffering.

"There is often a period of four to five months, between the first indication of a housing problem, and an eviction notice being served. Council housing departments usually act only when crisis point is reached, and an eviction notice is served. Earlier intervention could prevent such problems," said Alison Gelder, director of external affairs at the Christian organisation Housing Justice.

Rent-deposit schemes (under which people are helped with the initial deposit required to obtain a property) and tenancy-support schemes are other ways to prevent homelessness. The latter help people after they have moved into a property. They can offer furniture and advise on utilities and budgeting, as well as guidance with drug or alcohol problems.

Housing-advice centres run by churches and others can also make a significant difference. They can provide objective information about people’s options and the services available. They can also offer advice on areas such as debt and benefits, which contribute to housing problems. They often contact landlords on the tenants’ behalf to help resolve problems.

In the longer term, more affordable homes need to be built. A report commissioned by the Treasury estimated that there would need to be an extra 140,000 homes each year for the next 20 years in order to meet demand. Of these, it was recommended that 23,000 should be affordable social housing, to begin to replace the 1.5 million homes sold to tenants under right-to-buy policy since 1980. Of course, sensitivity should be exercised in deciding where such properties are built. Churches need to ensure that they support such developments only when they are sustainable, and appropriate in size and quality.

Another important part of any long-term strategy to address the lack of affordable homes would be to use vacant properties. It is estimated that there are 700,000 of these in the UK. The boom in the housing market has a downside here: in a rising market, an owner can afford to leave a house empty, and still make a profit.

However, there have been moves to tackle this problem, most especially the Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO), which come into effect next Thursday. These will allow local authorities to take possession of homes that have been vacant for more than six months. They let councils seize, renovate, and lease a property for up to seven years, before returning it to its owner. About 280,000 homes in England have been deserted for more than a year. The Government hopes to fill 25,000 of these by 2010.

CHURCHES can play a part in housing strategy. When buildings such as halls and vicarages become vacant, they could look to convert them into flats or rooms for the homeless. When a new church hall is being planned, it is sometimes possible to include a flat as part of the development.

"Some of these changes offer a real opportunity for churches to be creative and re-use premises for the homeless," said Robina Rafferty, the chief executive of Housing Justice. "Parishioners sometimes leave houses to distant relatives, who will then want to rent them out. These premises could be run by church organisations for homeless people."

Housing Justice supported Kingston Churches Action on Homelessness (KCAH) as one such organisation. KCAH rents ten properties from private owners, which are then let out at cheap rates. The properties house 45 single homeless men aged over 25, as they try to get a foot on the property ladder. Most stay for about six months, though the time-limit is two years.

Bob Bailey, a director of KCAH, describes the initiative as "a stop-gap for those who cannot access the private market". As part of the project, resettlement officers from Housing Justice maintain the properties, and ensure that the residents progress to different forms of accommodation.

Another church-based project is Green Pastures, run by "Pastor Pete" Cunningham in Southport ( Features, 27 January). Eleven years after arriving in the town, the Revd Peter Cunningham’s company runs 68 properties to accommodate more than 200 people, and there are plans to expand into new towns.

The KCHA and Green Pastures projects show what can be done by the Christian community with some imaginative thinking. It isn’t possible for every parish to buy or rent property in ad hoc style, but there is much that can be done. Such projects show the Church acting positively for the good of society, in what seems to be a contrast to the Church Commissioners’ actions.

Paul Donovan is a writer specialising in homelessness and social justice.

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