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Opinion >

Use what power you have to help the poor

Christians can take a lead to promote practical action for those suffering in the housing crisis, says Phil Hemsley

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IT IS easy to despair at the high rents that the poorest in society have to pay for inadequate housing. I would argue that we are not helpless, and would like to inspire individuals and churches to take practical action to help change the situation.

In a speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at the Guildhall, London, last November, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “We need a financial centre that breaks down barriers between people, that is evidently moral and for the good of all, that deploys its vast power for the common good, that denies fear a place, and upholds hope.” Unfortunately, the economic culture in place today does not live up to such requirements.

What he could have said is that “We need a Church that breaks down barriers . . . that deploys its vast power for the common good, that denies fear a place, and upholds hope.”

He would have been speaking not to church leaders, but ordinary lay Christians. We need to use the vast power in the rank and file of the Church for the common good. I would like to give one example of what this might look like.

 

RENTS are too high. In my town, Rugby, the cheapest one-bedroom property costs about £400 a month to rent, not including costs such as heating and lighting. According to the Office of National Statistics, ten per cent of the population earn less than £250 a week, giving a take-home pay of less than £1000 a month. Nearly half of the person’s income would go on rent, leaving about £150 a week for everything else.

High house prices mean that it is impossible for those on a low income to borrow enough to buy a home; so they have to rent. A captive market and a shortage of rental property mean that landlords can get away with charging high prices at a high return. An income of £400 a month on a flat worth £70,000 gives a rate of return of about seven per cent.

In addition, the landlord benefits from capital growth: house prices have more than trebled in the past 20 years.

The high return attracts more people to buy up the cheap housing,which keeps house prices too high for the lowest-paid people, and fuels the rental market. This vicious circle means that the wealthy are earning a seven-per-cent return (or more — sometimes as high as nine per cent) from the lowest-paid people in society. This cannot be considered “moral and for the good of all”.

This is also not the Christian way. For example: “If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and cannot support himself, support him as you would a foreigner or a temporary resident, and allow him to live with you. Do not charge interest or make a profit at his expense. Instead, show your fear of God by letting him live with you as your relative. Remember, do not charge interest on money you lend him, or make a profit on food you sell him” (Leviticus 25.35-37).

By following Christian principles, there are ways to achieve affordable rent for the poor. It needs some visionary people with a bit of capital to decide to do something about it.

 

WHEN my mother died, she left me a legacy of about £60,000, and I had to decide what to do with the money. I could invest in a building society or bank (and make about three per cent interest, at most), or I could buy shares, or I could follow another “worldly” approach, and buy a small flat, let it out at £450 a month, and make about seven per cent.

Following Christian principles, I decided that I was happy with the return that I got from a building society, but I wanted to help those who were less well off. My wife and I decided to buy a flat, which we are currently letting at £275 a month — about 60 per cent of the market rate.

We have used a letting agent to find a tenant, stipulating that the tenant must have a low income. The agent was inspired to help, and is charging only two-thirds of the normal management fee; it has also waived most of its up-front costs.

The agent carried out the necessary checks to validate the client, a middle-aged lady who was being evicted from her flat after it was sold to new owners, and who would not have been able to find another flat because of her poor credit rating. The agent deals with day-to-day issues, collects the rent, and pays it directly to my account. The agency also manages the deposit, which we have arranged to be built up at £50 a month rather than demand it all up front.

My wife and I chose the flat carefully to avoid depriving a first-time buyer of a home; so we selected a property with a short lease, which would be difficult to get a mortgage on. After three years of being the owner, we will be able to extend the lease, and have checked what the cost is likely to be.

We do not charge the maximum that the market will stand: we charge a fair rent instead. We choose not to profit from the poor. Surely this is a Christian approach. At no discomfort to ourselves (we would be happy with a three-per-cent return), we are giving someone on a low income the chance of an improved standard of living — and, perhaps, even the chance to save enough to put down a deposit on a house of her own.

 

WE COULD, of course, have charged market rent, and given the money to other good causes, but that would simply be a case of taking from the poor to give to the poor. C. S. Lewis commented that for charity to have value, surely there must be some discomfort on the part of the giver (witness the widow who gave all that she had). So our charitable giving is done separately from charging a fair rent for our property.

Yes, there is a little more risk. Perhaps a tenant will damage the property (not all poor people are nice), and there will be repair costs. Nevertheless: “Who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it” (1 Peter 3.13-15).

Our ready answer is that we are doing this to serve the poor because we are led by the love of Christ. We are not doing it to maximise our profit.

There are some new changes in legislation which will influence the buy-to-let market. Today, a higher-rate taxpayer can claim 40-per-cent tax-relief on interest payments. That tax-relief rate is being reduced to 20 per cent by 2020. And, from this month, the Government has increased stamp duty on second houses.

These moves are surely morally right, increasing the tax contribution of those who are better off. There is a danger, however, that the increases in landlord costs will simply be passed down in higher rents, and the poor will once again pay the price.

 

SO THIS is a call to the Church, to men and women in the pews. We can make a difference. We can do something that will proclaim the love of Christ by serving the poor — from the comfort of our armchairs. We can show people that you do not have to be a slave to greed: you can be a slave of Christ instead.

Not everyone can help in this way, but perhaps you have a legacy, or a pension lump-sum that you could use. If you are in a church community, then several people could join together to contribute. A church project such as this could also become a focus for a community, raising awareness of the church and engaging with parishioners.

This could work in rural communities, where locals feel priced out by second-home owners, or in inner-city areas, where the standards of accommodation can be appalling.

If you want to help, but are daunted by the practicalities, you could invest your money in a charity such as Hope into Action (hopeintoaction.org.uk — and, of course, there are many other charitable groups). This charity is trying particularly to help vulnerable adults and link them with churches. Its preferred method of investing is that a church use its resources to buy a house, which the charity will then manage.

My experience is that it has been a joy to make the project happen, to astonish the letting agent with our attitude (so much so that the firm has agreed to work on a similar venture that we are undertaking), and, most of all, to see our delighted tenant (and her cat) in the flat in time for Christmas.

 

Philip Hemsley holds a senior technical post in a multinational power company, and is the author of The Big Picture: An honest examination of God, science and purpose (2013), and Christianity: Why bother? (2015, both eLectio Publishing).

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Wed 24 May 17 @ 17:47
UPDATED: We will repair damage done to our city and its people, Bishop tells Manchester https://t.co/GCEa1R3PxW

Wed 24 May 17 @ 15:12
Selby Abbey will be open tomorrow from 7.30-8.30pm, for people to pray for the election and those affected by the Manchester terror attack