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The next battle: the housing crisis

by
08 April 2016

Churches must now fight for decent accommodation, argue Angus Ritchie and Sarah Hutt

PA

Financial backing: houses in south London, with the city in the distance

Financial backing: houses in south London, with the city in the distance

THE witness of scripture has inspired the Church to campaign against exploitative money-lending, and our action is bearing fruit. For the first time in more than a century, Britain has anti-usury laws — and the Church has given a substantial boost to credit unions and the wider community-finance sector.

And yet, while the “War on Wonga” is being won, a fresh crisis faces the poorest communities. Inner-city schools report an exodus of pupils from the poorest families, as soaring prices mean that previously diverse neighbourhoods are becoming the preserve of the wealthy. The housing market is now driving a deeper wedge between those with capital, and those without.

If you cannot afford a deposit on a flat or house, you are doomed to pay as much in rent as others pay on their mortgage. While the latter group of people ends up possessing an increasingly valuable asset, the former ends up with nothing. As this gap grows, there is more pressure to get on the “housing ladder” — thus inflating the price of accommodation even further. It is a self-perpetuating cycle.

 

SCRIPTURE has at least as much to say about this as it does about usury. Its testimony — and that of residents of London particularly, and elsewhere in Britain — tell the same story. Housing policy must not be understood in a purely technocratic way. It is, above all, about relationships.

Good housingpolicy facilitates relationship. Bad housing policy ignores it, or destroys it. Housing is not simply about bricks and mortar: it is about people, roots, and communities.

In practice, we see the impact of bad housing policy all around us, as the untrammelled market is allowed to tear families and communities apart. But churches are also at the heart of innovative policies, such as Community Land Trusts (which secure affordable housing in a neighbourhood), and the idea of a “Living Rent” (which would tie the statutory definition of “affordable housing” to the wages that people actually earn).

On a Christian understanding, homes and neighbourhoods are more than simply assets to be traded. They are gifts from God. They have a significance that is bound up with the story of the people who live in them. This is why God commands the people of Israel: “The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me” (Leviticus 25.23).

Houses are homes, and neighbourhoods need to be shaped by our vision of community, not simply by the forces of the market. A city in which the poorest are forced into outer urban ghettoes — out of sight and out of mind — expresses an idolatrous value system. It says something deeply unchristian about whose lives are of genuine value.

 

IN THE 1930s, Fr Basil Jellicoe denounced the slums of Somers Town, in London, as the very opposite of a sacrament. They were, for him, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace” — an embodiment of the very opposite of the values of the Kingdom, and the life and love of God.

More recently, Pope Francis is making this same connection between the state of a people’s hearts and the way the poorest in society are housed. His encyclical, Laudato Siis best known for its call to action on environmental questions (News, Comment, 26 June 2015); but it also has much to say about the relationship between housing, spirituality, and human flourishing.

There is a deep connection between these issues. It is only when human beings recognise their place within the created order — and recognise the earth as a gift from God rather than an endless store of commodities to be plundered — that they will treat one another and God’s order with reverence and compassion.

For Pope Francis, a respect for the ecology of the non-human creation will develop in tandem with a respect for human ecology. The planning of our cities needs to nurture both eco-systems.

The message of Laudato Si’ — and the consistent message of the Bible — is that land and labour are more than mere commodities. Resistance to commodification has been at the heart of a range of struggles in which Christians have been active in shaping public policy: from the Living Wage to the recent successes of the campaign to Keep Sunday Special (News, 18 March).

As Walter Brueggemann has written: “Sabbath in Israel is the affirmation that people, like land, cannot be finally owned or managed. They are in covenant with us, and therefore lines of dignity and respect and freedom are drawn around them which must be honoured by people who will have the land as a covenanted place” The Land (Fortress Press, 1977).

 

THE successes of the campaigns against exploitative lending, low pay, and more Sunday trading give us reason to hope in the face of the housing crisis. They also offer us some pointers to the kind of action that is likely to make a real difference.

First, our action needs to be firmly rooted in our theology and spirituality. On issues such as Sunday trading and exploitative lending, the Church has been moved to action when it has understood the struggle to be central to its mission.

Second, the Church has been willing to form alliances with those beyond its walls: with other institutions in civil society, such as mosques and synagogues; with trade unions; and with schools. Later this month, 6000 members of these institutions will gather to address the housing crisis. As part of the community-organising alliance London Citizens, they will hold two of the London mayoral candidates to account, asking Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith what they plan to do to provide the affordable homes that the city so urgently needs.

It is no coincidence that the event will be opened by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres; for churches are at the heart of the alliance. In the face of today’s housing crisis — in London and across the whole country — we have a unique capacity to change things for the better.

 

Canon Angus Ritchie is Director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Sarah Hutt is the Centre’s Housing Co-ordinator. Their new report, From Houses to Homes, is available for free download at www.theology-centre.org.

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