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Rent rise in Church’s retirement housing a ‘scandal’

10 March 2023

Tenants of CHARM properties told rents will rise by 10.1 per cent from April

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THE 10.1-per-cent increase in rent for tenants living in the Church’s retirement housing is a “scandal”, the chair of a fellowship of tenants has said this week.

Tenants of properties in the Church’s Housing Assistance for the Retired Ministry (CHARM) scheme were told last month that their rents would rise by 10.1 per cent from April — a rise lower than inflation, but higher than the seven-per-cent cap placed on rent rises in the social-housing sector. In line with the state pensions, clergy pensions will also increase by 10.1 per cent: more than double the scheme’s guaranteed increase.

The letter, seen by the Church Times, acknowledges that “the increased cost of living is a concern for many,” and encourages clergy to get in touch to receive support, which could entail checking their entitlement to benefits. It also signposts tenants to advice on the cost of living, which includes information about support offered by the Government, the Church, and charities.

On Monday, the Revd Eva McIntyre, who chairs CHARMERS, an independent fellowship of residents in CHARM houses and Supported Housing, said that “feeling is really running high,” and that there had been talk of withholding rent.

“There is something very upside down when it comes to gospel values about this,” she said. “The gospel is supposed to be good news to the poor, and I find this quite scandalous: that the poorest of retired clergy, many of whom are propping up the parish system free of charge, are being subjected to what feels like an injustice.”

The worst-off would be widows and widowers, she said, and there was concern about those who had taken early retirement owing to stress, who were “just about coping” before the rent increase. Some clergy, she said, had been advised to sell their homes to pay for their ordination training (News, 10 March 2017).

CHARM schemes, operated by the Church of England Pensions Board, came into effect in 1983. The rental scheme offers retired clergy without the means to buy their own property the opportunity to rent one from the Board. It currently houses 1800 households, equating to 2700 residents in total. The Board’s position is that, for most tenants, the pension rise will cover the rent rise. A spokesperson said on Wednesday that one-to-one support was being offered to the “small number” of people who had got in touch after receiving the rent-increase letter.

Initially, CHARM rents were capped at 25 per cent of the joint income of the cleric and their spouse (later increased to 30 per cent). But the Pensions Board later concluded that this was unfair, penalising “those who make an effort to improve their financial situation”, and moved, in 2015, to a “target rent” approach, based on the social-housing model, calculating rent based on a “basket of indicators”, including national and regional average earnings, property values, and the number of bedrooms (News, 1 August 2014). This is significantly lower than than market rents for comparable properties in the area.

In addition to retired clergy, the scheme covers deaconesses, Church Army officers, spouses and civil partners, and widows and widowers of beneficiaries. Occupants are responsible for council tax and utility bills, and other household costs, while the Church’s housing team is responsible for repairs and maintenance. Rents are increased annually in April, usually in line with inflation.

The Let Alliance Rental Index reports that private rents were up 10.8 per cent in 2023 on last year. In December, the Government announced that it would cap the increase on social-housing rents at seven per cent, as a temporary change to the existing policy, which permits rents to increase by up to CPI plus one percentage point (which would have been 11.1 per cent). This was in recognition of “exceptional times”, with a high rate of inflation placing “considerable pressure on many households”.

Last week, the membership secretary of CHARMERS, the Revd David Phypers, suggested that, having adopted the social-housing target rents approach, the Pensions Board had a “moral duty to follow the national norm”.

The increase amounted to a “real-terms cut in the value of pensions for a significant number of retired clergy and their widowed spouses”, he said. “And the cut will be permanent. It will always be there in future years, whatever percentage increases are applied. Indeed, because percentages will be applied to percentages, the real-terms cut in the value of future pensions will widen. The cut will never be reversed.”

He has himself been affected by the rise: his fuel bill had more than trebled; his wife, aged 80, continued to work part-time; and he was seeking a new source of income “to try and make ends meet”. The rent charged for CHARM had always been “far more than we thought it would be, when we believe we responded to the call of God on our lives”, he said. “This latest increase just feels like a kick in the teeth.”

On Tuesday, the Retired Clergy Association’s secretary, the Revd Malcolm Liles, said that he had been “taken by surprise” by the scale of the rise, “given that in the past the Pensions Board have always told us that they would follow the social-housing rent increases”. His Association had received complaints, he confirmed.

“What really needs to happen, I think, is we need to get General Synod to ensure that Vote 5 [the grant provided by the Archbishops Council to support the housing of retired ministers, approved by General Synod and funded by diocesan apportionments] . . . is sufficient to enable them to ride the waves of periods of inflation.”

In 2021, Vote 5 amounted to a grant of £5.4 million. The same year, the Board achieved a return of 13 per cent. The pensions scheme is now fully funded for the first time since its inception.

The chief executive of Clergy Support Trust, the Revd Ben Cahill-Nicholls, said on Wednesday: “In 2022, we supported over 2300 households, and the cost-of-living is principal among their concerns. This is true for retired clergy, as well, who tell us that energy bills and car-related costs are especially worrying for them. We supported 130 retired clergy households last year — 42 per cent higher than 2021 — but there’s more we must do.

“Critically, though, that work needs to be a partnership with Dioceses and NCIs, including the Pensions Board. Those extraordinary people who have spent their lives serving others deserve a retirement as free of financial, mental, and physical-health worries as possible.”

CHARMERS can be contacted at: david@phypers.co.uk

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