We have collective responsibility as society to provide all with homes that truly meet their needs @housing_justice

1 October 2016

TAP affordable housing campaign BLOG 10 - An affordable housing agenda for the Churches

I strongly believe that, for individual Christians and for churches, our faith precludes us from the luxury of standing by and wringing our hands while doing nothing. I agree with St Ambrose and Pope Francis that we are called to do more than stand in the gaps, administering sticking plasters and pulling babies out of the river. So this is what I am calling on the churches, and individual Christians, to do:

  • Each of us should do everything we can to create more housing which is within the means of people on low incomes. We need to look critically at our own use of housing resources and see if we measure up to St Ambrose’s standard. Perhaps we can take in a lodger, or rent a property we own at less than market rent? Or decide not to oppose the building of new social housing in our neighbourhood?

  • The churches need to change their approach to decisions about how church land should be used. The mission and values of the church need to be weighed in the balance alongside seeking the funding we need to carry out that work. Housing Justice has already secured clear guidance form the Charity Commission that gives churches permission to do this (https://goo.gl/depSI) and the Church in Wales has set an excellent example by adopting a policy that means all land and buildings being considered for disposal will also be looked at as a potential site for new social housing.

  • Finally, all of us, individuals and institutions, need to use our voices to make sure our elected representatives and their officers know that we believe that we have a collective responsibility as a society to provide everyone with a home that truly meets their needs.

Alison Gelder - Director Housing Justice 

 

NO ROOM AT THE INN

I write this as a Christian with more than twenty years of experience as a volunteer and as a charity employee working alongside people who are homeless or in housing need, and trying to improve their situation. And I write with increasing frustration as I see more and more effort going into essential sticking plaster measures like night shelters and food banks while housing grows ever more unaffordable, and the aim of everyone having a home that truly meets their needs becomes more of a fantastic dream than an achievable vision for the charity I work for (Housing Justice).

As a Roman Catholic Christian the practice of my faith influences how I live my life and the choices I make. The instruction and guidance my Church (and all the churches) offers goes a lot wider than the media obsession with sexuality and methods of contraception. The key sources for me, as for all Catholics, are the Bible and the tradition and teaching of my Church. In the Old Testament of the Bible, a source which we Christians of course share with Judaism, one of the most important texts – and the only place the word “homelessness” appears – is Isaiah 58:7, where God is telling his people how he wants them to show their loyalty and gratitude to Him. What God wants is not fasting or religious pomp but practical action: “sharing your food with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless poor”.

There is a reason why “homelessness” doesn’t feature in the Bible; homelessness as we know it is a relatively modern phenomenon. From what we know of the structure and organisation of society in the era when Isaiah was living, and indeed, of the first century AD when Jesus was alive, homelessness as it manifests today did not exist. The texts of the Old Testament describe a society where land was distributed between the tribes and the creation of housing was the responsibility of the family. There were, of course, no planning restrictions and so if an extension or another house was needed people just built it. The people who needed help were those without family support – widows and orphans, and “wandering strangers”, which is arguably a better literal translation of the word rendered as “homeless poor” in the quote from the book of Isaiah.

Housing was, and for thousands of years remained, a private good. I won’t go through the whole of the history of housing but the gist is that as societies became less feudal and agrarian and more industrialised this position changed. In Britain land, the ability and authority to build, and housing itself all became increasingly regulated. Industrialists like Titus Salt, Robert Owen and George Cadbury built homes for their workers. Civic authorities and philanthropists took action to improve public health and housing conditions and so the category of social housing came into being alongside the other State welfare provisions that were introduced from the beginning of the Twentieth Century. After the Second World War, in addition to the creation of the National Health Service and Local Education Authorities, Town, City and Borough Councils built and bought up housing, becoming landlords and housing managers on a huge scale. At the beginning of the 1970s 29% of households were council tenants compared to 50% owner occupiers and 20% private renters. At this point, just 36 years ago, I think it is fair to say that housing was no longer a purely private good. It was recognised that as a society, as a nation, we had a joint responsibility to ensure that our fellow citizens had access to the decent housing they needed at a cost that meant they could live a decent life after the rent was covered even if they worked in a low paid job. However, by 2015 the percentage of people renting from councils and housing associations had fallen to 17%, while owner occupiers had gone up to 63% and private renters to 20%. So over the last 40 years there has been a shift back towards housing being a private good again, together with an increasing reluctance by governments to recognise a responsibility for providing adequate shelter for all.

Meanwhile (and again you will be pleased to learn that I am not going to offer a lengthy history) the Christian Church had grown, divided and become established. In the process churches became significant land owners. They bought or were given land for the creation of places of worship, and also for homes for ministers and other workers, for schools, hospitals, orphanages, and farms. In England the land holdings built up by the Roman Catholic Church were appropriated by the Crown under Henry VIII and then re-distributed into private hands and to the new national Church of England. The Church of England then continued to build up land holdings in support and pursuit of its ministry. However, the rise of social welfare provision in the Twentieth Century, and especially post 1945, saw the gradual withdrawal of all the churches in England from the provision of mainstream welfare services. Christian hospitals became part of the NHS, church schools were integrated into the Local Authority and many Christian charities became both more professional and detached from their church roots.

The situation of churches in England as landowners rather than welfare providers is an interesting one. If we go back to the Bible we will see that Jesus and the early church had a rather ambiguous if not overtly negative view of landholding and settled living in privately owned homes. The Holy Family were themselves famously refugees, seeking shelter in a stable in Bethlehem because there was no room at the inn, and then fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s murder of the innocents. Jesus spent most of the three years of his ministry on the road, accepting hospitality where it was offered. It is recorded (in Matthew 4:12) that he made a home in Caesarea, but he definitely did not build up any kind of property empire. In Acts we hear that the first Christians held property in common and shared all they had. But alongside this we also see evidence that the first churches were centred on households and houses; without Christian home owners the Church could not have developed. What I conclude from this is that ownership of property is not a bad thing but also, and very importantly, the use to which that property is put should have communal and not just private benefit. If this is true for Christians as private individuals, it must be even more the case for Christian institutions and especially for churches.

There is support for this view in the body of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), the tradition of my Church that is a key source, for me, of guidance about how to live my life in accordance with my faith. There are two particular principles of CST that I think are relevant here. The first is solidarity. Solidarity means much more than fellow feeling or support for someone’s cause. It is the practical, outward expression of the underlying relationship between all human beings, and between humanity and God. So because we are all intrinsically in relationship we are bound to try to relieve each other’s suffering and to seek each other’s wellbeing and happiness. The homeless stranger, the person who is hungry or in prison or suffering from mental distress, they are all my responsibility to help. I think this means that the churches corporately and Christians individually must engage in both the sticking plaster solutions like night shelters and foodbanks, and also in longer term, structural solutions to our brothers’ and sisters’ distress. It seems the Holy father agrees with me.  Soon after he had been appointed Pope Francis visiting a Jesuit Centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Rome offered this call to action: “It is not enough to offer a sandwich if this is not accompanied by the possibility of learning to stand on one's own two feet. Charity that leaves the poor in the same situation as before is not adequate. True mercy - that which God gives and teaches us - asks for justice, asks that the poor find the way out of their poverty. It asks us - the Church, the city of Rome, the institutions - it demands that no-one should be in need of a meal, of a temporary shelter, a legal assistance service, to enable the recognition of his or her right to live and to work, to be recognized fully as a person.”

The second principle is the universal destination of goods. While solidarity is one of the best known principles of CST the universal destination of goods is rarely spoken of. What the principle means is that everything, all of creation, belongs to God and so must, in the end, go back to Him. This is the principle which underpins the Old Testament tradition of Jubilee where (in theory) debts were written off land was restored to its original owner every 50th year. Other branches of Christianity have picked up this principle in the concept of stewardship – we hold everything we have in stewardship for God and are accountable to him for how we use the gifts and the bounty he has given us. To me this means that while I may legally own my home (and my other possessions) in some sense I am only looking after them and I will be answerable to God for how I have used them. St Ambrose put it well: “It is not from your own possessions that you are bestowing alms on the poor, you are but restoring to them what is theirs by right. For what was given to everyone for the use of all, you have taken for your exclusive use. The earth belongs not to the rich, but to everyone. Thus, far from giving lavishly, you are but paying part of your debt.”  If this is a charge on me as an individual, how much more heavily must it weigh on our churches as institutions.

Today, living with the aftermath of the dramatic reduction in council housing caused by the introduction of Right to Buy, more than thirty years of failing to build sufficient new homes to keep up with the growth of new households, the deregulation of financial markets and the corresponding development of a debt funded consumer-spending based economy, what can we do – and what should churches be doing? Housing has once again become a private good. There is little sense of civic or societal responsibility for providing adequate homes for workers and the poverty stricken. Indeed, housing units have become the primary investment vehicle for home owners and a new class of private landlords. The State is engaged upon a programme of localising and privatising the responsibility for social welfare which it took upon itself after WWII. Churches (and other faith communities) are, as volunteers and as providers of locally commissioned services, taking on more and more vital services to support people experiencing poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

I strongly believe that, for individual Christians and for churches, our faith precludes us from the luxury of standing by and wringing our hands while doing nothing. I agree with St Ambrose and Pope Francis that we are called to do more than stand in the gaps, administering sticking plasters and pulling babies out of the river. So this is what I am calling on the churches, and individual Christians, to do:

  • Each of us should do everything we can to create more housing which is within the means of people on low incomes. We need to look critically at our own use of housing resources and see if we measure up to St Ambrose’s standard. Perhaps we can take in a lodger, or rent a property we own at less than market rent? Or decide not to oppose the building of new social housing in our neighbourhood?

  • The churches need to change their approach to decisions about how church land should be used. The mission and values of the church need to be weighed in the balance alongside seeking the funding we need to carry out that work. Housing Justice has already secured clear guidance form the Charity Commission that gives churches permission to do this (https://goo.gl/depSI) and the Church in Wales has set an excellent example by adopting a policy that means all land and buildings being considered for disposal will also be looked at as a potential site for new social housing.

  • Finally, all of us, individuals and institutions, need to use our voices to make sure our elected representatives and their officers know that we believe that we have a collective responsibility as a society to provide everyone with a home that truly meets their needs.

Alison Gelder - Director Housing Justice 


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