Housing – how bad can it get?

By Vicki Prout 21 February 2013

You don’t have to look far to find the truly alarming news stories coming through thick and fast on the topic of housing and homelessness. I remember working at Shelter–many years ago, before the Coalition Government took power—and talking about the ‘crisis’ in housing this country was facing. If it was a crisis back then, how do we describe it now? An apocalypse?

It’s the perfect storm. An impossible job market, and cuts to services and welfare are compounding the very basic fact that we simply don’t have enough roofs to put over people’s heads. This smart, if depressing, infographic (thanks to @tobylloyd) says it all. Ok, there’s a problem with empty homes left standing; but London, a city of 8m people, only has 24,000 empty homes. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the need in the capital alone.

We’re all agreed there’s a problem, and things are about to get worse as the bedroom tax and benefit cap come into force, driving thousands more families out of their homes. But what can charities and funders do about this?

Some housing associations are trying to expand their operations, either buying or building new homes. But this is slow and expensive progress, and we’re talking about a small number in the face of an overwhelming problem. Charities can do their best to campaign, and offer support and advice to people with housing problems, and they can provide shelter to those in most desperate need, facing life on the streets. But they cannot provide housing stock on the scale that is needed.

What about funders? 150 years ago, philanthropists such as George Peabody and Joseph Rowntree built tens of thousands of homes for the poor, recognising that the absence of a decent home underpins so many other social problems, including crime. But this connection with philanthropy has vanished over time; the building of houses is now not something that funders do. The advent of the welfare state meant that responsibility for housing shifted to the government, and today many funders are loathe to support areas which they feel should be the concern of the state. At a recent meeting of funders concerned about the impact of the universal credit there was much grumbling about the prospect of having to act as a back-up welfare system.

But the collapse of the relationship between philanthropy and affordable housing is an interesting development, and one that NPC will be looking into soon, working with the Smith Insitute. Peabody has provided funding to enable us to run a roundtable on this issue, bringing together housing professionals, academics and funders. Out of this we will commission a series of essays looking at the different aspects of housing and modern philanthropy. I doubt very much that we’ll come up with the solution to the housing crisis, but I am hopeful that by starting these conversations we can stimulate some much needed new ideas.

To learn more about this issue, you might like to read the following articles: