I have been thinking recently about our strap line ‘Housing solutions to social injustice’ and indeed have written in previous blogs about how proud and continually energised I am by it – it sums up in five words exactly what Commonweal is all about.
To date we have always interpreted this as Commonweal providing the best, most appropriate housing we can to our project partners – bespoke housing that will give our new pilot projects the best chance of succeeding – to tackle the identified injustice. The key point being that it is ‘the best’ housing.
Recently however I have been thinking about our new Starter for 10 competition winning research project commissioned by Thames Reach and covered in detail here. The problem is tent encampments – predominantly of east European migrants, often working in the exploitative cash in hand economy. The tents are the manifestation of poor – and in many cases exploited – people’s choice to minimise their housing costs so as to maximise the amount they can send ‘home’ and is seen as a transitory housing option for many individuals before they follow their money back home. There is a strong argument that traditional housing models: 6 month PRS tenancies, shared houses, hostels or hotels do not meet the need of this group who, mostly, do not seek a long term future in the UK.
But tent encampments are not the only unsuitable housing option many such exploited groups and individuals resort to. The phenomenon of beds-in-sheds….people paying to sleep in illegal badly or barely converted garages and sheds in unsanitary and frequently dangerous conditions; exploited by unscrupulous landlords. I keep wondering whether this is the last refuge of the destitute and desperate or an active decision to reduce housing costs.
If the former, then better alternatives must be found; if the latter then again better alternatives must be found. This is not necessarily to save such individuals from their own choices but because, just like the tent encampments, beds-in-sheds cause annoyance, distress and concern to local communities and neighbourhoods. Host areas are frequently blighted by rubbish and human refuse of all descriptions despoiling roads, gardens, public parks and open spaces.
My view is there should be something better. A better, safer sanitary form of housing for the individuals; a realistic, available and affordable option that can then legitimately give local councils not just the legal but the moral right to take firm action against such illegal, unsanitary or unsafe encampments and beds-in-sheds “There will be no need for you to stay here as X or Y alternative is available for you.”
I have written previously about the need to rehabilitate certain terms and ideas that have fallen into disrepute over recent decades of housing policy and debate. Terms such as tied housing, landlady and shared housing; well what about the working persons flophouse? Somewhere providing minimal but adequate accommodation at low nightly rates for those working and seeking transitory housing. I believe that basic concept remains sound and a vital form of housing. We need to have confidence that lessons can be learnt from what went wrong previously and why such institutions fell in to disrepute. But to use an old cliché we do seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
In the recent Newsnight discussion on the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home, Evan Davis noted the current lack of emergency refuge or similar housing.
My mind keeps coming back to new forms of construction, pod based modular buildings and similar ideas. In my head I can’t shift the notion of some form of pod based cubicle type provision that can be installed at minimal cost and structural disruption into existing spaces. Something that could provide a better alternative to bare mattresses on a church hall floor; something that can be a genuine and appropriate ‘meanwhile’ use for warehouses or light industrial units?
The willingness of some people to live pro-tem in difficult or uncomfortable conditions and pay a small sum for doing so is becoming a growing industry with the notion of property guardians the latest popular alternative to tinning up or other forms of void property security.
Commonweal have just starting talking to architects and others far more imaginative and skilled at visualising and brining forward ideas for what such 21st Century Flophouses might look like. I am excited about how these conversations might develop going forward as the injustice and the need was something they picked up on very quickly. The ‘Commonweal nod’ was much in evidence – the physical demonstration of where people start saying “oh yes! I hadn’t thought of that before… yes you’re right that certainly sounds like a possible solution.”
However this poses a challenge for the housing and homelessness sector who have long called for better housing standards; increased tenancy security; more rights for tenants and occupants; the closure of the old ‘spikes’ and workhouses and progressive improvements in housing quality and tenures.
Reimagining such pod and cubicle ‘flophouses’ is seen by some as a very backward step, an inadequate form of housing provision. My challenge however to that is surely this is better than what exists currently in garages and tent encampments in too many areas? At Commonweal we may comment upon but will generally leave the big policy arguments, such as how to solve the housing crisis, to others. In the meantime we will try to work with imaginative partners to find realistic housing solutions to real and immediate social injustices.
For me it is an absolute injustice that poor or exploited individuals live in such tent encampments and dangerous beds-in-sheds; but it is also an injustice that local communities have to live with the impact of such illegal accommodation.
I am a pragmatist – I hope I always seek the best but sometimes good enough is good enough.
Ashley Horsey is Chief Executive of Commonweal Housing