church of england housing
Church of England

‘Coming Home’: what role should the Church play in housing?

“Across the UK, eight million people currently live in substandard housing, 800,000 people are in overcrowded households and one in five households face real difficulties in paying their mortgage or rent”, writes the Archbishop of Canterbury with the Bishop of Kensington. “Churches up and down the country know this only too well”, they remind us, “they offer shelter to homeless people, try to help those struggling to pay essential bills, and see foodbanks triple in size in a pandemic. While some progress has been made, we still have a housing crisis.”

The Church of England has long been involved in trying to resolve complex social issues in order to ameliorate people’s suffering, because this is the vocation of the universal Church. The missional principle is sound: if you want people to listen to your sermons of salvation, first multiply the loaves and fish to fill their bellies. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re hungry, and it is very, very difficult to raise a family and educate your children when you’re moved from hostel to hostel or living in damp and mouldy squalor.

Justin Welby and Graham Tomlin summarise the crisis: “..overcrowding, an unstable rental market, the constant threat of eviction, social housing waiting lists, homelessness and, of course, the impact on family and community life.” And the statistics are alarming: “In 1966 there were 12,400 people in temporary accommodation supplied by local councils. Today there are a quarter of a million.”

There was of course no mass immigration in 1966, and there was no freedom of movement before accession to the EEC is in 1973. But these points aren’t mentioned in the Church of England’s report ‘Coming Home‘: the focus is on the need to build more houses, which must be “truly affordable”. And not only that, they must be the kind of homes “that people can be proud of”.

This is very complex, both politically and sociologically. While no-one doubts that our homes are vital to our health and wellbeing, there are many cultural, societal and racial variables which lead to poverty. If the Church of England’s mission is one of social justice in housing, then it becomes one of equality, and that confronts both the market and human nature, neither of which can be bucked.

Good housing “should be sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying”. This is good alliteration, but who defines and surveys whether a particular house fulfils any or all of these values? Who, indeed, determines what is “truly affordable”? The house which is truly affordable to the working household bringing up two children is not truly affordable to the non-working household bring up four children. Should, then, the church ensure that the non-working household with four children be provided with a detached house and garden they can be proud of, while the working household with two children struggles to make ends meet in a semi with a slabbed yard which they aren’t particularly proud of?

This is a new development on a landfill site in Ludlow, Shropshire:

It is quite beautiful, is it not? If the Church of England commits to building 90,000 of these on its vast acres of land, this would not only solve the housing crisis, but make England’s social housing among the most beautiful in the world.

But these houses would only be “truly affordable” if the Church of England sells its land cheaply (way below market value), and architects and builders minimise their profits. This demands not only that charity law be changed, but that the market be bucked, and the human heart be somehow guarded from greed. The entire housing market is driven by Mammon, and it isn’t entirely clear how church-led action can temper dog-eat-dog, or tranquilise selfishness.

It is one thing (and a truly honourable thing) to advocate for a “long-term, cross-party housing strategy to build more truly affordable homes and healthy communities, and to ensure that no one has to live in unacceptable housing conditions”, but if the church is housing non-working single parents in beautiful mock-Elizabethan courtyards, what do working married parents begin to feel when they live here?

While the poorest and most marginalised undoubtedly suffer the burden of the housing crisis, it is only really solved by lifting people out of poverty, and you don’t encourage people to come off welfare when their benefit income is more than paid employment, and their home is better than anything they could afford on the market.

The Church of England’s long-term strategy, or vision, is laudable:

First, we don’t have any very clear notion of what good housing looks like. We know what the point of the NHS is: high class health care, offered to everyone regardless of wealth, free to all at the point of need. In the same way, we need an agreed picture for housing. That’s why the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission has offered a vision of what good housing is: homes that are sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.

But we also need a long-term housing strategy. Climate change is a huge problem but at least we now have an idea of what we are aiming at, a long-term strategy that every government of whatever political stripe has to buy into: zero carbon emissions by 2050.

To solve the housing crisis, we need a similar long-term goal. Our housing crisis is really an affordability crisis. We don’t just need more houses, we need more good quality houses that people can genuinely afford.

What if we were to set a target for the number of truly affordable homes we need in 20 years’ time? What if we were to work out the financial gap between the cost of providing them and what they would cost at normal market prices? What if successive governments then had the task of planning ahead how to meet that gap by whatever means necessary?

The NHS is universal healthcare free at the point of need. The healthy jogger is prepared to pay taxes to subsidise the healthcare of the heavy smoker because the healthy jogger might one day get cancer or fall under a bus. Universal healthcare has become a post-war settlement in the UK because everyone benefits, though the costs are by no means borne equally. How, exactly, would this model work for housing? How is everyone going to live in a home which is “sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying”?

The proposal seems to be that the Government plug the gap between the cost of provision and market prices: “What if successive governments then had the task of planning ahead how to meet that gap by whatever means necessary?”

But the Government’s money is taxpayers’ money. Will salaried, hardworking taxpayers be content for unlimited £billions to be spent subsidising unsalaried, non-working people in much nicer homes than their salaries can afford? Why struggle to make ends meet in your dilapidated semi or mould-infested bungalow if you can obtain a ‘truly affordable’ and ‘satisfying’ house which you ‘can be proud of’ from the church?

Is it really part of the Church’s mission to build ‘satisfying’ mansions on earth when all you’ll get in heaven is a room in the Father’s house?