How to ease Britain's housing crisis? Harlem has the answer

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Dec 26 21:02:04 GMT 2013

My first year as a food bank organiser (3 times last Christmas' demand!)
'When we started, we knew there was a need, but 
had no idea how much' – Ruth Fox on how her new 
job has changed her view of Britain, for both better and worse

How to ease Britain's housing crisis? Harlem has the answer
Councils are hoarding thousands of empty 
properties which could be auctioned off to local families
Michael Goldfarb   The Guardian, Tuesday 24 December 2013
The British media are particularly adept at 
finding something that gets people outraged – and 
last month the outrage was over the London 
property market. The frenzy reached its peak with 
an obscene story about Southwark council selling 
off a five-storey property at auction for £3m.
Politicians occasionally tap into this anger but 
I'm not sure to what effect. Ed Miliband's recent 
announcement on housing was a paradigm: the 
Labour leader said he would force private 
companies "hoarding" land for development to give 
it up, and Labour would be building 200,000 homes 
a year by 2020 – if elected in 2015.
The announcement distinctly underwhelmed the 
public. But the family housing crisis isn't going 
away and, rather than riding the outrage express 
or waiting on the offchance that Labour wins and 
makes good its promises, there are some practical 
things that could be done right now to alleviate 
the lack of family homes in London and elsewhere.
Part of the problem is local councils – too many 
of them Labour-run like Southwark – sitting on 
large numbers of terraced family houses, keeping 
them empty and occasionally selling them off like 
an impoverished dowager pawning a piece of 
jewellery. Nobody knows for sure how many empty 
council homes there are in London; reports vary 
from 6,000 upwards. There are also privately 
owned houses standing empty, many abandoned. The 
charity Empty Homes says that in 2012 more than 
24,000 properties in London were unoccupied long term.
Yet these empty properties could be turned into 
family homes if London's boroughs were willing to 
learn a lesson from New York. Thirty-five years 
ago, New York began a programme of allowing 
people to buy abandoned, unoccupied property that 
had fallen into city ownership. No down-payment 
was required. People put "sweat equity" into 
renovating the property, earning their ownership 
stake by the value of the improvements they made.
The sweat equity model was picked up by other 
municipalities around the US. Habitat for 
Humanity has used it for decades to help get 
people into home ownership. The benefits were 
noted 20 years ago by the federal Department of 
Housing: "Sweat equity contributions 
significantly reduce construction and 
rehabilitation costs. Volunteers in the programme 
receive training in construction and home repair 
techniques; these techniques not only provide 
valuable job skills, but also give individuals 
the capacity to extend the life of their 
neighbourhood's housing stock. Finally, sweat 
equity programmes can build neighbourhood ties 
and empower communities by assisting individuals 
in taking responsibility for their environment."
The city began to seize properties for 
non-payment of taxes – and the government 
organised a lottery of the properties. One of the 
key components of the programme was that only 
those already living in the community could 
enter. The government was trying to preserve 
neighbourhoods. If a person won a property via 
the lottery, all they had to do was pay off the 
back taxes and the keys were theirs. The city 
provided loans to help do the places up. The 
catch was that you had to make a commitment to 
live in the property for three years; this deterred speculators.
A couple of years ago, I made a radio documentary 
for the BBC World Service: a history of Harlem 
over the last century as it was lived on one 
block, 120th Street between Fifth and Lenox 
Avenues. I met Dawn Harris Martin, who won a 
house on 120th Street via the lottery in the 
early 80s. She was a schoolteacher, married to a 
policeman. In the African-American community, 
that made the couple solidly middle-class, but 
they couldn't afford to buy a house.
The house Martin got via the lottery was a 
five-storey place on 120th Street. At the time, 
she told me, there were perhaps three other 
occupied houses on the block. At the corner of 
Fifth Avenue was Mount Morris Park, one of the 
most notorious open-air drug markets in Harlem. 
It was a very dangerous street to live on and her 
husband did not want to move to such a 
down-and-out place. So Martin divorced her 
husband and married the house. She put years into 
renovating it and raised her children there.
Today, 120th Street is a solid, safe, integrated 
thoroughfare – a neighbourhood with people 
looking out for one another. Proof of how far 
120th Street has come is that celebrities have 
moved in: the author Maya Angelou and former 
basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now 
retired, Martin owns a toy shop/children's 
bookshop on the street, called Grandma's Place. 
Don't ask the value of the house she renovated. 
Her children are going to inherit well. New York 
continues to run a lottery programme to help 
low-income people on to the housing ladder. Newly 
elected Mayor Bill de Blasio promises to do even more.
With adjustments to fit local conditions in 
London, a variation of these programmes could go 
a long way to getting families into home 
ownership and preserving neighbourhood continuity 
and the capital's economic diversity. In Stoke 
and Liverpool, sweat equity programmes are under 
way, according to Empty Homes. Rather than 
auctioning off properties periodically to help 
balance council books, why shouldn't Southwark or 
Hackney, my local council, organise a lottery for 
the hundreds of empty or abandoned properties around their boroughs?
Make the lottery open only to people with 
families who have lived in the borough for the 
last five years. Winners would then commit to 
living in the homes they renovate for an equal 
length of time. Policies that lead to social 
stability and increased, regular council tax 
revenue trump one-off sales to non-residents and speculators.
At the very least, an audit of empty council 
properties around the country should be made as a 
matter of urgency. While the audit is conducted, 
a moratorium should be put in place on further auctions.
That may be asking too much. In Southwark, the 
auctions continue. The council website suggests 
interested parties contact an estate agent to 
find out what's coming up for sale next.

Despair on the frontline of Britain's homelessness crisis
Advisers at the homeless charity Shelter are 
taking 500 calls a day from distraught people
Amelia Gentleman The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 15.15 GMT
Advisers at Shelter's national helpline are doing 
everything they can to make the call-centre 
office feel like a cheerful environment. Tinsel 
with Christmas baubles has been hung from the 
ceiling, tiny silver Christmas trees and felt 
reindeer have been stuck on the tops of computer 
screens, cotton-wool icicles are hanging from the 
windows, and colleagues have brought in mince pies and chocolates to share.
You quickly understand why maintaining a good 
mood in the office is important if you spend time 
listening in to the calls that come in, at a rate 
of around 500 a day, from people facing imminent 
homelessness or already sleeping rough and 
seeking advice about how to find somewhere new to live.
The anxiety and emotion that pours into the 
headsets of crisis advice workers in this crowded 
fifth-floor Sheffield call centre offers a 
snapshot of the UK's worsening homelessness 
crisis. Advisers at Shelter's helpline are 
processing more calls than ever. Last year there 
was a 15% increase in the volume of calls – a 
reflection, staff think, of the degree to which 
people are struggling with rising house prices, 
soaring rents, cuts to housing benefit and the 
long shadow of the recession. A day spent at the 
centre provides a clear picture of the kinds of 
housing problems people face, as pressure on 
council house stock intensifies and radical 
changes to benefit entitlements are introduced.
An employment adviser calls on behalf of a 
23-year-old client whom he is trying to help find 
work – a process that is complicated by the fact 
that the man, and his young girlfriend, have 
nowhere to live and are sleeping on the streets. 
The girlfriend is 18 weeks pregnant and, for 
reasons that are unclear, her father has thrown 
her out. Sharon Reeves, one of the helpline 
advisers, calmly explains the best course of 
action. "If she is pregnant, they would be in 
priority need. It sounds like the council has 
just fobbed them off. They should have provided 
them with a bed and breakfast to stay in. They 
should really go back to the council and challenge it," she tells the man.
"He's been three times already. I told him not to 
leave this time until he gets a B&B or a hostel. 
Anything is better than being on the streets," 
the employment adviser replies, audibly 
distressed by the situation faced by the couple. 
Reeves is touched that the employment adviser has 
been dismayed enough by his client's situation to 
want to try to help. "Some people are still 
shocked, but it doesn't surprise me – I hear it a 
lot," she says. She has been working in the call 
centre for five months and is already familiar 
with similar situations. "All the calls are awful 
when you first start. Now it already feels commonplace."..........

+44 (0)7786 952037
Twitter: @TonyGosling
uk-911-truth+subscribe at
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic 
poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung

Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered 
that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that 
shall not be made known. What I tell you in 
darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye 
hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27

Die Pride and Envie; Flesh, take the poor's advice.
Covetousnesse be gon: Come, Truth and Love arise.
Patience take the Crown; throw Anger out of dores:
Cast out Hypocrisie and Lust, which follows whores:
Then England sit in rest; Thy sorrows will have end;
Thy Sons will live in peace, and each will be a friend.  
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list