How to ease Britain's housing crisis? Harlem has the answer
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Dec 26 21:02:04 GMT 2013
My first year as a food bank organiser (3 times last Christmas' demand!)
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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."..........
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"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.
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