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For many people, “can’t rent, can’t buy” spells homelessness of one sort or another.  But are there no other routes into housing, asks Jon Fitzmaurice FRSA?

This is not a good time to be in housing need: housing benefit is about to be capped and the number of affordable houses being built reduced. While it won’t solve these problems, there is another route to housing which, although it’s little known, has been around for years and could well become more common in these austere times, especially against a backdrop of the Big Society agenda and emphasis on localism.

I’m referring to “self-help housing”, which involves people getting together and negotiating with owners to use their empty property, pending decisions as to its longer term use or its ultimate fate.

Self-help housing isn’t a new idea by any means. There were lots of community driven housing projects in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which very successfully used empty property as a way of accessing housing. However, over the last twenty years or so this has tailed off, as activists behind these initiatives have moved on (some into respectable and powerful jobs in mainstream housing) and as large housing providers have turned their attention away from street properties to larger new build schemes.However, the climate is changing as a result of cuts to capital projects and a new found interest in localism and in people taking control for themselves. But what does self-help housing have to offer and how far could it go?

Bringing empty property back into use on a temporary basis can provide a good source of housing for many people, who for one reason or another are at the margins of mainstream social housing and who can’t access the private sector. These include key workers, young people, students, refugees and people leaving institutions of one kind or another, such as prison.  Sometimes it’s a group of people getting together to meet their own needs by forming a housing co-op and negotiating on their own behalf  (see Phoenix Co-op below), while in other circumstances it can be community activists wanting to create housing and opportunities for local people in housing need (see Latch and Canopy below).

Few things unite people quite like empty property: everyone hates seeing it. However, people normally feel powerless to do anything about it. One of the great spin-offs of self-help housing is that it also makes a contribution to improving the environment. Housing Minister Grant Shapps has been quick to see this and has gone on record as supporting what he’s dubbed “street level regeneration.

Many self-help housing schemes use the renovation of properties as an opportunity to provide some training in basic building skills and as an opportunity to engage people wanting work experience as volunteers.  Latch, in Leeds, has a Lottery funded “Hands On” Project for young people while Community Campus in Stockton is working with substance abusers involved in renovating properties for themselves.

Finally, self-help housing is all about enterprise and by definition, social enterprise. It can provide a terrific learning experience involving people first hand in negotiations with owners, in trying to secure finance, in organising repairs and in trying to run an emergent organisation. Some projects, like Giroscope in Hull, actually go on to support and promote new social enterprises.

First, it should be clear that self-help housing isn’t the solution to the nation’s housing problems and will only suit people with the capacity and energy to get involved. That said, it can be a relatively quick and inexpensive route to securing housing and there could- and should - be a lot more going on. Although it’s not dependent on government, for this to happen, there really needs to be proper recognition that this is a valuable activity, more accessible and widely available grants to finance repairs to empty properties and more encouragement and support for self-help projects, which at present is rarely the case.

Government, both local and central, seems to find it extremely difficult to “let go” and hand things over to local people – too risky. However, with all the talk about Big Society and localism, self-help housing must be the right thing to do and surely now is the right time to do it. Here are some great examples.

Latch and Canopy, Leeds

Latch and Canopy are two community driven projects that work  with volunteers and homeless people, renovating disused and derelict properties in inner city Leeds. Between them, they now manage around 80 properties, many of which are leased from Leeds City Council. Both provide hands-on training in building skills to their service users and are committed to helping to regenerate their local communities.

Phoenix Housing Co-op, London

Phoenix Housing Co-op provides a local volunteer-led solution for single homeless people in east London. Initially Phoenix borrowed all its properties on licence from local authorities and housing associations, but over the years it has managed to acquire 60 permanent units of accommodation, while still managing a further 120 short-life units.

Giroscope, Hull

Giroscope was formed by a group of young people who decided to do something positive about homelessness. To date it has renovated 23 houses, seven flats, three offices, a shop and 3,000 square feet of workshop space, which is let out to a variety of local organisations. It has succeeded in providing affordable homes for hundreds of people and helped to set up a variety of small businesses.

Jon Fitzmaurice is an RSA Fellow who worked in Birmingham with young unemployed people on empty properties a very long time ago and has never kicked the empty property habit.  Two years ago, he set up Self-Help Housing.Org with funding from the Tudor Trust to promote self-help housing initiatives. The website provides a comprehensive guide to self-help housing.


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