I wrote this blog post for Participle, a social enterprise set up by Hilary Cottam to reshape the welfare system for the 21st century. I was really glad to be asked to do it – I’m a huge admirer of Hilary’s work – her thinking on the principles that should underlie a modern benefits system make sense to me, and Participle has set up successful organisations, such as Circles and Backr, which demonstrate how these principles can work in practice. And more than that, it seems to me that her combination of thinking and doing is a very effective way to achieve change.
“The antidote to despair”: relational housing
Posted on January 9, 2014 by Relational Welfare
Can creating opportunities for neighbourliness soften the blow of the housing crisis? Katharine Hibbert shows how to put two problems together to come up with a solution.
Every week my social enterprise, Dot Dot Dot, hears from scores of young people at the sharp end of the housing crisis. For them, the possibility that they could be denied housing benefit in future, floated again this week by George Osborne, is only the latest in a long list of worries, alongside record private-sector rents, unaffordable house prices and unavailable social housing.
It’s a grim situation. But the people who walk through our door are keen to find ways to deal with their own problems without relying on the state, and to reach out and help others too. They are the best possible antidote to despair. At Dot Dot Dot, we house people who want to do voluntary work in homes that would otherwise be empty. Everyone who comes to us is willing to give at least 16 hours a month to good causes, and most of them do far more. In return, we house them for between £35 and £70 a week – between a quarter and a third of what they’d pay to rent an equivalent property privately. They are property guardians, which means their role is to take care of the buildings they’re living in, keeping them safe on the landlord’s behalf. Some will have to move house again in a matter of months, but many are able to stay in one of our properties for a year or more.
Of course our guardians come to us first and foremost because they want to save money. The housing we offer isn’t ideal – it’s temporary, they don’t have much choice about where it is, and they often need to paint and furnish it before it’s homely. In a perfect world, where everyone had access to secure, decent, affordable homes, they wouldn’t need us.
But we’re not the only organisation offering equivalent accommodation. Big commercial property guardian companies have a less rigorous selection process than we do, and charge their guardians only slightly more. Our guardians choose us because they want to be supported to do more voluntary work, to link up with others who share similar motivations, and to be treated like the reliable, responsible adults they are by my team.
Once they’re living in our properties, we hear again and again that they love living in the mutually-supportive environment we try to encourage, and which they build for themselves. Many have stayed with us even once they could afford to live in a nicer building elsewhere because they’d miss living in an environment where, just for the asking, someone will lend them a spanner or show them how to fix a puncture on their bike. Where a neighbour sets up a shared wormery for composting, or suggests a trip to the pub. Where, when someone breaks a leg or gets burgled, others drop by to make sure they’re OK.
And our guardians extend their neighbourliness to the rest of the community – on their own initiative, guardians have set up weekly litter picking sessions, and non-guardian neighbours have started joining in with these too. Guardians dig over elderly or disabled neighbours’ gardens, and in return are given coffee and cake, or tea and daal. This is alongside the formal volunteering they do – helping homeless people, mentoring kids, answering phones for the Samaritans, manning the RNLI lifeboat on the Thames.
Our guardians consider themselves lucky to have such cheap housing, and they understand our expectation that they give something back in return. This sense of community and reciprocity is lacking from the lives of many of our guardians before they join us – and their housing situation is a big part of the problem. If you’re shelling out a large proportion of your pay to cover the rent, and especially if you’re part of the cohort who has had to pay for your own university education, to carry out unpaid internships to get a foot in the door in your chosen career, and whose entitlement to benefits is being stripped away, why should you do anything other than look after number one by using your time and resources to rake in whatever cash you can? Why should you help more vulnerable members of society, when society has not helped you when you needed it?
I hope that the experience of being part of Dot Dot Dot leaves our guardians feeling rewarded for doing the right thing, and makes them want to carry on being the kinds of people who pick up crisp packets that are blowing around in the street, and reaching out to those living around them, for the rest of their lives. But we can’t be a whole solution to the housing crisis. Cutting housing benefits to under-25s, or any other group, will make their lives even more miserable and will do nothing about the underlying problems. What we need instead is a determination to build the additional housing the UK desperately needs, and, on top of the bricks and mortar, to build the sense of community, trust and reciprocity that makes people feel happy and safe.