Our coronavirus response shows ways to end homelessness and provide affordable housing

Posted On 24 Jun 2020 at 6:26 pm

Beyond the coronavirus pandemic, we are acting on housing recovery and regeneration.

And the response to covid-19 points to actions that could end homelessness and provide truly affordable homes.

Despite the social distancing guidelines, the coronavirus has enhanced our reliance on and confidence in our communities.

We have refrained from visiting loved ones but have shopped and cooked for neighbours who are self-isolating.

The Spearhead

We have exercised in our nearest green spaces, relied on local shops for deliveries and have begun to grow more vegetables.

We have organised covid-19 mutual aid groups, set up food banks and clapped for our carers.

And councils have achieved the seemingly impossible by providing all rough sleepers with an offer of accommodation and support.

But how will we recover from the impact of covid-19 on society? And what have we learnt?

Addressing homelessness

The move into hotels, with a chance to work intensively with support workers and develop individualised move-on plans, is an opportunity to break the vicious cycle of homelessness.

It enables councils to achieve a “psychologically informed” understanding of individual rough sleepers and to address any underlying mental health and addiction issues they may have.

In time, this should mean the council is able to help an unprecedented number of rough sleepers to escape homelessness and rebuild their lives.

The private rented sector

As the embargo on private rented sector evictions comes to an end, one solution to the problem of private renters who have lost their income because of the pandemic is interest-free loans.

This approach has been adopted in Spain and could be combined with waivers of some rent arrears.

Many landlords have already been willing to reduce or waive rent owed by tenants whose incomes have been decimated.

Unless they bought their properties recently and rely on rent to pay a mortgage, landlords are generally more financially resilient than their tenants and ultimately will have the option of selling their rental property, usually with a substantial capital appreciation.

Affordable housing

The wider problem remains the lack of truly affordable housing. At up to 80 per cent of local market rents, the term “affordable” remains a misnomer when applied to rented housing – and nowhere is this more true than in Brighton and Hove.

We need an expanded programme of truly affordable housing. This could include schemes to build and retrofit truly affordable housing – and “self-help” projects, involving the refurbishment of existing properties.

It could also provide employment to those who have lost jobs in sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus such as the aviation, accommodation and food service industries.

It could also provide jobs to former rough sleepers “with no or low needs”, meaning they have no addiction or mental health issues.

Participants would acquire new skills. And given the need to retrofit virtually our entire existing housing stock to meet the city’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2030, it’s clear there will be future demand for these skills.

Community housing

Local authorities are beginning to encourage self-build and customised housebuilding. Across the country, there are increasing numbers of self-build projects dedicated to creating a new type of urban society, building low-carbon homes designed by people or communities around their own needs.

The government’s Home Building Fund is intended to focus funding for this on areas with the greatest pressures on affordability. And nowhere are those pressures felt more keenly than in Brighton and Hove.

The inevitable review of office space requirements post-lockdown could bring new opportunities for alternative use. Any such review needs to focus on what is best for people.

The Royal Town Planning Institute points out in a recent paper that “disadvantaged places and communities are disproportionately more vulnerable to climate change than their wealthier counterparts”.

The ethical response is to buck that trend. Let’s repurpose our excess public sector office space for maximum social value, either to support local voluntary organisations or small businesses or as additional housing.

If the latter, self-help refurbishment projects could be an effective way of achieving this.

Community engagement

Calls by politicians for engagement with local communities are often unsupported by serious genuine commitment.

But in Brighton, the recent consultation on a new housing project – the Moulsecoomb Hub – elicited 340 individual suggestions from local residents.

Future projects should build on this. Who would not want to influence the design of their homes and the character of their neighbourhood, given the opportunity?

So let’s widen that opportunity. Only by listening to local voices can we build strong, resilient communities.

Councillor Siriol Hugh-Jones is a Green councillor and the joint opposition spokesperson on housing at Brighton and Hove City Council.

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