The housing crisis and homelessness


I have been thinking a lot about homelessness over the last couple of months. Thanks to a call-out from someone at the Rye Food Bank, a homeless man – let’s call him John – has been living with me since the beginning of September. His home prior to that is pictured above. His tent has been pelted with stones by kids. On another occasion, he was flooded out when the tide on the river Rother was unusually high.

Like many homeless, John is ex-forces. He experiences PTSD, which has led him to make a few bad life choices. And yet I find him easy to live with. He is courteous and considerate. He helps around the garden and house, and looks after my dog when I’m out, so I benefit too.

The worst part of homelessness is the loss of dignity and self-respect, and the stigma that comes with it. John makes the point that he isn’t a junkie or an alcoholic, just a regular guy. It is true that 80% rough sleepers have problems with at least one of mental health, drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, rough sleeping is a vicious cycle, either creating or amplifying these problems.

And yet John is someone many of us might admire. He’s hard working, multi-skilled and, of course, he’s served his country. But his path back to working and living in his own home again is very unclear. He has never owned a property, as he has always been on the move and never been able to build up savings. It doesn’t seem fair for him to be in this situation.

I find homelessness difficult to comprehend. Surely, in a civilised society, there is no excuse for it? Despite living in the world’s sixth biggest economy, ever more of us are living without anywhere to call home; sleeping rough, sofa surfing, in temporary accommodation or whatever. Right now, there are around 300,000 people in the UK who are homeless, more than 120,000 of them are children.

Across the country, there is a chronic shortage of social housing. For decades, successive governments have failed to build enough. This has left millions of people and countless communities without access to secure, long-term and affordable homes. In stark contrast to the pre-Right to Buy era, the vast majority of houses built since 1980 in the UK have been by private enterprise. In the UK, a much larger share of the population is renting instead of owning their homes, compared to other European countries. Out of approximately 23.5 million households, more than one in three are private or social renters.

The housing market in the last 20 years in particular has seen house values skyrocket. Throughout much of the late 20th century, most people could reasonably afford to buy a house, with the average house price amounting to four times the average salary. It has now shifted to almost 10 times more. In a just society, houses should first and foremost be homes, not financial assets.

There are so many injustices in the UK housing market, including huge generational gaps. The over 50s, accounting for less than half the adult population, now hold 78% of all the UK’s privately held housing wealth and ‘baby boomers’ (or those over 65) own a staggering £2.5 trillion (2,500 billion!) in unearned property equity. For many, including most young people, getting hold of the bottom rung of the housing ladder is simply out of reach.

There are more than 100,000 houses belonging to foreign shell companies where for the most part, the owners cannot even be identified. Increasingly more houses are snapped up as second homes or holiday lets, amplifying the housing shortage for everyone else.

The country is heading towards a catastrophic situation, where hundreds of thousands of families and individuals in financial distress are facing being forced from their homes and into a system already strained to breaking point.

The delivery of genuinely affordable homes to combat the woeful shortage should be a government priority. There is currently an overreliance on unsuitable temporary accommodation, often in private ownership, which is putting a huge strain on local authorities. Hastings Borough Council is close to bankruptcy as a result of needing to find temporary accommodation. Last year, councils in England had to spend a record £2.4bn tackling homelessness, with £1.7bn of that spent on temporary accommodation – up more than 10% since last year. It doesn’t even fix the problem, it just kicks it down the road. The number of households in temporary accommodation will almost double in England over the next 20 years if there is no change to current policy.

Interestingly, just 5% of adults in the UK are landlords. Amongst Conservative MPs, that jumps to 20% and property developers are prominent amongst major donors to the party. Little wonder there is currently a lack of appetite to change policy in favour of a fairer system.

I was delighted to see Rother District Council (RDC) planning committee, which includes Green Party councillor Polly Gray, support a tenure mix to deliver a 100% affordable housing scheme consisting of 39 dwellings at Westfield Down recently. Likewise, the creation of RDC Housing Company, which is now developing the Blackfriars site in Battle, which features 200 homes to include affordable homes, is a welcome development in Rother. Since 2011, Rother has only managed to deliver 516 affordable homes in total, when the annual target is 295.

There is no doubt that the issue of housing and homelessness is complex. The Green Party’s position on housing is that affordable, secure and comfortable accommodation is a basic human right, even for John. It can be achieved if the political will is there.

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Image Credits: Dominic Manning .

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  1. Thank you Dominic, for your beautiful and compelling letter and for opening your home in the way that you have. And for the serious questions it asks us as a society.

    I have been thinking much about homelessness and destitution too. I am alarmed to see how many people are potentially just a very few steps away from it, and how quickly it can happen. And the heartbreaking path to despair, helplessness and humiliation that so many experience as a result.

    And I ask myself, is a response really possible? Is a solution within our reach as the caring community that I know we are? And the answer is always the same: it is at least very difficult; houses are too expensive to be “affordable”, and locations to build them are hard to find.

    But hang on, do modest but beautiful dwellings HAVE to be so expensive? Could we design ultra-compact, durable and beautiful lightweight structures instead of the traditional heavyweight multi bedroom house? Dwellings that are efficient enough to be virtually “off grid”? And do local authorities really not have land that such dwellings could be placed on and which could be connected to water supplies and drainage?

    I know I’m asking simple and probably naive questions, but it upsets me that we seem to be stuck with the status quo, and the misery it causes. A situation your letter highlights so well. Perhaps it takes simple questions that invite innovative response to make a difference to initiate change.

    I’d anticipate that it would be possible to raise funds from within the community to help this along…. Maybe you’ve started something, Dominic – and good on you for doing so!

    Bob Harper
    Rye Food Bank

  2. Dominic, so glad you tackled this subject as it is close to my heart and was thinking of writing ab it.
    In the 90s I managed a homeless centre for 10 years in Baker Street. Many unfortunately drank because life on the street was dire but they respected our rules and few came in drunk . Each morning 100 plus sought our help, having a shower, new clothes, cheap bfast and were able to access housing workers, deal with drug and alcohol issues and counselling.
    Many were ex army yes because after leaving the army they had no help within a decision making world. Many were married with children , which fell apart and the man moved out and ended up on the street. I could go on at the injustices and bad behaviour of ordinary people towards them.
    However, several homeless projects got together like St Mungo’s and we managed to half the people on the streets.We also tackled the army policy and at the time they agreed to set up a two year adjustment period for soldiers to adapt.
    Over the last many years the homeless crises has doubled to when I started in the 90s. And don’t let’s forget the many families waiting in b&bs to get any chance at being housed.
    It is despairing.

  3. And yet we still let all these asylum seekers in who have paid thousands of pounds to use a boat to get here. have good clothes and mobile phones and refuse to live in the free accommodation and be supplied with free food and benefits

  4. It would be interesting to see what land East Sussex County Council, and Rother district Council still own in Rye,to help the chronic shortage of social housing, we have seen them auction the Camber field for what many say was a bargain, and it’s time our elected representatives tell us what dormant land in their possession, could be used to ease the shortfall of desperately needed houses,for our local people, who are struggling with high rents in the private sector.

  5. I’m probably wrong in believing that many “affordable” properties countrywide are being bought up by wealthier people for holiday lets. We have only to read about one of our local fisherman in the Rye news recently and those in Cornwall who cannot afford to live in the towns where they grew up and now work due to the cost of housing.

    If loopholes were closed and second homes were clobbered with quadruple Council Tax for example, this might lead to more properties being available to those struggling at present to find anywhere to live. It would be interesting to know how many holiday let properties lie empty during the winter months, turning bustling towns and villages into ghost towns. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here in Rye.

    Perhaps we could persuade holiday let owners, as a gesture of goodwill (and to perhaps appease their consciences), to allow the homeless sanctuary over the winter period when their properties lie empty? I won’t hold my breath in anticipation of this.

  6. Good article, Dominic. And an even more impressive social conscience. Good on you. It was 1918 when David Lloyd George promised returning servicemen to make Britain ‘a fit country for heroes to live in.’ Clearly, a century later we’ve got a way to go… Even when still serving, our army families are let down by poor housing. So much for the Armed Forces Covenant…
    Re John’s point, if the register of property assets held by ESCC and RDC aren’t readily available, a Freedom of Info request could be lodged.
    To Bob, is the expense largely due to the top down developer model? Dominic will doubtless know.
    In terms of local housing needs, Rother are developing a number of sites, including Westfield Down and the site at Old Lydd Rd, Camber. Regarding both these developments, Rother have ensured the houses are all affordable homes – initially, there was a distribution between market rate and affordable homes. With respect to Westfield Down, the variation in the plan to create 100% affordable homes (rather than a mix including homes to be sold at market rate) got x-party support, save for the Conservatives… In Committee, the Conservatives demanded a recorded vote, rather than the normal non-partisan show of hands. Presumably, they wanted an indelible record of their opposition to affordable homes for local people…?


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