Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Forget politics - let's talk homes
Working experiments in alternative housing. Photo: Nick Cobbing

Forget Politics - Let's Talk Homes

Jim Paton, long-serving member of the Advisory Service for Squatter’s and a housing activist for the last 30 years, kicks off a new series on the false housing myths behind which the politicians hide. Each issue’s facile folly is accompanied by a look at positive solutions coming up from grass-roots level.

Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pp. 30-31.

Facile Folly No. 1: Empty Properties.

There are 764,600 privately owned empty homes. That’s a lot more than belong to councils (71,000) or housing associations (17,500) or the government (12,400). If only the owners could be forced or persuaded to rent them out, most homelessness could be solved.

Rubbish! This is not only Tory dogma (give landlords more ‘incentives’ and homelessness disappears), it is also curiously accepted by many concerned liberal-types who think they know about housing and homelessness. Trouble is - they don’t.

Most homelessness is hidden. The only figures the government tries to collect are about homeless families and a few others in the ‘priority need’ housing category. This is what the media often puts requotes as the extent of British homelessness. It isn’t. There are no reliable figures for how many single people are homeless, and the estimates are huge. It’s very unlikely that even all of these private empties could come anywhere near to solving the problems.

Market Madness

Most of these houses are never going to be let anyway. Some are simply in the process of being sold; others are empty because people have had to move and can’t sell, or else they’ve been repossessed by mortgage lenders who can’t sell either. They are not likely to be rented, as doing so could mean missing a possible sale. Even if they get flogged at auction, it’s often to speculators or developers. These houses are mired in an old English eccentricity, boosted by Thatcherism, that views houses as investments, rather than places to live.

Of course, there are still some places which could be rented - and certainly shouldn’t be left standing empty while people are homeless. But where does that get us? Private renting is always short-term. Assured Shorthold Tenancies - virtually the only form of private letting used - usually lasts for six months or a year. That’s less than experienced squatters often get, at least up to now. A big expansion in private renting might make an initial temporary dent in homelessness, but after that it would create as much as it solved. As tenancies run out, people lose their homes, often to be replaced by others able to pay more rent. ‘Market mechanisms’ in rented housing just crank up exploitation and evictions, creating a merry-go-round that heads nowhere.

As soon as the market for selling houses picks up a bit, private renting turns into a big dipper. Gentrification becomes profitable again and tenants get tipped out in preference to dodgy ‘development’; creating fewer homes for richer people. Anyway, the Government has just about removed private renting as an option for most homeless people, with the further restrictions on housing benefit announced in the last budget. Landlords have become more wary about letting to people on housing benefit than they were before. That includes low-paid workers, as well as people on Income Support etc. Most landlords just don’t rent to such people full stop.

Short-Life Side Track

A marginally better idea - though only just - is what is called ‘short-life’ housing. It’s a system which used to be called ‘licensed squatting’ and grew out of the squatting movement of the early ’70s, when councils were eventually pressurised into legitimising squatting - at least to some extent. Short-life simply means getting permission from the owners to use their property temporarily. At the outset, squatters and homeless people were able to set up co-ops and negotiate shortlife licenses with councils or other big bureaucracies; it was a reasonable means of self-help housing, even if it did involve compromises.

Nowadays, the scene is much more institutionalised. It’s very unusual for new small co-ops to be able to get any short-life. It mostly goes to, or at least through, big housing associations. (Although the excellent work of Housing Action Zone in Luton(1), covered in SQUALL 8, is a rare exception to this, just going to prove that creating pressure by squatting can still get you what asking politely never does!)

These days, councils have very little empty property that they’re willing to short-life, and often aren’t involved. The focus is much more on private owners. That doesn’t usually mean the one-off individuals who own most private empty homes, but commercial or institutional private owners, which is a much more limited pool. In London, the pool is rapidly being mopped up by short-life deals. The Empty Homes Agency(2) promotes a lot of these deals and can give advice about setting up short-life. Schemes by which housing associations offer to manage places on behalf of private landlords’, amount to virtually the same thing under a different name.

There are two big drawbacks with short-life. Most of it is in very bad condition and you need money to make it officially habitable (although squatters could do it for very little). The Housing Corporation, one of the original quangos, dishes out government grants for such schemes which used to be called ‘mini-HAG’, but are now known as ‘SHAG’. No. honest, the corridors of power weren’t infiltrated by Anarchy in the UK’s Smut Fest. The Corpy thought this one up all by themselves! Anyway, SHAG money is given only via big housing associations, who control the works and have to monitor the organisation actually using the places. The wallydom, waste and delay this often leads to, is well described in the experience of Exodus’s HAZ in SQUALL 8.

An even bigger drawback has been documented in reports by West Hampstead Housing Association(3) and Joseph Rowntree Foundation(4). When your short-life is up, there’s often nowhere to go. Maybe there’s another place for another year or so, maybe not. Only 15% of short-lifers whose homes are taken away get secure housing, about 65% get moved to more short-life and about 20% are left homeless. Short-life is stacked with people who have lived in this precarious way for up to 20 years, with no prospect of a secure home. It has much the same pressure and anxieties as squatting, but less control over your own circumstances. In the long term, it screws you up! More short-life without a route to a secure home is a dead end.

Sustainable Homes

We certainly shouldn’t let homes - whoever owns them - stand empty and go to waste. But neither should we let the state get away with pretending that homelessness can be seriously reduced by it; ‘legitimising’ or ‘rationalising’ the process of filling the empties.

Whether it’s the Tories ‘stimulating the rented market’ or Labour relying on the bureaucratic expansion of short-life, homelessness isn’t going to be solved by yet more temporary housing, from which people get constantly moved on. We need sustainable homes. That means a secure place for as long as you want it; anything from a month to the rest of your life. It also means homes to fit the many different ways and households in which people actually live and to meet changing personal and social needs.

Sustainable homes can’t be provided by private renting or short-life. Owner-occupation doesn’t do the trick either, as the collapse of the housing market over the last seven years has proved. The Government has recently cut income support for people with mortgages. It never did more than stave off eviction for a year or so anyway, and now it’ll come too little too late for thousands. “No job, no home” is not sustainable housing.

Even in 1991, Advisory Service for Squatters found that 5% of people seeking their advice were former owner-occupiers.

The only route to sustainable homes is by building a lot more of them with secure renting in mind. Does this mean bigger empires for arrogant housing associations and councils, as well as £millions in profits for Laing, Wimpey etc.? Does it mean thousands more brick boxes and swathes of greenfield land gobbled up for new estates? Not if we can stop it.

And not, as it happens, if the Tories can stop it either. Watch out for their new ‘green’ excuse for not building houses - as espoused recently by some backbench MPs. This ersatz greenness is based on an weaselling-out of responsibility and a failure of the imagination (or is it eyesight?).

Anti-facile antidotes: Let’s Talk Homes

Building new homes for secure renting needn’t mean concreting land or slinging up crap. It needn’t be under the direct control of those very wonderful ‘community’ housing associations and democratic socialist councils we all love so much. Even building industry snouts can be kept away from the trough. What’s the magic formula? There isn’t one…. there’s a few. The required magic is no more than hard graft - we can build them ourselves.

Although it’s not the only show in town, the Walter Segal system is a self-build method which enables people to produce their own homes with virtually no skills. It’s based on a timber construction design, in which all the components are renewable, producing good, well insulated houses with a life span of up to 300 years! It’s ideal for sloping sites and odd bits of urban land unlikely to be usable for anything else. The Walter Segal Trust(5) can tell you more about it.

Homes for Change(6) in Manchester are a group building their own homes by higher-skilled methods, whilst cheap and easily-erected dome houses, built by homeless people in the USA, have had publicity lately. The Community Self-Build Agency(7) can give information about the whole field of self-build.

But how can homeless people pay for self-build? The average giro doesn’t stretch to land and building materials and much early self-build was done by people with money.

Tenant and Agency Services(8) (formerly CHISL) have been able to tweak the Housing Corporation grant system to create a permanent self-build-for-rent scheme at about council rent levels, enabling people who have worked on the houses to be paid the value of their labour even if they leave later. They have an excellent leaflet explaining the scheme.

Of course, as with short-life, government grant systems involve some compromises and lots of bureaucracy and frustration, but it can be worth going for. A recent example of a group that pulled it off is Diggers’ Co-op in Brighton, where they build Walter Segal houses with turf roofs and flowers.

But there are also alternatives to grappling with the state for grants. Radical Routes(9) is a network of housing and worker co-ops committed to “alternatives in working, housing and education in order to take more control over our lives”. They have helped groups set up their own co-ops without public funding and without being registered with the Housing Corporation. They have their own ‘ethical investment’ scheme which makes loans to member co-ops, raising over £100,000 in this way since 1992. They have a lot of expertise and can advise on several other ways of raising money. So far they don’t have a presence in London, but are active in many other places. Have a look at their excellent booklets How to Set Up a Housing Co-op (£1.50) and A Simple Way to Solve Homelessness (50p), which explain how small co-ops can start off renting collectively (an improvement on the official short-life structure) and move on to buying permanent places - all paid for by housing benefit.

Then there’s rural ‘Low Impact’ housing. SQUALL 8 covered what’s going on at Tinkers Bubble and elsewhere in Somerset. Amazingly, folks there have got the District Council on their side and are within a whisker of getting the County Council to approve the principle of giving planning consents to ‘low impact dwellings’.

Long-term places for travellers, benders, tepee sites and other ideas have so far only scratched the surface of what’s possible. There’s still a lot of scope for innovation in low-impact homes. (See ‘Underground Houses’ - page 41)

Could there be scope for low-impact housing in the cities? In a way, we have it already. A cardboard box or a bang is low-impact, isn’t it? But we want better than that! Conceivably, with care and the right site we might develop from boxes and bangs to our own improvised but adequate, self-built homes, as is done in many cities all over the southern half of the planet. But such developments are unlikely here. In an urban area, anything like that is bound to be temporary, with the same drawbacks as short-life. The idea might be more relevant as a squatting or campaigning tactic than as an attempt at sustainable housing.

You’ve seen the statistics about empty homes, but have you ever seen figures for empty offices, pubs, shops and warehouses suitable for conversion to decent housing? No, neither have I. Building homes ourselves includes turning such places into homes. Glass and concrete office blocks aren’t usually suitable, but older offices are, as well as many other buildings. There’s loads of this sort of property rotting away in London, and in other towns and cities it’s even more abundant. Needs lots of dosh, of course; you have to buy the places to get security. That’s where Radical Routes ideas come in handy and Homes for Change have looked into a scheme for using EC money. Their idea was to employ themselves as contractors to do the work and use the ‘profit’ to fund the non-housing half of a combined work and living scheme in an old warehouse. The project did not work in the particular warehouse they chose because of difficulties associated with the specific building they chose. However, the potentials for the idea are many.

All this is only small scale stuff, of course. At the present rate, ideas and projects like these are just as unlikely to crack homelessness as are 764,600 private empties. But they do create sustainable housing that people can afford Grass-roots ideas that work don’t have to stay at the present level. They can catch on and spread, limited only by our energy and determination to make what we’ve got meet our needs and dreams.

Private empties, on the other hand, are finite, insufficient and unsustainable as either worthwhile or affordable homes. We’re better off trusting ourselves. The state, whichever party runs it, isn’t about to tackle homelessness seriously. If we don’t do it, nobody will. If the state does contribute anything new, then we’re going to have to show them how first.

None of these ideas are easy. They all involve hard graft against many obstacles, over long periods of time, by committed groups of people; doubly difficult if you don’t have a secure place to live in the meantime.

In lieu of immediate housing remember SQUATTING IS STILL LEGAL and it’s staying legal despite the tightening grip of the Criminal Justice Act.

It can give you somewhere to live while you get a permanent idea together, and it has to be a step on the road in itself. As HAZ has shown in Luton, carefully planned squatting can put us on the map, build credibility, campaign for what we need, prove to ourselves what we can achieve, as well as creating cohesive organisation. HAZ aren’t all the way to sustainable homes yet, but they’re well down the road.

It’s time to start thinking about strategic squatting - squatting on towards a long-term goal, rather than just the next eviction. The new laws won’t make squatting a crime, but they will make evictions a lot easier and quicker. That means the most successful squatting in future is likely to be more collective and more strategic anyway.

The journey of a thousand miles can start with three people and a couple of pints. But if we get our boots on next morning, start taking single steps, and keep at it, we’ve an excellent chance of making it home. If you get there before me, put the kettle on.

(1) Housing Action Zone - EXODUS, HAZ Manor, Bramingham Lane, Barton Road, Streatley, Luton LU3. Tel: Sam 01582 561 627.
(2) EMPTY HOMES AGENCY, 195, Victoria St., London SW1E 5NE. Tel: 0171 828 6288
(3) Short Life Housing, Long Term Homes - £7.50 from WEST HAMPSTEAD HOUSING ASSOCIATION, 2 Grangeway, London NW6 2BW
(4) Housing Research Findings No. 81 Free from JOSEPH ROWNTREE FOUNDATION, 40, Water End, York, YO3 6LP. Tel: 0904 629 241
(5) WALTER SEGAL TRUST, 57, Chalton Street, London NW1 1HU. Tel: 0171 415 7092
(6) HOMES FOR A CHANGE (Manchester) Tel: 0161 232 9801
(7) COMMUNITY SELF-BUILD AGENCY, 40, Bowling Green Lane, London EC1R ONE Tel: 0171 415 7092
(8) TENANT AND AGENCY SERVICES, 2-10, Belvedere Road, London SE19 2HL Tel: 0181 768 0890
(9) RADICAL ROUTES, C/O Common Ground, 24, South Road, Hockley, Birmingham B18 Tel: 0121 515 3524 or (for leaflets) 25A, Stanley Road, Whalley Range, Manchester M16 8HS

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