This is the first letter of the Weekly Letter Project. This week I am writing to Rev Canon Paul Hackwood, chair of the board of trustees of the Church Urban Fund, about an idea for helping churches provide social housing.
I struggled to get this down to one page of A4: the font is smaller than I’d like and I had to mess with the page margins! Next week, I’ll try to keep it shorter.
Dear Canon Hackwood,
I read your article in the Observer on 8th December, which was more recently linked to on Twitter, describing some of the effects of recent changes to social security and providing an overview of the response of the Church Urban Fund. Thank you very much for the good work you already do. The parish I belong to participates in the “Near Neighbours” scheme along with a neighbouring Hindu temple, so I have some first-hand experience of the sort of renewal that is possible with a bit of help.
I have become increasingly concerned about people who are already vulnerable or struggling financially losing what housing they have due to changes in social security or employment.
I am aware that there are already a number of Christian charities working at a number of different levels with people who are homeless. I also know there are housing associations with varying degrees of connection with churches.
It is clear to me that there is a severe shortage of affordable housing. It is also clear to me that there are hundreds of churches with under-used, poorly-developed church halls. I wonder whether these two circumstances could be “joined up”.
I have heard of some churches putting small flats into their church halls. In most cases building one or two per hall would still allow plenty of room for other activities. The flats would be rented out at lower than market rates, providing affordable housing to people who might otherwise struggle to find it. This also creates a small but steady income for the church, which would in the first instance be used sustainably to pay off the loan for the build in the first place.
I am aware that this approach would not be appropriate in all contexts. Some churches have very limited hall space already and the space would be better used as available for community events than housing. And of course, it would be wrong for churches to seek high rent for housing we provide. However, it seems to me there is also great potential here for outreach to the wider community, particularly in conjunction with existing projects helping those in precarious housing situations, or who need sheltered housing.
I wonder if in most cases the main obstacles are in fact administrative: the idea of developing part of the church property as rental property is daunting given the layers of planning permission, listed buildings and so on. I am aware of the work of Housing Justice, and their Faith in Affordable Housing resource, which includes excellent guidance on mixed-used church hall redevelopment as well as more traditional “disposal” of church property for social housing. However, I am not aware of any schemes to provide churches with project management guidance or specific administrative help in moving toward offering church property as rented social housing. Do such schemes or organisations exist? If not, would the Church Urban Fund consider looking into the practicalities of setting up such a programme?