From the moment I began working on housing, I was completely convinced that it was… not that interesting.
I’ll be honest, I was 24. I cared about poverty, injustice and other emotive issues that tug at your heartstrings. Housing brought to mind dull conversations about settling down (why would you when you could travel the world?), men in brown suits talking about construction and a distinct lack of anything to do with people. Still, my previous job had been in pensions. It was a step up.
I’ve been eating my words for the last two years. Housing is not dull. It is fundamentally about people, not bricks. And it has everything to do with inequality, community and Christianity.
I worked for two years as Tim Farron MP’s Policy Adviser (now the leader of the Lib Dems). Like most MPs, Tim’s mailbox is weighed down by people in housing need – not to mention his inbox, twitter and facebook account. Working in an MPs office, you realise that many people are run over by the system, left with few choices and not many people to turn to.
Many Christians, me included, are familiar – perhaps too familiar – with a language of social justice, eloquent about caring for the homeless person we see on our streets. This is good. But I have on occasion acted as if “compassion for the poor” was a tick box on a mental Christian to do list, satisfied by talking occasionally to a homeless person and perhaps sending off a monthly sum to Shelter, Christian Aid, Cafod or [insert your own preference here].
For me the penny dropped during a conversation with a housing specialist when the injustice of our housing market started to affect me personally. This man casually mentioned that when he was in his early twenties, he’d already bought his first home with a £3,000 deposit with a salary of £20k. In fact, HSBC research suggests it was even better than that: “In 1983, the average first-time buyer paid £17,021 for their home with a deposit of £1,021 and a mortgage of £16,000.” That’s a deposit of 12% of the average income. Today it’s 82% of a first time buyer’s average income (£29.400).
At the time, I raised my eyebrows and said in a particularly unprofessional manner “that’s so unfair!” I remember thinking, why? Is it because our generation is workshy, gap year spendaholics – studying for longer, marrying later (if at all) and refusing to settle down and save?
I wish that were the case – that would be easier to undo! The truth is that the system has failed our generation, in fact anyone who couldn’t buy before the house price boom in the 80s. See here for a recent summary of why homes are so expensive. The housing crisis is complex, but at its heart is a fundamental failure to build enough homes. This ricochets out into higher prices, higher rents, fewer social homes, overcrowding and increasing homelessness.
My own experience of this injustice is far less acute than the millions on social housing waiting lists – but I began to understand that housing isn’t just about homelessness that happens to other people. Housing lies at the heart of how we structure our society. It polarises wealth. It affects health (both mental and physical), education and life decisions (“shall we buy a house or have a child?”). It is a justice issue.
Many Christians will be familiar with God’s call to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8). And if we really want to understand a God of justice, we have to understand what is causing injustice – and act upon it. We cannot care for the destitute fully unless we ask why they are destitute. We cannot show concern for the homeless unless we ask why homelessness is increasing. We cannot care for the orphan without wondering who will help them with a deposit.
In the next couple of months I will be working as the Housing Campaign Co-ordinator for CTC – in association with Citizens UK, helping churches to engage both practically and to advocate for a fairer housing system. This is a job which is fundamentally about people and communities, as well as bricks.