Tuesday 29 May 2012

Home Sweet Home

Housing is one of the topics that was discussed early on in the initiative, along with energy and co-housing. We live in a culture that is dominated by buildings and the ownership of property and when Nicole Foss (aka Stoneleigh) gave a talk about the financial crisis last year there was a palpable unease in the hall, as many of us began to imagine how it might affect the future of people's homes in Britain and elsewhere. As austerity cuts begin to displace people from their houses and neighbourhoods, Transition social reporter, Ann Owen looks at what this might mean for all of us.

This week's editor, Caroline, has asked us to look at those things that we feel would be hard to do without. In my mind I ran through the obvious list of bananas, chocolate, ice cream, washing
machine, laptop etc, but ultimately, the absence of any of those would not make me terribly unhappy. I'd have to make a few changes, like get the teenagers to do their own laundry, but on the whole, it wouldn't have that much of an impact on my life.

When I look at those things that we now take for granted which might end up beyond our reach as a consequence of peak oil, climate change and financial crises, I can only think of one situation, the prospect of which truly frightens me and that one is homelessness.

rough sleeper

About two years ago I was facilitating a Training for Transition course in London at the Hub in Islington. It was a wintermorning, freezing cold, a thin layer of snow on the ground as I came out of the Angel tube station. I turned the corner and there, huddled against the wall, just below
some kind of vents that blew slightly warmish air were three people laying on some cardboard in sleepingbags. I'm not an urbanite and therefore not used to the desperate sight of the homeless in winter and what I saw shocked me profoundly. I remember thinking that no way could I just walk by and do nothing. I ran to the Hub, up four flights of stairs, found three large paper cups (the sort that posh coffee comes in) in the recycling, washed them and made some strong, milky tea with lots of sugar. As the first participants to the course started arriving, I apologised and put one in charge of letting the others in, raced back down and got the hot tea to the rough sleepers. One of them was now awake and he couldn't have been more than 17 or 18 years of age. He wrapped his hands gratefully around the paper cup and I hope my gesture made them feel like somebody cared. That Transition course ran deep and intense.

My home is my place of refuge, where I take shelter from the world. It's where my family comes together around the dinner table and we tell each other about our day. It's where we curl up on the settee with the kids and the cats and watch a movie. It's where we've celebrated many birthdays and Christmases, shared sadness over people that passed away and rejoiced at births. On the walls are the pictures of those that are dear to us and through the windows we look out over the productive garden that has taken a lot of hard work to establish. There is the fire pit around which we had many merry gatherings and out front is the slope the kids slide down when we have snow. We've had so many good times here, so many memories that make this place our home.


As this economic downturn worsens and the government cuts deeper into the welfare budget, there is more than a fair chance that in the years to come, we may not be able to remain in the small bungalow our family has called home for the last six years. I have to admit that our situation is not a resilient one as we are heavily dependent on housing benefit to cover the rent. It's not an ideal situation, but then being the proud owner of a mortgage doesn't give you that much more in the way of security in the current economic climate. Jobs are no longer secure or for life, but the mortgage needs its monthly fix, regardless the state of your bank account. I think
it's probably the main reason why the talk by Stoneleigh at the Transition Conference two years ago made such an impact. Her advice was to get rid of debt, now, which is easier said than done with a mortgage and it's 20 to 25 years repayment term.

Poster: I was only seven but I'll never forget repossession

With more than 80% of benefit cuts still to come and unemployment rising, we can expect a sharp rise in both repossessions and homelessness. Thanks to the cap on housing benefits in
cities like London, thousands of families will be forced to move away from their communities, schools, family and friends to rental properties in cheaper areas, if they can find them. Without a home it is extremely hard to hold down a job or have consistency in schooling for your children. You're out in the cold, on your own, as you no longer have a community to belong or turn to, as the latter is very much bound to place.

In Mid West Wales there is a shortage of affordable rental homes. When children come to the age where they move out and get their own home, it is often the case that they cannot stay in the same place where they grew up, but have to move away in order to find a a home they can afford. This means that it becomes difficult for grandparents to help with childcare and equally problematic to care for frail and elderly parents. It took us nearly two years before we found the house we now live in, even though we were desperate to move out of the damp, mouldy appartment we were living in. There simply weren't any rental properties that were close enough to my daughter's school and my son's nursery. Council housing is hugely oversubscribed and it takes many years of waiting on a list before you can move in. As a result of this shortage, private rents have gone up by half in the last 10 years, making renting almost more expensive than paying a mortgage.

In the USA ordinary people have started to take action against foreclosures and the evictions that follow. But here in the UK, I haven't heard or seen anything along those lines. I'd be interested to know if any transition initiatives have started to make provision or plans for when the housing chicken comes home to roost. In all my transition activist time, I have never come across an initiative that had a Housing Group. Which doesn't mean that there aren't any, but if there are, they are very few. Maybe most people in the UK feel that “things surely won't get that bad here” or maybe homelessness is such a scary topic that we'd rather not dwell on it. I would love to find out about any transition projects that look at affordable housing. Housing co-ops are an obvious route and I wonder if any arose as a result of the actions of a transition initiative?

I'll await your answers while I treasure my home, feeling grateful for the roof over my head, at least for now.

This post was originally posted on the Social Reporting Project

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