Help yourself

Help yourself

Help yourself

First Published 18 June 2016

Jon Fitzmaurice started his career in small community-driven projects. Three decades on, he argues, the need for them is greater than ever.

My career in housing started out unexpectedly in Birmingham in the mid-1970s. I’d been a social worker, toiling to change the world, but soon realised that for many of my clients housing was the real problem. And there was nothing I could do about it.

I stumbled upon a small project in Small Heath, Birmingham, called Shape. It took empty properties awaiting redevelopment from the city council and trained young people who had left care or were on probation to do them up. This was 1975 and, in the absence of any homelessness legislation, there was a queue of homeless families wanting to move in. Better a short-life house in central Birmingham than a flat somewhere far out in Northfields.

My career in housing started out unexpectedly in Birmingham in the mid-1970s. I’d been a social worker, toiling to change the world, but soon realised that for many of my clients housing was the real problem. And there was nothing I could do about it.

I stumbled upon a small project in Small Heath, Birmingham, called Shape. It took empty properties awaiting redevelopment from the city council and trained young people who had left care or were on probation to do them up. This was 1975 and, in the absence of any homelessness legislation, there was a queue of homeless families wanting to move in. Better a short-life house in central Birmingham than a flat somewhere far out in Northfields.

There was plenty of demand for Shape’s housing and after a couple of years, money to renovate properties, in the form of a mini-grant, became available from a sympathetic local housing association. The operation grew and we set up several small firms of builders subsidised by the government’s job creation programme. We were a social enterprise before they’d been invented.

Shape was just one of many community-driven housing projects that prospered in the 1970s and 1980s, using empty property to get a foothold. Some of these were projects, like Shape, working with a particular client group, some were co-ops and others were community-based housing associations.

Thirty years on and the housing landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. Many of those small housing associations have grown beyond their wildest dreams. The voluntary housing sector, which once craved recognition, now owns more than two million homes and is largely responsible for delivering the government’s housing programme.

Hyde Housing Association, for example, which started out with eight properties in Hyde Vale, Greenwich, is now responsible for 40,000 homes. Fiscal control, treasury management and risk management are now the bywords and size most definitely matters.

Arguably, a casualty of this success story has been the very community-driven initiatives that helped to get things going. In the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a marked decline in smaller local housing projects. There are, of course, still some out there, such as Canopy and Latch in Leeds, Giroscope in Hull and Mace in London, but they are fewer and farther between.

The problem is compounded by the fact that they are isolated, ill-resourced and little known. People working for a project know little about another’s work and achievements, and people who might want to set up something similar are also in the dark.

It’s often said that ‘one should never go back’, but I have. Together with the Housing Associations Charitable Trust and colleagues from Social Spider, a design and communications community interest company, we have backing from Tudor Trust and have embarked on a scheme aimed at reviving locally driven self-help projects -many of which will use empty properties as a starting point.

Self-help-housing.org aims to help those wanting to set up new initiatives to find out how to do it and to make it easy for existing projects to find out about and support each other. In May 2016 we launched the first website dedicated to promoting self-help housing (http://www.self-help-housing.org). Thereafter we’ll be rolling out the ‘self-help proposition’ to as many interested groups of people as we can find.

Alongside this, we’ll be working with the Empty Homes Agency to encourage owners to consider working with self-help groups and pressing charitable funders to recognise the value of such arrangements. Happily, there is already a grant in place called temporary social housing grant, which associations can use to renovate empty properties on loan. Amazingly, it’s scandalously under-used and the challenge is to crank up demand from the grass roots.

Government often speaks about mobilising and involving local people. Well, here’s a great opportunity. Self-help housing enables people who are marginalised (such as refugees or young people) to secure housing for themselves.

It provides people with an opportunity to learn first-hand how to run an organisation, how to secure funding and how to negotiate with officials and property owners. It can be used as a vehicle for providing basic training in building skills. Finally, by reducing the number of empty buildings in a neighbourhood, it contributes to place making, or as we used to say to ‘improving the neighbourhood’.

The current economic downturn is likely to result in many more empty properties. So a great opportunity exists for self-help housing. Go for it!

Jon Fitzmaurice is project director of self-help-housing.org