We have a housing crisis. Homes that are too expensive to buy. Ever-increasing rents. Unstable private sector tenancies. Rising homelessness. Children in B&Bs on Christmas Day. Not enough new homes built – and certainly nowhere near enough affordable homes.
The housing market is a disaster, from pretty much every angle other than that of the cash-rich investor. So what can we do about it?
I’ve been working on trying to solve social problems, in a range of different ways, for 20 years. When I’m not banging my head on my desk, or weeping silently in the corner, I try to find ways to work with others to do practical stuff to make things better.
There are loads of people out there who realise we can’t go on as we are. I first got involved in housing four years ago, via empty homes. We set up a service called Empty Homes Doctor to provide practical support to people who own an empty home in Leeds. Whatever is stopping someone bringing a home back into use, we try to help. And in four years, working alongside the council, social enterprises, property professionals and anyone else who’ll help, we’ve brought back into use over 200 long-term empty properties – places that people are living in today, sleeping in tonight, that would otherwise be boarded up.
The good thing is that we’re doing this in a city with a strong track record of “community-led” approaches to creating more housing. We’ve got social enterprises like Latch and Canopy that each have over 20 years experience of sorting out empty homes in our city. Latch now manages over 100 previously empty homes, while Canopy recently won a World Habitat Award (alongside Hull social enterprise Giroscope) for its self-help model that involves tenants in renovating empty properties.
Two years ago a few of us started chatting about how we could do more. Leeds Community Homes was born of these conversations – a Community Land Trust for Leeds, with a 10-year aim of being involved in creating 1,000 affordable, sustainable homes in our city.
We’re deliberately ambitious. There’s no point wasting our time doing something nice but niche. And the big idea is to involve people in creating what we’re calling “people powered homes”. We want to tap into that feeling a lot of us have – that things have to change – and we want be part of changing things. So we’re going to create housing ourselves, starting with 16 homes in the centre of Leeds – nine of which we’ll rent for social rent, with seven sold at around two-thirds of market value.
We’re asking people to invest in what we’re doing. Through a community share offer, people can invest from £100 – and the plan is to offer a modest return of 2 per cent from 2019, once all the homes are occupied and we’re generating some rental income. And then once this first project is complete, we aim to move on to other projects that create more homes – like empty homes renovation, or new-build on small inner-city plots of land.
And just as importantly we want to play our part in supporting other people to do the same. We know there are groups of people out there, desperate to come up with better ways to house themselves and others. So the plan is to support them – helping take early-stage ideas for co-housing projects, housing co-ops and the like – and help to make them happen.
The original question is a good one – why don’t we do this? There are good reasons why it’s rare for groups of us to take control of meeting our housing needs. It’s hard. Land is scarce and expensive. There are cashflow issues. There are all sorts of hurdles to overcome. But if we’re going to sort out our housing crisis, we need to overcome these barriers and get organised.
Rob Greenland is a founder of Leeds Community Homes and co-director of Social Business Brokers CIC. More information about the Leeds Community Homes and its community share offer is at leedscommunityhomes.org.uk