Five Ideas to tackle housing need in Oxford during, and beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic

Lucy Warin
18 min readJul 16, 2020

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When the government announced quietly in mid-May, amidst the furore surrounding the easing of lockdown measures, that funding for hotel stays for people rough sleeping was to be withdrawn, many asked ‘what next’? The people working to support those who are homeless or rough sleeping began casting around for ideas on what could be done to prevent people from ending up in poor or unsafe housing, or on the streets. So, what next?

Image by Christian Stahl

Last month, homelessness minister Luke Hall wrote to local authorities asking them to “encourage people, where appropriate and possible, to return to friends and family”. This is a strategy doomed to fail and highlights a worrying lack of understanding on behalf of the government as to the causes of homelessness.

Whilst no two people’s journeys into, or out of homelessness are the same, there is a single unifying experience: the lack of a decent, affordable and secure home. A house can’t always ‘solve’ homelessness, but it’s a good place to start. As the government grasps for empty rhetoric and piecemeal solutions, here are five ideas to give as many people in Oxford as possible a decent place to live, now.

These ideas don’t offer an alternative to the hard work that has started and must continue; to build social housing, to reconsider houses as homes and not assets and to reform the private rental sector. But they do offer hope for providing people with decent places to live in a manner which might inch us closer to longer-term reform. They draw on many well-tested precedents and follow the findings of our own research as to what might work for Oxford.

1. Create many more social homes, without building.

Both the climate breakdown and the Coronavirus pandemic demand that we deliver more social homes without building. As of November 2018 (when Oxford City Council last updated their figures), there were 2,332 people waiting for social housing and 53% of these either had dependent children or were expecting. In 2014, a Strategic Housing Management Assessment suggested Oxford would need to deliver 678 affordable homes a year to meet housing need. Between 2013/4 and 2017/8, a total of just 250 were built, an average of 50 p/year. Oxford is now building, and the City Council has 4,000 new social homes in the pipeline but it’s not enough.

Graphic by Monchu & Open House.

The speculative model of housing and the appointment of private mass house-builders are neither capable of nor incentivised to build the numbers of social housing we desperately need fast enough or to a high enough standard to address the climate emergency. We have to explore other options.

The easiest way to do this is to buy homes that have already been built. The precedent already exists in councils like Brighton & Hove which have been buying up homes from the private rental market to add to their social housing stock. Councils in Nottingham and Leicester also borrowed to buy rather than to build when Theresa May’s government lifted the cap on local authority borrowing in 2018. With holidays on hold and no clear view of when the tourism industry will crank back into profitability, many buy-to-let landlords will be selling properties quickly as the market for Air BnBs and other short-lets diminishes. Commercial investors are already looking around to snap up deals and local authorities should be too. There is a good match between the types of properties that will become available and the one and two-bedroom properties needed to house people on the waiting list. The Poverty Commission in Edinburgh recently said this was a good way forward.

Another tool which local councils already possess is the ability to compulsory purchase empty properties. These properties could be purchased and turned straight into new social homes or provide additional capacity for a socially-distanced winter provision of services, depending on the property. In the past many a journalist or campaigner has pegged their flag to the mast of empty homes as the ‘solution’ to ending homelessness. In reality, councils are understandably wary of seeming heavy-handed in executing a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO), put-off by having to pay market value, and scared-off by potentially enormous legal fees. In addition, the number and condition of empty properties varies hugely from one part of the country to another, with some cities having few viable options. Empty homes are currently a slow and costly route to go down but there is mileage in this idea if some of these barriers can be addressed and public opinion is mustered. After all, nothing paints the failure of rentier capitalism quite like the image of someone rough sleeping outside an empty home. The ‘new normal’ of a post-Coronavirus society could offer an opportunity to remove some of the blocks and make the repossession of empty homes a viable option.

There is particular value in exploring the idea of empty properties in Northern cities, learning from organisations like the Empty Homes Doctor and the Self-Help housing movement; which, although cut short by a removal of government subsidy, has had a huge impact on both providing housing and supporting many people in housing need, best demonstrated by Canopy in Leeds and Giroscope in Hull.

We could (and should) take the purchase of existing homes further. In response to the 2008 recession and resulting social crisis, the Department for Communities and Local Government under Labour made a recommendation for local authorities to buy up developer’s unsold stock at a 30% discount, to be used as social housing. Elsewhere, unsold blocks built as shared ownership by registered providers could be quickly converted into social homes. Homes like this could spark the beginnings of a transition from a private rental system to a public rental system. To make this a reality we would need new finance and lending models but it’s a move which some estimate could save UK renters and taxpayers up to £35 billion per year.

Progress will require the cooperation of the development industry. Many developers went out of business during the 2008 recession and likely many more will in the months and years that follow the Coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the developers that survived the crash were one of the big winners in the decade since the 2008 recession, still benefiting from the assured 20% profit margin brought in at the time; and, responsible for so many of the cases where a developer has back-tracked on their commitments to build affordable and social housing. For context, developer profit margins are as low as 4–7% in many mainland European countries. Now is perhaps the moment to ask questions of the development industry as to how it can better serve the UK’s housing needs and what a more sustainable and public-minded business model might look like.

We could begin by pressuring developers to release unsold stock for social housing at a reduced market rate. The high rate of development that has been taking place in cities in the past few years, and the current slow-down of the housing market, means that thousands of units earmarked as market-homes will sit empty. This is rich ground for targeted, local campaigning to demand more social homes and developer accountability. In Oxford this means turning our attention to developments like the Wolvercote Paper Mill Site (Cala Homes), Barton Park (Grosvenor) and further down the line, Oxford North (Thomas White Co/St John’s College) and the development of Blackbird Leys (Catalyst Housing).The plans for such developments should be rethought in light of shifting priorities and the more urgent need for social housing as a result of the pandemic.

As we look to an immediate future of economic recession and recovery, this approach also makes good financial sense. Local and national government should invest public money in the recovery and should be looking for assets to offset the large and growing public debt liability. Social housing is an excellent long-term option for such investment, rooted in a real and sustained need. Just this week Haringey Council announced the creation of a £6 Million fund to compulsory purchase empty properties to house people experiencing homelessness, we hope other local authorities will follow their lead.

2. Bring empty and underused buildings back to life

Across the city rooms and buildings sit empty, waiting for a new owner, a new use, or to be demolished and replaced. These include empty offices, old hotels or B&B’s, and flats above shops, amongst others. Since 2014 it has been government policy that local authorities should play an active role in finding ‘meanwhile’ uses for such spaces, referring to the temporary use of an empty building. A landlord gives use of the building to a start-up business, charity, community group, or local cause. The group might cover business rates and/or utilities but in many cases, there is no rent as the landlord receives an income through saving on the empty property tax they would have paid otherwise without a sitting tenant. These arrangements can span from a few months to a few years.

Most cities and towns are ripe with the skills and experience to bring empty and underused spaces back into community use. These spaces are no panacea, rarely providing the security and permanence that someone in need of a home benefits most from. However, they do offer a promising opportunity for tackling the challenge of move-on accommodation and diversifying housing options at the threshold of homelessness.

In the past two-months, Transition by Design have been working alongside local partners to perform a rapid retrofit of an ex-B&B to provide accommodation for between twelve to seventeen residents, currently accommodated in hotels. We’ve found a building which needs only minimal refurbishment and a simple planning change of use, meaning it is a viable option for providing housing at very short notice. We’re working quickly whilst also using this as an opportunity to trial some new approaches to some old problems. Enabled by a peppercorn rent, the business model separates the housing costs from the support costs. The rent tenants will pay will be the cost of the housing only and Oxford City Council and other service provisions will offer a low-level of ‘floating support’, the cost of which is not attached to a person’s housing. By designing housing this way we both increase the supply of housing whilst also decoupling the cost of accommodation from the cost of support, a systemic block which can trap people in homelessness.

Key to the success of this project has been the constellation of partners. We’re working hand-in-hand with Aspire Oxford, a local service provider, and breaking many of the traditional silos within housing and homelessness. The cross-pollination of ideas and the collective reach of our network has enabled this project to happen both well and quickly. In addition, we’re taking a co-design approach, involving future residents in the design, development process, and the future of this ‘meanwhile’ approach. By doing this we’re building the limited time-period into the model and the expectations of the tenants, as a design feature within the provision of move-no accommodation, rather than a restraint.

Meanwhile use and the lack of a commercial rent has brought creativity, participation and innovation into this project, an approach which we hope to replicate. Many cities have seen organisations spring up to help broker meanwhile arrangements between landlords and community groups; Blue House Yard in London, White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures in Hastings, Open Doors in Bradford, Stoke-on-Trent and Kettering, and our own Makespace Oxford project.

Socially-minded businesses and community groups celebrate 1-year at Makespace Oxford.

Makespace Oxford and the other projects like it offer a model for addressing the short-termism of meanwhile use and the sometimes-precarious nature of contracts. Each building may only exist for a period of months or (more often) years but Makespace provides a pipeline of properties through fostering relationships with landlords in the city. An organisation such as Makespace Oxford can offer housing providers with enough reassurance to build models of support based on meanwhile properties. In Bristol St Mungo’s have stepped into this space themselves, opening up a string of new move-on accommodation using empty homes, schools, and care homes using the model of charity-managed property guardianship. The lack of a significant rent to the freeholder opens up huge space for innovation in housing provision; solidarity beds for people with uncertain immigration status, pay-it-forward deposits or sliding rent scales for people in work but with no recourse to public funds, or rapid rehousing of people made newly homeless. It could also be the route to quickly opening up more decent-quality space for socially-distanced winter provision of services.

3. Repurpose empty student lets.

As universities and other higher education providers warn of a significantly altered 20/21 academic year, with remote teaching and many students asked to stay away, swathes of student housing will sit empty. These voids will likely span the winter period for when homelessness service provision is most stretched and properties are often in the city centre locations where homelessness services are located, making supporting the people in such accommodation easier. Many of the private, en-suite rooms are a good fit for those people who will most need them this winter and through a potential second wave of the Coronavirus. Private housing providers may require a rent payment, but older academic institutions with their own housing stock (and sizeable endowments…) may be able to offer rooms for free, as is currently the case with Pembroke College in Oxford.

We can’t forget that when students live in this accommodation, they also inhabit many other private spaces. Libraries, dining rooms, common rooms and social spaces, gardens and grounds, and communal utilities allow individuals to live in small rooms in close proximity to each other. Without access to these additional spaces, accommodation like this risks isolation and loneliness and does not necessarily foster a good quality of life. How to provide such facilities safely and without infection risk needs thought, and crucially, space; additionally the inclusion of such space should be integral to any negotiations with a landlord. Anecdotal evidence suggests accommodation like this works best when a block is taken over entirely and managed by the local authority or service provider rather than retain the services of staff accustomed to managing students.

Beyond emergency provision, there is a more radical and exciting potential for the role of student accommodation and student communities. The Homes for All Alliance in Denmark houses young adults (18–29) who are homeless in student accommodation, where they make up 10% of the student community. The scheme is designed for individuals who ‘one day hope to return to education’ but there are no sanctions for those that decide not to study. The university, local authority and student groups work together to provide support and social connections. In Denmark the costs are covered by existing welfare mechanisms, and the generous support offered to students (including a monthly allowance, rent subsidies, and interest free government loans). In the UK this could be paid for in part by enhanced housing benefit but a new business model would need to be sought, likely including a mix of national and local government funding (the Move On Fund perhaps) and a contribution from the university or housing provider.

Beyond the provision of housing this idea holds promise for influencing a more fundamental shift in attitudes and approaches to homelessness. In Oxford the choke-hold of College land ownership restricts the city’s ability to build affordable housing or tackle homelessness in a meaningful way. Simultaneously, the university has in the past claimed that the city’s homelessness is in part due to the generosity of their students and refused to partake in any meaningful discussion around housing and/or homelessness beyond rough sleeping. The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone and Danny Lavelle paint a better picture than I of the jumbled contribution of Oxford and it’s students to homelessness in the city in their brilliant telling of the story of Sharron Maasz’s life, and death in 2019.

Ideas such as the Homes for All Alliance can break down borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘homeless’ and ‘housed’, and hopefully instil in some of our future leaders a more realistic and empathetic understanding of what it means to experience homelessness, and a desire to address its systemic causes. Oxford has benefited from powerful student-led campaigns on homelessness and these must be engaged if universities are to change their ways. The recent success of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is testament to the power of a student campaign working in partnership with citizens of Oxford.

4. Use modular and moveable housing to make the most of small and tricky urban sites

When we first embarked on Homemaker Oxford, our 3-year action research project into housing and homelessness, we were given the sage advice of ‘don’t just design a better tent’. A quick internet search will throw up multiple examples of well-intentioned architectural folly into pod-housing, shipping containers, tiny homes, and gimmicky ‘design solutions’ to help ‘solve’ homelessness. These solutions, whilst sometimes beautiful, are all too often devoid of everything which makes a house a home — connection and integration to a neighbourhood, adaptability, community — they are better tents.

An often-cited hurdle for the development of housing in Oxford is the lack of large development sites. Large sites are preferable both politically and economically but there is certainly no evidence that they provide better homes. Done well, modular and moveable housing could offer an innovative alternative, an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way of providing great homes on small or temporary sites in the city.

Using modular and/or moveable housing units to provide homes for people who are experiencing homelessness is already happening. We have good examples of high-quality bridging accommodation in Social Bite Village in Edinburgh, and Hugg Homes in Southampton. Amongst the Coronavirus chaos, Jimmy’s Cambridge have opened a similar scheme as a socially-distant alternative to their hostel accommodation.

Modular homes build by Jimmy’s Cambridge for people experiencing homelessness.

In implementing this idea in Oxford we should pay close attention to ‘what makes a house a home?’ Last year researchers from Royal Holloway University published findings from a series of in-depth interviews with residents from Place/Ladywell, a much-lauded modular development of homelessness accommodation, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. The scheme uses moveable modular units to take advantage of a dormant development site. The paper, Temporary Homes, Permanent Progress? found Place/Ladywell to be a ‘sticky-plaster’ on the broken-leg of housing need, detailing how residents took issue with the design, situation and function/management of the properties. The report’s authors detail how not feeling at home in the development led to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, important lessons to learn from if this type of development is to be trialled in Oxford.

One approach to building wonderful places to live could be turning to the thriving local community-led housing (CLH) sector. Oxfordshire has an eclectic and expansive community-led housing movement including several cohousing groups at an advanced stage of development, community land trusts, well-established housing cooperatives, and a regional support hub, the Collaborative Housing Hub. This is a group and a movement which has an understanding of what makes a house a home at its heart, it is an engine for producing exactly the same social capital and neighbourly connections which are so often absent in situations whereby a person is made homeless. We can also learn from CLH politically. This is a movement that sprang from the politics of emancipation, housing done by people rather than to people. Learning both spatially and relationally from the community-led housing movement, especially cohousing groups, offers huge potential for those developing housing for people in extreme need.

A low-carbon and community-owned proposal for new housing in Wolvercote, including low-income housing and a therapeutic environment.

Oxfordshire Community Land Trust has already started on this journey. The group has two projects actively exploring how the community-led housing model could benefit people on Oxford City Council’s housing list. Dean Court to the West of the city will provide homes for eight people who would be supported to cooperatively manage their own home. Champion Way in the Littlemore area to the East is trialling an approach to transforming Council-owned garage sites into community-led social homes.

Combining the knowledge and experience of the community-led housing movement with the architectural innovations of modular and moveable homes offers exciting potential. By working closely with local authorities, people experiencing homelessness, and the agencies that support and house them, we could create wonderful and therapeutic places to live. If we are to get schemes like this right, our designs must go further than a building’s walls, encompassing how a home interacts with its surroundings, tenure types, business models, and how it will enable effective support and thriving mixed communities.

There are two important barriers to this approach which we must acknowledge. Firstly, the technology and the supply chain remain underdeveloped. Secondly, the idea also relies on access to land. Combined, these factors have prevented mass procurement of housing of this type but Coronavirus could help open this door. An economic recession will stall developments leaving more sites empty, for longer. A spike in unemployment will require the creation of new green jobs and such opportunities are likely to continue to attract subsidies from the government. A well-designed project of this sort could capitalise on the likely outputs of the upcoming recession to create both jobs and homes for the people who need them most.

5. Join a Union! Adding our voices to the renters’ rights movement.

Rishi Sunak’s ‘Summer Statement’ on 8th July offered yet another government announcement without mention of the 4.6 million (2017 figure) households who rent in the UK. The past 4 months have seen support for homeowners in the form of mortgage holidays, for home buyers in the form of stamp-duty relief, in street homeless via grants to local authorities for the prevention of rough sleeping; but, nothing for renters other than a temporary eviction ban, due to end on 23rd August. Charities and campaigners are predicting a tidal wave of homelessness as people unable to work are evicted having built up rent arrears throughout lockdown.

Now, we could go on for hours about renting in Oxford but this post is already long enough. If you’re interested, we’ve written a four-minute explainer on how the figures just don’t add up for renters in Oxford. But for now, here, let’s concentrate on the fact that there is light in the dark.

Oxford Tenants Union and Acorn Oxford raise awareness of illegal evictions during Coronavirus,

The renters’ rights movement in Oxford is growing and the voices of people paying too much rent to bad landlords for poor-quality housing are getting louder. The Oxford Tenants Union and a local group of the national communities union, Acorn are both organising to fight for the rights of renters in Oxford. In addition, groups like Citizens Advice, Aspire Oxford, Crisis Skylight Oxford, and many local councillors are actively working on renting as a key issue in the city. These groups are growing and as more people experience the struggles of renting, more are saying enough is enough. Renters in the UK have some of the least rights in Europe. Tenants are often offered little protection against no-fault evictions, mid-tenancy rent hikes, and bad behaviour by landlords either through intimidation or a failure to maintain the property. Renters unions offer a powerful tool in the fight against homelessness by preventing unlawful evictions and making tenancies more secure and more affordable.

Coronavirus has brought more people than ever into close contact with struggle. A whole new cohort has experienced first-hand what it is like to try and pay Oxford rents on Universal Credit or been threatened with losing their home. If people haven’t experienced it personally, they have through friends, family, or through people they’ve met via mutual aid networks. Mutual Aid groups and Oxford’s network of Street Champions have also given many more people the experience of solidarity, of supporting others, or advocating on their behalf. People have experienced the frustration of dealing with absent landlords, greedy lettings agencies, or profit driven commercial landlords. If these experiences of collective struggle and success can be channelled into a city-wide renters’ rights movement then we will have fertile ground for change.

In 2018 we opened Open House, a ‘public talking shop on housing and homelessness’ in Oxford. Our aim was to ignite a city-wide conversation on housing and homelessness and to build understanding of the housing system in which we all live — a system which grants an average of 2.7 spare rooms per property whilst others live in overcrowded and poor-quality homes, and some sleep rough. Addressing these inequalities requires all of us and adding your voice and energy to the renters’ rights movement by joining a union is a very good place to start. At Open House we saw first-hand what could happen when a group of concerned citizens are given space to talk and agency to act. Mutual Aid groups and volunteer power have been running the show during the Coronavirus pandemic. Now we must meet their quiet radicalness and work alongside community groups and unions for a housing revolution in Oxford.

A town-hall style meeting to discuss better use if empty shops at Open House. Image by Saskia Kovandzich.

The challenge in front of us is to make sure that these unions reflect a diversity of housing experiences. These groups and their organising practice must include people with lived experiences of homelessness and precarious housing, and of multiple and overlapping exclusions. Calls for Coronavirus rent holidays must become calls for long-term rent controls. Calls for the cancelling of rent arrears must extend beyond those affected by Coronavirus to those affected by uncertain immigration status and the impacts of racist hostile environment policies.

This is a fight we can win if we all pull together.

Got something to say? We welcome comments, questions, improvements, and criticisms on any one of these thoughts-in-progress. Comments are open or you can email us.

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Lucy Warin

Making cities with the people that live in them. Work Transition by Design, Oxford. Live in Bristol.