Salt, Light and Housing: Good News for Generation Rent?

English: South Lambeth, Springfield Methodist ...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The current housing crisis in Britain may provide an opportunity for churches to provide a service to their communities that is prophetic, as well as mutually beneficial. 

The number of British households renting in the private sector has more than doubled since the mid-90s, from 8% to 17%. No longer the preserve of students or young singles, increasing numbers of families in their thirties, fourties and fifties are being shut out of home ownership. The reasons for the growth of the so-called "Generation Rent" are several:

  • high house prices
  • insufficient housing stock to keep up with demand
  • lack of affordable mortgages caused by lenders limiting their loan-to-value ratios
  • the selling off of council-owned properties since the 1980s 

Meanwhile, there are over 40,000 church buildings in the UK. While many are used a great deal, others have surplus space: hours of under-use during the week, as well as physical space that is never used at all. The latter category, especially in older buildings, often includes high ceilings and roof spaces, which are expensive to heat and maintain.

What would happen if even a fraction of the churches decided to creatively explore using this surplus space for affordable housing?

I'm not necessarily proposing night shelters in the nave - though some have already gone this route.  Rather, I am thinking about permanent long-term homes, integrated into the fabric of existing church buildings. The goal would be to provide both affordable accommodation and space for the congregation to continue to meet in.

Whereas the conversion of church buildings into housing is nothing new in the UK, such projects have generally involved a complete change of use of the building and have been carried out by the private sector.

An alternative could be to refit part of the building while the rest continues to be used as a place of worship. Woodlands Church in central Bristol has pioneered this approach, with a number of student flats built into the roof of its Victorian building. Sound insulation, and an additional floor between the roof and the main hall where worship services take place - means that noise overflow is not a major problem.

Financially, there are several models for how such schemes could fit well with a local church's moral ethos and with its commitment to reach out to the wider community. The instability of the current rental sector is one of the big pressures, felt especially by families with children. Long-term rental agreements, with guaranteed rents, could go some way towards offering an alternative. Rent-to-buy options, or direct sales are another, though the latter would not address the fact that many working people cannot raise the deposit needed to secure a mortgage in the current climate.

Self-build options could help reduce costs and raise the quality of the build; partnerships with housing associations and others with expertise in the housing sector could provide additional alternatives.

The income from such arrangements could, after paying for the costs of the initial building work plus ongoing maintenance, support specific ministries within the local church. Heating and other costs are also likely to be offset by such a scheme, depending on the exact specifications of the plan, and the extent to which renewable technologies are incorporated into the re-fit.

The photo is of Springfield Methodist Church in Wandsworth, part-converted into 28 affordable housing units, while at the same time raising the money for a new meeting place on site for the church congregation. Does anyone have any experience or other examples of this kind on initiative taking place at the moment? 

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Andrew Knight said...

Some excellent ideas here - churches have often been very poor stewards of their buildings. Three comments:
1. The St Patrick's night shelter no longer functions. In its place is a winter night shelter run by Brighton & Hove churches and operating in a different church premises on each of the 7 days of the week.
2. About 30 years ago the baptist church where I grew up redeveloped its semi-derelict premises to include a sheltered housing project above the worship area. I can think of a couple of similar schemes that I know of.
3.You make no mention of the planning system, which may well be the biggest hindrance to housing supply. Certainly, where I am, the planning system seems largely intended to stop anybody building anything.

Al Shaw said...

Thanks Andrew for those good points.

Remind me of the location of the Baptist church you refer to. North-East London, is it not?

I'm certainly no expert, but I would hope that in the current climate, planning regulations would not be too great an obstacle, especially as we are talking about brown field sites.