A Common Good approach to housing and land

The result of a collaboration between Caritas Social Action Network and the Centre for Theology and Community, Abide in Me is a report setting out a set of recommendations to build churches’ capacity to change the current, broken, system of housing and land use.

Some issues are so huge, complicated and all-encompassing that it can feel impossible as a private citizen and person-in-the-pew Christian to know where to start even thinking about how to respond effectively. Formulating a response that is also in tune with your faith is even more difficult.

When the issue in question is housing, planning and land use it is not surprising that the Catholic bishops and the leaders of Catholic charities in England and Wales have experienced a similar paralysis. Abide in Me is a much needed and courageous response to this challenge, one from which all the churches can benefit. The report is carefully written and rests on a much larger body of thought and research – a resource held in the CSAN vault that may yet yield further resources.

Generously, the recommendations are in the spirit of what T4CG advocates as the ‘outward-facing church’. They are directed widely – to policy makers, housing and planning professionals and academics, to ‘every individual and household’ – as well as to Christian charities, agencies, hierarchy, parishes and church members.

One of the remarkable features of Abide in Me is that this is a report from a Roman Catholic stable and yet the main theological input is written by an Anglican priest and theologian, Angus Ritchie. The writers are demonstrating for us an example of practical and receptive ecumenism in action, building on the rich traditions of Catholic and Anglican involvement in housing, land and the settlement movement.

The report’s vision of housing sets out a genuinely Christian response to the housing crisis and a basis for critiquing and changing the current, broken, system of housing and planning.

“The housing policies of left and right alike have often overlooked the vital role of families, religious congregations and civil society (voluntary associations and the like) in shaping the built environment. These need to be involved in a conversation which discerns the meaning and purpose of our cities. From such a conversation, patterns of housing and other community facilities will emerge which sustain a healthy “human ecology”. Neither the overweening hand of distant bureaucrats nor the “invisible hand” of laissezfaire economics can achieve this.” [Extract, Abide in Me]

This kind of exposition of the sacramental nature of the home draws heavily on the thought of Pope Francis and is a welcome step towards the development of a theology of the home. Such a theology belongs alongside the concept of the universal destination of human goods in the body of thinking known as Catholic Social Teaching – always intended as a gift to all people of goodwill, never intended just for the Church.

This is a Common Good approach to housing and land. It challenges the prevailing perception of housing as merely an asset class and provides theological ballast supporting the view of the home as not only roof, bricks and mortar but also as the key domain for family life and human flourishing.

The churches have typically focused their resources and efforts on homelessness and other immediate-term housing needs. As such, their role in housing has been more of a sticking plaster approach rather than offering a holistic perspective on the problem, its causes and solutions. Many churches have assets which offer opportunities that are as yet untapped. The report advocates a place-based approach, endorsing co-operative and community owned approaches, with a focus on ‘left-behind’ areas. Crucially, it opens the door to a wider and more innovative range of possibilities for constructive Church involvement in housing, land and planning.

Abide in Me is visionary but also honest. It is prepared to take a longer view (specifically 10-12 years) of the changes that need to happen, which many political solutions fail to do. It is also takes the unpopular step of challenging the commodification of housing and the ‘professionalisation’ of housing support. The report recognises the potential for, and the value at a national level of, coordinated action by Catholics and other Christians, while acknowledging the lack of any such coordinated action at the moment. 

It notes a strong history of achievements in this field by English Catholics, and that if the Church is prepared to raise its game now, good solutions are within reach. The report includes past successes in footnotes, including the Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS)’s housing provision in the 1950s and 1960s, its pioneering one stop housing advice in the 1970s, and its key role in the groundbreaking 1980s Anglican report, Faith in the City, which involved contributing a chapter on housing. 

Abide in Me represents an important stride towards making real Pope Francis’ challenge for the Church to be genuinely ‘of the poor’ and to ‘smell of the sheep’. It recommends steps that the Church is well-placed to implement, and given the multiplicity of demands on bishops’ time, it is realistic and designed in such a way as to be a long term resource rather than just a short term policy document. This is a serious piece of work whose usefulness will not fade after a few months.

Even if only some of the recommendations are taken forward, the Church will have made a significant difference to the lives of families struggling with inadequate and insecure housing. It will have life changing effects on our fellow citizens whose homes are affected by regeneration and changes to their built environment over which they feel they have no control. The Church can not only make a vital impact on the systems that govern planning and land use in our country, their interventions will have wider and more profound cultural effects too.

However, the report is also peppered with references to the need for each of us to take responsibility for our actions in relation to housing and the communities in which we live. Part of the success of Abide in Me must be counted in the self-reflection it prompts in its readers.

While bishops, chief executives of charities, policy makers and housing professionals have much to reflect on in their institutional decision-making, every one of us is being called here to think about how our personal housing and financial choices affect those around us and the housing and land-use systems more widely.

It is this call to vocational responsibility that could make the biggest difference. It has the potential to galvanise the contribution of thousands of private citizens and person-in-the-pew Christians to apply the recommendations and challenges to their own situations. Perhaps the next offering from the Abide in Me vault will be a small group discussion or individual resource to help people discern the steps they are uniquely called to take, helping them formulate a response aligned with their personal calling.

Alison Gelder and Jenny Sinclair

Alison Gelder was formerly Chief Executive of Housing Justice and is now T4CG’s Director of Operations. Jenny Sinclair is T4CG’s founder-director.