Does a home ‘solve’ homelessness?

Homemaker Oxford is one of our newest initiatives at Transition by Design, a three-year piece of action research exploring housing provision for those with the most extreme housing need, using empty and underused space. On 26th March we ran a workshop at Crisis Skylight in Oxford to begin to co-create a project brief for Homemaker Oxford. This blog explains what we did, why and explores some of the themes that emerged.

For the past three months we’ve had our head in the books and been out on the road meeting people researching what taking a design approach to tackling extreme housing need in Oxford might look like. Based on this research, we invited a group of experts on housing and homelessness to help us explore this research and begin to translate it into a plan of action.

Homemaker Oxford is looking specifically for housing strategies that are;

  • Leveraging empty and underused space for community benefit.
  • Responding to the need to diversify housing delivery at the lower end of the market.
  • Using the power and creativity of a community approach.
  • Working at the intersection of activism and design.
  • Including people with a lived experience of homelessness in a meaningful way.
  • Oxford specific.

Attending the workshop were existing homelessness service providers operating in Oxford, technical experts (on land, finance, property and development, alternative housing models and community led housing) and people with a lived experience of homelessness. There were representatives from Oxford City Council, Oxford University, The Outside Project, St Mungo’s, Mayday Trust, the Oxfordshire Community Foundation, Oxford Community Land Trust, Crisis, Aspire Oxford, Transition by Design and other organisations and individuals.

The objectives for the workshop were;

  1. To bring together new voices from different backgrounds in a space where different types of experience where able to interact and co-create.
  2. To build new links between different stakeholders involved in the provision of housing for those with the most extreme need.
  3. To create an environment where a diverse group of skills and experiences where able to participate equally
  4. To build participatory foundations for the next 3-years of the Homemaker Oxford project.

What we did

Over half a day, we explored how the practice of design and architecture interacts with the delivery of homeless services and the provision of housing. We discussed the challenges and opportunities to housing provision for those with the most extreme need in Oxford.

We then presented four case studies of similar projects happening elsewhere – Protohome in Newcastle, In My Back Yard in Paris, The House Project in Stoke on Trent and St Mungo’s Guardianship scheme in Bristol. We discussed each project in its modular detail, talking though the housing, financial or planning mechanisms contained within and explored how each of the individual elements might translate to the Oxford context.

Finally, using the different mechanisms uncovered by the case studies and wider discussion, we prototyped a new set of strategies for Oxford.

Themes that emerged

  • The need to diversify housing options (both typologies and delivery model). We discussed the “paternalistic nature” of housing provision in the UK and how that differs to mainland Europe. “We need to get away from the idea of ‘housing provision’ and explore how we create more of a (policy) ‘enabling environment’ said one participant. “How do we stop the expectation that private institutions and wealthy individuals will solve the housing crisis?” asked another.
  • How to balance short term need with longer term security, or “the humanitarian urgency with longer term systemic change” as one participant commented. Is there value in creating more short-term accommodation? We discussed how Oxford City Council’s current approach focusses heavily on long-term, permanent approaches. “We need to talk about ‘community’ and ‘ownership’ as well as ‘shelter’” said one participant.
  • The power of self-build in growing confidence. Many in the group saw self-build as a useful and appropriate platform for encouraging participation from people who can be given the impression (both overtly and covertly) that they are “worthless”.
  • The need for support at all levels and across all sectors, you need someone at the top who is willing to take a gamble.” was the feedback from a participant who was experienced in getting innovative projects off the ground in a similar environment.
  • The lack of credibility for alternative housing models and the need to build it. “How do we prove that this sort of approach can provide housing more cheaply and at scale?” said one participant when discussing the issue that, at present, there is little hard evidence that the community led/alternative housing approach is more effective than the current approach.
  • The potential stigma attached to some housing and land types. What does the land ascribed to house homeless people say about a city’s attitude to their overall inclusion? There was a perceived stigma about using spaces like car parks, “is this the best we can do?” said one participant, another added “We don’t need to build. It’s all there. It just needs unravelling.” We also explored the idea of a social stigma developing around empty rooms in people’s houses, “Bring back the bedroom tax but only for the wealthy and/or private sector.”

Creative solutions to a tricky problem

Towards the end of the workshop, discussion turned to the role of Homemaker Oxford in addressing some of the challenges raised. We discussed using garage sites to self-build tiny homes, reviving the self-build council housing approach used in Lewisham by Walter Segal in the 1980’s, developing an Air BnB style system for using empty rooms or spare bedrooms to house those with a short term need for housing and an Oxford scale version of Sweden’s Million Homes project.

How do we stop the expectation that private institutions and wealthy individuals will solve the housing crisis?

Workshop participant

Other ideas included the potential for building small modular units in large gardens, the renovation of empty commercial space into medium-term accommodation and the need to map and visualise the empty space that currently exists, the potential for a ‘tourist tax’ to fund future developments of social housing and the development of a rapid retrofitting approach to take advantage of commercial properties awaiting redevelopment.

The Homemaker Oxford team will be digesting these over the next weeks and months and translating some of them into a schedule of work for the project.

Final thoughts

We are actively seeking to partner with other campaigns, organisations or individuals working on any of the issues outlined above. If this is of interest to you or you have comments on the above, please email [email protected], we’d love to hear from you.