Opinion

Britain’s housing crisis – stealing from the poor to give to the rich

"These investors see property – a finite resource – as profit. Meanwhile, homelessness is on the rise..."

The council flat I lived in as a child in Fulham swapped hands for less than half a million pounds recently. My former wife’s house cost £15,000 in the late ’70s. You’d pay over £1m for it now.

But this pales into insignificance if you look at the house in Notting Hill I was born into after the war. A big slum stuffed full of the working poor, it would now cost you over £20m.

All of the overheated buying and selling of property has been increased alarmingly by the hidden owners. Who have used legal but often questionable means of hiding their ownership in the vaults of Panama. As homelessness increases and our streets fill up with rough sleepers, nameless tax dodgers, using Panama as a front, fill their coffers quicker than ever. In the meantime, nurses, firemen, doctors, students and almost everyone else wonders where their next roof is coming from. I walk around central London and see people begging, people sleeping in doorways.

Now we know that the corruption of London’s property markets by flats and houses left empty is fuelled off-shore, we need to act. We need to claim back what was once a simple place for people to live.

As homelessness increases and our streets fill up with rough sleepers, nameless tax dodgers, using Panama as a front, fill their coffers quicker than ever

I started The Big Issue 25 years ago to give people on the street the chance to make a legal form of income. Over the last quarter of a century we have struggled to get people off the streets, into programmes and moving forward. Yet this becomes even more difficult when housing and rents go through the roof.

Being homeless is on the rise, and it’s likely to increase more. Vast hidden numbers of people who are sofa-surfing, living in old buildings; trying to get a roof over their heads. Homelessness is a barometer of the health of our society, and it is a threat to more and more people.

When I was homeless in the 1950s and ’60s I was running away from the police and family. When I started The Big Issue many people I met had lives in tatters, often self-medicating with drink and drugs.

In the 1990s many street dwellers that brought us into being were mentally ill. They would have been in asylums if we had any left. Mental institutions closed and prisons and streets filled up with displaced, troubled people.

But now you meet people who are internal economic refugees, who through job loss or poor pay have fallen into homelessness. This is a frightening reality.

I have seen the changes coming in London for a long time. Wherever I lived as a child gets changed beyond measure by development. Along the Portobello Road, the Kings Road. Even the Catholic orphanage I was in as a child in Mill Hill is now a top-market housing estate.

But the pace has increased to untold and socially destructive levels. And we know why. It is investors who see property as profit. So a finite resource becomes the latest way of making even more money.

Even the Catholic orphanage I was in as a child in Mill Hill is now a top-market housing estate

And putting that money out of sight and reach into Panama-like hideouts is criminal. And then adding insult to injury by leaving that place empty really makes a mockery. Of us, of business, of opportunity.

At The Big Issue we’re making sure money gets to the right places. Through Big Issue Invest we have invested £365,000 in an organisation called PHASES, which buys properties to renovate and rent out, and offers homeless people construction training and apprenticeships. Big Issue Invest recently launched a £10m London Housing Fund to invest in smaller housing associations, social enterprises and charities that create affordable housing in the city, particularly projects providing employment opportunities for people in vulnerable communities.

In Devon Big Issue Invest lent £350,000 to Yes Brixham, to buy and renovate six flats which now house single mums, and is about to invest £80,000 (and another £1m to follow next year) in a Community Land Trust in Lewisham, where groups of people come together, collectively acquire assets and self-build affordable housing.

This money from Big Issue Invest is a different way to give a hand up. We know there are people with great ideas out there, they just need the opportunity to put them into action.

The Big Issue’s campaign to Fill ’Em Up has tried to address the large amounts of properties that have been left empty. We know the damage that ‘empty homes’ do to an economy. But we need a forceful stand against this abuse and rape of our cities.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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