One of the first things I did was ask a friend who works as a Director for a large Welsh housing association to tell me his experience of working with churches. To say his response burst my bubble would be somewhat of an understatement. “Churches?” he said. “Pah! They all want top dollar for everything”.
I learned very quickly that although churches and the housing sector are built on very similar foundations e.g. fairness, justice and a desire to help those in need, their relationship was purely commercial with little understanding of each other.
Churches were viewed as not very helpful and the housing sector was viewed as a speculative developer. In fairness to churches, they sought to get the best return for land because they were tied by their interpretation of charity law and were directing the money into other avenues to help those in need.
The challenge for the FIAH project has been to help churches see housing as part of its mission. This has meant showing the difference a good quality home makes to health, education, well being and life chances. As Housing Justice is the national voice in the UK for Christian action on housing and homelessness, this gave us an open door to challenge churches into doing more to be part of the solution to housing need. It also meant acting as an impartial bridge between the church and the housing sector.
Two years later and a number of church sites have been sold to housing associations across Wales through the FIAH project. Work has recently begun near Merthyr Tydfil to build 13 new homes and an old derelict chapel in Bridgend will shortly be demolished to build Move-On accommodation for single young adults. As I write this, discussions are progressing on 25 sites across Wales, many of which involve partnerships between churches and RSLs to jointly deliver community facilities in addition to homes.
Two of the main Christian denominations in Wales have formally adopted policies on land disposal for affordable housing, including below market sale if need be. Hopefully more denominations will follow soon.
So what’s made the difference? I think simply getting the church and the housing sector around the table, then letting them talk to each other. It’s been great to witness the epiphany moment that actually we have really similar aims and values. The result is a growing relationship of trust and partnership between the church and the housing sector in Wales that will benefit generations of people to come.
Sharon Lee works for the charity Housing Justice and co-ordinates the Faith in Affordable Housing project in Wales, which aims to see surplus church land and buildings released for housing. She is also a board member of Wales & West Housing.