Re-Made in Dagenham

By Line Algoed - on 30/11/2012

HACT's Housing Intern Line Algoed, who is currently working on the self-help housing project, visits a site in Essex to see how community grants made from the DCLG's Empty Homes Programme are turning around both empty properties and the community.

(Photo provided by Josephine Elvis)

Dagenham, London

The morning is crisp when activity starts on Broad Street in Dagenham. I’m visiting one of Habitat for Humanity’s projects; the renovation of a building that has been abandoned more than ten years ago. Volunteers arrive to help turn this empty building into housing again, which will provide a home for three families in housing need.

We’re only a few days away from Ford announcing further closure of the Dagenham plant, making another 1000 workers redundant. Like elsewhere in Europe, jobs are moving to where work is less expensive, leaving people behind having to find other ways to cover the staggering prices of daily life in London.

Once things were different here. At its heyday, the Ford site occupied four million square feet for vehicle assembly and engine facility, making it a global innovation centre for diesel engineering, employing no less than 40,000 people. Back then, Dagenham was at work.

To accommodate the workers and their families, the council constructed lanes and lanes of simple and decent standardised houses. Since jobs started moving away, these houses have started to look very different, with many now in need of essential repairs.

The building on Broad Street, less than a mile away from the Ford site, has been lying empty for years. Many other properties in the area are in a similar situation. There is less and less interest from private buyers, and the council, which takes ownership of the properties once it becomes clear they are left behind, doesn’t have the resources for the renovations.

(Photo provided by Josephine Elvis)

Now, a large banner outside of the properties announces that 301 volunteers have been working on renovating these houses. A large container filled with building waste is parked outside. The construction noises can be heard throughout the street. Energetic people wearing yellow jackets and safety shoes are walking in and out, commanded by Tony, the cheerful construction manager.

Habitat for Humanity, the worldwide charity, is leading the project. “A world in which everyone has a decent place to live”, is its vision. Most of the projects are focused on the global south, where they are helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

But housing-related poverty isn’t an issue only in the third world. In the UK, Habitat for Humanity is working to find local solutions for the increasingly growing housing need.

Southwark Habitat for Humanity, the London branch, is one of the 95 organisations that have been given part of the £30m Empty Homes Community Grant of the Department of Communities and Local Government, with the purpose of bringing empty homes back into use.

This week at the Empty Homes Conference, which marked the start of the Empty Homes week, the Government announced another £300m to be available for the renovation of empty homes.

Initially, the Empty Homes grant was meant for registered providers only, such as housing associations and local authorities. But the effort of many, supported by organisations like Self-Help and HACT, has secured that a large part is given to community-led organisations, like Habitat for Humanity.

These community organisations vary in size and scope. Some are large and well-established organisations with years of experience in reducing homelessness. Others are smaller and younger, developing local housing solutions for small numbers of people in most pressing housing need. Some provide construction traineeships to young or unemployed people, using the empty property as a learning site. Others bring volunteers from corporations to roll up their sleeves and help in the reconstruction of the homes. Some will provide short-life housing for temporary use; others will become permanent homes that tenants can buy.

(photo provided by Canopy Housing, Leeds)

All of them use local knowledge to develop a fitting solution for a specific group of people. All of them are organised around collaboration between different groups. All of them bring life into something that was thought lost.

Habitat for Humanity counts on volunteers from trading companies in the City of London. Today, 4 traders are at work. “This gives us the opportunity to give something back to the community”, one of them says.

Gareth Hepworth, CEO of HfH, explains that the council took ownership of these properties in 2004. Records show an owner purchased them in 1929 but left them unused since the end of the 90’s. There is no trace of the owner dying or family claiming the property.

“The Council simply didn’t have the resources necessary to redo these flats. Now it costs them nothing. We are doing it for them and they will be able to provide a home for three families on their council housing waiting list.”

Apart from creating local housing solutions, Habitat for Humanity is bringing energy back to the streets in neighbourhoods like Dagenham. It is this vigorous investment that is needed for the renewal of a neighbourhood; local, small and people-led investments displaying great creativity and enthusiasm.

HACT and Self-help are supporting these organisations to create a structure for such initiatives, in effort to build links between these housing solutions and the mainstream housing sector. It resembles the starting days of many of today’s large housing associations and co-ops, when housing solutions were created for and by the community. It’s not a new idea, but it is one that we need to turn back to.

self-help housing

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