Town, Gown and Down-and-out: Compassionate Solutions To Oxford’s Housing Crisis

As well as the breath-taking honey-coloured stone, the famous dreaming spires and the tweed-clad Dons, the one thing that many visitors first notice is the number of homeless people on Oxford’s streets. Indeed, the homeless in Oxford are as numerous as they are visible. On any one night in Oxford, there are dozens of rough sleepers, hundreds more in hostels and thousands more ‘sofa surfing’ or sharing three or more to a room, making Oxford the UK’s 4th biggest ‘homelessness hotspot’. Why is this?

Some two miles away on the outskirts of town, the Oxford ring road is choked with stationary traffic at rush hour. Commuting to Abingdon or Witney is the stuff of misery for a huge proportion of those who work in the city but cannot afford to live in it. These two seemingly disparate facts, homelessness and traffic, are therefore intimately connected: Oxford is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the trouble is, there are no easy solutions. In spite of what commentators on the left and the right might have us believe. The question which Oxford’s housing crisis raises for us here at the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion is: What role might compassion play in solving practical everyday problems such as these?

The first stage in acting compassionately is to recognise the suffering of others. The second is to act on it. Those reading this who live in Oxford will have noticed their rents rising steadily over the last couple of years. Anyone who has read a local or indeed national paper in last few weeks will have noticed that Oxford has once again received the dubious accolade of being the UK’s most expensive place to live in proportion to wages. The average property price is an eye-watering £380,000, while wages hover at around 1/12th of this figure. Those who don’t read the paper will certainly have noticed the number of young people begging on Cornmarket, not least during the cold winter months. Oxford’s housing crisis cuts through all sections of society and is not reserved for some imagined underclass. The suffering of others is all around us and to act compassionately is to notice it and think: “This is my problem. What can I do to help?”

On the face of it, we might feel helpless, or think that it is the job of politicians to solve structural supply-and-demand housing problems and not us. Recent government cuts have certainly played a large role in making housing unaffordable. The maximum housing benefit currently stands at £800 a month for a parent and child. A quick look at Rightmove reveals that the cheapest 2-bed property in town costs £865. You can, as they say, do the math. Perhaps even more worryingly, the local council has cut the homeless hostel budget by 1/3rd. Many of what we might glibly call ‘normal’ people are now destitute, due to something as simple as falling out with a partner or losing their job. A friend who works in a hostel tells me that most of the recent arrivals were not into drugs or drink – until they slept rough for a couple of nights, that is.

We might also want to pass the buck onto town planners or local councillors. The City Council has outlined the development (NIMBYS-notwithstanding) of around 10,000 homes in the next fifteen years, including a new garden city at Bicester. Unfortunately, this still leaves a shortfall of 20,000 when compared to its own estimates of population growth.

Another way we might want to pass the buck is to say that the causes are beyond our control. Oxford’s reputation as a city of scientific research and a publishing mecca, not to mention its top universities and schools mean it will always attract people. The universities are, of course, growing exponentially, stuffing in more international students, as well as the home grown intellectual elite who are willing to shell out the fees for the outstanding one-to-one tutorial system, lectures by world-leading academics and, of course, the word “Oxford” on their degree. Student towns, pretty towns and towns near London tend to be much more susceptible to house price inflation than most. Oxford is all three of these. The likelihood of Oxford University’s reputation waning any time soon is pretty slim. (It made it through the last 1,000 years in pretty good shape!) As long as The West remains the ideological gatekeeper of knowledge, an investment in Oxford property looks like a no-brainer.

We cannot stand on the M40 and prevent people moving to Oxford, just as we cannot prevent capitalists from all over the world investing in Oxford property. Or if we did, Oxford would be in international pariah territory; labelled an ‘enemy of freedom’, along with North Korea or Zimbabwe. Clearly then, the structural economic and political obstacles to solving Oxford’s housing crisis are indeed immense. However, compassion requires us to look around and think how we can help those around us. Are there any small-scale, local, indeed personal contributions you and I can make?

A heartwarming idea from Holland went viral on Facebook recently. University students were given the opportunity to live in nursing homes for free, provided they kept the residents company for a ten hours a week. This small-scale, compassionate, community-minded solution to a housing problem is exactly the sort thing that Oxford needs. We need more communication in order to understand others’ needs and a willingness to change our conditioned patterns of thinking. Acting compassionately begins with self empowerment to realise that, whoever you are, you can do something. Even if it’s only to moan at your boss or landlord about rent being unaffordable and discuss it among your friends and neighbours.

Macroscopic bodies like Government, Banks or Corporations might very rightly be blamed for creating problems such as the housing unaffordability epidemic, but they are often too big, too dispersed and unwilling or unable to solve them. Compassion allows us look at those around us in our own locality and see what we can do here and now. Here are some self-consciously parochial and localist ideas which could work in Oxford.  I hope readers from other cities and countries will think about how it can relate to their own situation.

1. Plan For The Future

Brookes and Oxford University planners need to think about the housing needs of their staff as well as their students. A third of people who are not students in Oxford work for the universities. The University traditionally housed its own staff and must think seriously of ways to do this again. If a new complex can be built in Headington to house 500 students, can’t some of these houses be put aside for staff?

2. Students Share To Save Money

In many countries outside the UK, it is standard practice for students to share a room with a ‘roommate’. Seeing as about 50% of Oxford students are from overseas, there must be a considerable number of international students wishing to share a room, if only they could. It is also standard practice in language schools for their students to live with host families. I firmly believe that many international students would welcome a similar opportunity.

3. Embrace Technology

All businesses in Oxford need to think about the housing needs of their workers. Offering more flexi-time and more working from home would alleviate the grinding daily commute and allow people to live further out and more cheaply – in Oxfordshire and beyond. Given Skype and broadband, surely it is ludicrous that so many people are unnecessarily chained to Oxford-based offices from 9-5. The regulation which states that undergraduate students should live within nine miles of Carfax and Postgrads within twenty five miles also could be reconsidered. Since the invention of those newfangled devices, the motor car and the train, these distances are ludicrously small. Post-grads could easily live in London, Birmingham or Bristol and commute. Undergrads could easily live in Banbury, Didcot et al.

4. Tenants and Landlords: Communicate!

Landlords must be more considerate of the needs of their tenants. Rental rises need to be more closely aligned with salary inflation (or lack thereof) and less with house price inflation. Rent caps are unlikely to be implemented in the UK – let’s face it – but more communication between tenant and landlord on the issue can only be a good thing.

5. Family Values

The trend towards larger family groups living together needs to be encouraged. Divorce rates are dropping massively at the moment, while the number of those living with parents is rising. This needs more positive media coverage and more positive encouragement by faith and community leaders.

I offer the five above suggestions as compassionate, as opposed to party-political, solutions to Oxford’s housing crisis. Affordable housing, family bonds and strong communities are absolutely fundamental to quality of life. Communication and that practical mutual understanding called ‘compassion’ are the means through which we implement these ideas. I welcome comments or criticisms from readers and also would love to hear how you might apply compassionate techniques of problem-solving within your own community, wherever that may be.

-Kerry Smallman

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