As York, England prepares to welcome Afghan refugees, housing becomes an increasingly critical issue. It is not that York lacks rental housing, but rather that it lacks affordable housing, a particular problem for people who in many cases left their country with nothing. The aim of the article is to offer an alternative solution and to investigate ways and means of welcoming more refugees to York.
It is widely acknowledged that the United Kingdom is experiencing a housing crisis: in recent decades, the cost of buying a home has increased faster than salaries, pricing many people out of the market.
Low-deposit mortgages are ineffective in some parts of the country because potential homeowners cannot afford the high monthly payments on the mortgages they will require. For many, therefore, buying a house, if achievable at all, still means a long period of saving up for substantial down payments.
Things are made significantly more difficult by high private sector rents — and in some regions, a large proportion of renters require government assistance to pay their monthly housing expenses. As affordable social housing has grown rarer, many families have little alternative except to rent privately – frequently at a higher cost than a mortgage.
Failure to create enough affordable housing means that people without permanent housing struggle to find work, parents struggle to maintain their children in a steady school, and mental health suffers as a result of anxiety.
The housing crisis in York
York has been identified as a national hotspot for failing to offer affordable housing. The development of social housing has simply not kept pace with increasing demand and waiting times can extend into decades.
York needs around 205 new affordable houses every year, but only about 77 have been created in recent years — and approximately 58 housing association properties are lost each year to right to purchase. This leaves 19 new houses available to anyone on the housing waiting list or families interested in purchasing through another affordable programme. The result is that the number of individuals waiting for a house on the council’s housing list increased to about 1,800 in July 2021.
In this difficult housing situation, the city of York council leadership is planning to place Afghan refugees in privately rented properties. Will this make life simpler for the Afghan refugees or will it set them up for failure from the start?
Housing as a human right
The housing situation in the UK was not always this bad. According to official figures, over a third of dwellings in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s were cheap social housing supplied by local authorities.
It is the so-called “right to buy” which is at the root of the present housing issue. The policy, which allowed council residents to purchase their houses at a discounted price, had actually existed for years on a small scale. However, the Thatcher administration’s generous and enthusiastically embraced sell-off in the 1980s led to a decrease in funds available to municipalities and therefore in the number of replacement dwellings that could be built.
With regard to the integration of refugees and asylum seekers, housing is a crucial issue with the right to adequate housing: a human right under international human rights law. This can be traced back to 1948, when the world community unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the right to adequate housing has been repeatedly reaffirmed, as well as further defined and elaborated.
When Syrian refugees were first resettled in York in 2016, it was decided that they would be housed in privately rented accommodation. While this did not mean they were not allowed to go onto the social housing list later when they settled into the city, the waiting times for social housing imply that few will ever access it. The fact that refugees in the UK are entitled to social housing begs the question: why were different rules and approaches used for Syrian refugees compared to rules which will be used for Afghan refugees? Isn’t that a form of discrimination? Or does it just demonstrate that the UK lacks a unified set of well-thought-out and planned refugee policies and laws that are guided by international human rights conventions and treaties?
The same approach appears likely to be taken with housing Afghan refugees who come to live in the city – people with few resources expected somehow to cope with expensive private sector rents. The solution is not straightforward: local governments should begin to view housing as a human right rather than a commodity to adopt a completely different approach. In housing refugees, the government should work closely with private landlords and the local community to find long-term affordable accommodation. There also needs to be direct funding from the government for at least the first 3 years of helping these refugees with housing costs, whilst at the same time not putting the local host under pressure or creating problems for the host community.
The past influx of Syrian refugees, as well as the continued inflow of Afghan refugees, provide both an opportunity and a challenge for government and policymakers to change housing rules and regulations and kickstart a social housing building revolution. But in the past we have seen that Nick Clegg said that Conservative Party refused to build social housing because it would ‘create Labour voters’. Nonetheless, the question remains as to whether the political party in power will be willing to build social housing now or whether they will fear that these refugees might become supporters of particular political party in the long run.
Adequate and appropriate housing as a tool for better integration
All refugees have one thing in common: they have lost their homes and are looking for a new one. In this case, it is in York. Housing plays a crucial role in an individual’s health and wellbeing, and often determines which school their children will attend, the crime rate, employment opportunities and many other factors to which the individual will be exposed. The provision of adequate, affordable housing in our area is therefore crucial.
A further important issue is the choice of appropriate neighbourhoods in which to house refugees. If they are placed in areas where they will face hostility and racism, this will affect their health and wellbeing. Local housing policies and guidelines need to keep such factors in mind. Specific refugee-focused housing policies need to be developed and local councillors, MPs and charity workers trained specifically around these issues. Remedies need to be in place to address problems that may arise and to provide rehousing if required.
Welcoming host community
The primary need in terms of housing refugees is placing them in neighbourhoods where there are dedicated people committed to welcoming them. Such people could come together to befriend and provide support to the refugees in their neighbourhood, both in the short and long term. By doing this, refugees will feel welcome and better supported, and every aspect of their lives may be improved. In addition, the local community will benefit in the long term. To achieve this, government should be prepared to help local people in York from local community organisations in their areas who will be properly funded and trained who will play a key part in welcoming refugees in their areas. It is very apparent from the response to Syrian and Afghan refugees crisis that there are not a lack of people in York who are ready to help refugees in different ways by providing finance, practical support and the expertise which is needed to help them to be trained, organised and funded. In this way, they can continue to play their roles now and when the next crisis arises.
Following this model in York would mean that when a refugee family is resettled, they would be assigned a caseworker from one of the two relevant local charities, Refugee Action York or York City of Sanctuary. Refugees would then receive a visit from their caseworker two or three times a week, as well as having daily contact with organised groups of community friends from their neighbourhood, enabling them to access advice and local expertise to solve any problems.
This level of contact will not only help build bonds and relationships but also increase the opportunities for refugee family members to absorb English, practise their conversational skills in relaxed settings and build up their confidence, all of which will greatly enhance community cohesion.
But for plans of this kind to work, local charities need to be adequately funded by the home office so that they can work together with the city council and local community to form a local environment into which refugees will be housed and welcomed.
Ensuring successful integration of refugees
Adequate and affordable housing and strong community involvement are key components of success in welcoming refugees. In both cases, we have work to do.
I strongly hope that the city of York council and political leadership keep in mind that York is the UK’s first human rights city and take the opportunity to create the conditions whereby we can support people in safely and successfully restarting their lives. And most importantly, this might create an opportunity to rethink and challenge the different tier system of asylum and refugee status and different treatment of refugees and asylum seekers are in place which is discriminatory. I have presented just some of the many possible ideas in this limited space.