The Times recently published an article by James Vitali on ‘How the Church of England can help solve the housing crisis’, who writes that:

“Building almshouses on its 100,000 acres of land would be locally popular, nationally valuable and give the church a fresh sense of mission.”

Association CEO, Nick Phillips agrees, adding:

Building a new generation of almshouses could restore the Church’s sense of social mission – in partnership with industry!

Historically, almost all almshouse charities have been founded through a collaboration of the Church and philanthropy. Almshouses are places where people, hope and friendships flourish, but there are just not enough almshouses to meet demand.  James is, therefore, asking the right questions but should we also be asking others as well as the church?  

The Church and almshouses have been intertwined since the start of the almshouse movement

The Church, ancient though it is, has also been a driver for social change in some areas such as housing, especially in the creation of almshouses. It is hard to imagine a time when there were no provisions for housing those in need – the almshouse model has been the backbone throughout the centuries in providing warm, safe, secure homes based on the original spirit of hospitality. These were originally led by the church; ‘hospitals’ from the medieval period still exist and operate today doing what they were designed to do when King Steven was the King of England.

The Church, therefore, has a position to uphold in supporting housing for those in need and The Coming Homes Report Led by The Archbishop of Canterbury unpins the Church’s position today. So, I agree with James – why not expand the reach of the Church to make an impact that could last for another thousand years by releasing Church land to build almshouses today so that, in the true spirit of charity, more people in need may be provided with a safe, comfortable, affordable home?

The Church could offer part of the solution as it holds land in places where almshouses have their best impact. A partnership between almshouse charities and the Church must generate more almshouse schemes, but I wonder if this is only part of the solution. Today, when we see independent reports demonstrating that almshouses actually contribute value to the State and that living in an almshouse can even extend life expectancy, we should be asking, “Who else could continue the one-thousand-year almshouse legacy?” We could also be asking, “Where are all the industry philanthropists now who once stood shoulder to shoulder with the Church?”

History shows that other great institutions established almshouses and many of the Livery Companies and industries are still very committed to the almshouse model because they know it supports the wellbeing of residents. The Weavers, Ironmongers, Skinners, Mercers, Lightermen, Printers, Leathersellers and many other Worshipful Companies regarded them then and still today, for their great added value in housing people in a community of good neighbours. Big industry philanthropists have, for example, supported retired miners and those who worked in the printing industry and we also see cases where the military have embraced the almshouse model. As well as encouraging the Church to step forward, should we ask industry leaders of today such as technology companies, finance companies and property companies to build almshouses too?

Does the Government play a role in the almshouse renaissance?

The Government, through Housing Associations, creates housing at scale, but it is just not enough in many cases. With thousands of people in sub-standard housing and over one million on council waiting lists, urgent action is needed, and what could be better than creating more almshouses? Run by voluntary trustees in a cost-effective way that alleviates some of the burden on State finances, together with their provision of warm, comfortable homes within special almshouse communities must surely be the way forward.

One of The Almshouse Association’s founders said,
“almshouses are too important to leave to the State” and these are telling words.

Society’s problems today can’t all be fixed by the Government, but the Government can help by giving almshouse charities the same opportunity as large Housing Associations and private companies, especially by recognising the almshouse model as ‘affordable housing’ in its planning policy.

Almshouses are charities in spirit and function, communities of good neighbours living together for their mutual comfort and well-being rather than being ‘just housing’. The Church and its land must be part of the solution for almshouse residents and the Church itself. Let’s bring together Church, industry and Government to add more of this great value asset to society and help build more almshouses.  

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