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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
Common ground on housing crisis
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Times Square Hotel: Not your average homeless hostel

Should we be rethinking how we live in cities? Pink Floyd's guitarist, a radical New York apartment block and a London experiment aims to rebuild lives, rejuvenate buildings - and recreate communities.

London knows a thing or two about housing crises - and we're not talking about the price of those to-die-for super trendy loft apartments.

The capital needs 43,000 new homes a year, 15,000 of them "affordable" for the low-paid "key workers" who keep the city running.

Then there is the so-called "hidden homeless" - a quarter of the 400,000 people who have no proper home in England live in the capital.

Prices twice the national average
85,000 with mortgage problems
Market "pricing key workers out of city"
Source: Mayor of London

So how do you find solutions in London's housing crush? Turn to New York and a rock star.

Last year, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour sold his London home for 3.6m and gave the money to housing charity Crisis.

That donation has become the basis of an experimental community which Crisis hopes will soon appear in central London.

It aims to create an integrated community where 400 low-paid key workers and formerly homeless people live side-by-side with services to help them progress in life.

Not only will they get cheap high-quality apartments and social support, Crisis says the proposed transformation of a large derelict building (still to be identified) would provide an economic boost to its local area.

It's the kind of idea that pushes all the buttons that the government talks about - and it's already working in New York City.

Cleaning up the streets

Since 1990, the Common Ground Community project has redeveloped dilapidated hotels in exactly the same way in the American city.

This is about creating a small town, rather than just a building - it's about a real mixed society, working with many different people.
Rosanne Haggerty
One of the formerly grand Manhattan hotels taken over by the project was once dubbed "Hells Embassy" by the New York Times. Today, it is a vibrant "supportive housing" scheme.

Common Ground's founder Rosanne Haggerty says the projects are about much more than putting a roof over a head.

"This is about creating a small town, rather than just a building," she says. "It's about a real mixed society, working with many different people.

Three buildings
More schemes on the way
Keenly watched by European cities

"The mix of people is so critical to the sense of something positive happening to everyone who's there."

In each development, half of the apartments go to local essential workers - from musicians to street cleaners. They pay a third of their income as rent.

The other half of the tenancies go to the homeless. Their apartments are paid for by state benefits which they wouldn't be able to claim if they still lived in hostels or shelters.

Then Common Ground adds the "supportive housing" element. It bases social workers, educationalists, doctors and employment advisors in the building.

It opens cafes, libraries, computer centres and twists the arms of companies to get involved in job training. As these tenants find work, they begin paying for their apartments.

Mix 'creates success'

This mix, says Rosanne Haggerty, creates success. Many of the tenants work in or near the building and this rubs off on other tenants trying to kick-start their lives.

A soup run for the homeless
44,700: Psychiatric ward bed
25,000: Emergency hostel
18,200: Council B&B
2,500: Costs to police, NHS etc
Source: Crisis, St Mungos, Shelter, academic research

"It was clear to me that try as we might [with earlier homeless projects] to have a building feel like a regular apartment block, something about it always felt institutional.

"At the other end of the spectrum, was another group of working New Yorkers who simply couldn't get on the housing ladder.

"So here we had two groups who needed affordable housing but whose needs were not being met.

"We believed we could develop the building with benefits on all sorts of different levels."

The first Common Ground community opened in 1990 in what had been the notorious Times Square Hotel. Today, there are three buildings.

Two studies suggest eight out of 10 of the homeless people helped by supportive housing get back into mainstream society - a far higher success rate than traditional approaches of handing out soup and blankets. All the statistics suggest supportive housing costs far less than other attempts to reintegrate the homeless.

Joined-up thinking

Shaks Ghosh, chief executive of Crisis, says the time is right for something as ambitious in the UK.

25% unable to sustain tenancies
20% with mental health problems
20% still in hostels after 10 years
Source: Crisis
"Common Ground is a living, breathing demonstration of joined-up thinking," she says.

"There is a lot of concern in the UK about issues such as social exclusion, mixed communities, housing for key workers and homelessness. Common Ground presses all these buttons."

What's more, say campaigners, is it offers an alternative to treating homelessness as a criminal problem.

Home Secretary David Blunkett is proposing to make begging a recordable crime; Common Ground developed during a similar "zero tolerance" atmosphere in New York which swept up homelessness as an anti-social ill.

"We've had five rough sleepers initiatives in the last 10 years. If people are still out there it's because we have not got the right solution for them," says Ms Ghosh.

"Providing soup and blankets is hard but nowhere near as hard as rebuilding lives.

"But if you put homeless people in to contact with working people, they become hugely motivated to help themselves."

New York's innovative project
How homeless and workers live side by side

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