People need homes, and empty spaces need people

I read in the Independent about a group of Oxford students and activists who have occupied one of the many unused buildings around the city to house the city’s rough sleepers:

(Incidentally, the Independent website runs rather a lot of third-party Javascript programs, so you may want to use NoScript or somesuch when using it. More on this in the future…)

I think there is plenty of scope for a similar project at Cambridge. There are sites owned by university or colleges which lie unused. These include the former site of the Mahal and Dojo’s, next to the Mill Lane lecture theatres, which a consortium of colleges (including, I am ashamed to say, Queens’) bought four years ago with the intention of turning it into student accommodation. The existing businesses, which had been part of the fabric of Cambridge’s culture, were evicted while the colleges knew that they did not have the finances to actually build their accommodation blocks. Other sites include prime locations on Market Square, including the former pasty shop which was forced out of business by a rent increase two years ago, and has since lain dormant.

These are good examples of market failure, but a deeper fallacy is to think that these unwise decisions are bad for the owners of the buildings but hurt nobody else. An unused or abandoned building brings social costs. Homelessness is not an economic choice, but a situation of having no choice. When we remember that being housed is a human right, perhaps we will stop referring to buildings as ‘properties’ and treating them as investments.

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