Open House Oxford: We Need to Talk about Housing (1/2)
To anyone who’s lived, worked or studied in Oxford, it should come as no surprise that the city has a serious housing problem. In fact, it should be pretty obvious from a single visit here: the huge mansions of Summertown and the beauty of the Oxford colleges stand out in stark contrast to the real, lived experience of many locals for whom rent either costs more than half of their monthly pay or is completely unaffordable. And if you don’t believe me, drop into Open House on Little Clarendon Street: they’ve got the figures right there on the wall for everyone to see, alongside “Have Your Say” jamjars filled with voting counters for questions about everything from how much rent citizens should pay to who we should look to for a solution.
I’m here to meet Lucy Warin, who started the Open House project—though as she later points out to me, she’s been trying to step back and allow those who use the space to take more and more responsibility for how it’s run. Right now, though, she’s in the thick of it: talking to people, arranging activities, moving about the space. I take a look at the set-up while I’m waiting. There are many of the typical hallmarks of community spaces here: puzzles and boardgames, comfy seating, a little kitchenette. But there are also some more distinctive features that mark out the deeper purpose of the place. A couple of wooden booths—they look like tiny shacks—stand to one side, holding headphones where visitors can listen to the voices and stories of local people and the experiences they’ve had of housing and sometimes homelessness in Oxford. One wall is covered with statistics, such as the fact that 50% of homelessness is caused by breakdowns in rent agreements. There’s even a shelf filled with books about housing and urban design.
Urban design is one of Lucy’s passions. Before moving to Oxford a year and a half ago she worked for an innovation centre in London, exploring just those kinds of issues; now, she’s a project designer for Transition by Design, an Oxford-based architecture studio. “We quite flippantly say that we like drinking tea, making new friends and talking to strangers about housing,” explains Lucy, “but that quite literally is what we do.”
The project is about the space—owned by the University of Oxford—but it’s also about the events that go on in that space. One of those events is Writing Home, a series of poetry workshops run by local poet Rowena Cooper (of the Oxford Poetry Library). The Oxford Poetry Library seemed a natural partner for an event at Open House: Writing Home is one of several projects they’re involved in that focus on housing and homelessness. “We share a lot of the same goals,” says Lucy. “What Writing Home and poetry do is to allow people of different experiences to be part of the same conversation without feeling judged.”
The poets—homeless people, students, disgruntled renters, locals living in all types of accommodation—write about everything from daily experiences to nature to “life, the universe and everything”, as Rob, one of the regulars, tells me. I meet him socialising with a few other people who’ve dropped in for the morning, and Lucy explains that I’m writing an article about Writing Home. Rob’s story is representative of the varied groups of people who converge here: currently studying for a degree in geography, he’s got a history that includes environmental activism, time abroad in France, and a period of time when he was squatting in London. Now a little over sixty, he talks about poetry as one of several ways he finds his centre. “I’m not so emotional as most people … I’m very Buddhist. I have a spacey mind,” he says, before trying to convince me to take up meditation. (Sadly I’ve never been able to meditate, though I wouldn’t be surprised if spending more time in the calm atmosphere of Open House could help me learn.)
The aims of Open House are certainly admirable, though I was skeptical before visiting about how successful it could be. After all, so many people who live in Oxford are aware of the problems brought by unavailable housing, and so many of those people—like Lucy—have sought to tackle those problems, with varying results. What sets Open House and its projects like Writing Home apart is the uncontrived, organic fact of people just talking here, just hanging out and treating the space like its namesake: a house, a home. Lucy sums up what makes spaces like this so important in a city like Oxford better than I could hope to. “We don’t have public space anymore,” she says as I finish my tea. “If there’s no place that welcomes you, how are you supposed to be a citizen?”