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Liberal empty nesters who scoff at housing Ukrainian refugees show Brits need to re-discover generosity

The i 20/03/2022 Stefano Hatfield

Like 140,000 others, I registered my interest in housing Ukrainian refugees last week. A wonderful friend, let’s call her Daisy, inspired me to do so. However, I also encountered surprising negativity from others – including some loud critics of the Government’s Ukraine strategy. This ranged from polite questioning: “Ooh, not sure I could do that,” and “Are you absolutely sure, Stef?” to the more revealing “Can’t you get better money renting?” “Would you really trust them?” and “What if you can’t get them out again?”

That negativity came from self-professed liberals: the sort who march to Trafalgar Square, pack up old teddy bears and tins of tuna to send to Poland in David Cameron’s van and wear Ukrainian flag ribbons. What’s going on?

The old adage that a principle isn’t a principle until it’s cost you money has met head-on the saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” (excuse the sexism) to produce Nimbyism. Literally.

Yes, I am willing to have people in my own back yard – and bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchen. And, if the Ukrainian idea doesn’t work out, then I will take other lodgers.

Like so many middle-aged people, I’m an empty nester. One daughter left last autumn to houseshare in a cooler (more affordable) area. My other daughter now lives nearby. Suddenly, I have spare bedrooms and another bathroom going to waste. So: either I wander about the top floor wistfully, hoping they will come to stay, or I provide someone who needs an affordable space.

Daisy is my inspiration again. She has long since opened her home to strangers – in her case, Northern students in London – who attend her former art college. Having achieved considerable career success, she offers rooms for free or just “bills”. She is lucky that she doesn’t need the rental money she could charge, but is constantly being told by friends: “Oh, Daisy, they are taking advantage of you” and “Be careful, you never know what they might be like.” It turns out that what they are like is: grateful, delightful, sensitive, helpful, private and life-enriching.

We know there is a horrendous housing shortage. Scrap that – there is a horrendous affordable housing shortage. Researching for my girls when they sought houseshares, I saw how our young are at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords with dodgy properties and how “dog eat dog” it is to find somewhere “decent”, safe and within budget. It’s not just our young. We often overlook those classified as “working poor”, often with a child or children attached.

The latest Government data reported more than 225,845 empty homes in England, many for more than six months. The Intergenerational Foundation charity revealed that 11 million of 23 million homes in England and Wales are under-occupied. There is little formal data on empty bedrooms, but it runs into tens of millions. Clearly, we have the capacity to house thousands of desperate Ukrainians and other refugees – just as we could help our own homeless, young and working poor.

But this requires a serious reappraisal of our attitude to sharing our homes with strangers, albeit those who are vetted. It demands that we reject xenophobia, paranoia and other fears, rediscover our hospitable nature, and recalibrate our thinking in favour of the life-enhancing positives of sharing our homes.



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