It’s probably fair to say that the UK has had a housing crisis for about as long as it has had houses. In the middle of the 19th century, Manchester had the world’s first modern housing crisis. Then, as the cotton mill industry expanded, immigrants moved to the city from the countryside to take advantage of the relatively high wages on offer. Between 1801 and 1851, the population quadrupled to 401,000 and unplanned slum housing picked up the slack. Unsurprisingly, due to overcrowding, disease, and a lack of sanitation, life expectancy was as low as 26.

The roots of the problems back then were somewhat different to those of the modern day. The average number of rooms per person has been increasing for some time now. Contagious disease is no longer a major issue and houses generally come with a working toilet. But for many reasons – such as second home ownership, single occupancies and the increase in buy-to-let landlords – this is failing to translate into decent, affordable housing for much of the population.

In Greater Manchester, homelessness is at its highest in decades. Last year, rents increased by 22%, beaten only by Westminster, and over 2,000 tenants were evicted. Many renters have poorly maintained homes, with problems such as damp and vermin going unchecked, and the waiting list for social housing is over 120,000. A quarter of families in South Manchester have refrained from having children because they don’t have a suitable household to raise a family in. This is despite forthcoming investment, with Manchester having some of the highest buy-to-let yields in the country and tens of millions of pounds being loaned for new apartments like Pomona Island.

What can you do about it? Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) is a new campaigning group which brings together a broad coalition of community groups, tenants and individuals from across the policy and activist world, with the hope of creating a network that can collectively fight the housing crisis.

While it’s still in relative infancy, GMHA has been steadily building momentum. In April, attendees of a policy conference came up with a swathe of measures to tackle homelessness, improve social housing and the private rented sector, and increase the number of housing co-ops. Last month, a duo of events under the banner ‘Our Homes Are Not Your Assets’ were held – the first a demonstration outside the Chartered Institute of Housing’s national event; the second a panel discussion with speakers ranging from Dr Jenny Rouse from Centre for Local Economic Strategies to Aderonke Apata from Manchester Migrant Solidarity. Although GMHA will be taking a different approach to many in the housing arena, it’s worth noting that the different players are willing to work with them to improve things. As an attendee of the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference said of the GMHA demonstrators outside, “It was great to have this at the conference […] Despite the division between protesters and conference attendees, there were no doubt elements of common cause to be drawn out between these different groups of housing stakeholders.”

With an eye on the Manchester mayoral elections coming up in May 2017, GMHA intends to make the most of opportunities presented by devolution. The £300m Housing Investment Fund would be an obvious place to start, but more fundamentally, the closer proximity to decision makers, and their ability to address issues locally, opens the door to much more radical alternatives. A visionary Greater Manchester mayor might commit to eradicating homelessness (it’s been close to achieved in Utah), create a public register of landlords, establish a Housing Co-op Investment Bond, or pledge to drastically reduce the 35,000 empty homes in the region. The integration of Health and Social Care is a much acclaimed aspect of Greater Manchester devolution, but linking in housing too really would be forward thinking.

For now, GMHA will focus on building links with academia, campaigners, housing associations, and communities in Greater Manchester. Upcoming campaigns could include housing asylum seekers with Manchester Migrant Solidarity, a ‘Yes to DSS’ campaign, and working with frontline groups to tackle homelessness.

Sam was writing in a personal capacity.

Sam Popper