The vajra: cutting through to the truth

4 Allegations against the FWBO

I Finances

b | Phoenix Housing Co-operative

In 1980, Phoenix Housing, a co-op set up by the FWBO and Hackney Borough Council, was created as a non-profit making housing body to provide accommodation for Hackney’s needy. On the basis of this aim and in order to fulfill it, Phoenix received large amounts of public money. According to an article in Shabda [December ’86], the aim of Phoenix was to provide permanent houses for communities in the London Buddhist Centre mandala. [ The FWBO Filesp.14 ]

In the late 1970s many people became involved in the FWBO through helping to create the London Buddhist Centre (LBC) in the East End of London. They were mostly young and generally poor, and to meet their needs for housing they established the Phoenix Housing Co-operative. [ 176 ] The co-operative, like a number of other “Right Livelihood” co-operatives set up at this time, was controlled and owned by the membership. Since its preamble enshrined Buddhist principles as applied to communal living, and tenancy required tenants’ assent to effective participation in these aims, this was essentially a co-op of Buddhists.

Phoenix got off the ground with loans from Hackney Community Housing for low-grade renovation of two properties on a short-life basis (i.e. they were to be handed back after six months). The project was financed through rent. Such schemes were favoured by inner-city councils as ways of preventing empty and poor quality housing stock from being squatted or becoming derelict. Self-help was an important dimension to the Co-op, and financing was available on the condition of the active participation of those housed.

Soon, other housing associations made short-life property available for use by Phoenix, as a readily identifiable group with a proven housing need. [ 177 ] In some instances, renovation of partially dilapidated houses was aided by small grants and Phoenix expanded rapidly. [ 178 ] The local authorities were happy to be meeting a real need to the mutual benefit of all concerned.

But since the properties Phoenix used had only short leases, [ 179 ] the Co-op was unable to provide any permanent housing. Members therefore decided they needed a more permanent arrangement, and this became increasingly pressing from the mid-eighties as the supply of short-life properties dwindled for various reasons. Lacking capital or collateral for mortgages, Phoenix looked for sources of grants. [ 180 ]

Registration with The Housing Corporation in 1985 meant it now had to cater for single, homeless people in housing need on low income, or unemployed in order to qualify for public funding. The allocations policy had to comply with supervised Housing Corporation guidelines. This meant applying an equal opportunities policy, as well as working towards a correspondence in the membership to the ethnic distribution in the local boroughs. Much tighter management procedures also had to be implemented. [ 181 ] Monitoring by the Housing Corporation was a matter of course, and two thorough inspections were conducted, one in 1988, and another in 1993.

The vast majority of the existing membership met the new allocation criteria, as well as being Buddhists. In any case the supportive, family-like community housing largely available through Phoenix still allowed for members’ sharing similar interests, gender or workplace. Community-style living arrangements, Phoenix’s speciality, did not appeal to many non-Buddhists. But because anyone who applied for membership fulfilling the Housing Corporation criteria, regardless of whether they were Buddhist or not, had to be housed (if space was available), the membership became increasingly non-Buddhist.

With the gradual departure of Buddhist members of Phoenix, and with substantial numbers of non-Buddhists becoming new members, the Buddhist predominance within Phoenix came to an end. Now with a small Buddhist minority in the Co-operative, there are very few other links between the FWBO and Phoenix, and members are usually housed in non-communal dwellings.

By 1986 however, Phoenix had managed to provide 35 houses around the London Buddhist Centre for a total of 92 Order members [actually 92 members of the Co-op, only perhaps a third of which were Order members.] At least one of these houses was bought for the FWBO wholly out of money provided by Hackney Borough Council, a substantial profit for the FWBO in this supposedly non-profit making enterprise. [ The FWBO Filesp.14 ]

From 1986–7, as the implications of the changing population of Phoenix became evident to the LBC Council, the question of meeting local Buddhists’ long-term housing needs became pressing. The increasing success of Buddhist businesses in the area meant that buying property was now a possibility. And this is indeed what happened.

At the same time there was growing recognition by both Buddhist and non-Buddhist members of Phoenix that the aims of the co-operative’s Buddhist communities and the aims of the co-operative were diverging. In 1994 four women’s communities living in the co-operative’s houses asked that their houses be sold to the London Buddhist Centre and their tenancies transferred. Eventually, in 1997, these houses were bought from Phoenix at the full market rate and certainly at no profit to the FWBO. [ 182 ] No other Phoenix houses have come into FWBO ownership and all other permanent housing bought through Housing Corporation and local Council grants remains in Phoenix ownership.

The transition from what had been a Buddhist housing club to a properly run public body was at times painful. Tensions, which arose between different Buddhist members over the application of allocations policy, centred on different understandings and interpretations of the Housing Corporation’s rules. For a time the FWBO did gain through establishing a housing co-operative, which housed a substantial number of those involved in Buddhist activities around the LBC . In leaving a legacy of an effective institution, which meets an important need in a deprived area, the FWBO can be justifiably proud.

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176 ]
It was registered in June 1980 and operated with a set of model rules provided by the National Federation for Housing Associations.
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177 ]
Members were generally young, unemployed or on low incomes, homeless, often single people (and, in this case, Buddhists) and therefore fulfilled the criteria of being in housing need.
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178 ]
Within 18 months fifty people were housed in twenty houses and flats within the local area. And within three years, this had approximately doubled. Increasing administrative costs continued to be met by rental incomes; accounts were audited as required by established good practice.
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179 ]
Usually between six months to one year, although often renewed; the houses would then be handed back for substantial renovation and upgrading.
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180 ]
E.g. GLC funding, or Housing Association Grants provided by The Housing Corporation, a government financed body, requiring demonstration of good management practices and sponsorship from an established Housing Association or secondary housing co-operative.
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181 ]
Employees of the co-operative could no longer be members of the committees but reported to and advised them; the sub-committees being run by the membership under the overall Management Committee, with its officers also made up of the membership, this meeting quarterly.
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182 ]
The process of consultation took three years. Housing Corporation consent had to be obtained, after the membership had voted in favor of the motion. Based on the recommendation of an independent consultant’s report as a mutually beneficial solution, four adjacent houses in Approach Road were sold at the full market rate. Phoenix, by this point wholly separate from the FWBO, in fact, made a considerable amount out of this purchase, because the houses had been originally bought from the Local Authority at half the market rate.
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