Housing: a system in meltdown

  • Election 24
  • Living standards and Levelling up

Polly Neate and Hannah Rich, Shelter 

In this piece, Polly Neate and Hannah Rich, Shelter, draw on data to provide policy recommendations for addressing the housing crisis in Britain in the short- and long-term. 

It’s hard to overstate the level of emergency that the housing crisis in Britain has become. And in the run-up to the general election, for once it looks as though politicians and commentators have grasped that it could be a key electoral issue. About time, since one in four voters are now affected by the housing emergency.

It’s useful to think of the effects of insecure, dangerous homes, life on the brink of eviction, and homelessness itself, as like an iceberg. At its tip, the most visible sign of danger is rough sleeping, and the number of people sleeping on our streets has increased by 33% in the last ten years. Less visible are those who are homeless in temporary accommodation: hostels and B&Bs where families are crammed into one dirty room, wall-to-wall beds with possessions stacked high against the walls; flimsily converted office blocks; shipping containers. The numbers are now the highest on record, including 139,000 children. That’s one in every 85 children in England. Families can be placed far from home, moved with 48 hours’ notice, and 63% have been in “temporary” accommodation for more than a year.

Meanwhile, in a country where people on low incomes simply cannot afford anywhere suitable to live, 1.4 million rented homes are in disrepair, inadequately heated or lacking modern facilities, including  777,000 that have a hazard that poses “immediate and serious risk to health and safety”.

On top of that, 1.2 million households  are on waiting lists for social housing, yet after decades of disinvestment and an utter lack of political will, we are now going backwards every year with an annual net loss of social homes.

This is not an iceberg still lurking under the waves. We’ve hit the iceberg head on and people are drowning.

Any solution, therefore, must comprise both emergency response and long-term solutions. And any incoming government must now commit to both.

At Shelter we developed our manifesto for the general election through a process that was led and determined by people who have been through homelessness and the threat of homelessness. We made the best research available to participants, so they could draw upon learned experience as well as their first-hand lived experience. The result was our demands of all political parties that we will stand behind in the general election period and afterwards.

First, to tackle the most visible and extreme aspects of the emergency, people need fundamental housing rights. Foremost among these is the right to suitable accommodation and adequate support for everyone at risk of street homelessness. This must include non-UK nationals who currently have no recourse to public funds, leaving them with absolutely no alternative to the streets. These are people who are legally in the UK. They should not be dying on our streets or in emergency accommodation, as increasing numbers are. And rights are pointless without the means to enforce them, which is why we believe that legal aid must be restored for housing matters.

Emergency action is also required to raise standards in all types of rented homes, whether social or private. The statistics speak for themselves, with poor housing conditions  estimated to cost the NHS £1.4 billion a year. If these serious risks to physical and mental health are to be removed, local authorities have to be able to afford to enforce standards. Currently, with 4,500 private rented properties per environmental health officer, enforcement is simply impossible.

Meanwhile the abolition of the right to evict a tenant without giving a reason (“Section 21” or “no-fault” evictions) is long overdue. The Renters (Reform) Bill currently before parliament will abolish this – but the risk of watering down the Bill seems ever-present and at the time of writing it’s unclear whether it will really be the game-changer for renters’ rights that was promised. If not, we still need clear protections from unfair eviction in all parties’ pre-election commitments.

Emergency measures are also needed to counter the sheer unaffordability of a decent home. We hear much about the struggles of people who want to buy, but for the millions treading the line between renting and homelessness, the risk is far greater and far more is at stake. The stereotype of renters is that they are waiting on the cusp of home-ownership. The reality is that they are fighting on the brink of homelessness. For the third of private renters who now rely on housing benefit to bridge the gap between their incomes and spiralling rents, only 5% of newly advertised properties are now affordable.

Increasing housing benefit, abolishing the benefit cap and regulating in-tenancy rent increases are short-term measures that are essential to keep people on low incomes and their families with a roof over their heads. But there is only one long term solution.

The single most important message for any incoming government is the imperative to deliver new social homes – an imperative whose urgency is impossible to overstate. The country desperately needs homes that people on low incomes can afford to rent: where older people on a pension can find stability; where families can thrive in long-term security, freed from temporary accommodation that is no-one’s idea of a home; where communities of neighbours can start to rebuild, with properties designed as long-term homes, not buy-to-lets, air BnBs, multi-occupancy houses squeezing the last penny out of a building – homes, not “units” for maximum profit.

This is the big one, the ambition that so far no political party has grasped. The public discourse is shifting though, away from “neighbours from hell” and “benefits street”. There is widespread understanding that the housing system is completely broken and radical change is needed.

To be precise, what is needed is investment in 90,000 new social homes every year for ten years, a number endorsed by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee. This means redefining “affordable” – a term that has become discredited as it has become more startlingly obvious that new homes are affordable only for a very few.

Building social housing is the transformational change that would gradually reduce the need for (and cost of) the emergency measures that are currently so urgent. It is the only way out of the short-termism that sees tens of billions spent on housing benefit and temporary accommodation that do nothing to stem the tide of misery that the housing emergency is causing. New social homes are our only hope.

About the authors

Polly is Chief Executive of Shelter. She joined Shelter in August 2017 from Women’s Aid, where she was also Chief Executive. Previously, she was Executive Director of External Relations and Communications at Action for Children, one of the UK’s largest charities.

Hannah is a Senior Research Officer at Shelter and her work mainly focuses on homelessness, social housing and new statistics.

Image Credit: Aleksander Korobczuk, Unsplash