How Britain’s Housing Nightmare Made Lockdown Even Worse

A year of being stuck inside has exposed Britain's housing nightmare – Europe's smallest average home sizes, sky-high costs and dismally low standards. If we want better, we're going to have to fight the landlord class.

By this point, it’s been well-documented that the coronavirus pandemic piled one serious crisis on top of another. Housing is no exception. In the years leading up to 2020, homes had already become so expensive and inaccessible that we were having to find serious compromises in our living standards in order to accommodate ourselves.

Our homes are overcrowded. They are shared flats with no living space.  They are too far away from green spaces, communal spaces, and support networks. England has the smallest average home size in Europe. The UK ranks second in Europe for price per square metre, beaten only by tiny wealth haven Monaco. Owners of newly built homes complain of major structural failings, poor build quality, and inadequate room size. In the year we’ve had to stay at home, we have been stuck with less, and with worse.

Yesterday, ITV News reported on the shocking conditions of a damp-infested local authority block in Croydon, South London. Much of my work as a housing lawyer is taken up with poor housing conditions. Damp and mould is a common problem in the UK, and more serious structural defects are frequently thrown up by our ageing housing stock. Even where buildings are perfectly fine, the large and growing proportion of private renters has meant that millions of us have spent the last year marooned with the landlord’s decorations, the landlord’s economically sourced fittings, and the landlord’s rules. The closure of our shared and social spaces—and, in an early error of judgment, even our urban parks—have brought the inadequacies in our homes to the fore.

Poor housing standards have confronted us all day, every day: from those stuck in appalling emergency homelessness accommodation, to social tenants whose landlords have limited themselves to carrying out ‘emergency’ repairs, to those facing bankruptcy in unsellable flats as a result of the cladding and leasehold scandals. These odd, expensive buildings have now become our schools, workplaces, and social and religious spaces, with everything from club nights to funerals taking place within the same four walls.

And housing crystallises inequality elsewhere. Housing conditions are a racialised matter, and a dangerous one: it is now officially recognised that there is a connection between poor housing and the disproportionate effects of the virus on people of colour, with the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee noting that poor housing ‘may have exacerbated the impact of the coronavirus on BAME people.’

One third of the Bangladeshi population of the UK lives in overcrowded housing. Last year Friends of the Earth produced a report highlighting racial injustice in terms of access to open space: ‘our analysis reveals a marked disparity in access to green space and particularly a strong correlation between green space deprivation and ethnicity,’ the group wrote.

This week, a number of poverty-affected groups launched a poster campaign about the need for larger council homes, marking the anniversary of lockdown under these conditions. One of the children who designed the posters wrote to the housing minister Robert Jenrick: ‘You wouldn’t get enough sleep if your house was overcrowded.’

This brilliant little dig exposes the housing problem perfectly: Jenrick is a cabinet minister millionaire with two London mansions and a stately home, and the fact that he is in charge of this crisis-within-a-crisis is crudely symbolic of the problem of access to adequate housing.

Earlier this month, the New Statesman produced a map showing that London’s most badly overcrowded hotspots weave in-and-out of areas of the city that are severely under-occupied.  This is the necessary consequence of a system in which—as Joe Bilsborough put it in Tribune last week—’the UK is a housing market with an economy attached.’ To those in power, the wealth that housing generates is of far greater concern than the conditions under which people occupy it.

In 2018, after being blocked twice by the government, a new law required that rented homes be ‘fit for human habitation’. This may sound like a glittering prize, but the trouble with the new right—as with the pre-existing system of landlords’ duties concerning disrepair—is that its effectiveness is governed by the social, legal, and cultural power of landlords.

England and Wales has a system of highly insecure ‘shorthold’ tenancies (the rules are different in the North of Ireland and Scotland), which makes private tenants totally beholden to their landlords. Citizens Advice have found that more than a quarter of private renters in England have not reported defects because they are scared of being evicted. The legislation preventing ‘revenge evictions’ for reporting poor housing conditions is so riddled with holes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a successful case.

A basic example of this imbalance was the reaction to the Labour Party’s 2018 commitment to giving tenants the right to keep a pet. This simple comfort would probably have had an enormous impact on our wellbeing in 2020 and beyond, helping to stave off the loneliness and stresses of lockdown – but landlords opposed the proposal on the basis of ‘a perceived added risk of damage to the property, and the increased costs of repair at the end of a tenancy.’

This is the heart of the problem: we have a legal framework that emphasises the rights of landlords (including the right to keep housing in a condition that satisfies them), rather than the rights of the people for whom housing conditions matter the most (the people who actually live there).  For millions of us, it remains the case that we need to get a mortgage before we can get a cat, and we risk being tossed out into the turmoil of the rental market whenever we complain about a housing problem.

As with so many aspects of life, the pandemic has forced us to live in an exaggerated version of reality. The unmanageable price of homes and the power that landlords wield over us led to serious inadequacies in our living standards well before 2020, but in the last twelve months they have had a unique impact on our lives that has laid the exploitation at the heart of the system bare. Whether or not we fight back against this system in the months and years after Covid is over remains to be seen; for now, the housing crisis continues to escalate.