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Covid-19 Proved that Homelessness Could Be Ended

In England's first lockdown, 15,000 rough sleepers were given a place to sleep. The policy proved that homelessness could be ended – now it's time to campaign for a statutory right to housing.

During the first lockdown, almost without hesitation, some 15,000 rough sleepers were provided with a place to sleep. But, despite plummeting outdoor temperatures and soaring infection rates, the ‘Everyone In’ scheme was not extended into the second or third phases.

This is emblematic of our country’s reactive housing policy over the past decade, and a quick glance at the wider status quo shows further cause for alarm.

Last year it was found that around 8 million people are living in unaffordable, insecure, or unsuitable homes throughout the country. On top of that, it was recently estimated that 130,000 children are currently living in temporary accommodation.

The problem is particularly acute in Greater Manchester, where 48 percent of young renters have had to cut down on basic essentials due to increased housing costs. Across the region, 13,000 people are now on the housing register, desperate for affordable housing.

Yet the perennial housing crisis, to which there are clear solutions, is still only approached with ad hoc responses. Discourse on housing is rife with populist pledges that never materialise, and flagship programmes are most often backed with feeble levels of funding.

In 2009, Boris Johnson—then Mayor of London—proposed to eradicate homelessness in the city within three years. Instead, the opposite happened, and homelessness increased by nearly 50 per cent. Of course, this did nothing to tarnish his reputation, and the problem was once again swept under the carpet.

The recently unveiled Affordable Homes Programme (2021-2026) is another example. Within this period, the government hopes to build 180,000 ‘affordable’ homes.

The first eyebrow raised is due to the fact there is no guarantee this figure will be reached by 2026. While not wanting to be pessimistic, you only have to go as far back as February for an example of the government missing its social housing targets by over two thirds.

The funding also doesn’t come close to the scale that is required: roughly only £2 billion per year has been earmarked. Against a backdrop of 1.5 million people on social housing waiting lists, this is scarcely going to meet current demand.

It is also concerning because the term ‘affordable’ is now defined as 80 percent of the market rate. For the 13 million people living in low-income households, 80 percent is far from affordable. In Greater Manchester, for example, house prices have quadrupled in the last two decades.

Lastly, the Affordable Homes Programme is subject to change. There is no guarantee that funding will remain available, or that it will be followed through after the next election.

To overcome the short-termism within our politics, we need bold legislation that champions the right to housing for all, and ensures far-reaching policies as opposed to slapdash proposals.

In practical terms, a statutory right to housing would ensure that tenants gradually gain the protection they require, with the backing of the courts assuring security of tenure. The marginalised would have a voice, and violations would be swiftly addressed.

It would also more effectively allow for governments to be held to account on the issues of affordable housing and homelessness, and serve as a benchmark to appraise policies.

To make clear, it would not mean that everyone has the right to a free house provided by the government. Rather, it would mean that we begin to recognise that the level of adequate and affordable housing should not be solely dependent on market forces.

To offer some global context, the right to housing has recently been enacted in Canada. Following the historic legislation, the UN housing expert Leilani Farha asserted that: ‘it establishes in law creative mechanisms to monitor and hold the government accountable, and ensures access to remedies to address systemic barriers… This model can serve as an example for countries all over the world.’

A year on from the beginnings of this pandemic, there is an opportunity to follow Canada’s lead and start this transition now. The issues of affordable housing and homelessness have been laid bare by Covid-19, and if we are to resolve them, they need to be viewed as issues of human rights. Only then do we have a hope that the current political divide can be breached, and lasting change can finally be enacted.