The Housing Crisis Is Bad for Your Health

One quarter of all privately-rented homes in England fail to meet basic health standards. The problem can't be solved by piecemeal reforms – only grassroots tenant organising can fight landlord neglect.

One in four privately-rented homes in England fail to meet basic health, safety and repair standards. (Credit: Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, one of the country’s largest urban councils reached an out-of-court settlement with a tenant in a disrepair case. A defective balcony was letting in rainwater, causing serious damp and mould growth in the flat where the tenant lived with her children.

It took years for the council to do anything about it. The problem seemed to be that the council’s staff and contractors—who were doubtless drowning in other work—just didn’t check or action their emails.  It ended up costing the council about £100,000 of public money in compensation and legal costs, and the remedial works will cost more still. The family’s home, all the while, was in an appalling and dangerous state.

In the context of a number of similar incidents of high-profile squalor (in particular, ITV News’ coverage of failings by Croydon Council and the housing association L&Q) the health secretary Matt Hancock recently committed to tackling housing standards as a public health measure. Hancock’s plan seems to be to support reforms to the planning system, and last year’s housing white paper also promised a better attitude towards council and social housing tenants. The trouble is, looking at the incidents that led to Hancock’s pledge, this isn’t really what’s needed to solve the problem.

Croydon’s failures boiled down to a question of resources rather than regulation. An independent investigation found that the repairs team was 50 percent under-staffed, which had led to unmanageable caseloads, lack of expertise, low morale, and a poor attitude towards tenants. L&Q are probably in a similar position: laws brought in under the austerity regime required housing associations to reduce their rents by one percent each year, and the cuts to welfare benefits have hit the social housing sector hard. This is coupled with a widely-held view that housing associations have lost sight of their social purpose, having become increasingly corporate players in the UK’s over-heated housing market.

The framework for social housing conditions is actually, notionally, quite good. There are long-standing rights to sue landlords for disrepair, a number of ‘decent homes’ improvement initiatives took place under New Labour, and enhanced new rights have recently been introduced under the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018. The problem is not whether the right to good conditions exist, but whether such rights can be effective when social landlords’ repairs departments are so desperately under-funded. As Croydon’s case shows, councils simply need more money. It’s awful to see the precious stock of still-existing council housing crumble away.

What’s most striking about ITV’s investigation is not the squalor, but the contrition that has followed. Right-wing Labour councils, in particular, have a terrible habit of denying the harm of their own actions. They tend to become over-defensive about cuts and service failures, about estate demolitions and unaffordable new developments, and this frankness is refreshing and important. The underlying problem of inadequate funding has been acknowledged. It’s the job of the Left, locally, to keep the focus on proper resourcing, to demand honesty and accountability for failure, and to steer councils away from dangerous speculative development models of housing provision.

Things are, of course, even worse for many private renters. Local authorities lack the resources to monitor and enforce standards, so it’s down to tenants themselves. While private tenancies carry many of the same legal rights as social tenancies, those rights are hollow in the context of ‘at will’ evictions. Official statistics from 2017 showed that a quarter of all privately-rented homes in England failed to meet ‘decent home’ standards of basic health and safety and repair.

We can’t continue to blame a small number of ‘rogue’ landlords if one in four homes is in such a poor condition: it’s a systemic issue. How can Hancock implement a public health approach to housing without fixing the problem of insecurity, which so effectively deters tenants from standing on their rights and excuses landlords from compliance?

Hancock is right to point the finger at landlords – he told ITV News that it is ‘up to landlords primarily to respond to inadequate homes’. He is also right to point out the links between housing and health. But private housing is also one of the main planks of the national economy, as Tribune has consistently pointed out, and the government has become dependent on the wealth that housing creates.

While Hancock vainly hopes that landlords will improve our living standards, any meaningful reform to compel them to do so would carry with it a direct attack on the profitability of the housing market. That approach would be inconsistent with government policy.

France has a law against ‘insalubrious dwellings’, which excuses tenants from paying rent while conditions are dangerous. This works on the basis that it puts the landlord under a certain amount of economic duress where health and safety is an issue. In Britain, however, the law leans very heavily against withholding rent, and the government seems to have no plans to incorporate such an effective measure into its new ‘health-focused’ approach.

The market has consistently failed to ensure adequate conditions in privately rented housing, but landlords are shy about accountability for their role in public health. I’ve been involved in a number of cases where landlords have threatened legal action against tenants for making a fuss in public, and even where tenants have left a bad review online. We live in a housing market so broken that private landlords insist on being shielded from criticism while so many people live in appalling conditions.

If L&Q and Croydon can own their mistakes, and if poor conditions are even more widespread in the private sector, then private landlords should expect to be exposed and criticised for the health risks they create. The spark of militancy after the pandemic, the swell of the housing movement, has left landlords open to the risk of public disgrace, and they may have to get used to it – particularly if the government refuses to protect tenants through changing the law.

This week we found out that a third of adults in the UK, 57 percent of Black adults, and 65 percent of single mothers live in unsafe and insecure housing. Landlords are making us ill. Tenants are organising against this, and this sort of direct action—humiliating landlords in public—is going to be a necessary step for as long as the government has no workable plans.