“A safe and settled home is the cornerstone on which we build a better quality of life.”, so says Jake Eliot, head of policy for the money advice service, and many would agree. And now, homes have also become our “first line of defence against the COVID-19 outbreak”, according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Housing, who goes on to state that “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.” Hasn’t it?
The crucial need for safe and decent quality housing takes on pronounced significance when your home is the only place you are allowed to be, as it currently is for the majority of the population. Given this, how do we proceed to evaluate the ability of British residents to build a good life both now and in the immediate future? Let us review some evidence and infer what we might about the significance of the lockdown and the global recession that will certainly follow.
The Big Picture
A 2017 report from Ernst and Young revealed that the North-South divide in the UK is exacerbating, suggesting that the economic disparity between North and South will be worse in 2020 than it was in 2010, making the UK one of the most regionally unbalanced countries in the world. This imbalance relates to job prospects, wages, housing availability, educational opportunities – you name it. One in five homes does not meet the Decent Homes Standard, and this is increasingly true for new builds which are of notoriously poor and even dangerous quality.
It is no secret that bad homes lead to bad health, or that bad health accounts for billions of pounds of lost wages and tax revenue in the UK every year. Likewise, homelessness is associated with a doubling of mental and physical health complaints compared to the general population, as well as an exponential increase in risk of alcohol and drug use.
Coronavirus and Housing
The coronavirus pandemic is shining a brutal light on the myriad ways in which the housing system is unfit for purpose and serves to exacerbate inequality, with cascading negative effects for the whole population. Working-class communities are bearing the brunt of the COVID-load since these residential areas are more likely to be densely populated or overcrowded, with higher air-pollution rates and higher base levels of sickness and infection in the population. We already know that the epidemic and lockdown is disproportionately effecting the BAME and LGBTQ communities too. Black and minority ethic groups are more likely to work in caring, cleaning, delivery and other low-status key worker roles and are also more likely to face homelessness. This is a commonality shared with the LGBTQ community, who are now being forced back into hostile home environments away from their chosen families due to job loss and the closure of essential community services.
Unemployment is already rising faster than during the 2008 financial crisis, which will have obvious implications on precarious housing and homelessness. We also know that domestic violence cases are increasing under lockdown, exacerbated by the stress of uncertainty and the inability to seek refuge with friends or professional shelters.
A Transitional Solution
The UK housing crisis is a pernicious issue that demands systemic change and a major redressing of how land is distributed and valued. This type of change, whilst crucial, is slow. Thousands of people in the UK already need a home, and due to coronavirus, it is likely that many thousands more will be added to that unacceptably long list.
Modular homes, micro-homes, off-site builds, tiny timber houses; these all have the potential to offer quick, cheap, dignified, temporary relief to the 1 in 200 people in the UK who are already homeless, not to mention those who are precariously housed, sofa surfing, or trapped in an abusive home.
Tiny houses already have a history of being successfully implemented for just such purposes. Freeing up land that is currently being held as a speculative investment by millionaire developers to put emergency tiny houses on seems like a reasonable step to take now in advance of the 30% economic contraction we are bracing ourselves to survive.