Every morning I am confronted with the housing crisis, in the form of scaffolders stomping past my bedroom window. I live among housing association tenants, private renters and leaseholders in a low-rise, ex-local authority block, which is having two extra levels of flats built on top – known in the jargon as developing “airspace”.
Despite the leaks, sudden water outages and persistent drilling, I am trying to accept the work as necessary. The London borough where I live has a long waiting list for social housing: it can take 14 years for some applicants. The national need for living space is desperate – as illustrated in Tenants: The People on the Frontline of Britain’s Housing Emergency by the journalist Vicky Spratt. One in three people in the UK, Spratt tells us, is without a safe and stable home. Daniel Lavelle, an investigative journalist who grew up in care and has slept rough, brings a first-person perspective in his memoir, Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis.
Both writers have experienced housing stress. Spratt remembers the bailiffs knocking when she was seven, when she lost her family home. More recently, when she split with her partner and co-homeowner she felt the precariousness of Help to Buy – David Cameron and George Osborne’s scheme to create more first-time buyers, which simply stoked demand and, in turn, house prices . She reflects on the postwar “golden age” when council houses were “deliberately aspirational”: Spratt’s grandmother tells of how the brand new maisonette she and her husband rented from Croydon Council in 1956 changed their life.
Lavelle, who has ADHD and struggled with alcohol abuse and depression, suffered trauma in his childhood that he doesn’t detail. As a result, he grew up a “human pinball” in and around Oldham: by the time he was 17 he had ricocheted between 11 different addresses, including children’s homes and foster families. In adulthood, he moved between run-down council flats, private rentals, and – at the age of 26 – a tent. Stints living and working at Emmaus charity accommodation, which he characterises as a “workhouse”, left him feeling conflicted and ultimately exploited.
While their personal stories differ, Spratt and Lavelle uncover the same injustices. “No-fault evictions” (or section 21 notices) – which allow private landlords to repossess their properties for no reason – can make even those with solid incomes vulnerable overnight. When Lavelle was studying journalism in London, he received a text on New Year’s Eve in 2017 notifying him of his eviction date: a blow after decades trying to get on his feet. Tony, a retired 66-year-old Braintree resident interviewed by Spratt, was prescribed sleeping pills, antidepressants and blood pressure statins after enduring five no-fault evictions in a decade.
The concept of “intentional homelessness”, when someone is deemed to have “decided” to leave home, punishes those who flee domestic violence, intimidating landlords or unsuitable residences: councils withhold help because the individual is blamed for their so-called choice. Those judged “not homeless enough” are left in limbo. Lavelle, when he presented himself as homeless, was told by the council he was not a priority because he did not display as many vulnerabilities as others (he describes the process as “a sort of X Factor for the destitute”). Weeks later, he was on the streets. Limarra, a 25-year-old Starbucks manager with a young daughter living in Peckham, south London, told Spratt that a housing officer described them as “not homeless enough” when they received an eviction notice. She ended up overdosing, after a long, fearful wait to hit the required level of hardship.
Each book shows the human cost of a genuinely Kafka-esque bureaucratic system. Lavelle’s case studies are eccentric, often troubled, characters, let down by poor social services, underfunded addiction provision and punitive schooling. The tenants interviewed by Spratt are often doing OK before a glitch in the housing matrix pulls the lino from under their feet.
Right to Buy, Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 reform that let council tenants buy their homes, plays a villainous role in each book. Described by Spratt as “ground zero” of the housing emergency, and Lavelle as “the greatest heist in modern history”, this policy and its many tired iterations (in June, the government recycled plans to extend it to housing association tenants) has had a damaging effect on how people live in Britain today.
By the end of the Seventies, almost a third of all households lived in stable social housing. In 2016-18, just 17 per cent of households in England rented their homes from a local authority or housing association. Private leases have returned to 1950 levels: the days of notorious slum landlords such as Peter Rachman, who was chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce as he ripped off black tenants in particular, whom he housed in run-down properties in west London.
With Right to Buy came scarcity, followed by inflation. From 2011 to 2018, rents in England rose by 16 per cent, outpacing wages, and on average private renters now spend a third of their earnings on rent. House prices, too, have spiralled, hence the easy money of “landlordism”: by 2014, more mortgages were loaned to buy-to-let landlords than first-time buyers. “The economics of being a buy-to-let landlord are pretty simple,” writes Spratt. “You want more money coming in than you’re dishing out while you sit back and watch your ‘nice little earner’ climb steadily in value and eclipse the mortgage you’ve taken out on it.”
Spratt observes that the problem is not simply about supply. Yes, Right to Buy gobbled up the municipal housing stock, but our “almost feudal” renting system has other causes, including “politically sanctioned house price inflation” and the “deregulation of the private rented sector in favour of landlords”. The UK could have rent caps, or better protections for tenants (in France, you can’t be evicted in winter). In England, one often has fewer consumer rights when renting a property than when hiring a car or buying a fridge.
Homelessness is the extreme result of this mess, but there are myriad other societal consequences. The humiliation of cohabiting with a “friendlord” (who lives off your rent when you are ostensibly housemates); “millennial adultescence”, whereby thirtysomethings trapped in houseshares watch their chances of ever starting a family vanish; the rise of “inheritocracy”; and “exported” residents – rehoused in unfamiliar places away from their support networks and childcare arrangements.
As the sky above me turns to concrete and steel, housing policy in this country seems ruled by upside-down logic. This government has backed out of relaxing planning rules for fear of losing votes in green and pleasant suburbia, where more homes would have been built under its abandoned housebuilding formula. The Tory leadership candidate and former chancellor Rishi Sunak is promising to ban housebuilding on the green belt. He and his rival, Liz Truss, have lost focus on “levelling up”: an agenda that aims to halve the number of “non-decent” rented homes by 2030. Michael Gove, the former housing secretary proposing a Renters Reform Bill, was sacked by Boris Johnson hours before the Prime Minister conceded his own time was up. The “British Dream” of a home of one’s own is fading – and, for many, has turned into a nightmare.
Profile Books, 426pp, £20
Down and Out
Headline, 304pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World