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5 March 2021

How it feels to be trapped in an unsafe home during lockdown – and why no end is in sight

For hundreds of thousands of people living in cold, damp and mould-ridden housing, this winter’s effects could outlast the pandemic.

By Katharine Swindells

Last November, as the weather started to get colder and wetter, Chloe contacted her landlord about a small crack and spots of damp on a wall in her flat.

During months of back-and-forth between Chloe, her landlord, freeholders and the council, the damp has spread across the whole wall. Mould appears on anything that is left nearby, and still Chloe doesn’t know when it will be fixed. Her biggest worry is for her two-year-old daughter; she fears that her breathing is getting worse.

Her landlord’s advice? Keep the heating on and the windows open – never mind the sub-zero temperatures outside. Chloe, who works at a nursery, says she’s spending up to £90 a month on her gas bill, and the flat is still freezing.

Living in conditions like these is never tenable, but this winter, when people have been stuck inside almost 24 hours a day, it is unbearable.

[see also: Podcast: can the UK withstand Rishi Sunak’s budget cuts?]

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“Usually, we could have stayed at a friend’s house or she could have stayed at her nan’s, but we can’t even do that at the minute,” says Chloe, who asked that we not print her last name. “I’m literally just stuck here looking at this disgusting mouldy room, trying to keep my daughter away from it all day.”

Since the pandemic began, the number of households behind on their energy bills has increased by 600,000, according to research from Citizens Advice. While the percentage of properties that fail the criteria of what constitutes “a decent home” has been falling, the Decent Homes Standard has not been updated since 2006. It still considers homes with damp or poor insulation to be “decent”, and data shows there are still over 800,000 households in England with mould or damp.

Previously, families living in these conditions would usually spend most of the day at work or school, but now they face the stark health consequences of living constantly in their unsafe homes, while their energy debt mounts. Experts say that reform of housing regulations is more urgent than ever.

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This problem is most acute in private rented homes. In 2019, 23.3 per cent of these were non-decent, compared to an average of 17 per cent for all homes. Private rented homes were nearly twice as likely as socially-rented homes to be non-decent.

The same patterns can be seen in homes with damp or mould: 7 per cent of private-rented dwellings have damp or mould problems, as opposed to 4 per cent of social-rented and 2 per cent of owner-occupied homes.

As well as tenure type, poor housing is linked to systemic inequality. The percentage of homes with mould or damp is above average for families in poverty, for those with children, and particularly for single parents.

Black people are more than twice as likely to have mould and damp, and for some specific demographic groups, the numbers are even higher. Among Bangladeshi, Pakistani, black African and mixed white/black households, the proportion can go up to more than one in ten.

Guidelines from the World Health Organisation and NHS say cold homes increase the risk of respiratory conditions such as asthma, and of high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes, while those living in a home with damp and mould are more likely to suffer from asthma, respiratory infections and allergic reactions, with children and the elderly most affected.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, says the housing charity estimates 70 per cent of private renters have faced serious problems with the condition of their home in the past year. But many renters are afraid to pursue these issues for fear of eviction.

“Millions of people have spent this pandemic trapped in homes with dire conditions, putting their physical and mental health at risk,” says Neate. “They have been forced to try to work or learn in damp and dilapidated rooms with no escape.”

[see also: Why is Boris Johnson pitching to Generation Rent?]

Private renting can make it harder to get repairs done, or to get support, with people like Chloe finding themselves bounced between the council, landlord and freeholders, with no solution in sight.

“I'm not really sure who fixes it, I just want it fixed,” she says. “I shouldn't have to be paying for a room I can't use and a house that is potentially making my daughter ill, costing me more money in electric and gas because of the problems.”

The need to use more fuel to heat substandard homes is compounded by rising unit costs, with 15 million households braced for potential near-£100 bill rises in April.

Sally, a young woman living in a council house in south London, has felt first-hand the effect being home all day can have on an energy bill. She became unemployed in January when her fixed-term contract wasn’t renewed, and when we speak she is caught in the five-week wait for Universal Credit, using food banks to get by.

With freezing temperatures outside, Sally had to ration her heating through her pre-payment meter. At one point, the money was running out so quickly that she called her energy company to report that it was faulty, but was told that gas in winter is “just that expensive”.

“I keep topping up and it just keeps going,” she says. “It’s like drinking water.”

Sally has applied for initiatives such as the Warm Home Discount Scheme, but it won’t kick in until long after winter is over. Without a laptop or access to libraries, she finds it hard to contact support services, let alone apply for jobs.

The Citizens Advice Recovery or Ruin report estimates that 2.1 million households are behind on their energy bills, with the number increasing 50 per cent between September 2019 and September 2020.

Its analysis of data from energy suppliers shows the average amount owed by those without a repayment agreement is upwards of £700 for electricity and £600 for gas.

“Customers who fall behind on their bills can’t always easily get through to their energy suppliers to ask for help,” says Alistair Cromwell, acting chief executive of Citizens Advice. “The amount they owe can quickly increase – people using pre-pay meters are at particular risk of being cut off from their gas and electricity.”

Citizens Advice is particularly concerned about people like Sally, who are self-rationing their energy. Its research shows at least one-fifth of people on pre-pay meters could be severely self-rationing by keeping the heating off, eating cold meals and skipping showers. The six-month extension to the £20 per week Universal Credit increase, announced in the Budget this week, will help prevent some of those struggling with bills from falling further behind, but it isn’t enough to relieve the pressure.

Shelter is calling for a national register of landlords, and increased funding for councils to support home inspections and make sure homes are truly safe to live in.

“Private renting has been in desperate need of reform for a long time, but the conditions people have endured during the pandemic make it critical action is taken quickly,” says Neate. “To really make renting fairer the government has to keep its promise and abolish 'no fault' evictions this year, so renters can challenge poor conditions without fear of losing their homes.”

[see also: For all the tax rise excitement, Rishi Sunak’s Budget has the same old Tory blindspots]