Housing inequality has taken on a renewed urgency in pandemic Britain. Never have most of us spent more time indoors, contemplating our living space or the lack of it.
The temporary respite of a ban on evictions and repossessions is over, and exclusive data analysis in the Housing Insecurity Index created by our sister publication City Monitor reveals that housing security across the UK varies depending on where you live. Sheffield is the most housing-secure city. London is the most insecure.
“There have been a lot of concerns about rent arrears and job losses,” says Tyrone Scott, a community organiser working for the homelessness charity Shelter in the capital.
At the start of lockdown, he was seeing more people facing homelessness, particularly those who would not be able to access benefits. “We had 1,700 new users in our services, and 370 of those had no recourse to public funds,” he adds. This means those 370 people were subject to immigration control and do not have an entitlement to benefits, housing or financial support from the Home Office.
He believes these problems in London are the result of the high cost of housing and poor housing rights. Now he has started seeing more people potentially facing eviction in the new year. He is also working with individuals and families who have been living in hostels and temporary accommodation before and throughout lockdown and have no idea how long they could be there.
While temporary accommodation provides some of the housing basics, it still often lacks what families need, Scott says. “The vast majority of hostels in Hackney do not have access to Wi-Fi, for example, and that’s caused lots of issues with kids’ having to do school from home, parents having to work from home.”
The worst three cities in England for housing security are London, Leicester and Birmingham, according to City Monitor’s data.
All have different prevailing reasons for this: the high cost of housing in London, unemployment in Birmingham and evictions in Leicester.
“It’s the cost of housing which means you just don’t have any safety net,” says Sian Berry, co-leader of the Green Party and a London Assembly member. Berry is an advocate of locally determined rent controls. “It’s not just a London problem,” she says. “All the mayors in metro areas need to be able to do rent controls.”
Pre-pandemic, Birmingham had an unemployment rate of 9 per cent, double the national average, according to City Monitor’s data. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the city hard, with the local economy predicted to shrink by 9 per cent this year, compared with 7 per cent for the UK as a whole, according to a recent report from the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and Birmingham University’s City Region Economic and Development Institute.
While business leaders in Birmingham are reportedly optimistic about the economy rebounding next year, the longer-term impact of the Commonwealth Games, scheduled in the city for 2022, and the advent of HS2, the short-term impact on people’s ability to stay at home, will be critical.
Vicky Hines, who runs Shelter’s Birmingham Hub, is concerned about the effect the end of furlough will have on unemployment. “Before Covid, things were looking quite bleak,” she says. With rising unemployment comes the risk of people falling behind on their rent and losing their homes.
The ban on evictions, due to expire next year, is keeping the issues in check at the moment. Hines’ concern, however, is that those problems will just be stored up and added to the problems people in temporary accommodation already face. “There isn’t the permanent accommodation for them,” she says.
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Birmingham does also have high rents and evictions but, in contrast to most cities, has been able to gain social housing since 2012. According to Hines, the council is working to build more social homes but faces challenges, particularly with domiciles for larger families.
Unemployment “risks getting much worse if the government does not act with urgency”, warns Preet Kaur Gill, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston. She criticised Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “inflexible approach and stubborn refusal to address problems of his own making”, for putting the UK on the path to a “1980s-style jobs crisis”.
One of the striking features of City Monitor’s Housing Security Index is the small difference in the proportion of social housing between the most and least housing-secure cities. The least-secure had lost a greater percentage of social housing on average, however.
Leicester’s social-housing stock has shrunk 12 per cent since 2012. Last year, its directly elected mayor, Peter Soulsby, called for the Right to Buy policy to be suspended as the council sought to buy back some of the 17,000 council homes sold in the city since 1980. Before Scotland abolished Right to Buy in 2016, councils could restrict its use in areas under “housing pressure”.
Salma Ravat is the manager of One Roof Leicester, a housing and homelessness charity that works mainly with single men. Prior to the pandemic, people it was housing in temporary accommodation were staying much longer than intended because of a lack of suitable “move on” housing, including shared homes and social housing.
“Pre-Covid, it was bad,” Ravat says. Many of her clients were struggling to access secure employment or sufficient benefits to afford private rented housing, as well as being a low priority for social housing.
During the pandemic, applications for social housing were frozen for a time, exacerbating the problem. “We can have people with us for 18 months, two years, two and a half years,” Salma reveals.
Many of the housing problems in English cities are common: an unsupportive benefit system, underinvestment in social housing and poor housing rights for private renters. Yet the differences between them show there is a case for devolution of housing policy.
Cities could then take action to keep private renting affordable, protect and invest in social housing and provide a greater level of security for their residents. They could respond to their particular cocktail of factors that make housing so insecure.