IIf the government of one of the richest countries in the world cannot adequately house the people who live there, then what exactly is its interest? Journalist Vicky Spratt does not address this case directly in her first book, but she lays bare the lack of adequacy of our state in its current state, showing how housing is scarce, dangerous, cramped, unaffordable and, above all, precarious. at the root of the ongoing public health crisis in Britain.
How did we come here? To put it bluntly, we let ourselves be bought. Instead of investing in skills, industry and people, voters were told that if they bought a home they would be ready for life, and if they didn’t it was their fault if they found themselves poor and speechless. Everyone knows it’s a failed hunt: even Michael Gove, now housing and ‘leveling up’ minister, belatedly recognized the urgent need for more social housing if he is to live up to his title.
Long before Covid, the health and wealth gap between landlords and tenants widened as house prices decoupled from incomes and the right to buy took 3.5 million social housing units out of hands public. The proportion of households renting privately – at market rates, from barely regulated landlords – has doubled by around 10% 20 years ago, pushing millions of people into housing insecurity.
Spratt began his research Tenants in 2017, after founding the Make Renting Fair campaign which, alongside the work of tenants’ union Acorn, Shelter and Generation Rent, eventually got rental fees banned under the Rental Fees Act 2019. There are so many facets to Britain’s decent and affordable housing shortage that she is careful to discuss them in separate chapters while clearly showing how each is linked.
Housing is a social and political responsibility that over the past 40 years has been entrusted to individuals in very different circumstances. Homeownership, the ultimate form of privatization, has been privileged over any form of tenure, meaning those who own see less and less common ground with those who rent. The number of households on waiting lists for social housing far exceeds the number of secure rentals that come up in each local authority, forcing people who cannot afford to buy into private rental, even when they can’t afford it.
One instance, or series, of bad luck can leave people homeless for years. Families dependent on one earner can be hit for six if the main earner is laid off or injured on the job. Spratt speaks to his interviewees over a span of months — years, in some cases — getting testimonials about how losing a safe house, or not having one in the first place, derails all other aspects of people’s lives.
She meets Limarra, a 26-year-old woman who earned two college degrees after having her child at 17, and whose worst option while her daughter is small is to get up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to run a branch of Starbucks for £230 a week net pay. She is ambitious and focused, and can afford the £1,000-a-month rent of her private flat as long as the landlord doesn’t pay it and as long as her meager income is supplemented by housing benefit.
In Peckham, their London neighborhood – near Limarra’s mother, who takes her daughter to school every morning so she can work – a grand a month in the private sector is cheap. When her landlord decides to sell, it quickly becomes clear that there are no other affordable flats in the area, but when she approaches Southwark Council for emergency social housing, she is told that they have no responsibility to rehouse her until she is literally homeless. that is, sitting in the housing office with her bags on the day her lease expires. Otherwise, she is deemed to have made herself “intentionally homeless” because she “chose” not to pay the higher rent.
“OK, now you’re homeless,” the housing officer said to Limarra, his belongings lying in a hired van outside the council offices. She is offered a flat in Croydon, miles from her mother, her daughter’s school and, most importantly, the community mental health team whom she consults directly due to housing stress. Again, she is told that if she does not accept it, she will again be classified as “intentionally homeless”. Placed in an unsanitary hostel with no privacy in Camberwell, she becomes suicidal and her daughter begins wetting her bed.
Conversely, Kelly’s family are moved into emergency housing after being “victimized evicted”, i.e. their lease was terminated by a landlord who raises their rent beyond what he can afford. In Bromley, where Kelly lived with her partner and children, she found herself across from their trusted GP who was treating her son for asthma. Once in new accommodation, she checks into another practice, whose inexperienced GP prescribes the wrong inhaler. Six weeks after their forced move to an unknown region, he died.
It is impossible to read this book without becoming nearly blinded by rage. The difference between secure housing and precarious housing is actually the difference between life and death. The King’s Fund, a health think tank, estimates the cost to the NHS of poor quality housing as £1.4 billion every year. In Germany, Spratt writes, where 40% of households rent privately, rents are kept affordable relative to income and leases are indefinite rather than requiring renewal every two years, often for decades.
Spratt returns to the point that our housing issues, while complex, can be resolved. When Covid-19 burst into our lives two years ago, the government’s Everyone in it initiative ended homelessness on the streets in the space of 10 days. Emergency legislation temporarily prevented evictions and a combination of furloughs and mortgage relief prevented mass foreclosures. She cites the Housing First programme, launched in Finland, as an example of how direct needs meeting – giving homeless people a home, with no strings attached but the support to make it a home – transforms lives.
Towards the end of the book, Spratt impressively expands his scope to consider the home to be “the base from which we engage in society, with our community.” Without housing security, we are doomed to live atomistically hand to mouth, unable to elevate our horizons beyond the four walls we are in danger of losing. Housing is not a pension, nor an investment, she writes: it is an “essential infrastructure”, not only materially, but psychologically. Until housing security is taken seriously by everyone, winners and losers alike in this toxic lottery, all our houses will be built on sand.
Lynsey Hanley is the author of Estates: an intimate story (Granta) among other books