How can Labour rebuild the UK's broken housing system

Claire Thomson discusses the problems with the housing system that Covid-19 has highlighted, and what the Labour Party should do to address this. 

“Stay at home” - it’s the first part of the government’s triptych of a slogan, designed to clarify its confused messaging around what COVID-19 means for our everyday lives - and will surely be burned into the collective memory for decades to come.

But obeying this instruction means very different things for everybody who hears it. For some, this might mean juggling homeschooling with working at home from a dedicated study.  For others, it might mean continuing to go out to do essential work, and isolating as best they can from their family by sleeping in a spare room and using a separate bathroom. And for too many others, this might mean coming home after an exhausting shift of underpaid, but essential work, to overcrowded and poor quality accommodation where distancing from other members of the household is simply impossible.

As Emily Maitlis said, this virus is not the great leveller some commentators have claimed. Figures from the ONS show that black men and women are twice as likely to die from the virus than white people, and a disproportionately high death rate has also been found across the wider BAME community.

Poorer households are more likely to have members who still must travel to work, doing the jobs which just a few months ago were deemed “unskilled”, and whose work we now all realise we cannot do without.

The hardships the virus brings also appear to be spread unevenly across age groups. Recent research from King’s College London and Ipsos MORI showed that 24% of 16-24 year-olds said they were finding lockdown extremely difficult to cope with, compared to only 11% of 45-75 year-olds.

Further reports have shown that under 25s are likely to be far more vulnerable to an impending economic recession - with more of their demographic depending on precarious work in some of the industries hardest hit by lockdown for their incomes.

It’s also true that the housing circumstances of many young people are far less favourable to the prospect of staying at home indefinitely.  Priced out of the housing market, and even of leasing an entire flat, younger people are forced into paying sky high rents for rooms in overcrowded house shares, where self-isolating is not an option. 

Living rooms are often distant prospects, and kitchen table space is precious. So, for those lucky enough to work from home, this might mean hunching over a laptop in bed and carefully choosing Zoom backdrops to hide crumpled bed sheets.

The UK government, and the devolved administrations, urgently needs to make fundamental changes to housing legislation for the long term. We need to see rent controls to help open up our biggest cities to all and to ensure children live in homes with enough space for them to grow. We need to see proper penalties put in place for landlords who neglect their responsibilities, or even threaten tenants. We need to see a proper commitment to the construction of more affordable homes across the country.

But we also need urgent legislation now to protect renters from eviction and from falling into serious debt as a result of this global crisis.

We’ve seen watery assurances from the government that evictions will not take place. But as the Guardian reported, the government’s coronavirus bill simply extended the notice required for possession from two months to three. Simply delaying eviction proceedings does little to change the material circumstances of renters, many of whom now find themselves in desperate need. It’s unclear what, if any, support tenants will have after the ban expires on 25 June.

In Scotland, the government has announced a £5 million fund for private landlords who might face a drop in income. This drop in income, though, is entirely at their own discretion. Holyrood’s advice for tenants facing financial difficulties is to speak to their landlords. This seems to be policy designed by homeowners, for homeowners.

The reality is that as the Chancellor prepares to wean those on furlough schemes off of the addiction of being able to pay for essentials, an untold number of renters will be left simply unable to pay rent.

Repayable rent suspensions might seem like a viable solution, but their practicality relies upon currently out of work, or furloughed, renters being able to find new employment quickly. Given that the Bank of England has warned the UK faces a deep recession, suspensions would be likely to create a crippling debt crisis.

We need to see the Labour Party demand a true ban on all evictions, and a nationwide rent suspension, to allow renters to get back on their feet after this crisis. These policies would not fundamentally challenge the systemic exploitation and inequality within the UK’s housing system, but would make weathering this storm a little easier for so many.

This crisis has laid bare the deep cracks within the bricks of the UK’s housing system. The mortar that should hold us, and society, together, our homes, is wearing perilously thin. It’s up to Labour, now, to rebuild.

Claire Thomson works in communications for an arts funding body. In her spare time, she is a housing activist and is studying for an MA in Art History. 

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