Some of the key housing challenges – affordability of rent, precarity of tenure, quality of dwelling and access to private outdoor space – have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have been sleepwalking into this scenario for a while. We have seen the deadly result of unsafe tower blocks; heard the stories of children looking out of high-rise windows on to private, gated, outdoor play areas; and we have counted the increasing number of rough sleepers over the years.
Our sleepwalking has been expensive – taking on board social and economic costs that have continued to rise.
Housing benefit costs have risen by 40% in the last decade, according to the recently published report of the Affordable Housing Commission, Making Housing Affordable Again: Rebalancing the Nation’s Housing System.
The size of the private rented sector has doubled in the last three decades and, during the same period, Right to Buy sales have seen more than two million properties lost from the social housing sector.
In recent years, ‘affordable’ has lost its meaning in relation to housing. Up to 80% of market rent is not affordable for many – it has created a growing benefits bill, trapping young people in their parental home, priced out of their grown-up futures.
Misery has unfolded for those who cannot access anywhere to live. The charity, Homeless Link, reports that rough sleeping figures have increased by 141% in the last decade.
Community responses have emerged from the pandemic gloom. We have also seen the recognition of frontline key workers. But we must move beyond the weekly applause for health, care and housing ‘heroes’ and on to a strategic approach to building our future homes.
Some commentators are calling for all future housing to be ‘lockdown-proof’, but is this any different to what we should consider a decent home to be?
In recent research – Place and Identity: the Performance of Home – I found that there were six conditions for the creation of ‘home’: security, safety, quality of space, privacy of place, connectedness and affordability.
Local government is ideally placed to co-ordinate and deliver all of these ingredients for our future homes and to lead our communities out of the pandemic into a new and better normal.
Resolving homelessness – maintaining momentum
Local authorities, charities and private sector partners have already shown how agile and networked they could be in their response at the beginning of the crisis, with many homeless people provided with accommodation. It is clear that good quality, affordable housing is a key public health intervention. There are examples, particularly in our larger cities, where councils and the hospitality industry have worked together to rapidly house homeless people.
With Government leadership and funding for a head lease position with appropriate hotels, this could ensure no one is returned to the street in the medium-term.
We know that secure accommodation, with support, is the foundation stone to a Housing First approach to resolving homelessness (a recovery-oriented approach to ending homelessness that centres on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing and then providing additional supports and services as needed).
There are also global lessons emerging from World Habitat’s European End Street Homeless campaign. Cities are reporting that being part of the campaign over recent years meant they were better prepared to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
No doubt, Dame Louse Casey’s Rough Sleeping COVID-19 Response Taskforce will aim to consolidate the gains made by councils in their rapid response to provide accommodation for rough sleepers. This will build on the great strides already taken and is dependent on the often announced central Government COVID-19 funding for homelessness to be extended and continued.
Affordability and quality – back to the future
There will be increasing pressure to deliver the social housing we need for the future at scale, but now is the time to be bold and design in the quality and privacy needed to create ‘home’.
Quality and speed of delivery can be achieved if Government grant is made available for upfront capital investment in our housing future. Let’s remember that local authorities, if powers and funding are devolved properly, can be a catalyst for communities to create places and local economies that will sustain happy lives for the future. We have seen municipal dreams delivered in the form of prize-winning council housing recently, and now is the time to build this to scale.
We must not leave our housing future to chance – dependent on the cross-funding from houses for sale in a development – at the changing whim of ‘viability’ in planning-gain Section 106 agreements. We need Government leadership through the provision of grant funding to develop social housing.
Let’s look back (for our future) to the post-war years when ‘homes fit for heroes’ were funded in their 100,000s a year – building figures of the like we have not seen since.
COVID-19 wrought havoc in many lives, but it has also thrown into relief the social injustices around home that need to be resolved in partnership between central Government, local municipal leaders and entrepreneurs, and communities themselves.
Now is the time to right some housing wrongs. Now is the time to build our future homes.
Jo Richardson is professor of housing and social inclusion in De Montfort University’s Local Governance Research Centre. She is also vice president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, and a trustee of World Habitat