May 19, 2023
The housing crisis is a phenomenon that has dominated our socio-political landscape for decades. Our current housing system overwhelmingly favours homeownership and wealth accumulation which has exacerbated the issue – rather than solve it. This has cultivated an exploitative private rental market over-saturated with high rents, overcrowding and substandard properties posing significant risks for our mental and physical health. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week we asked members of the public; what impact does this have on our mental wellbeing and what are some of the solutions to solve it?
The housing crisis can be characterised in a multitude of ways. Most commonly it is attributed to homelessness, high rents and house prices, and a decline in the number of affordable, good quality homes. But these issues only scratch the surface: right now, social cleansing disguised as ‘regeneration’ is pushing working-class communities out of neighbourhoods, one third of people are paying 50% of their income on rent, whilst unsafe housing conditions are causing people to develop health issues.
Research has shown how housing problems have a significant impact on mental and physical wellbeing. For instance, people facing housing insecurity report higher cases of both physical and mental health issues. Survey data from Homeless Link found that 82% of respondents experiencing homelessness suffered from a mental health problem whilst 45% reported using alcohol and drugs to cope.
Exploring the links weak housing regulation and the cost of living crisis has on physical and mental wellbeing
The most vulnerable people are more likely to deal with physical and mental health problems linked to housing. And these become even more apparent when considering marginalised communities especially disabled people, undocumented people, Black and Brown people, and people on low incomes. Some of the most severe cases of negligence from landlords featured asylum seekers and refugees as tenants. The death of two-year-old toddler, Awaab Ishak from a respiratory infection was found to be caused by black mould. And the unsettled status of Awaab’s parents were found to play a key factor in their treatment by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (their housing association). The Housing Ombudsman issued a report earlier this year and identified a: “culture of ‘othering’ of the residents […]. This is a pattern of exclusion and marginalisation based on identities that are different to the norm.” However, this culture continues to be perpetuated by central government, as right now they’re drawing up plans to scrap housing safety regulations for landlords housing asylum seekers.
Unsafe housing within both the social and private rental sector is enabled by weak housing regulation that allows landlords to lease poorly maintained properties (often while hiking up rental costs). We reached out to people to learn more about their lived experience of the housing crisis, and met David, who recounted his experience in privately rented accommodation in South London:
“It felt like the landlord wasn’t flexible… there were stains on the carpets and we had a damp problem and we kept on calling to get it fixed. The house had electric heaters and the landlord’s solution [to the damp] was to keep it on 24 hours a day which was extortionately expensive.”
The Decent Homes Standard, which defines basic conditions for liveable conditions, doesn’t even apply to the private rented sector, and it’s been reported that a quarter of private rented homes aren’t meeting these criteria, and 10% have recorded damp. Considering that MPs are four times more likely to be landlords, a disproportionate number of politicians have vested interests in watering down policies that enforce landlords to meet stricter standards.
However, some progress has been made: the government recently enacted ‘Awaab’s law’ forcing social landlords to ‘fix hazards such as damp and mould’ within strict timeframes. And the Renters Reform bill unveiled on Wednesday will end ‘no-fault evictions’, though the bill has been criticised by campaigners for increasing the likelihood of unfair evictions as landlords will also be given more power to throw out so-called ‘anti-social’ tenants. Also, the bill contains no protections for tenants against rent hikes, and still doesn’t require privately rented homes to meet the Decent Homes Standard, or take desperately-needed action to lower carbon emissions from homes. Failing on these fronts means that housing insecurity and affordability remain major factors in many people’s lives, damaging public health and mental wellbeing.
Whilst the damage our broken housing system has on physical health has been well publicised, recent research is beginning to uncover the impact it has on mental wellbeing. According to Mind, housing issues can contribute to a myriad of mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression. There are also links between poor living conditions and feelings of loneliness and social isolation. David shared his thoughts on housing and community, and explained that new developments often aren’t built with community in mind: “London is a great place but there is a sense of isolation and you don’t know your neighbours, [new builds] don’t really have communal areas [so] there’s a sense you don’t need to know your neighbours.” Another participant, Paul, echoed this sentiment, “New properties are not in the best interests of people – just in profit.”
Mental health issues can also impact someone’s ability to work and generate income, leading to a ruthless cycle of financial and housing insecurity. Furthermore, insecure employment contracts have been found to disempower workers and contribute to poor mental health. Studies have exposed the cyclical nature of poverty and mental health, and this, coupled with the cost of living crisis, means that more and more people are facing precarity due to a combination of low wages, job insecurity and sharply rising living costs. There has been an increase in workers engaging in strike action in response to soaring inflation and rampant profiteering. Trade unions have been demanding fairer pay and better working conditions on behalf of their members, and have highlighted the link between decent working protections improving mental health.
Earlier this month, the Office of National Statistics reported that the average rent increased by 4.8% across the UK, and 4.6% in London. This means on average, renters are shelling out £1,190 outside of London and £2,500 in London. At the same time, rising interest rates means that mortgage-payers are paying on average an extra £2,300 a year. Lois currently lives with family in London, he pointed out the impact paying extortionate rent has on young people, “It means you stay at family homes longer and end up burning out [or even] losing hope because you’re renting and most of their money is going on that and not having enough money to buy their own property…”
Making the connection between racial injustice, housing and mental health
Racial disparities are evident within homeownership rates too. Our analysis of the latest census data highlights how Bangladeshi, Black African, and Pakistani households are more likely to live in overcrowded housing and have lower rates of homeownership in comparison to White British people. Our research has found that the much-politicised drop in homeownership rates over the last decades has almost entirely been amongst Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, something that is rarely recognised by politicians and journalists.
Housing discrimination makes it more difficult for racialised communities to access housing, and also results in degrading expectations that they will accept poorer living conditions, increasing the propensity of these groups to experience anxiety and psychological distress. The State of the Nation report noted different circumstances amongst different communities, finding that Black households are 50% more likely to experience homelessness, whilst Bangladeshi households are more likely to be overcrowded.
Overcrowding can have lethal consequences. In March, a house fire broke out in a block of flats in Shadwell, East London causing the tragic death of Mizanur Rahman who was of Bangladeshi origin. It was discovered at least 19 people, many of whom were couriers and students from Bangladesh, were squeezed into a two bedroom flat. Even though neighbours had complained, the landlord was still awarded a licence to let the property as a house for multiple occupants (HMO). This highlights the local authority’s complicity, and more broadly reflects the harsh realities of gig economy workers and the devastating impact of the hostile environment on migrants.
Interpersonal racism reinforces barriers to housing as well: research indicates that Black and Asian private renters are 14% more likely to receive a negative response from landlords. As these groups are overrepresented in the rental sector, they are more likely to be subject to precarious conditions, increasing the chance of mental health issues related to both housing and racial trauma.
Unpacking the truth behind the housing crisis
But what is causing one of the biggest crises in UK public health since the turn of the century? Well, it depends who you ask, as the main driver of the housing crisis is strongly contested. Economists and politicians traditionally point to a lack of housing stock as catalysing the housing crisis, but this is just one part of the problem. The UK government’s own house price model shows that even if the number of homes had grown 300,000 every year since 1996, the average house today would be only 7% cheaper, doing little to reduce the 120% increase in house prices over the past 30 years.
Another component of the housing crisis is mismanagement of social housing and housing benefits. The government introduced ‘Right to Buy’ in the 1980s, allowing social housing tenants to purchase their homes at huge discounts. This resulted in thousands of social homes being lost, leading to more money being spent on housing benefits in lieu of funding house building programs to replace them. This also meant more money being passed to landlords, inflating housing costs. The resulting loss of social housing, less affordable social housing rent rates, the end to rent controls in the 1980s, and a reduction in the availability of housing benefits has meant the total government subsidy spent on housing has fallen by a massive 16.5% since 1979.
Another key factor is the ideology behind our housing system: that homes should be used to accumulate and hoard wealth. The ideological tenets of Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s manufactured the idea of “right to buy” in her pursuit of a neoliberal agenda that prioritised individualism and capital over collectivism and state interference. The implementation of Right to Buy was a pivotal moment whereby homeownership was firmly embedded within the cultural and political psyche of British identity. Echoes of this ideology are pervasive within our attitudes towards housing today, and have even influenced policy pledges from the Labour party, reinforcing an economic and political consensus biased towards homeownership in the UK – at the expense of support for renters and community housing.
Our Banking on Property report explains how systematic bias towards homeownership in the UK economy has been entrenched by policies to inflate house prices in order to maximise profit. In the 1980s, financial deregulation and new legislation made it easier for big high street banks to offer affordable credit (mortgages) for people to purchase a home. This pumped money into the market, causing prices to escalate. The government also introduced specialised mortgage products and tax credits for landlords, making it attractive for wealthy people to put even more money into the housing system. For example, 52% of landlords have used ‘interest-only’ mortgages where they only have to pay off the interest on their loan every month.
Today, the Bank of England continues to plays a key role in managing the volatility of the housing market through controlling interest rates, and therefore the affordability of mortgage repayments. But, in response to the cost of living crisis, the Bank has been raising interest rates to tackle inflation, leading to higher mortgage repayment rates for customers – and billions in profits for big banks. With government policies sustaining a housing market most appealing for people to become homeowners and landlords and extract even more wealth from the most disadvantaged, even amidst the cost of living crisis. The result is a housing system designed to serve corporate and financial interests at the expense of public health and wellbeing.
What does a equitable housing system look like?
The interconnectedness of our broken housing system and, more explicitly, our failed economic logic with poor mental health is clear, but how do we go about building an equitable system whereby housing is utilised as a public good? When we asked participants what their vision for a decent housing system looked like, there was an overwhelming agreement towards a systemic overhaul. Paul said, “Banks lend out money that doesn’t exist and make a profit off of it,” he continues, “We need housing done for the people, [it’s] not about making money.”
The ongoing crisis is more complex than simply building more houses or introducing more mechanisms to incentivise home ownership or landlordism. Likewise, temporary solutions like a rent freeze proposed by the Mayor of London in response to extortionate rental costs is just a sticking plaster on the problem. To truly protect tenants and improve housing conditions, we must strengthen rights for renters, alongside a large, low carbon and genuinely affordable social housing system. We also need to address the underlying broken financial arrangements underpinning the housing system by removing cheap mortgage deals for landlords, designing more equitable property taxes, restoring housing subsidies and protecting people from exploitative mortgage deals.
Increasing diversity of housing tenure can alleviate some of the pressures on the housing market as well. Lois admired the horizontal structures of housing co-operatives, and spoke about the solidarity shown by student movements like the rent strike, led by students at the University of Manchester. Housing co-operatives are democratically run, with residents leading the decision making process and determining the living costs. Lois expanded on the model’s benefits: “[They’re a] good way forward, [it’s] quite good everyone having equal power, you have businesses where the staff are getting equal wages and [with housing] it’s not just the landlords getting profit.” Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are another positive initiative, encouraging community ownership of land and public spaces.
Both examples demonstrate how our housing sector could be democratised by allowing residents to play a central role in prioritising the needs of people over profit, empowering residents to shape their housing needs and fostering community cohesion at the same time.
Mental health issues resulting from the housing crisis cannot be spoken about in isolation – wider structural inequalities pertaining to class, race, gender and disability heighten financial insecurity and lower health outcomes for these groups. Redesigning our housing system, and more broadly our economic system, to redress this means challenging the dominant economic orthodoxy that sees ‘growth’, wealth accumulation and corporate greed as indicators of a successful economy, instead of genuine positive outcomes for the environment, social justice and mental wellbeing. It’s paramount we build a new narrative, starting with the idea that housing is a basic human right, as opposed to assets. Advocating for much-needed housing reforms to improve living conditions and protect renters are some of the ways we can begin to repair the damage to our broken housing system and promote mental wellbeing so everyone can thrive.
Special thanks to David, Lois and Paul for providing testimonies for this article. If you’re experiencing any housing related problems, please check out these resources from the Citizens Advice Bureau and Mind.
The Positive Money Solent local group have set up a tenant’s union, you can follow their work here. ACORN is mobilising a mass movement of working class people – including renters, find out more here. The London Renter’s Union are fighting for fairer rents and living conditions and Medact are drawing attention to health injustices.
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