High cost housing in our cities is about health, not just wealth

The fact that 80% of London’s tenants are struggling to pay their rent is shocking, but sadly, not surprising. The pandemic and now inflation have taken a heavy toll on people’s finances, and higher rents are clearly playing a big role.

Related topics:  London,  tenants,  rent,  wellbeing,  health
Barbara Reichwein | Impact on Urban Health
2nd February 2023
Barbara Reichwein 115
"The acute housing pressures that people were experiencing long before the cost of living crisis began and are now getting worse are making people sick, and, crucially, less economically active"

But the situation we face is not just about money. Where people live also affects their long-term health, just as much as the money in their pockets. It is this precarity in homes which is a substantial contributor to both poor health and the nation’s economic wellbeing. We need to address both if we’re going to create a housing sector that works for everyone.

Across England, housing costs in the private rented sector for those in the bottom decile of income take up 68% of their monthly budgets. At such levels, renting privately reduces the ability of households to absorb price increases elsewhere.

Stable finances and good health go hand in hand. Precarious tenancies and poor living conditions pair with ill health, especially poor mental health. This is at a time when, according to the Government’s latest English Housing Survey, 572,000 homes in the UK do not meet the Decent Homes Standard. The acute housing pressures that people were experiencing long before the cost of living crisis began and are now getting worse are making people sick, and, crucially, less economically active.

For many, this has created a cycle of poor mental, physical, and financial health that is incredibly difficult to escape. The cycle is not felt equally. People who are already impacted by inequalities – those on low incomes, from Black or ethnically minoritised communities – are hit harder. In terms of housing, Black and ethnically minoritised people are more than twice as likely to live in households with persistent low income and higher rates of overcrowding than their white counterparts.

Unless it isn’t addressed at the source, high rents and poor quality or precarious housing will continue to take a heavy toll on these communities, particularly for those already living with chronic health conditions.

This is bad news for all of us. 2.5 million working-age adults are now considered economically inactive, with 88% of those reporting long-term sickness. In 2021, the CBI estimated there was an eye-watering £300bn in lost economic output annually as the result of poor health in the UK, excluding direct healthcare costs.

Unfortunately, the recent marginal drop in inflation makes no substantial difference. We know that inflation disproportionately affects those who are already poorer compared to the national average. Incomes and real cash in people’s pockets continue to erode, especially for the working poor, those in frontline roles, and people with minoritised backgrounds.

The situation is hugely challenging, but not hopeless. The answers are at our fingertips if we care to look. Policymakers, landlords and housing providers all have a role to play in creating solutions, together.

So, what do we need?

Continued, collective, practical action – yes, from the government. But also, from the housing sector itself. And the private sector as a whole.

First and foremost, a good home is too often unaffordable. Government support for housing costs has become less generous over time, creating an affordability crisis for renters. Local Housing Allowance should be unfrozen and raised to cover at least the cheapest third of local rents.

Secondly, the much-promised Renters Reform Bill should be enacted as soon as possible. If implemented, it would begin to address the issue of insecure housing by abolishing Section 21, ‘no fault’ evictions and creating a clear, widely understood set of grounds for a tenancy’s end.

Third, homes are too often of poor quality. This is particularly so in the private rented sector. Landlords should be given clear incentives and support to improve the quality of the country’s housing stock – not least, in both a cost of living crisis and a climate crisis, by addressing retrofit.

Fourth, effective, efficient enforcement of existing regulations should be made a priority, helping ensure that poor landlords are removed from the market.

More fundamentally, we need to adopt a joined-up approach across the policy landscape. Rishi Sunak has pledged to halve inflation this year – but this means little to deprived communities without practical, systemic action across all sectors to tackle inequalities at the same time.

Health is a national asset, and we all benefit from taking action to improve it.

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