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How unravelling housing standards have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in 'rich' countries

Inadequate and overcrowded housing conditions are creeping back in the UK and many other societies in the ‘Global North’ – where such conditions are often assumed to have been consigned to the past or only prevalent in the poorer cities of the ‘Global South’. Dr Deborah Potts from the Department of Geography examines how we have forgotten past lessons when it comes to housing standards and how this can influence the spread of disease.

The current UK housing standards were set out in 2006 by the Department of Communities and Local Government in the document, A Decent Home, and the related UK Housing Health and Safety Rating System. This includes standards to address overcrowding, which is understood to go beyond tangible physical criteria, and also accounts for ‘psychological needs for both social interaction and privacy.’

However, the existence of standards does not mean they are properly implemented. In general, local authorities are only meant to enforce A Decent Home standards in the private (as opposed to public) rental sector ‘as a last resort’.

Standards about space requirements per person, set out in 1935 as a response to ‘overcrowded conditions in the private rented sector before the Second World War’, are rarely enforced and data are rarely collected. Increasing numbers of families are now housed in inadequate accommodation with fewer than the statutory number of bedrooms required for their age and gender mix.

Lessons from past housing issues

Extremely overcrowded slum housing was a common feature of early industrial urban Europe and North America. In 1900, it was estimated that about one in six Muscovites were renting corners of rooms rented to others. In 1910, infant mortality rates in the slum area of Cowgate in Edinburgh were 277 per thousand, far higher than anywhere in the contemporary world (the current highest estimated rate is 82 for the Central African Republic).

Appalling housing conditions were a major cause – rooms were cold, dark, damp, insanitary and vermin-ridden. Yet people crowded into them, despite the danger, simply because they could not afford anything better.

These issues were gradually addressed by policies, which sometimes included the mass provision of public rental housing. Better housing regulations were also important, setting out improved standards about construction, maintenance, facilities and the avoidance of health hazards.

A return to inadequate and overcrowded housing

So why are we seeing an increase in inadequate and overcrowded housing? Two key factors are at play: one is that the relationship between typical housing costs (for buying or renting) and incomes in large, global cities (such as London or New York), has been changing since around the mid-1990s.

The result is that housing of all types has become increasingly expensive in real terms. Apart from the very wealthiest, many people can no longer afford the space and amenities once achievable for a similarly placed household a generation ago – no matter where they are on the income spectrum for the city in which they reside.

Households in the lower quintiles of city income distributions can find themselves sliding towards accommodation with inadequate space. This is because one way of making housing ‘affordable’ is to squeeze the space rented, so that other necessary expenditures, such as food, heat, clothes and transport to work, can also be covered.

Changes in the political landscape have also reduced the provision of affordable public housing and rental subsidies and encouraged deregulation. Meanwhile, resources assigned to implementing and monitoring housing standards have also been greatly reduced.– Dr Deborah Potts

An inquiry is still ongoing into the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London in 2017, which killed seventy-two people and is attributed to cost-cutting in the choice of cladding added to the tower a few years prior.

Policy changes can also be seen to have (re)created some of the abuses of power by lessors and insecurities and health hazards typical of the rental sector of the past.

Tenants are frequently too scared to report issues due to fear of eviction, which has also become more common. In American cities with over 200,000 people, it has been estimated that one in seven children born in 1998–2000 would have experienced eviction by the time they reached the age of 15.

The added impact of COVID-19

The current crisis means that problems associated with overcrowded housing in the UK are also coming under renewed scrutiny, particularly as more people work from home.

Infectious diseases spread far more easily in overcrowded conditions – where social distancing becomes impossible.– Dr Deborah Potts

The problems are far worse in some residential areas in cities in the Global South, where sleeping one household to a room may be common and access to water and sanitation poor.

Yet even in London, entire families can be squeezed into one room in a shared house because it is all they can afford (as opposed to a temporary placement by a council) – and can be ‘hot-bedding’, where one bed is shared by workers on different shifts.

Currently, it is estimated that around one in twelve London households live in overcrowded housing: in social housing it is as high as one in seven. In Newham, for example, a local housing official in 2015 said “it was not unusual to find 20 people in a three-bedroom home.”

The salience of housing conditions for the spread of the virus has recently been demonstrated in Singapore. Over 80% of citizens live in government-subsidised high-rise housing of which 90% own their apartments. At first, Singapore was successful in keeping infection rates and deaths from COVID-19 at very low levels.

However, Singapore also relies on about 300,000 migrant workers, in low-paid jobs like construction, who are housed in “official, registered dorms in converted factories, walkup apartments, and shophouses [which] are often cramped and overcrowded – and ‘slum-like’”. In mid-April, a sudden surge in infections occurred as the virus spread through the migrants’ housing. One dormitory cluster alone accounted for over a fifth of the nation’s cases.

Migrant workers can be similarly endangered by grossly overcrowded housing in the UK – either because they cannot afford anything better or because of irresponsible lessors.

The ‘unlearning’ of past lessons

The terrible health endured by residents of past slums in cities like London eventually shaped effective housing policies and regulations underpinned by political will and resources. Without the necessary support, such regulations are of little use and lessons are being ‘unlearnt’.

The trends in housing costs and affordability in the world’s major cities for ordinary city residents – the people whose work makes the city ‘work’ – have meant that we could now be entering a new and dangerous phase.

Find out more about Dr Deborah Potts’ book, ‘Broken Cities: Inside the Global Housing Crisis

In this story

Deborah Potts

Deborah Potts

Emeritus Reader


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