Housing in the time of Coronavirus

Originally posted on March 19 as a blog for Inside Housing.

It was only last week but already it seems a lifetime ago since BC – Before Coronavirus

With schools closing, London facing lockdown and, who knows, troops on the streets by the weekend, the impact on housing may seem minor by comparison.

But beyond parochial organisational concerns, the situation is critical for millions of people faced with losing their income or their job and wondering if they will lose their home too – and a matter of life and death for those living and working in care homes, extra care and sheltered housing and those who already have no home.

With the government twisting the arms of mortgage lenders to offer payment holidays, help arrived for home owners first. Now it is promising help for renters with emergency legislation to ban private and social landlords from evicting anyone for three months and no new possession proceedings to be allowed during the crisis.

That is perhaps a moot point if the courts are closed anyway and it begs a question about what happens next that is not really answered by the prospect of ‘guidance which asks landlords to show compassion and to allow tenants who are affected by this to remain in their homes wherever possible’ but at least it starts to respond to the scale of the crisis.

[On Friday, after I originally wrote this blog, the government announced it was restoring the Local Housing Allowance to the 30th percentile of market rents, a welcome move.]

More and more councils and housing associations had already pledged no evictions for coronavirus rent arrears, surely the bare minimum required of a social landlord. Some are going much further and stepping up for their local communities.

The major private landlord organisations are calling for a package of measures to support tenants including tax and benefit concessions and there are some outstanding examples of individual landlords going out of their way to help.

But some are behaving appallingly, with the ultimate example a landlord threatening to evict an NHS workers from their home if a cure for the virus cannot be found in the next few weeks.

On top of a halt to all evictions, Generation Rent is calling for a one-year freeze on rents to stop landlords using increases to get tenants out, the removal of the five-week wait for Universal Credit and rent relief for tenants.

In an open letter to government, charities led by Crisis are calling for that too as part of an emergency plan to help homeless people, with assistance to get hotel-style accommodation where they can self-isolate, the removal of legal barriers to getting help and the recognition that their workers are operating a frontline service.

However, all this is just in the first few days of a crisis that seems certain to get much worse. For all the government’s action to support businesses and boost sick pay and benefits for workers, the safety is still full of holes for people to fall through.

Even some food banks, the last resort for families impoverished by austerity and the best hope for those hit by the virus too, are being forced to close as volunteers self-isolate or fear infection.

But step back and a little from the immediate crisis and the world is being turned upside down. The crisis is not just revealing the flaws in our housing system but is also starting to expose the assumptions behind the way we organise it.

A benefits system designed to encourage or force people into work must now cope with supporting them to stay at home with enough money to pay their rent.

Sweeping reforms of the whole system, including the reintroduction of earnings-related benefits that were scrapped as long ago as the 1980s now look like the best way to stop millions falling out of work and through those holes in a safety net that is based on means testing. Even a form of universal basic income is not being ruled out by the government.

Landlords who had switched their properties to the short-let holiday market because of tax and benefit changes will now have no takers and be desperate to switch back.

Those thinking about evicting the tenants they already have might want to think about that and those thinking of hiking their rents could even end up desperate for a rent freeze to stop them falling.

The same applies to hotels around Britain with more than 700,000 rooms that will now mostly be closed and empty. If we use what we can as emergency hospital wards and bedrooms for NHS workers, there could still be enough hotels left over to house every homeless person safely in a room of their own.

The virus has already exposed rampant inequalities in the world of work between those in secure jobs with paid sick leave who can work at home and those reliant on insecure jobs, zero and limited hours contracts and self-employment who may not even qualify for statutory sick pay and have no choice but to go to work.

But it also shines a light on our unequal housing system. Generous tax treatment, low interest rates and government-supported house price rises gave a large, comfortably housed group of us every incentive to buy as big a home as possible. They have the spare bathrooms the government wants us to self-isolate in and millions of spare bedrooms to work from home in.

A poorly housed minority has no space to isolate, benefits do not cover rents and spare rooms mean the bedroom tax. Home for families with 126,000 of those children sent home from school is temporary accommodation, with some stuck in a single bed and breakfast room. ‘Home’ for those without one is a friend’s sofa or a hostel or the streets.

These inequalities should matter even in normal times but have not counted enough up to now. In this crisis, they matter fundamentally as the quicker a virus can spread to the overcrowded and badly housed and homeless the quicker it can spread to NHS workers and the rest of us.

Go back a century and more, and it was public health concerns about infectious disease spreading from insanitary slums that led to the rise of council housing and the birth of the welfare state in the first place.

Go back ten years and David Cameron and George Osborne were scaling all of it back at the same time as they kept telling us that we were all in this together. Now we really are.



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