Covid-19 impact on housing and the role in recovery
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. As the current wave recedes many of us are asking what the new ‘normal’ will look like. The lockdown shone a spotlight on many aspects of our society, from the economy to our food supply system, the NHS and public services. We look at these things now in the light of the pandemic, with new, critical eyes.
The experience of lockdown has been different for everyone, but confinement to our homes for extended periods has put housing issues at the forefront of this pandemic and it will become even more prevalent in our journey to recovery. Many ‘Recovery Plans’ highlight housing construction as one of the key ways forward and although this has obvious advantages, the concept of housing as a whole has been much less discussed.
One of the first actions by the Welsh Government in March as a response to lockdown was to make a concerted effort to house rough sleepers. 800 places were made immediately available in hotels, hostels and empty accommodation but this was a short term solution. With restrictions easing, attention is turning to how long term housing can be provided so that we avoid a mass return to homelessness. Housing associations and local authorities are part of this solution but we need to remember that housing provision is just the start of the journey, many of those who are homeless will need concerted support to be able to rebuild their lives.
Inter-agency support and collaboration will be key to reversing the previous trend which saw a 6% rise in rough sleeping in Wales between 2018-19 and the highest number of homeless households in the last quarter of 2019 since records began. If there was one good thing to come out of the pandemic it has been this, but it will take a significant amount of will, investment and resources to prevent a reversal.
Wales has some of the oldest housing for private rent, with 43% built pre-1919, and this may well account for the fact that 18% of housing stock in Wales is considered ‘poor’ quality. A third of private tenants are families and a quarter are on low incomes. Shelter report that the loss of a private rented sector tenancy is one of the main contributors to statutory homelessness.
Shelter Cymru has long argued for greater security of tenure for private renters and a specialist housing tribunal for Wales as well as a national tenant representative body. A prevention focused approach to homelessness would see this as a priority. This is even more salient as private renters continue to grow and the average age of tenants increases, making the demographic that much more vulnerable, and that much more in need of support and a voice.
As well as a disparity on housing quality, the change in culture brought about by the Covid-19 outbreak has seen many people working from home. This can have positive and productive outcomes for employers and employees alike but only if their home is fit for the purpose. This is not just a matter of space but also the ability to be able to afford to heat the property. With 155,000 households in fuel poverty in Wales, it is unlikely that this will be considered as a factor in the new working culture as employers close offices and leave some with little choice.
We have yet to see the full impact of the pandemic on the Welsh economy but as early as March, we saw the number of people claiming benefits nearly double to 6.8%, and the Bevan Foundation has forecast an unemployment rate of nearly 20%. To put that in context, that is only slightly lower than the inter-war years and 8% higher than the more recent 1984 record of 12%.
Housing associations also have a role to play in employment of course, not just in housing itself but related industries and (increasingly) the provision of apprenticeships in general trades.
The affordability of housing should be the primary concern of Welsh Government if we are to avoid a significant increase in homeless households. Similarly, flexibility and support by landlords for tenants to pay rent in a way that they can afford will be key to the future of the sector but we also need to be aware of the ‘side-effects’ of such a recession such as the increase in domestic violence and the impact on mental health. A living rent model is a practical step to achieving affordability across the board but once again, inter-agency support will be critical to helping those most at risk.
It is not just the quality of housing which will have effected wellbeing over lockdown but the quality of local outdoor space. Whether this was a garden, local park or just a green, ‘in between’ space. The impact of nature on well being is very well documented.
Research shows UK parks and green spaces generate over £34 billion of health and wellbeing benefits. The lockdown led to a greater appreciation of these spaces with many people reporting ‘reconnecting’ with nature and 71% of people saying that they want to see their local parks and green spaces ‘enhanced’. But a great deal of housing – particularly for the young and older age groups are flats with no access to a garden (1 in 8 across the UK) and many more, both urban and rural, have poor quality or unsafe environments, blighted by fly-tipping, dog fouling, litter and anti-social behaviour.
There is a correlation between deprivation and poor local environment quality and the impact extend far beyond just being an eyesore. The creation of communal spaces aid in positive health and wellbeing and create a sense of community cohesion, reducing isolation and a perception of safety and trust. The relative cost of maintaining parks and green spaces is minimal when we consider just how important these spaces are but their maintenance or protection is not statutory on local authorities and will be at risk if there are more budget cuts to come.
It may seem like a lifetime ago now but cast your minds back to February. The UK suffered 3 severe storms in the space of a fortnight causing not one instance, but two ‘1 in 100 year’ flood events. My 80-year-old father lost his home in those floods and was lucky to escape with his life and a severe infection from the contaminated flood water. He is currently living with me until the insurance grants a replacement which will take, minimally, until the end of the year, unlike many of his neighbours who are now at risk of homelessness or high private rents at a time when they need all the money they can to rebuild after losing everything they ever had.
If we are to focus on the social and economic policies for recovery without addressing the environment, it will be no recovery at all. Whatever the new post-Covid normal looks like, the Met Office is predicting that extreme flooding will be expected every 1 to 30 years.
So, if 2020 has highlighted anything, it is that we look to our homes more than ever to protect us.
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