Bad Housing Kills

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a dirty truth that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. It’s a truth that housing folk are very familiar with, but it has mostly been ignored by government, the media and opinion formers. The truth is this: bad housing kills.

Even before the crisis struck, we knew that the most well-off people lived almost a decade longer than the least well-off. By definition, poorer people are likely to live in poorer housing. But now it is also the poor who are suffering the most from Covid-19.

According to the Office for National Statistics, deprived areas have double the mortality rate of well-off areas and the death rate is six times higher in major cities than in rural areas. BAME people have suffered most of all, with a third of all deaths.


Consider a few facts: up to 17 April in England and Wales, 36 people in 100,000 died from Covid-19. But this hides a vast disparity between rich and poor areas.

In leafy South Hams the death rate was four per 100,000, but London had a death rate 22 times higher with 86 deaths per 100,000, and within London the death rate ranged from 43 in Kingston to 144 per 100,000 in Newham. Why should Newham have over three times as many deaths as Kingston?

There are two likely answers. First, Kingston has 4,700 people per square kilometre, Newham has more than double that at 9,700. The higher the density, the higher the risk of catching coronavirus.

Second, 64% of homes in Kingston are owned and 9.5% are social, whereas in Newham, 42% are owned and almost three times as many are social – 27%. Within London as a whole, almost 15% of social homes are overcrowded compared with just 2.5% of owner-occupied households.

Not surprisingly, the latest available figures show that overcrowding in Newham is almost three times worse than in Kingston – 18% compared with 6.7% respectively.

Of course, other factors are at play. Many poor people in Newham will be working in dangerous occupations, but Cambridge virologist Chris Smith reckons that over 80% of transmission is within the home, so if you bring the virus home in Newham it is more likely that the rest of your household will succumb to it than in Kingston, where people have more space to work and isolate from each other.

This crisis has exposed our two housing nations.

The first nation is the well-housed, with space to work and self-isolate if they need to. They can enjoy their gardens and their Ocado home deliveries, and show off their sourdough recipes on Twitter.

For them, lockdown has been almost normal, if not enjoyable. And this nation has been making most of the big decisions about lockdown.

The second nation comprises the people living in cramped shared houses or in flats with no gardens. Imagine being in a cramped two-bedroom flat in east London with two kids and perhaps a grandparent. To reach the street you have to negotiate the lift or stairways, touching multiple surfaces along the way.

Then you find that the council has shut your local park, or if it is open the park Stasi constantly monitor you. Or imagine being in one of the tiny micro-homes that I wrote about in this Intergenerational Foundationreport, often no larger than a budget hotel room, or in one of the rabbit hutches created from an office block under permitted development rights, on an industrial estate and next to an arterial road.

This second nation is rarely heard from, but they are the people doing much of the dying.

These past eight weeks have stress-tested the nation’s homes to breaking point. For millions of people, ‘home’ has been found wanting.

It was Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli who coined “two nations” in 1845 to describe the gulf between the rich and the poor.

The word is that our present prime minister has seen the light after his near-death experience and he has shifted from being a free market capitalist to a fan of big government. I hope this may be true.

Whatever happens, we must ensure that our righteous anger about the nation’s housing inequalities allows for no return to the status quo.

Forty years of failed housing policy have brought us to this point.

The fetishism of homeownership, the failure to invest in social housing, the failure to regulate the private sector, the failure of planning policy, the feather-bedding of a housebuilding industry that is churning out some of the smallest and shoddiest homes in Europe, the failure to regulate construction that led to Grenfell Tower… I could go on.

I wrote a blog recently setting out a 10-point wish list for the future. It included a call for a huge investment in social rented housing, reform of the planning system, and nationalisation of much of the green belt.

I am sure each of you will have your own ideas. But as we go forward, the message that ‘bad housing kills’ must be at the top of every agenda of every discussion with government ministers and officials.

(This article first appeared in Inside Housing)

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