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.

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Housing, race and Covid-19

Forty years ago I wrote my degree dissertation on the links between ethnic minority communities and poor housing in London, (yes, I was a housing bore even then!). I visited Islington’s council offices to study their small area census data, and inputted the information into the university computer using paper cards. A week or so later, I received one of those huge A3 concertina print outs. This was the early days of computing when the equivalent of today’s iPhone would take up an entire room.

My conclusion was that there was indeed a correlation between bad housing and ethnic minority households in London boroughs. I had a notion that underlying racism was at work (this was barely a decade and a half after Peter Rachman had exploited racial tensions in Notting Hill to evict tenants) but I was not sophisticated or clever enough to draw any conclusions about the reasons for the correlation.

Forty years on and the picture is much clearer. A series of studies have shown that some BAME groups occupy the worst homes and experience the worst health outcomes. The English Housing Survey shows that households from ethnic minority groups are more likely to be overcrowded than White British households in all tenures and in all socio- economic groups and ages: 2% of White British and 4% of White Irish households were overcrowded compared to 30% for Bangladeshi, 16% for Pakistani, and 15% for Black African households.

The average difference between White British and BAME households was greatest in London (3% of White British households were overcrowded compared to 12% for other ethnic groups). There are also stark differences in the tenure occupied by different groups. The UK Housing Review shows that 17% of White households live in the social sector compared to 39% of Bangladeshi and 42% of Black households. The social sector has higher levels of overcrowding – 8% compared to 1% for owners. (The picture is not uniform across the board – Asian, Indian, and Chinese households are less prevalent in the social sector than White households: 14%, 6%, and 6%, respectively.)

A Labour force survey in 2018 also showed that Bangladeshi and Pakistani households were much more likely than any other ethnic group to live in a multi-family household. Other studies have found that BAME households are concentrated in older and unsafe properties.

Of course, there are cultural and other reasons for these disparities – direct discrimination in the private rented sector has been well documented, but institutional racism in housing and employment has also played a part across all tenures and occupations for decades. In the social sector, for example, residential qualifications discriminated against newer arrivals. I am old enough to remember signs on pub doors in Islington saying “Travellers by appointment only”, and it is a certainty that both blatant and discreet prejudice is still at work in all areas of our society.

But COVID-19 has starkly exposed these housing differences. The ONS has found that Black men and women are four times as likely to die from the virus when compared with White people. Bangladeshi and Pakistani males were almost twice as likely to die as White males. Overall, the most deprived areas are experiencing double the deaths of the most affluent areas, and the death rate per 100,000 people ranges from four in leafy South Hams to 144 in Newham – an incredible disparity. The virus has hit hardest in the highest density areas, and London has the highest death rate of any region.

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The Gold Rush restarts?

Some big news for the housing market his week. On Wednesday, the statutory instrument listing the “reasonable excuses” to leave your home was amended to allow viewings, site visits, home moves, and any other activity relating to the sale, letting, or purchase of a residential property. You can read the amended Health Protection Regulations here. They were laid before parliament without any debate. Regulation 6 of the original regulations is amended to allow:

“…any of the following activities in connection with the purchase, sale, letting or rental of a residential property: 1 Visiting estate or letting agents, developer sales offices or show home. 2 Viewing residential properties to look for a property to buy or rent. 3 Preparing a residential property to move in. 4 Moving home. 5 Visiting a residential property to undertake any activities required for the rental or sale of that property.” Continue reading

After the Deluge

Margaret Thatcher believed in small government. She sold off much of the public sector, including millions of council houses. Her vision of the ideal local authority was just a committee handing out private sector contracts for the whole gamut of services.

How times change! The party of Margaret Thatcher has now become the party of big government. It has nationalised half of the UK economy, shut the other half and kept us locked up for the past seven weeks, at peril of being fined or arrested. The homeless have been swept off the streets, and millions of people are stuck at home on the government payroll. Has government ever been bigger or more powerful? Continue reading