Which housing inequalities have been amplified by COVID-19, and what can be done to make the situation fairer for renters?

Mixed housing in south-east London

COVID-19 has highlighted the central role of housing in health outcomes and societal inequalities, with private renters looking particularly vulnerable in England now the pause on housing evictions has ended. So what should be done to address the many housing-related inequalities exposed by the pandemic?

Amy Clair

COVID-19 has brought the central role of housing in health outcomes and societal inequalities to the fore, making it almost impossible to ignore. People have repeatedly been encouraged to stay at home in order to stay safe and protect the NHS – but who have been the big losers during the pandemic from a housing perspective?

Perhaps most significantly, 31 May saw the end to the pause on evictions in England, as well as a reduction in required notice periods. The eviction bans did nothing to deal with the underlying problem of lost income because of the pandemic, of course, with an estimated 3 million people not having been covered by furlough or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. This means the eviction ban has ended with at least 500,000 private renters thought to be in rent arrears.

Even those not in arrears have no guarantee of security. Despite promises to end England’s ‘no-fault evictions’ in 2019 there has been little progress, with MPs even arguing it was necessary to wait for the pandemic to be over before moving forward with a ban, despite the pandemic only increasing the urgency of this need.

Private renters have been particularly vulnerable

Private renters have been particularly vulnerable during the pandemic due to the insecure nature of private renting in England. Compounding this is the fact that private renting is also the least-affordable tenure: mean private weekly rents are £201 in England (32% of household income), compared with £103 in the social sector (27%), and average weekly mortgage costs of £182 (18%). Private renters therefore face the double whammy of higher housing costs and greater insecurity.

In contrast, owner-occupiers with a mortgage have been protected from housing payment difficulties by mortgage holidays, allowing them to negotiate to pay zero or reduced mortgage contributions for up to six months. There has been no equivalent to the mortgage holiday for renters at any point during the pandemic, despite renters having been disproportionately more likely to lose income.

While support for housing costs for renters is available through Universal Credit and Housing Benefit, the amount available is low (and often restricted by the benefit cap, which limits the total amount of income a household can receive in benefits).

How historical changes reduced support for renters

In the years prior to the pandemic, a number of changes to Housing Benefit affected housing affordability for renters. Notably, the 2011 changes to the Local Housing Allowance, which calculates the amount of Housing Benefit a household in the private sector can receive, significantly reduced the support available. This was exacerbated by changes to benefits uprating, which meant that rents increased much faster than support. One way that renters have adapted is by moving into smaller homes, increasing overcrowding – with likely consequences for the spread of COVID-19.

The extension of the Shared Accommodation Rate of Housing Benefit, which allows only for a room in a shared house, and the ‘bedroom tax’, which penalises social renters deemed to be ‘under-occupying’ their homes despite high levels of overcrowding in the social rented sector, will likely have had similar consequences for the spread of COVID-19.

UK-wide Government intervention to realign Local Housing Allowance levels with actual rents during the pandemic was undermined by the benefit cap, which was not raised to allow for increased housing benefit entitlement. This limited intervention on behalf of renters left them dependent on the goodwill of landlords where they faced payment issues; only 2% of social renters and 5% of private renters were able to negotiate lower rents or rent holidays with their landlords in the early stages of the lockdown.

The importance of housing quality

The pandemic and lockdowns have also emphasised the importance of housing quality, with private renters again being in the worst position as their homes are, on average, both the lowest-quality and smallest dwellings. While social housing is typically more secure and of higher quality, some socially rented homes are in appalling condition, as recent high-profile investigations have shown. There are also a significant minority of owner-occupiers living in low-quality homes, unable to afford maintenance and repairs.

Spending more time in low-quality homes because of COVID-19 will have meant greater exposure to threats to residents’ health such as damp, crowding and unhealthy temperatures (either too cold or too hot). Overall, people have had wildly different experiences of lockdown, with some staying in spacious homes with gardens and plenty of privacy, while others spent lockdown in small homes with no outside space and little privacy.

But the most stark example of housing quality issues during the pandemic has been the situation of people living in buildings that are dangerously clad or otherwise inadequately protected from fire. Inspections following the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people, have identified numerous fire safety issues, affecting as many as 600,000 people. These people had to spend the lockdown periods effectively trapped in homes they knew to be unsafe, forced to buy rope ladders and other equipment in case they needed to escape. Furthermore, they face severe financial consequences due to the Government’s refusal to protect them from the costs of rectifying problems for which they bear no responsibility.

Demographic differences and housing inequality

COVID-19 has amplified a number of existing housing issues, both in terms of severity and the numbers of people affected. So far, I have mostly focused on how these issues are unequally felt across tenures, but this is not the extent of housing inequality. There are demographic differences across tenures, meaning that certain groups of people are disproportionately living in the private rented sector, with all the disadvantages this entails.

For example, the owner-occupation rate in England is 63% overall, but just 20% for households headed by a person who identifies as Black African. This reflects discrimination both in the housing market itself and elsewhere, such as in employment. Among renters, receipt of benefits is a further source of inequality, with landlords increasingly reluctant to rent to benefit recipients because of the low value of benefits and administrative difficulties, despite outright bans on benefit recipients being unlawful.

It is important to remember that, for many, the challenges of COVID-19 have been faced in addition to existing obstacles – for example, the housing market has long served disabled people very poorly. Such underlying inequalities will not disappear as the pandemic comes under control; they will continue to negatively affect people’s lives, albeit with less attention unless an effort is made to change this.

To date, housing support has favoured owner-occupiers and those moving into owner-occupation – for example, through mortgage holidays and Stamp Duty breaks – further inflating house prices. This preoccupation with a ‘property-owning democracy‘ exacerbates housing inequalities.

In contrast to the generosity for those in a position to buy, the increase in the Local Housing Allowance during COVID-19 (back to the true 30th percentile of local rents for private renters, making up for years of below-cost uprating), has already been refrozen. Any arguments against this additional spending on the basis of ‘fairness for working households’ are undermined by the fact that most households experiencing poverty include at least one adult in work.

What should be done to address these inequalities?

We do not have to look far for examples of where the disparity between renting and owning are less severe. In Scotland, recent changes have increased protections for private renters, and there is also a higher proportion of social housing as a result of (i) ending the sale of socially rented homes through Right to Buy, and (ii) a commitment to building more social housing.

In Germany, meanwhile, more tenure-neutral housing policies and public attitudes mean that more than half of households rent their accommodation, predominantly in the private sector. In stark contrast, England’s insecure privately rented sector is a conscious policy choice, as is the decision to not protect leaseholders in poor quality and dangerous homes.

Building more social housing is one key means of reducing housing inequalities. England should also follow in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales by ending the Right to Buy, reducing further loss of social homes. Social housing is more secure and affordable than private rented housing, and providing more of it has the potential to reduce Housing Benefit expenditure, as well as easing pressure on the private rented market.

Additional and related changes to reduce housing inequalities can be thought of as relating to three themes. To conclude, here is a summary of suggested action points in each area.

Housing security

  • Keep the promise to ensure that there are no evictions or foreclosures caused by the pandemic.
  • End no-fault evictions.
  • Move towards open-ended private tenancies, as in Scotland.
  • Allow renters greater control over their homes.
  • End the leasehold property ownership system, which leaves people vulnerable in a number of ways – including to escalating ground rents and other charges such as repairs.

Housing affordability

  • Erase rent arrears accrued due to the pandemic. It is estimated that it will take seven years for private renters, who are already facing high housing costs, to pay back arrears accrued during the pandemic.
  • Increase Housing Benefit/the Local Housing Allowance and ensure regular benefit uprating to reflect changes in rents.
  • Remove the Shared Accommodation Rate so that living in a shared home is a choice not a necessity.
  • End the ‘bedroom tax’.
  • Bring back true social housing and end ‘affordable’ housing, which is rarely truly affordable.

Housing quality

  • Allow – and adequately fund – local authorities to enforce protections for private renters.
  • Ensure meaningful tenant involvement in social housing.
  • Protect leaseholders from the costs of remediation work on dangerous properties, while ensuring that those who are responsible pay.
  • Clarify and enforce building safety regulations.
  • Protect and improve space and quality standards.

Dr Amy Clair is a Research Fellow in Social Policy in the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change at the University of Essex. Her new book, A Watershed Moment for Social Policy and Human Rights? Where Next for the UK post-COVID? (co-authored by Jasmine Fledderjohann and Bran Knowles) will be available from Policy Press from 25 June.