Social housing compared to Victorian slums

A lack of social housing across Britain is leading to cramped, overcrowded and unfit conditions for some of Britain’s low income families, in what some people have compared to the slums of the Victorian era.

Dr Julie Rugg from York University and David Rhodes of the Centre for Housing Policy are at the forefront of research into the private rental sector and their 2018 report The Evolving Private Rented Sector: Its Contribution and Potential shows a downturn in living conditions from their original report, published in 2008. Statistics show that 90% of renting households on low incomes in England are at risk by harmful living conditions and are being pushed further into poverty. Nearly 30% of private renters are living in homes that are not up to standard, 10% are subject to overcrowding and over 80% are paying rent that is too expensive, pushing them into poverty and/or debt.

Britain’s decade-long period of austerity has pushed some families to breaking point as they struggle on low wages and minimal hours working contracts.

A ground floor flat in Weston-super Mare, Somerset in what was once grand Victorian terraced home is now in a state of decay, with damp, leaks, a broken boiler and a kitchen floor at risk of collapse. The ceilings and walls are covered in black mould from years of water leaks and rotten floorboards in the kitchen have had to be supported by MDF to prevent the fridge from falling through the floor. The tenant lives with mould spores and peeling wallpaper and said living in the poor conditions was affecting her mental health. Although the council and her landlord has been informed of the problems, she said that she had been allowed to ‘live in squalor’. Despite complaining to the landlord, a builder occupying the next door flat has no heating or hot water and shares the same issues as the neighbouring property. He has lived in these conditions for two years, suffering chest infections and breathing difficulties. Clothes and other belongings in his bedroom get wet when it rains because of the leaking roof.

However, private landlords argue that they are being forced to carry out the role of ‘social landlords’ where they have more social responsibility for their tenants. A sector that is commercial and profit-driven cannot be expected to become social carers, although some landlords say they effectively take homeless people off the street, allowing their tenants to let friends ‘sofa surf’ and sometimes tolerating their properties to be neglected through tenants not looking after their homes. Current high demand for rented accommodation also enabled unscrupulous ‘slum landlords’ at the bottom end of the property market to neglect their tenants with little recourse.

Tenants ‘stuck’ in these situations feel trapped as council housing waiting lists are so long that the chances of being offered social housing are very slim. They pay rents they can’t really afford for homes that are unhealthy and unsafe. If social housing was available on a larger scale then these people could have the opportunity to live in larger, better equipped council homes with affordable rent, thus leading them out of poverty.

Dr Rugg says there is evidence of ‘growing residual slum tenure’ for low income households living in private rented homes. Welfare reforms, including the new universal credit, and neglect by policymakers is leaving poorer renters in homes that are damp and in need of repair, but high rents meant the only savings they could make were on basic living essentials such as food and heating.

The government backed a review of the rental sector over ten years ago and the latest update confirms the original concerns. Renters now have little option but to take whatever is available to them and in some cases put up with properties in a state of neglect. Often these people have vulnerabilities such as disability, health conditions or young children. Approximately 20% are migrants.

The housing charity, Shelter, estimates there to be 1.1 million households across England on social housing waiting lists. The government’s affordable homes programme only continues until 2022, and only 12,500 new social rent homes are planned. Councils and housing associations cannot meet demand for the number of homes required, and Shelter is calling for more investment. 

The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government says 400,000 affordable housing units will become available within eight years, but should people be forced to live in these conditions in the meantime?

The current crisis has been compared to the era of Victorian slums, with echoes of overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions and an inability to keep up with rental payments. These housing problems resulted from a doubling of the population in England between 1800 and 1850, when farming gave way to factory labour. In fifty years the countryside population reduced from 70% to 50% and cities swelled as people came to find work. Cities that had sustained smaller 18th century populations were unprepared for the sudden pressure to house thousands of new residents, and whole families often lived in one room. Slum clearances were carried out in the late 1800s, when thousands of people were evicted to make the properties more profitable for landlords, although some of these properties were not redeveloped until the 1960s.

If you’re buying an older property that needs a bit of TLC, particularly if it has undergone significant alterations or ‘improvements’ over the years, ask a Chartered Surveyor to overlook the condition and structural elements of the property and provide you with a building survey that details any potential issues you may be taking on.

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