Housing is a human right

This is my review of Vicky Spratt’s book Tenants, and Daniel Lavelle’s book Down and Out, that appeared in the TLS on 22 July:

Like access to clean, drinkable water, the right to adequate housing is recognized by the United Nations. In the UK, in the space of a generation, this right has been gradually eroded by stark housing inequalities. These inequalities are the product of political will, market ideology and the unintended consequences of both. The forty-year property boom has been so spectacular that many houses now earn more in equity than their occupants do in their jobs. Attempts to help those priced out of the market through optimistically named “affordable housing”, stamp-duty cuts and Help to Buy schemes have only tinkered at the edges of the problem or inflated the market further. Meanwhile, the selling off of council housing has pushed most tenants into the private rented sector, where they have few of the legal protections of tenure available in other European countries.

Two new books by Vicky Spratt and Daniel Lavelle address this intricate ecosystem of housing inequality and the ways in which it is reshaping Britain’s social and economic landscape. Both authors have lived at the sharp end of the problem. When Spratt was seven she learnt never to answer the door to bailiffs, but still her family lost their home. As a young adult she rented tiny box rooms in houses with damp and mould, and lost a fortune in deposits to dodgy landlords. She is now the i Paper’s housing correspondent, writing not about property hotspots and fantasy house hunts, but about the human costs of the housing crisis. Lavelle grew up in care, moving between special boarding schools, foster homes and children’s homes. After leaving university he was homeless for two years, living in tents and hostels, or sleeping on friends’ sofas. In 2019 he co-wrote the “Empty Doorway” series in the Guardian, recording the lives of homeless people who died on the streets.

Tenants is the more densely researched book, being based largely on interviews Spratt conducts with evicted tenants, grassroots activists, support workers and experts in housing law. Down and Out is rawer and more personal, combining Lavelle’s own story with those of the insecurely housed and homeless people he keeps in touch with from his time in care and in hostels. Spratt focuses mainly on tenants facing or experiencing eviction; Lavelle explores a twilight world of sofa-surfing, hostels, night shelters and rough sleeping. Taken together they make plain how paper thin is the divide between the cheaper end of renting and being thrown out on to the street. They show that all it takes to be made homeless is to be surprised by illness, redundancy, a break-up or simply a landlord who decides on a whim that they want you out. Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 allows private landlords to evict tenants at short notice without giving a reason. In the Queen’s Speech of December 2019the government pledged to abolish these “no-fault” evictions, but it has yet to do so.

Both books consider the Thatcher era to be, in Spratt’s words, “ground zero for the mess we are in now”. The 1980 Housing Act gave millions of council house tenants the right to buy their homes, at market discounts of up to 50 per cent. As Spratt points out, this was no rocket boost for homeownership, which in England has increased only slightly from 56.6 per cent in 1980 to 64.6 per cent in 2020. More than 40 per cent of ex-council homes sold under Right to Buy are now owned by private landlords. For Spratt, the key driver of housing inequality was the political decision to outsource the rental sector to unqualified and unregulated individuals, private landlords, many of whom have neither the time nor the resources to manage their properties properly. Nearly half of housing benefit, about £10 billion a year, goes straight to them.

Lavelle, with typical pungency, calls Right to Buy “the greatest heist in modern history, a heist perpetrated under the guise of giving people a stake in public assets they already had a stake in”. In truth, as the more restrained Spratt concedes, Right to Buy was not an original Thatcherite policy. A less heavily discounted version of it appeared in the Labour Party’s election manifesto in 1959. The traditional Conservative policy of encouraging home ownership – Anthony Eden’s espousal in 1946 of a “nation-wide property-owning democracy” – gradually became a cross-party consensus in the postwar years. Labour retained plans for ambitious council house-building, but New Labour shelved them as it tailored its policies to existing homeowners. Between 1998 and 2010, 6,330 council homes were built, just over a third of the total built in 1990 alone, the last year of the Thatcher government.

The 2008 financial crash made things vastly worse in two ways. First, banks wanted bigger deposits and tightened affordability checks for mortgages. They ploughed money into buy-to-let mortgages, with investors being seen as a safer bet than first-time buyers. This pushed many more people into renting. Second, austerity made life more brutal for renters on low incomes. In 2010 George Osborne cut housing benefit and barred single people under thirty-five from claiming it to live in a place of their own. Cuts to local-authority budgets meant less money for hostels, shelters and drug and alcohol dependency services. Councils are now so strapped that they operate what Lavelle calls “a misery contest for housing, a sort of X Factor for the destitute”. While living in a tent along a bridle path in Saddleworth, Greater Manchester, he was told he was not a “priority need” because he did not present with any other vulnerabilities. He was “homeless, but not homeless enough”.

These two effects of the financial crash combined catastrophically with one non-effect: house prices and average rents carried on rising. Adding more renters to the mix drove up demand, and landlords put up prices accordingly. Each chapter of Spratt’s book is preceded with data on the sales and rental market in the area she is writing about, which underlines how hopeless the situation is for many. In Peckham, south London, for instance, the average price of a flat in 2021 was £450,865 and the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom home was £1,394.

Housing inequality bears out Claudius’s maxim that sorrows come “not single spies, but in battalions”. Its victims are invariably dealing with contributory and aggravating factors: casualized work, stagnating wages, welfare cuts and debt. Spratt compares the housing crisis to a virus that “infects its hosts and multiplies to make everything more difficult for them”. Living in cramped, ugly, broken-down surroundings is bad for anyone’s mental health. Damp and mould bring respiratory problems and other illnesses. Those in poor, overcrowded housing suffered most in lockdown, and were more likely to catch and spread Covid. Having to move all the time is stressful and makes it much harder to build support networks. Mindy Fullilove, an American professor of urban policy and health, calls this phenomenon “root shock”, after the trauma a plant experiences when it is moved carelessly to shallow soil.

The homeless people Lavelle speaks to struggle with three big problems: experience of abuse, mental illness, and drug and alcohol addiction. One reason that spice (a synthetic cannabinoid) is so popular on the streets and in hostels, Lavelle says, is that it makes time go quickly. He is open about his own problems. The victim in infancy of a family trauma that he can’t write about for legal reasons, he spent much of his childhood being excluded or expelled from school and attending special educational establishments. The psychiatrist who diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when Lavelle was seven “didn’t need to strain his diagnostic skills too much”. He does not sound like the most compliant hostel dweller, getting into arguments with other residents and with the supervisor who, when Lavelle has the flu, refuses him Strepsils because they contain alcohol. At one point he punches a hole in a windscreen. “If being one’s own worst enemy was a sport, I’d be a Hall of Fame world champion”, he concedes. His point is that the people who end up in hostels and shelters are often hard to handle, but that this should not affect the support they receive. The NHS, after all, does not require character references before admitting you to A&E. Adequate housing is a human right, not a reward for good behaviour.

Lavelle’s bête noire is what he calls “philanthrocapitalism”: the voluntary sector, charities and private companies that have taken over homeless provision in the age of austerity. These organizations are self-regulating because they provide “support” rather than “personal care”. They are not monitored by the Care Quality Commission or Ofsted, even though those they support may be as young as sixteen. Nor do they have to comply with Freedom of Information requests. They can ask hostel residents to work for a meagre weekly allowance rather than the minimum wage, impose strict rules on their behaviour and evict them for minor breaches.

Both Spratt and Lavelle advocate the Housing First model pioneered in the 1990s by Sam Tsemberis, then a clinical psychologist at New York University. Housing First provides homeless people with their own home straightaway, with no preconditions. They are not required to move gradually up the ladder from a night shelter to more secure housing. They do not need to get a job first, or obey someone else’s house rules, or abstain from drugs and alcohol. Only when they have been housed are their other needs addressed. Tsemberis tells Lavelle that Housing First is more about providing treatment for addiction and mental health problems than about housing, but says “you can’t really talk about the treatment unless the person is housed, otherwise the whole conversation is only about survival”. Housing First has been successful in the American states and cities where it has been rolled out, as well as in Finland, the only EU country where homelessness is falling.

These books argue convincingly that investing in more social housing would benefit everyone, not just those who live in it. It would ease pressure on the rental sector and make private landlords compete with an alternative source of good-quality and secure homes. It would take the heat out of the housing market and start to counter the inheritocracy in which older people sitting on equity pass it on to their children. It would alleviate other forms of injustice, since housing inequality falls disproportionately on Black, Asian and minority ethnic tenants. It would make the kind of housing safety scandal exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire less likely. And it would reduce homelessness, which places immense strain on the police, the criminal justice system, the NHS and councils.

More subtly but profoundly, investing in social housing would soften, for millions of people, that repeated blow to their self-esteem that comes from being beholden to someone else. It is fatiguing and confidence-sapping to live with stained mattresses and broken shower curtains; to show potential buyers, your would-be evictors, around your home; to be fearful of provoking your landlord by making a fuss about repairs; to feel stuck in a limbo of enforced adolescence, waiting for grown-up life to begin. All this makes for what Spratt calls “an uneasy and constant refrain, your life sung to the tune of the privilege of others”. People waste hulking portions of their lives looking for rented rooms, dealing with bad landlords, extricating themselves from nightmare house shares and moving their stuff from one room to the next. What could be achieved with all that energy if it were expended more creatively?

Perhaps something is stirring. Spratt highlights the work of the community union ACORN and organizations such as Generation Rent and Safer Renting, which fight for tenants’ rights. She reports on eviction resistance bootcamps and renters fighting back against gentrifying regeneration schemes. In 2016 she fronted a successful campaign to get letting fees banned and deposits capped. Ultimately, though, her book leaves you with the sense that nothing much will change while the haves (homeowners and investors) outnumber the have-nots (renters and the homeless).

Housing inequality has barely been mentioned in recent election campaigns. Spratt is told that when David Cameron was prime minister, the phrase “housing crisis” was banned in government. In the early 2010s, while working as a junior producer on Newsnight, she suggested covering more housing stories, but her editor – homeowning and privately educated – told her that they were “just not that interesting”. The same kind of willed obliviousness allows newspapers to place the blame for the housing crisis on immigrants, or on young people who are buying too many avocados or espressos to save for a deposit. In the face of such simplistic explanations, these books enrich our impoverished sociological imagination. Their case studies are as bleakly memorable as Raymond Carver stories. A Brighton man sleeps in his work van at the height of the pandemic, after losing his flat just before the second lockdown. A woman evicted from her flat in Peckham, who has recently attempted suicide, is told that if she does not accept a flat in Croydon she will have made herself “intentionally homeless” and forfeited any right to support. When she asks how she is meant to get to work or take her daughter to school, the placement officer tells her to “get up earlier”. Lavelle spends a wet and freezing November night wandering around Oldham, making endless circuits of the shopping centre until it closes and “laughing maniacally about what a parody my life had become”, before huddling underneath a bridge.

Both books retell the story of Gyula Remes, the Hungarian national who, just before Christmas 2018, died in the underpass leading from the Houses of Parliament to Westminster Tube station. At forty-three, he was one year short of the mean age at death of a homeless person in England and Wales. This story received wide coverage because it seemed shocking that MPs could routinely walk past the effects of the austerity for which many of them had voted. But it is not really so shocking – because MPs are no different from the rest of us, we who avert our eyes from the daily disaster playing out in the pile of blankets on the other side of a pavement. These books succeed in reinserting a whole person into that human-shaped heap: someone with a name, a family, a life history that led them there and a body just as achy as ours would be if our bed were made of stone.

One thought on “Housing is a human right

  1. Beautifully written as I have found all your writing which reaches parts not often accessed. To give a context to my comments I share a house my mother is a tenant of, the rent being paid for by housing benefit. The tragedy is that my mother did own a house, bought and paid for and yet she could not hang on to it for emotional reasons too many to go into here. I can relate to much that you have written and yet I balk at the notion of a housing right; I can’t help but remember that rights entail duty bearers and so we enter the political mire.


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