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Coronavirus has exposed our broken housing market

It would take something special to shift housing from its customary place at the top of the list of Londoner’s worries. Unfortunately for us all, that is exactly what has happened this year.

The understandable focus on coronavirus and coronavirus-induced recessions may have relegated housing to a secondary concern for Londoners overall, but on closer inspection we can see how the pandemic has exposed, and exacerbated, some of the fundamental problems with the way housing works in London.

The discussion in our session between Indy Johar of Dark Matter Labs, Fiona Fletcher-Smith of L&Q, and Caitlin Wilkinson of Generation Rent, and chaired by Olivia Harris of Dolphin Living, got into the detail of what some of these are.

While we may have become desensitised to a barrage of terrifying figures this year, some of the data on housing which was cited in the discussion still has the capacity to shock. Average deposits in London of £80-100,000, rent costs taking up an average of close to 50 per cent of pay, around 250,000 people on the waiting list for council housing, and almost one in 20 households living in temporary accommodation in Newham. All of this speaks to a situation which is profoundly broken.

The insecurity and hardship created by living in such an unaffordable city has only been made worse by the pandemic. Between February and May of this year, the number of people living in private rented accommodation who are receiving Universal Credit doubled, taking it to 40 per cent of the entire sector. The number of tenants in the sector in rent arrears is predicted to treble over the next 12 months, rising to almost 700,000. Despite an extension in notice periods, the ban on evicting renters who have accrued arrears due to coronavirus has expired.

And this is to say nothing of the conditions of people’s housing. Overcrowding, a lack of outdoor amenities, poorly managed and dilapidated HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) were all problems pre-coronavirus, but are that much harder to bear since we’ve been confined indoors for large parts of the year. As working from home looks likely to stay, we’re finding out how poorly equipped our living spaces are for this use.

And our capacity to respond to these issues has been eroded. The ability for councils to regulate, or even register, who operates as a landlord in their area has been limited by the shrinking of local government budgets over the last 10 years. Despite an increasing desire to intervene, as councils incur significant costs, and also lose income as a result of the pandemic, it’s very likely that they will continue to be held back.

Big social landlords and developers are also having their operations changed by the pandemic. The rightful focus on making sure that people live in homes suitable for a pandemic era means that money which would have previously been directed towards financing new build, is now being used to maintain existing stock. This will only add to the backlog of homes needed to meet existing need in the city. For all the talk of falling rents in ventral London, this was attributed to second homeowners putting their properties back on the market as they retreated to the countryside for lockdown. In many outer London neighbourhoods, rents are still increasing this year. So far, so gloomy.

What did the panel make of the government’s proposals for planning reform, often presented as the solution to these issues then? In short, not much. While there has been much discussion about the potential for excess office space in the centre to be converted to housing, the track record of Permitted Development Rights in providing good quality homes does not bode well. And similarly, the desire to prioritise home ownership in planning and finance over affordable rent was dismissed as not actually targeting our real need in the city, as well as being impractical.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all was made to the underlying assumptions and structures that shape our housing market. In essence, the problem is that the UK’s growth strategy is based on maintaining the value of land and property. Treating homes as wealth-generating assets distorts our ability to meet housing need. Until we steer investment into more productive ways of generating wealth, we will be locked in this trap, with all the human problems it causes. A powerful argument to end on, as we look into the future and consider what ‘rebuilding’ actually means.

Watch the session

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Joe Wills is Senior Researcher at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.