‘Stay at home’: how poor housing adds to the misery of COVID-19 lockdown

by Dillon Newton

Image of terraced houses
Photo credit: freeimageslive.co.uk / creator

I noticed the participant’s voice was cracking and the presence of long silences after my questions. “I can sense you’re getting upset”, I said. “I think I’m just sharing my experience in terms of what it’s been like. I’m not getting upset; I’m just saying it as it is”, the participant replied. I sensed they had needed a moment for composure in the middle of our telephone interview. This was similar to conversations with other participants, in which people had become emotionally unsettled when talking through their experiences of COVID-19 lockdown, and the many weeks and months they had spent contained in poor housing conditions.

A new report from the University of Huddersfield provides insights into how people coped living with poor quality housing during the first UK national lockdown. The report is the result of research carried out with private-renters and owner occupiers between May and July 2020. We spoke to fifty households in the north of England: 40 in the private-rented sector and 10 owner-occupiers, as well as eight housing professionals working on a range of issues. Whilst poor housing quality in the UK is a national problem, the situation in the north of England is particularly acute. The Smith Institute estimate that around 354,000 private-rented properties and a million owner-occupied homes fall below the Decent Homes Standard. This is due to a concentration of pre-1945, low-quality housing, an issue made worse by almost half containing a person over 60 or with a long-term health condition. The impact of poor housing on mental and physical health is well-known. Yet the issue of containment in substandard housing as part of the government’s strategy to control the spread of COVID-19 is exposing people to the sharp end of the UK’s housing inequalities.

Two months into a national lockdown framed with the government message to ‘stay at home’, the residents we interviewed talked about the now grinding experience of sustained containment in low-quality housing environments. For some, issues centered on cosmetic and aesthetic faults that had become more noticeable. Others discussed feeling cramped and overwhelmed in small and overcrowded properties – an issue acute for people with little or no access to private outdoor space and who were forced to endure record summer temperatures in properties prone to overheating.

For many, their conditions had worsened. Renters living with poor housing conditions prior to the pandemic described how issues such as damp and mould, faulty heating systems and inadequate facilities and services had further deteriorated. Even though repair works were permitted at the time the study was conducted, many suspected their landlords were now using lockdown as an excuse to postpone and sometimes cancel long-awaited repairs. Many renters wished their landlords had been more sympathetic about their conditions with some suggesting landlords were now refusing to arrange repairs. Such disputes were underpinned by fears of revenge eviction or deliberate rent increases if they complained too heavily – notwithstanding the fear and stress of allowing others from outside the household into their dwellings to try and resolve issues.

Households recounted a range of coping strategies they had developed to manage their housing conditions and lockdown more generally. Both owner occupiers and renters discussed the choice they now faced of waiting and trying to cope on a day-to-day basis, or using their incomes and savings to address repair issues and upgrade their housing conditions. This was a choice made difficult by the wider context of job losses and drops in household income.

We asked participants to submit photographs to help visualise their lockdown stories. We were provided with evidence of damp and mould that had resulted from recurring leaks in dwellings neither warm nor weather-tight. For residents living in cold and damp conditions, the development of chesty coughs had taken on a new dimension against a backdrop of COVID-19. In addition, many reported the development of insomnia, anxiety and depression brought about by a range of factors that included their immediate housing environments, feelings of isolation, worries about employment and financial situations as well as concerns about the pandemic itself. This was particularly acute for older adults and participants with health conditions who were ‘shielding’ and remained largely isolated indoors.

As we enter the final months of 2020 – an uncertain and often miserable year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic – prospects for residents of deprived housing appear bleak. Housing in the UK has long been considered in a state of crisis, with long-term quality issues found to be intensified by the pandemic. At the base of a second wave, the UK is now being asked to spend more time indoors. Of paramount concerns for the people we interviewed was the affordability of energy costs over winter. As temperatures drop and the nights draw in, many likely face an impossible situation of ‘heat or eat’ – a choice of turning on central heating systems or putting food on tables. Whilst some of the participants described facing similar situations in the past, this was an entirely new state-of-affairs for some who had lost their job, experienced sudden drops in income and were in precarious employment situations:

“I’ve never missed my rent payment, I’ve not fallen into rent arrears because it’s something I’m really scared to get into, so I would rather find other ways to deal with finances, like having two meals a day or just talking to the utility people to say if we could rearrange payments”.

In our report, we call for urgent action this winter to mitigate the likely dire impacts of poor housing, insecurity of tenure, precarious employment and retracting state support. Beyond winter, our research lends support to the Renters Reform Bill and calls for private-rented lets to undergo regular standardised inspections, possibly in the form of the ‘Property MOT’. For owner-occupiers, we highlight the need for expanded access to government schemes such as the Green Homes Grant which enable homeowners to upgrade and improve their properties. Moreover, we are calling for greater funding for Home Improvement Agencies that allow vulnerable and older adults to live with independence, safety and dignity. What our report amplifies most clearly are connection between the places we call home and our health, security and sense of wellbeing. These factors cannot be untangled from lockdown, with lockdown showing in the starkest of terms that rundown homes result in rundown people.

Dillon Newton (@dillon_newton) is a Research Associate at the University of Huddersfield.