Why are those with mental health problems more likely to be placed in low quality housing?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

We’ve long known that the quality of housing is strongly predictive of mental health. So why do we allow people with mental health problems to be placed in lower quality homes?

Sadly, this is not a theoretical problem. Research published by Shelter in 2013 found that people in poor quality housing are more likely to have experienced mental health problems, for multiple reasons. Firstly, you are more likely to be placed into poor quality housing if you have a mental health problem. What’s more, poor quality housing can contribute further to that problem – can, in fact, be the sole cause for that problem.

However you look at it, the over-riding issue is that housing that does not meet the decent home standard is clearly a driving force in the prevalence and intensity of society’s mental health problems.

You could argue that it’s obvious that the lower end of the housing stock is the cheaper end, and therefore more likely to accommodate those of us in poverty – another factor linked to poor mental health. But there’s much more to it.

Poor housing tends to be found more often in the private rented sector, where landlords are often less experienced, less regulated and, of course, less driven by social purpose than social housing organisations and local authorities. We are in a housing crisis, and we simply do not have enough social housing for everyone who needs it. All too often, some of us are left with no other option but to move into low quality private rented properties.

Mind’s latest research has found another possible explanation for this problem. Around 15 per cent of respondents with mental health problems who had applied for social housing said they had experienced stigma from social housing professionals. Some went as far as to say they felt as though they were being put off from applying.

We often hear from people with mental health problems who say that they find it hard to assert themselves in these situations, and find it challenging to navigate the complex allocations process in the first place.

Of course, being in unsafe or inadequate homes can significantly worsen existing mental health conditions, so life becomes increasingly more difficult to manage. We already know that poor housing costs the NHS on average £1.4bn per year, but I’m not sure we talk enough about the links between the quality of the house and mental health specifically.


According to Shelter’s report, coping with damp or cold problems and living in a home that is in a poor state of repair is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. The report states, too, that the design of a home’s communal spaces can also negatively impact if it discourages adequate social interaction.

Feeling safe and secure is another problem. This may, again, be due to the physical failings of the building, such as unsuitable locks or windows – but it can also go beyond material defects. Northumbria University researchers found that people living in privately rented HMOs (houses of multiple occupation) may also feel vulnerable due to the other tenants sharing the home and the associated potential levels of noise and theft.

These issues are enough to cause poor health by themselves – but for people with existing problems these situations are incredibly worrying.

We are therefore asking the government to consider two key changes. Firstly, in the social housing sector where we know standards of housing are higher and more consistent, we want the government to collect data on mental health among social housing tenants. We need to know that people with mental health problems are treated fairly and not left to feel stigmatised. Currently, this data is not consistently collated.

Secondly, we need to ensure that the private rented sector is more carefully regulated. That way, even when social housing is in short supply, we will be safe in the knowledge that private landlords will offer a consistent level of quality and service.

We need to empower people to take a stand and protect themselves from deteriorating mental health. But in order to do this, we need to ensure that people are aware of their rights – and that both the government and the sector have a clear and accurate picture of just how big a problem this is nationally.

Paul Spencer is policy & campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind.

To find out more about Mind’s housing campaign, and the links between mental health and housing, click here.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.