Nearly half of Britons are living in sub-quality housing, and other stories

The good old days: London slums, 1901. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Britain's last Labour government has often been criticised for the failure of its housing policies – and in terms of ensuring this country was building enough homes, it undeniably did drop the ball.

But it's not quite true to say it had no housing policy whatsoever: it's simply that it was focused on quality, not quantity. Its flagship housing programme was the 2001 pledge to ensure that all social housing met its "decent homes standard" – decent kitchens, bathrooms, generally not falling to bits – by 2010. To meet this goal, it spent billions – more than £37bn, at the last count – on improving public and quasi-public housing. Private housing, it was assumed would look after itself.

Today, housing charity Shelter has published a major report laying out its Living Home Standard – a sort of housing equivalent of the living wage, which defines the quality of home you should look for if you want a half-decent quality of life. Its headline finding is that 43 per cent of Britain's population are living in sub-quality homes, which serves to bring home two big points:

1) The Labour government was right to think that quality mattered as much as quantity;

2) It was wrong to assume that private landlords would automatically ensure that their property was in a good state just because they owned it.

To compile the report, Shelter commissioned pollster Ipsos MORI to survey the public on what they imagined to be an acceptable standard for a home. They used five criteria: affordability, decent conditions, stability, space and neighbourhood.

Click to expand.

Some of these criteria are arguably begging the question slightly. We know that housing is expensive at the moment – that is, if not the entire problem, then a bloody big element of it. We probably shouldn't be surprised, then, that if you judge “decent” housing based on its price, a significant minority of people (27 per cent, in fact) won’t meet your criteria.

If anything, in fact, that sounds low. My suspicion is that it'd be much higher, were it not that most people living in overpriced housing are owner-occupiers, so get to enjoy the capital appreciation rather than freaking out about rising rents.

Similarly, the private-rented sector has ballooned over the last two decades, and tenancies tend to be short term – so, if you view unstable housing as a problem, them a lot of people will be suffering from that, too. Some 10 per cent of people live in homes that fail on stability criteria.

None of this, however, makes the findings any less worrying. Nor, come to that, does the fact that the people most likely to be living in poor quality homes are exactly the ones you think they are. It's twice as common among the 25-34 age group (58 per cent) as it is among pensioners (27 per cent). It affects relatively few people who own outright (20 percent), rather more who own with a mortgage (38 per cent) – and vast numbers of those who live in the private rented sector (69 per cent), which suggests that 20 years of policies that encouraged buy-to-let landlords into an under-regulated market might not have been such a good idea after all.

Oh, and when you break the results down geographically, the situation is obviously far worse in London, where 73 per cent of people live in sub-quality housing, than it is anywhere else.

Click to expand.

One result that is surprising: the proportion of poor quality homes in the private rented sector (69 per cent) isn't really much worse than the proportion rented from local authorities (68 per cent) or housing associations (66 per cent). Which suggests that, six years after Labour left government, those Decent Homes aren't looking so decent any more.

Building a load more housing will address some of these concerns – on affordability, security, and, perhaps, by relieving over-crowding, space. But it won't magically improve the condition of homes that already exist. If we're ever going to solve this crisis we need to invest in both quality and quantity.

Here’s one more infographic that Shelter produced to promote the report. Don't eat it all at once.

Click to expand.


Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.