England & Wales Covid-19, Housing and planning

Housing and Covid-19: what next?

Emergency housing measures have been crucial during the Covid-19 crisis. As we transition into the next phase will it be back to business as usual or is there a new will to try and do things differently, asks Neil Merrick

The response of local authorities two months ago following a government call to house rough sleepers was rapid and unprecedented. Phenomenal, according to Jon Sparks, chief executive of the charity Crisis.

Government figures show 90 per cent of rough sleepers that were known to councils in England prior to the pandemic were found accommodation in a matter of days, mostly in hotels. We are talking about 5,500 people – possibly more.

Among other things, this suggests last autumn’s headcount showing 4,266 rough sleepers in England was a serious underestimate. But it also shows that, where there is a will and proper funding, local government can find a way.

Since March, housing has featured prominently in the government’s response to Covid-19. In addition to councils’ ability to reduce homelessness when resources are available, we have also learnt that:

  • housing benefit was never high enough to cover private rents
  • private landlords in England could face further regulation
  • housing is critical to economic recovery
  • Grenfell still looms over housing and wider society.

So where do we go from here? Last month, the House of Commons housing, communities and local government committee called on ministers to end rough sleeping once and for all.

It also warned of a ‘cliff-edge’ facing private renters once a ban on evictions ends on June 25, with emergency legislation needed to stop landlords evicting households with rent arrears due to coronavirus.

Ministers subsequently announced plans to buy provide 3,300 homes for rough sleepers during the next year. This sounds more like a target than a long-term plan. And what about families in hostels and other temporary accommodation who are struggling through the pandemic, sometimes but not always found better housing by local authorities?

Charities and others have argued for years that the homelessness problem results from cuts in housing and welfare since 2010. Now the government has shown that public investment can make a radical difference, it will be interesting to see how it tries to explain things if, post coronavirus, most rough sleepers end up on the streets again.

In the private rented sector, returning local housing allowance (LHA) rates to the 30th percentile has provided some help for tenants on benefit, and demonstrates the futility of freezing LHA rates and other benefits for four years after 2016.

Ministers have spent recent years belatedly acknowledging the need for regulation of private landlords. But legislation to end ‘no-fault’ evictions or introduce minimum three-year tenancies has yet to appear. If there is a rush of evictions in late summer or autumn, tighter regulation of the PRS may be inevitable, if somewhat late.

The housing market, of course, is crucial to the economy. The government also has a target to meet – creating an additional 300,000 homes per year by around 2025. But with house building back underway in England at least, it remains to be seen how effective safe working guidelines are on construction sites, both in terms of their effect on output and in curtailing the spread of Covid-19.

Finally, in the month that marks the third anniversary of the fire at Grenfell Tower, the government wants to be seen to be not just tackling fire safety but resetting the relationship between tenants and landlords. At the same time, the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the stark social and economic disparities within UK society.

In some respects, treatment of tenants in social housing during the pandemic and beyond will be indicative of whether government is willing to see things carry on as before, or if Britain really is to become a more equal society with people on lower incomes gaining better rights and life chances.

Further reading

LGIU briefing: After Covid-19: protecting rough sleepers and renters

LGIU briefing: Housing and Covid-19

 

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