Nearly fifteen million people in England are living in bad housing – that’s three people in ten. This figure – revealed in a recent Shelter report prepared by NatCen – is made up of 3.6 million children, 9.2 million working age adults and 2 million pensioners.
By bad housing we mean homes that are overcrowded, or fail to meet the government’s ‘Decent Homes Standard’. The basic requirements of the standard are that homes must:
- not pose a risk to the health and safety of their occupants (in accordance with the Housing Health and Safety Rating System);
- be in a reasonable state of repair;
- have reasonably modern kitchens and bathrooms;
- and provide decent thermal comfort.
The effects of bad housing on health and wellbeing are significant. Our report reveals that 26 per cent of working age adults living in bad housing suffer poorer health – substantially more than those in good housing (17 per cent). Children are particularly more likely to suffer the health effects of bad housing. Only five per cent of children in good housing have poorer health – this figure doubles for children living in bad housing.
Lots of interlinked personal, social and environmental factors contribute to health inequalities, so it can be difficult to isolate the exact impact of bad housing. Poor conditions such as overcrowding, damp, mould, infestations and a lack of thermal comfort have all be shown to be associated with physical illnesses including respiratory problems, eczema, hypothermia and heart disease. The report also demonstrates lower levels of good mental health among people living in bad housing.
The effects of poor conditions are particularly acute in the private rented sector where 40 per cent of private tenants – 3.3 million people – are living in bad housing. And, with almost a third of renting households now families, around 845,000 children are living in bad private rented housing.
Privately rented homes are likely to have damp, mould and electrical hazards or suffer from excessive cold or heat. Over the last ten years, the proportion of private rented homes classified as bad has decreased – but this is largely due to the lots of new built homes going into the sector: the actual numbers of people living in poor conditions had not declined at the same rate.
Bad rented housing disproportionately affects lower income households. Dwindling social rented stock coupled with the new powers for local authorities to discharge their homelessness duty into the private rented sector has led to a dramatic increased in the numbers of lower income households renting privately. In 2001, 10 per cent of PRS households were living below the poverty line. A decade later it was 18 per cent. The very people most likely to be living in bad housing at the lower end of the PRS are those with the least bargaining power to demand better conditions, and so are least likely to raise a problem with their landlord.
Renters lack bargaining power because there is almost nothing to protect them from retaliatory eviction and non-renewal of a tenancy if they complain, and because there are a disproportionate number of tenants chasing each rental property. Tenants know that they are easily replaceable if they complain about poor conditions.
This is why Shelter welcomes the Government’s recent announcement of a wide ranging review of the current system “to ensure there is a robust framework in place to check that renters’ homes are safe”. The review should boost the rights of tenants and increase the penalties for renting out bad housing, so that the consumer power of tenants across the sector is improved. Only then will renters be able to fight back against bad housing.
 English Household Report 2011-12