This article first appeared on The Times Redbox on 6 October 2020, and has been reposted with their permission.
There’s an almost tangible stress and frustration in the air as large parts of the country sink back into lockdown. Surely it’s impossible by now to ignore that many will be stuck in cramped, rundown homes they struggle to afford. And that too many don’t even have a home, and face locking down homeless in temporary accommodation.
It may be the necessary public health response, but it was never inevitable that we should go through a pandemic during a housing emergency.
It’s our national failure to build social homes over the last 40 years that’s led us to this point, pushing too many families into expensive, inadequate private rentals and forcing up homelessness till the system is at breaking point.
New research we’re publishing today illustrates the desperate impact this had in the national lockdown, with two million renters saying their home made it harder to cope. It’s these private renters who will be approaching the next wave of lockdowns with apprehension and fear, and frankly with no hope of rescue.
At Shelter, we’ve heard from families worried about their babies crawling on floors they know have rats, the mould in their toddler’s bed, the illegally installed boiler they’re afraid to complain about.
If we are going to have any hope of ending the housing hell that so many are enduring, as we build back from the pandemic, we must start by building the social rented homes that will give hundreds of thousands of families hope of a way out. The Chancellor might have paused big financial decisions to get a better view of the economy, but this crisis and this need for investment can’t be put on hold.
The government has committed to building more social homes through the Affordable Homes Programme. The Prime Minister has recognised that we desperately need these homes. But he’s not acting on it: current plans are timid and inadequate, only likely to provide one social home for every 96 households on the waiting list.
The reality of what’s on offer is a huge let down for the people caught in the fallout from the explosion as the pandemic hit the housing crisis.
A targeted rescue package of £12.2 billion over two years could quadruple the number of new social homes built each year. Funding this programme could kickstart the post Covid recovery and reverse years of decline in social housebuilding.
Building our way out will take courage. But it is investment that will pay back. It is the only sustainable way to reduce the spiralling housing benefits bill, continually inflated as more and more people are forced into unaffordable private renting, and forecast to hit a colossal £24 billion per year in the next five years, and that’s not even accounting for the pandemic. Why are we pouring taxpayers’ money into private landlords’ pockets, instead of investing it in homes for those who need them?
The Chancellor rightly moved quickly to protect jobs. We now need a rescue package for homes. By making a smart investment in the homes we need today, we can build our way out of this pandemic and earn the right to say we managed an appalling crisis with good sense, justice and a focus on the country’s future.