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Residential / Healthy Cities

COVID-19 lockdown reveals massive generational gap in living conditions

By Andrew Sansom 03 Jul 2020 0

The pandemic has exposed a huge generational divide in living conditions across Britain, with young people locked down with half the space and three times the risk of damp compared with older age groups, while renters have seen their mental health deteriorate.

This is according to new research from the Resolution Foundation. Its report, ‘Lockdown living’, funded by the Nuffield Foundationexplores the issue of household living conditions through a generational lens, and uncovers huge inequalities in housing quality that have been bought to the fore during lockdown.

With older age groups having had more time to accumulate housing than younger generations, the report notes that their homes are twice as spacious – 50m2 per person for those aged 65-plus compared to 26m2 for 16- to 24-year-olds.

The scale of wider inequalities in living conditions revealed – including damp, overcrowding, garden access, and derelict neighbourhoods – are a cause for concern as the UK enters a reopening phase that will see many people continue to work from home, alongside the risks of further local or national lockdowns.

The report finds that young people (aged 16-24) in England are three times more likely to live in a damp home than older age groups (aged 65-plus), and more than one-and-a-half times as likely to have no garden, or to live in a derelict or congested neighbourhood.

Income and ethnicity are also shown to play a major role in determining the quality of household living conditions. Twenty per cent of children from a low-income household have spent lockdown in an overcrowded home, compared to just three per cent of children in higher-income households. Close to 10 per cent are growing up in damp conditions, while six per cent of children from low-income backgrounds do not have internet access in their homes.

Almost 40 per cent of under-16s from black, Asian and minority ethnic households have no obvious garden, compared to 17 per cent of white children, and 23 per cent live in a poor-quality environment, the report finds.

The Foundation also notes that housing improvements have disproportionately benefitted older age groups. In the late 1980s, households aged 65-plus were more likely to live in damp housing than young people. Today, they are far less likely to experience these poor living conditions than younger age groups.

Not all living conditions have improved over time however. Overcrowding has risen across all age groups, with children (12 per cent) and young adults (8 per cent) by far the most likely to live in overcrowded conditions.

The inequalities in living conditions uncovered in the Resolution Foundation’s research have had a material effect on people’s wellbeing during the crisis, including their mental health.

It finds that private renters (the most common housing tenure for young people) were already more likely to experience poor mental health than homeowners before the crisis (21 per cent, compared to 19 per cent), even controlling for other characteristics known to effect wellbeing, such as age, pay and relationship status. This gap has almost doubled to four percentage points (22 per cent and 18 per cent) since lockdown.

The Resolution Foundation says that this stark generational divide in living conditions in part reflects the result of decades of policy failure to build new homes and regulate to uphold decent standards in housing quality, particularly in the private rented sector. And it believes these stark divides should be front of mind for policy makers in the months ahead, as decisions on the nature of reopening, or of any second lockdown, are taken.

Fahmida Rahman, research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Britain is beset by a huge generational living conditions divide, which COVID-19 has brought to the fore. Millions of children and young adults have found themselves spending far more of their time in overcrowded homes with no garden access.

“These problems have been particularly acute for low-income and black, Asian and minority ethnic households who experience the worst living conditions of all. And while many housing quality issues such as damp have improved over time, others – such as overcrowding – have actually got worse.”

Alex Beer, welfare programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, added: “Policy makers must address the longstanding systemic problems with the quantity and quality of homes in the UK, as well as consider actions that could be taken in the short term to alleviate the pressures on the households worst affected.”

Health problems linked to poor housing

The report chimes with a new YouGov survey, which finds that nearly a third (31 per cent) of adults in Britain – 15.9m people – have had mental or physical health problems because of the condition of, or lack of space in, their home during lockdown. This includes people seeking medical help or taking medication for mental health issues, people not getting enough sleep, people experiencing depression or stress, as well as those falling physically ill or catching coronavirus.

Five housing organisations – the Association of Retained Council Housing, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Crisis, the National Federation of ALMOs, and the National Housing Federation – have now launched a campaign to warn that the country’s housing crisis is making lockdown even more unbearable for millions. Their ‘Homes at the Heart’ campaign is urging government to put funding for new and existing social homes at the heart of the country’s recovery from coronavirus.

The YouGov survey of 4116 people and new analysis of the English Housing Survey reveals that:

  • 3.7m people are living in overcrowded homes, including 1.6m children;
  • 30,000 people are spending lockdown in a home that consists of one room, and more than 3600 children are spending lockdown in a home made up of two rooms;
  • 62,580 families are living in temporary accommodation, the highest number for 13 years; and
  • millions more people across the country are spending lockdown in homes that are damp and mouldy, insecure, or pushing them in to debt.

The lack of space and cramped living conditions has played a big role in causing health problems for these huge numbers of people during lockdown. More than half of those (52 per cent) who said their homes weren’t big enough said they’d suffered from health problems. Specifically:

  • more than one in 10 of all British adults said they felt depressed during lockdown because of a lack of space in their home;
  • one in 20 of everyone who said they had a lack of space said this had led them to seek medical help or take medication for their mental health; and
  • almost a fifth of those in cramped conditions said they hadn’t been able to get enough sleep because of the lack of space.

Impact on ethnic minorities

These findings follow a recent review from Public Health England into why BAME people have been worst hit by the pandemic, which found that issues of overcrowding and housing conditions contributed to the increased spread of coronavirus among these communities.

Gavin Smart, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has, more than ever, highlighted the importance of having a place we can call home – a place where we feel safe and secure, that has the space families need to work, learn and play. Lockdown has shown us this simply isn’t the case for many people.

“We believe funding for new and existing social homes should be at the heart of the country’s recovery from the virus, helping to tackle homelessness and overcrowding, providing secure and affordable housing for those who have worked tirelessly to keep the country going during lockdown, and ensuring the delivery of homes fit for the future.”

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, remarked: “Homes have been the centre of our lives during the pandemic and as the country starts to reopen, the Government must put homes at the heart of the country’s recovery too.”

John Bibby, chief executive of the Association of Retained Council Housing, commented: “The COVID-19 pandemic has once again brought the connection between poor, overcrowded housing and health and wellbeing into stark relief. A legacy of the pandemic must be a renewed determination to ensure that everyone has access to a decent, affordable home.

He added: “The housing market is broken, and if the prime minister is to deliver his promise to unite and level up the country then we must fix the broken housing market and build more social rented housing to ensure that everyone has access to high quality, affordable homes built to excellent design standards.

“Investing in social housing infrastructure will not only help tackle health inequalities but will save the taxpayer money in the long run and provide an immediate economic stimulus as we emerge from the impact of the pandemic.”