Covid spread as overcrowding doubles among private renters in England

The proportion of private renters living in overcrowded homes has doubled during the pandemic, adding to concerns that living conditions helped the virus spread, particularly amonƒg ethnic minorities.

Figures out last week from the English Housing Survey’s household resilience study found that the proportion in November and December last year was 15%, up from 7% a year earlier. That means more than one in seven private renters are enduring overcrowding, compared with only one in 50 homeowners.

Overcrowded housing is believed to be linked to higher rates of coronavirus infection because it makes social distancing and self-isolation harder. Research last year by the Health Foundation and University College London’s Institute of Health Equity pointed to a relationship between overcrowding and Covid death rates.

“I’m surprised and quite shocked by the doubling,” said Dr Jessica Allen, deputy director of the Institute of Health Equity. “I would imagine it’s to do with people bringing family members in, households enlarging in order to look after people through Covid, people returning from abroad and students.”

The report attributed the rise in overcrowding to growing household sizes. “Almost a fifth (17%) of private rented households have increased in size by at least one person since 2019-20, compared with 9% of owner-occupiers and 10% of social renters,” it said.

Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent Sage committee, said: “You can’t socially distance and self-isolate in overcrowded housing. There’s simply no room.”

She said overcrowding was a particular risk in intergenerational households that included either elderly and clinically vulnerable people, or frontline workers, who were more likely to bring home the virus.

“You have to provide extra housing for people, as in extra accommodation for people if they need to self-isolate. If it’s required, if they say ‘yes I need it’, you have to provide it. And we know it’s happened in other places like New York, in some of the Asian countries, that accommodation has been provided if people don’t have enough space.”

The study, published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, is based on a survey of 4,304 households. The sub-sample of private renters is 500, meaning the margin of error is larger, but the corresponding survey figures are not marked as unreliable in the dataset.

A home is defined as overcrowded if there are not enough bedrooms to avoid undesirable sharing, given the ages and relationships of those using them. The study estimates that 570,000 private renters in England were in overcrowded housing in late 2020 – part of a total of 1.3 million across all housing tenures, up from 829,000 in 2019-20. Across all tenures, 23% of ethnic minority households were overcrowded, compared with 3% of white households.

“The risk [of mortality from Covid] for British Pakistani people increased in the second wave. And we think the reason is that they’re more likely to be in overcrowded housing,” Haque told the Observer. “What really needs to be rammed home is that the government knows this, but has done nothing about it. For me the biggest outrage is that the rate of mortality increased for British Pakistani households.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, says millions have been pushed into expensive and unstable private renting.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, says millions have been pushed into expensive and unstable private renting. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “A chronic lack of social housing is at the heart of our housing emergency. It has pushed millions into expensive and unstable private renting over the years. Couple this with stubbornly low housing benefit and you can understand why so many renters cannot afford the space they need. The pandemic has only made things worse as job losses have meant many have downsized or moved in with friends and family, and others have had to endure dreadful conditions just to keep a roof over their head. This year has exposed the real cost of pricing so many renters out of a decent home.”

A housing ministry spokesperson said: “We recognise the pandemic has caused unprecedented changes to people’s lives, including the size of households with many people moving in with friends and family members. That is why we have provided a range of guidance to support those living in overcrowded, shared or multigenerational housing and a £352bn financial package to keep millions in work and temporarily bolstering the welfare safety net, which is supporting renters to stay in their homes.

“Robust protections are still in place for renters, including longer notice periods of six months and banning bailiff enforcement of evictions for all but the most serious cases.”


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