‘Tenants’: how we can tackle Britain's housing emergency

‘Tenants’: how we can tackle Britain's housing emergency

In her new book, Vicky Spratt explores the country’s housing crisis in human terms and calls for radical action to address a broken system.

When Kelly and her family were evicted from their home in Bromley, they were offered last-minute rehousing to Peckham through the council. Though Peckham is in Southwark, a nearby borough of London, it’s not exactly close – about a 40-minute drive away. What Kelly never imagined was that the move would indirectly play a huge part in a family tragedy – her son Morgan’s death. 

Morgan, who was asthmatic, was always given a special combination inhaler by his GP in Bromley. The GP surgery was across from their house; so if the family ever needed urgent help, they knew where to go. When the family relocated, Kelly asked their new GP in Peckham for the same inhaler but was given a prescription for a different one by accident. “I just thought, she’s the GP, she must know what she’s doing,” she says. At first, everything seemed fine, but a few days later, Morgan started wheezing again. 

Though Kelly gave him the inhaler, his condition didn’t improve. A few hours later, he passed away. Somehow, what began as a housing issue had turned into unimaginable grief over a premature death.

This story is one of many featured in award-winning housing journalist Vicky Spratt’s new book Tenants: The People on the Frontline of Britain’s Housing Emergency. Kelly’s account illustrates how the country’s housing crisis is creating ‘root shock’ – when people who are evicted or displaced from their homes experience physical insecurity or psychiatric trauma as a result. It highlights the irreversible effects Britain’s housing crisis is having on the country’s marginalised individuals and communities. 

Spratt not only provides an overview of Britain’s housing history, the dismantling of the welfare state and deeply analyses of the plethora of issues renters are facing today, but she also gives solutions – many of which have been proven to work. It was only a few years ago when the UK government’s ‘Everyone In’ initiative practically ended homelessness in the space of two weeks, she writes. Plus, Scandinavian countries like Finland are implementing ‘Housing First’ programmes which prioritise ending homelessness to transform people’s lives. Readers are urged to think big, think radically and act fast. 

To mark the release of the book, I sat down with the author to chat about Britain’s housing emergency, party politics and the importance of utopian thinking. 

You’ve been writing about housing for a long time; why was this the issue that interested you?

Home is the centre of your life, and I found that through the lens of the home, you can explore economic injustice more broadly, as well as other inequalities and pressures that people face. 

I love how you formatted the book, where most of the issues are told through real stories of real people. Do you think storytelling is an essential tool in dismantling the housing crisis?

So many of the big societal problems we face today are talked about all the time. But when you’re constantly reading figures about how terrible something is, that millions of people are stuck in terrible housing, or that hundreds of thousands of homes are in disrepair, after a certain point, you become desensitised to those figures into the scale of the problem. With the book, I wanted to give the stories space to breathe. The hope for me is that readers can understand what the housing crisis means in human terms. That is what’s getting lost in the conversation, and perhaps that’s why we have a housing crisis.

In all the years you’ve been reporting on housing, what for you has been one of the most shocking aspects of the crisis?

All of it shocks me because we’re talking about people’s lives. The one place you should feel safe is your home, and for so many people in Britain today, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, that is just not the case. There is no one aspect we have with housing that I could pull out as being the most shocking because I think it’s all a national disgrace. Why can we not house people? We know how to fix this; build social housing, regulate rents, and do something about house price inflation. It’s not that difficult. This is entirely a political choice.

I was shocked at how little I knew about the history of the housing crisis and the different ways it affects our society now when I was reading your book. Do you think there is a lack of understanding and education around the housing crisis?

I was taught about the welfare state at school and became interested in it very early on, but what I think we’re not taught about enough is what happened with ‘Right To Buy’ and the unravelling of the welfare state since. Suppose people knew about the origins of the welfare state and social housing, and they knew that 100 years ago, politicians thought it was so important that people had safe, secure, stable and affordable housing that they went on a national drive to build our scale. In that case, they might start asking more questions about current governance and wondering why they’re not doing that. For that to happen, something fundamental has to shift in terms of how people engage with housing and more broadly, economic equality.

In my experience of going around the country and talking to people in situations where they’re experiencing housing stress, it’s not that they don’t care or that they don’t know the stuff. They’re well informed. But when you’re battling to survive from one day to the next, worrying about money, losing your home, worrying about your kids, you won’t necessarily have time to be super politically active. 

I have also met many homeowners and people who are not entirely self-interested. Many of them worry about what housing issues are doing to society and realise that this basic fundamental instability is causing so many other social issues, and reinforcing other inequalities, which ultimately are bad for everyone. It’s also essential to understand why people want to own a home so much today. We live in a world that feels so precarious; who doesn’t want one thing that is stable, that they can control?

You write about the importance of imagination and utopian thinking and also mention Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and how they were laughed at at the time, but began to be taken seriously during the pandemic. In your opinion, how important is it to think positively and reject doom?

The 1942 Beveridge Report was such a revolutionary document that changed so many people’s lives that even 50 years before in the Victorian era would have been unthinkable. The way that Beberidge captured the public imagination, shows that change can happen really quite quickly in the grand scheme of things… [It] created an environment where people were looking for new ideas and were receptive to change because they knew the status quo didn’t work.

The pandemic had a similar effect in that it exposed the issues within the benefits system, housing and the other aspects of our lives. I don’t think there is a single person in my life who isn’t questioning [living standards], their relationship with work, consumption or socialising. We’re in a place where this kind of imaginative thinking is not only possible but crucial. So hope and optimism, as well as looking for solutions, can be incredibly radical and practical. The more I understand from the experts I get to interview about the economy or housing, the more hopeful I am that it can all be overhauled and that things can change. 

Many of the ideas on housing in Corbyn’s manifesto were overseen by John Healey, who then was the Shadow Housing Minister and had been for a very long time. I mean, John is a true expert, and really understands housing. Those ideas are now being discussed at the Department For Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

You mention unions a bit in your book and I was wondering where you think they fit in when it comes to ending the housing crisis?

I would say renters’ unions do incredible and vital work in supporting people in their communities who are facing housing stress. However, to me, [the work they do] seems like a symptom [of the housing crisis] and not a long-term solution, because the issues people face shouldn’t be happening in the first place. In terms of community organising, and helping people understand their rights when they’re being evicted – unions are vital. But let’s not forget that we used to have legal aid and now it’s been cut too! The fact that people within the community are having to do that work is also a symptom of that cut to a public service.

In the book’s conclusion, it felt like you presented housing as a bipartisan issue as you say “there is no economic or political reason” for the way people are being forced to live in Britain right now. Many, including me, would argue that this is a political issue and a calculated one. Did you try to frame the conclusion like this because, in your mind, the reader could have been from any political background and you didn’t want to reduce it to left-wing or right-wing terms?

To be clear, what I mean by reason is that there is no justification. There are many [political] reasons why we are in a housing crisis, which I outlined in the book, but there is no [positive] justification for this. I hope that people of all political persuasions will read it, and come away, agreeing that this can’t be the situation we have with housing. I didn’t want to alienate anyone, and where we are right now, we need people who currently vote Conservative to agree. Whether we like it or not, that’s the situation we’re in now and I think it’s so urgent.

Our approach to housing is totally ideological and has been shaped by ideology. It blows my mind regularly, that we were one of the first countries in the world to have this incredible welfare system and have now systematically dismantled it.

Out of all the existing parties in the UK right now, who offers the most utopian and hopeful proposal around housing? 

The Green Party have always had forward-thinking housing policies. Parties that are not mainstream do bring new ideas that can become mainstream. The Greens in London, for example, were talking about rent control before Labour.

I’m incredibly disappointed that I’m unclear on Labour’s position on housing. As a housing correspondent, I’m unclear, and it’s not because I haven’t looked into it. They don’t seem to be talking about it. Given it is one of the most pressing social and economic issues that we face as a country, that surprises me.

I think what’s coming out of the Department of Levelling Up is good. Since Michael Gove was put there, he has spoken to campaigners and experts like Shelter and Generation Rent, taken their ideas and put them into action. There’s a white paper coming out on renters’ rights very soon. Does it go far enough? I don’t think it includes rent regulation and it should, but Labour isn’t talking about that; the Greens are.

Tenants is out now on Profile Books. 

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