London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic
Commuters enter Oxford Circus station on Oxford Street in the early evening in London. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic

When the mother of 18-year old Sonia Amri caught Covid-19 in December, it didn’t take long for the whole family to test positive. Seven of them live in a two-bedroom apartment in Newham, East London, making it impossible to keep a distance from each other.

London’s high death toll in the pandemic, especially in the most densely populated boroughs, has lifted the lack of housing higher up on the political agenda. Candidates in the race for mayor are promising solutions for a city where 8% of housing is cramped, according to the Trust for London charity.

About 30,000 people spent the first national lockdown in a home that consisted of just one room, the Homes at the Heart campaign estimates. Newham, the borough where Amri lives, had the greatest proportion of overcrowded homes in the U.K. and also the highest Covid death rate in the pandemic.

“You see a pretty high proportion of people infected at home,” said Moritz Kraemer, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford. “You come back to your family with five or six people living together — there’s much more risk.”

London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic

London’s housing crunch is one reason why the coronavirus spread so fast and killed so many more in the U.K. than in other nations. Britain, especially in places like East London, is much more densely populated than countries like New Zealand and Sweden, which so far have escaped with lower death tolls.

“Half of Swedish households are single-person,” said Keith Neal, professor emeritus of epidemiology at the University of Nottingham in England. “If someone goes out and catches Covid in a bar there, they could infect the cat. No one else gets it.”

Voters are frustrated with the current situation. A survey by YouGov found that more than 500,000 of the city’s 9 million residents believe their homes are overcrowded, almost double the official estimates.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is vying for re-election on May 6, wants to deliver 10,000 new council homes a year along with rent controls and loans for developers. Under Labour Party leadership, the capital last year started building the most council houses since 1983 and a record number of affordable homes. He’s tackled overcrowding by backing enforcement of regulations by local authorities and identifying rogue landlords. Even so, he admitted too few new homes had been built in his term as mayor.

London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic

His Conservative challenger, Shaun Bailey, whose campaign has drawn heavily on his own experiences of homelessness, is seeking to help more people buy a home. He’s pledging to build 100,000 homes to be sold under a shared-ownership program. Prices would start at 100,000 pounds ($137,000), about a fifth of the average value of properties in the capital.

“London’s housing crisis has grown worse in the last five years, but it’s something we can fix,” Bailey said in an email replying to questions. “The problem comes from a lack of housebuilding and a lack of affordable homes, both of which fall under the mayor’s remit.”

London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic

A record 3.7 million people in England live in overcrowded homes, almost half of them children, according to the National Housing Federation. Housing and health are linked because those living in close proximity had more difficulty following rules to slow the spread of Covid-19. Closing schools and workplaces forced millions to remain at home, often with large families in small spaces.

A big part of the problem is housing costs that have risen past what many can afford. Rental values and property prices have outstripped wage growth for many years. A typical two-bedroom home in London now costs 1,450 pounds ($2,008) a month to rent, meaning those on average salaries spend 45% of their income on housing, according to the advocacy group Generation Rent. Research by housing charity Shelter found that in about two-thirds of England families on low wages needed government support for rent.

That has pushed more families into government-supported housing. But local authorities and housing associations are building less than a fifth of the properties completed — not enough for the people who need them.

“It’s partly a poverty issue,” said Anthony Breach, senior analyst for Centre for Cities, a research group. “Changes to housing benefit and the welfare state over the past 10 years has made that situation more difficult. There’s a long-term problem with the U.K. with the fact that we build so little, and there’s so little redevelopment. There’s just a limited amount of floor space in London.”

London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic

The spread of Covid is a particular worry among intergenerational households, where older people live alongside younger ones who are more exposed to the virus at work or school.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies found a correlation between large or multi-generational households and increased risk of infection and mortality. The findings cropped up in five population studies and held together even when controlled for deprivation, according to a report published in November.

“It’s not hard to work out the reason why there is such a strong correlation,” said Stephen Timms, a Labour member of Parliament who represents East Ham, where Amri’s family lives. “We are now at a crisis point.”

London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic

Amri’s parents have been waiting for a larger council-owned home for more than a decade. When they joined the list in 2009, at least 2,000 were ahead of them in the queue. Now they’re in the top 100.

Meanwhile, she has grown up jostling for space. Lockdown made that even worse, forcing her to study at a single table with her four younger sisters, arguing over space for books and laptops. That proximity is both a Covid risk and one of the things holding back children from low-income families.

“I’m able to focus but my siblings aren’t,” Amri said. “Because of that, they don’t get as high grades as they could. They’re not going to do as well, and that just continues as a domino effect.”

London’s Crowded Housing Moves Up Political Agenda in Pandemic

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