Coronavirus is escalating the homelessness crisis. Here's how we can fix that

The government has barred the eviction of tenants during the crisis until 23 August. They may well extend this deadline, but this is just delaying the inevitable

Patrick Mulrenan,Jane Lewis
Tuesday 23 June 2020 17:54 BST
Nadhim Zahawi on government plans to tackle homelessness in Britain

With the country hopefully emerging from the Covid-19 crisis, attention is turning to how to invest in a sustainable recovery. How we replace lost jobs? How can we deal with issues of physical and mental health? How can we tackle the growth in homelessness?

The government has barred the eviction of tenants during the crisis until 23 August. They may well extend this deadline, but this is just delaying the inevitable. Eventually, landlords will re-commence evictions, which will lead to more homelessness.

Eviction from the private rented sector is already the single largest cause of homelessness. The government should immediately end Section 21 “no fault” evictions which allow private landlords to evict tenants without providing reasons. They should also make Ground 8 evictions discretionary rather than compulsory: this would mean that judges could consider whether evicting tenants for rent arrears is a reasonable course of action.

Too radical? In April 2019, the government announced that “Private landlords will no longer be able to evict tenants from their homes at short notice and without good reason”. It just hasn’t done anything about it yet.

The main reason private tenants are evicted – to increase the rent. The government should introduce rent control in areas with high housing pressures. This would remove incentives to evict people, and help reduce the Housing Benefits bill, currently running at £24bn a year.

Rent control is common across Europe. Landlords will argue that they will end up selling their properties. Fine – the government can buy them up. In 1993, the then Conservative government did just that, funding housing associations to go on a house buying spree to shore up the housing market.

We can look further back at history than that for solutions. With political will, it is possible to build fast and build well. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill announced that half a million prefabs would be built. War-time factories were re-purposed to build new homes, with fridges and cookers included. The new homes even had central heating, at a time when a third of British homes did not even have a bath. The design of the new homes involved the public, with different models being exhibited outside the Tate Gallery in 1944. It could be argued that, courtesy of the Luftwaffe, there was plenty of land to build on. But a significant amount of land is being held in developers’ landbanks, which could be brought into use.

The government has already told builders they have to “use the land or lose it” – but again, they just haven’t done anything about it.

And housing doesn’t have to take long to build that people love. One prefab home was erected in 41 minutes in 1946. Although we never got the half million homes promised by Churchill, 156,000 were built between 1946 and 1948. They were designed to last 10 to 15 years, but many lasted for decades. In London, residents campaigned to keep their prefabs – for example, on the Excalibur Estate in Lewisham. They were eventually demolished, with six being preserved through Grade II listing.

The benefits of modern, prefab-type housing will be felt not just by homeless families but also by the Exchequer: unlike many other forms of spending, housing starts paying back through rent as soon as the new occupants move in.

Prefabs are a solution for the short term. Alongside this, it is clearly time to invest in longer-term affordable housing, for the benefit of everyone. Shamefully, we have built fewer council homes in the last few years than we built in the Second World War, when the country was under existential threat. We need to build more homes for social rent. Building these homes will employ both skilled and unskilled workers in large numbers, improve the physical and mental health of the country, and leave a legacy that we can be proud of.

Patrick Mulrenan is associate professor of learning and course leader for community development and leadership at London Metropolitan University. Dr Jane Lewis is course leader for sociology and social policy, and module convenor of the housing and homelessness policy module at London Metropolitan University

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