Coronavirus Is Our Opportunity To Fix Our Broken Housing System

Every week our scientists have learned a little more about the virus that has locked down our society, our economy, and cost so many lives. But just as the nature of the health crisis slowly becomes clear, so too is the nature and scale of the economic impact.

New research, carried out by Savills for Shelter, adds greatly to the sum of knowledge about what is happening and what will happen. It provides stark context for the prime minister’s “build, build, build” speech. It reveals just how much the lockdown recession is spreading into our housing system and, if we do not act, what the cost will be now and for future generations. 

For many of us, our homes have been our places of refuge in this crisis. By staying at home we have protected ourselves and others, so it’s perhaps a sad irony that the crisis itself will mean far fewer homes are built. At worst, Savills’ research shows more than 300,000 new homes could be lost over the next five years, with the greatest fall coming this financial year. 

Unless the government intervenes, a paltry 4,300 social rent homes could be delivered in this financial year, a catastrophic yearly drop of 30%.

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Now, when the private sector is on its knees, is exactly the time that investment is needed. (Photo: VictorHuang via Getty Images)

And the cost can be measured in jobs as well – 244,000 fewer jobs this year alone from the reduction in housebuilding, if you factor in construction jobs as well as the wider supply chain. 

A safe home and a secure job are the cornerstones of a good life. The recession caused by this virus is attacking both. 

It’s perhaps no wonder that the prime minister is promising to “build, build, build” in a bid to get the country to bounce back as quickly as possible. But the fear must be that this government, like too many before it, will try to take a shortcut on housing. They may be too easily enamoured with the easy promises of private developers and will seek to rely only on planning de-regulation as some sort of low-cost stimulus to the housing system, when this is doomed to fail. The reality is that plugging the gap in lost homes and lost jobs will require much more. 

There is a better way. It starts with money the government has already said it will spend. In March of this year, the Chancellor set out plans to spend £12.2 billion on affordable housing and to do it over five years. But five years is a long  time to wait, and time is not on our side. Now, when the private sector is on its knees, is exactly the time that investment is needed. That’s why we are calling on the government to bring that money forward, to invest it now over this year and next in public housebuilding. In doing so generating a legacy of new and better social homes from the pandemic.

We have seen through this crisis that a safe home is a fundamental human need, and an essential foundation in all our lives.

Now is our chance to build back better. Better because by bringing the investment forward we can save many, if not all, of the 244,000 jobs. 

Better because in becoming resilient to this terrible virus we must deal with the overcrowding and poor housing that are rife in this country today. We know that the virus spreads more quickly where homes are overcrowded, and families are living on top of each other. We know that social distancing isn’t possible in a lot of temporary homeless accommodation where bathrooms and kitchens are often shared between residents, and even beds must sometimes be shared within families. 

What we don’t know is how long we will have to deal with this virus, but that’s exactly why we should be building the safe homes that create greater resilience, slow the spread, and allow social distancing. For starters that means getting the nearly 90,000 families, including 126,000 children, who spent lockdown living in temporary accommodation into a safe, secure social home. 

We have seen through this crisis that a safe home is a fundamental human need, and an essential foundation in all our lives. It’s not something that can be left solely to the vagaries of the highs and lows of the housing market. With the waiting list for a social home standing at over a million households, now is the time we need to invest in these homes, not in five years when we all hope to have a vaccine. Why delay, when it only means land will go undeveloped, homes will sit unfinished, and builders will lose their jobs?

What an opportunity this government has, to follow in the steps of post-war Conservative leaders, Macmillan, Eden and of course Churchill and invest in a new generation of social homes. What an asset they would be for a country facing an uncertain future trying to combat this virus. And what a lifeline they would be for the hundreds of thousands whose jobs are on the line without a housebuilding stimulus. 

The prime minister has said he wants to build, build, build. His chancellor has identified the money we need to spend. So, let’s get on with it and build social housing. It’s his best chance to deliver on that goal. 

Greg Beales is Campaign Director at Shelter

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.