Housing lessons from the pandemic – the things we knew already!

There are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic about how we design and develop housing but most of those lessons are things we knew – or should have known – already.  They are lessons about the linkages between health and housing, about space standards, ventilation, access to open space, congestion and overcrowding, access to local facilities, and above all quality.

Understanding that housing is linked to health goes back to the nineteenth century origins of modern public health, social housing, and town planning.  It should have been no surprise that Covid-19 infections have been especially high in areas with smaller houses and flats with little or no private open space.  Overcrowded conditions also increase the ease with which the virus can spread.  The surges of cases in older northern towns and in areas occupied by immigrant and BAME communities should have been no surprise.  There are documented links to certain occupations, and to poverty also, but housing itself is a factor.

Responding to the pandemic, many people have been working from home or furloughed for long periods.  Schools have been shut or accommodating reduced numbers and children have been home-schooling.  This all puts pressure on space in the home and can add strains to family relations.  The impact on the housing market has been to place a premium on space.  More families are trying to move to houses with gardens and flats with balconies are more popular than those without.  Neighbourhoods with easy access to open space have gained in popularity compared with dense urban areas lacking in public open space.

We should realise that some of the changes introduced by the pandemic are likely to be long lasting.  Home working suits a lot of people.  Their jobs can be done remotely, and they are relieved from the chore of commuting.  Employers also benefit from increased productivity and reduced costs for office accommodation.  It does not work for everyone, of course, and young workers living in shared flats have found home working particularly difficult.

So – very obviously – we should be building housing with adequate space standards.  This means that thought should be given to providing not just the total floorspace that is needed but also separate spaces (they call them rooms) for the different activities people are now undertaking at home.  Private open space can be in the form of balconies (so long as they are of a useable size), private gardens, or communal gardens for small groups of homes.  These requirements apply to all tenures.  New developments should always include public open space and have local facilities within easy walking distance.  One of the lessons from home working is that people need to go out for breaks to exercise or just to get a change of scene.

There are also things we should not be doing.  For a start, we should not try to solve the housing crisis with low quality conversions of redundant office or retail space in town and city centres.  That does not rule out conversions, but they must be done to high quality with adequate space standards, proper provision of open space, and provision of natural light and ventilation.  We should certainly not be allowing such conversions under permitted development rights, even with a prior approval procedure.  All such conversion proposals should be subject to a planning application and normal procedure.  The same should be true of vertical extensions above existing houses or blocks of flats.

Finally, the pandemic has confirmed something else we knew already – the bedroom tax was a very bad idea.  It restricted the space available to low-income families.  In the pandemic context, it disadvantages low-income families struggling to cope with home schooling and home working. Social housing professionals advised against this measure at the time it was introduced and politicians should have listened.

Kim Penfold
February 2021