Coronavirus is showing us the shambles of UK housing standards
The first bulges in the ceiling of my bedroom appeared around mid-September. Back then, I convinced myself that the plaster employed in Glasgow’s Victorian flats would naturally turn ugly after a glorious century. I had lived for months without a worry for the small crack running along the upper section of the door. I blamed a mild and undiagnosed form of OCD for the discomfort that one unaesthetic crack caused me.
And yet, as the days went by, the crack turned into a single deep mark running from one side of the room to the other. A web of even longer ones began to show up in parallel lines. By the time minuscule bubbles spotted all four corners, I had already lost many nights of sleep. Another six months went by before repairs were carried out. The handyman warned me that I could have easily died, as the state of the ceiling was close to a full collapse.
Before that could be organised, I had to request two roof inspections to exclude roof leaks as the cause for such a drastic change in the ceiling. Both were delayed for weeks by the property manager despite the urgency of the matter. Two years earlier, it had taken them so long to repair a massive roof leak that the staircase wall was irreparably damaged. My landlord’s call to other flat owners to share the burden of redecorating went unanswered.
Substandard housing conditions have become a reason for my deteriorating mental health during this year. My landlord’s best efforts to provide quick fixes to a growing number of problems, including wet rot and mice, have made it clear. Glasgow’s housing supply is inadequate at its best, and literally toxic at its worst. And the fact that students need to cope with it while dealing with low income and stressful schedules is making it unbearable.
While the ceiling was being torn apart in the room, I decided to visit family in Norway to escape the dust and rubble invading other parts of the flat. The COVID-19 rules imposed by the Norwegian Government resulted in me incidentally moving to Scandinavia. As I wait for airlines to resume their scheduled flights to the United Kingdom, I also continue to reflect on the sheer luck of physical distancing in a decent home. The concern is not for trivial luxury.
In fact, the Glasgow City Council’s Housing Strategy reports that around 40% of the city’s properties were built before 1945. Of these properties, 52% are tenement flats date back to 1919 or an earlier decade. This means that 74,000 homes and flats are either in need of constant maintenance or are well beyond their good times. Logically, the tenement conditions will dictate which tenants can afford to rent a decent flat.
A simple search on the main rental websites offers a glimpse into the startling price for acceptable accommodation. It also shows that students risk not being the only victims of this market. Statistical evidence by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government points out that between 2016 and 2019, around 19% of the Scottish Population were living in relative poverty after housing costs.
Worst of all, people in need of budget housing due to income limitations hardly have the time and resources to request enforcement action from competent authorities. The burden of providing for oneself may be worrisome enough to reject the idea of demanding assistance against rogue agencies and owners. While my landlord acted upon my requests inside the flat, the exhausting waiting for issues in common areas discouraged me from having further arguments with managers about substandard or inexistent repairs.
Having received good treatment from one party but not the other has been a source of distress and anger. It appears that Scotland and the UK more broadly struggle to take a pragmatic stance on housing rights. For context, according to Citizens Advice, one in four tenants in Britain struggle to have essential repairs completed by landlords. Furthermore, a third of property owners find it difficult to keep up with much needed safety improvements.
The logic of profit shaping a real catch-22 scenario will be worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. At a time in which everyone is required to stay indoors, few will be able to do so in a space suitable for living. Most importantly, as national coverage proved over and over again, those people will often be the ones playing an essential role in low-paid jobs. Exposure to contagion in the workplace is not compensated with safety inside one’s home.
For those who have already been contaged and bound to quarantine, the lack of thermal insulation and bad sanitation is a concrete health hazard in an already dire situation. Coupling the physical symptoms and risks with the mental burden of feeling unsafe under your own roof will be devastating. Needless to say, they will not be in the condition to take their landlord to court for life-threatening hazards.
With massive layoffs and the chance of evictions over rent arrears, low-quality accommodation has become the other evil side of the pandemic. That is especially true for those “expendable” tenants who must incur costs well beyond their rent obligations. Their economic status seems to a sufficient loophole for their counterparts to break all rules on decent living standards. These tenants are owed more than words and crippling anxiety.
Image: Living Rent