Friday, July 13, 2012

Another housing problem - over-crowding

Shelter says one in four London children live in overcrowded homes – with 391,000 in cramped conditions – an 18% rise since 2008.

The government measures overcrowding using the so-called bedroom standard, which calculates how many bedrooms a family needs according to the number of children and their ages. Peter Ambrose, visiting professor in housing studies at Brighton University, says one big issue is how to quantify overcrowding.

"The legal definition goes back to 1935 when it was acceptable to sleep in kitchens," he says. "Without an updated measure there's no impetus to measure the effects of overcrowding or who is overcrowded. It's maddening."

The Guardian analysed the most complete public database of the government's housing survey – which sampled 17,000 homes in 2010 – to determine who is most likely to be overcrowded. The lower a family's social status, the more likely it is to be overcrowded. Lone parents have the worst levels of overcrowding and black and Asian households suffer cramped conditions more than white households.

Other research shows that overcrowding can have profound effects for children: underachievement at school caused by lack of space to do homework; illness caused by cramped living conditions; and a lack of privacy leading to depression.

Many experts argue that too few homes are being built at a time when the population is expanding. And the homes that are being put up are smaller. Last year, the Royal Institute of British Architects calculated that the average new three-bedroom home was only 92% of the recommended minimum size – missing the space equivalent to a single bedroom that could comfortably accommodate a single bed, bedside table, wardrobe, desk and chair. The UK, notes Riba, is one of the few western European nations to have no minimum space standards for housing.

With house prices outstripping incomes, many families are cramming into homes that a generation ago would have been thought too tiny to live in. Last year, according to official statistics, 655,000 households were living in overcrowded conditions – 3% of the population – up from 530,000 five years ago.

It is homes in the social sector – owned by councils or housing associations – that are the most packed. Families living here, inevitably poorer, are seven times more likely to be cramped than those who own their own homes.

The government says it will ease overcrowding for those on the lower rungs of society with market mechanism – a mix of coercive policies that cut benefits if people do not respond to them. The first idea is to cut the benefits of those "under-occupying" social housing if they do not move to smaller properties. The second will cut housing benefit to ensure only those who work can afford to stay in the private rented sector. The government's impact assessment admits the under-occupation policy will have the smallest impact in London, where the problem of overcrowding is most intense. And many experts say that a downturn coupled with welfare cuts will only exacerbate the problems faced by the poorest in society.

Last month University College London's Institute of Health Equity warned that government welfare reforms "will make it harder for households ... to cover housing costs. Adequate housing may be more difficult to afford during an economic crisis and households may be forced to live in environments that may constitute a risk to health, such as homeless situations, overcrowded housing, and housing in a poor physical condition".

Prof. Ambrose says his own research in Wandsworth, south London, for London Citizens in 2010 found that more than half of the families of schoolchildren interviewed in the borough raised concerns over lack of sleep and tension because of overcrowding. He found that despite England having smaller useable floor space in its homes than any other western European nation apart from Italy, there appeared a "lack of interest" in Britain to assess the design and size of real houses and the importance of community ties.

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