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It’s time to view housing as a human right

4 min read

A human rights approach to housing would play a central role in guaranteeing that core issues such as homelessness and affordability are back on the front pages.

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day and in the last week alone around one in six people in the UK experienced a mental health problem. For those in Manchester Withington, the rate was one in four.

If we are to address the root of these statistics, increased mental health awareness, education and services are all necessary. But to really improve the state of mental wellbeing across the country, we also have to ensure that the right socio-economic conditions are in place.

Housing has an instrumental effect on our mental health. Yet, all evidence suggests that the market is no longer working for the many and the relationship between our homes and our mental health is seldom identified.

Before the pandemic erupted, the Centre for Mental Health found that 1.1 million families in the UK were living in homes classified as “non-decent”. A further 700,000 posed a “serious and immediate risk to a person's health and safety” and nearly 2 million reported an issue with condensation, damp or mould. Nearly 1 million homes also exhibited serious disrepair.

Securing a property has become an anxiety fuelled task for many

Alongside the prevalence of low living standards, homeownership rates have plummeted and the average amount we spend on rent has increased by nearly 20 per cent in the past 20 years. For housing to be considered affordable, experts advise that it should account for no more than a third of our salaries. The current average is half – and rising. With less income at our disposal, the ability to cater to our variety of needs has become further out of reach.

Even securing a property has become an anxiety fuelled task for many. The discriminatory practise of No DSS lettings - where an agent refuses to rent to anyone who gets universal credit or housing benefit - is so pervasive that the mere ability to view a property is largely prohibited for the population of disabled people, single mothers, benefit claimants and ex-offenders. Worse still, for the people lucky enough to eventually find a home, the ubiquity of 6-month contracts and No-Fault evictions mean precariousness is endemic.

The situation is even worse for the statutory homeless population, over 250,000 of whom are currently residing in temporary accommodation. Primarily due to poor living standards and inherent insecurity, studies repeatedly show that mental health plunges as soon as these transitional arrangements start. Rates of depression in this group are ten times higher than the national average, and in 2019, lives lost due to suicide increased by 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, nationwide, the rate at which suicide takes lives is now at 18 per day, having become the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50. Deprivation increases the odds of taking your own life by a factor of ten.

The widespread yet antiquated conception of masculinity – wherein a good home and steady income are paramount – has undoubtedly contributed to these tragic deaths. But the slashed prospects of home-ownership and affordable housing, together with the dwindling ability to save, are pieces of the puzzle we ought to address.

In light of these myriad issues, we must treat housing with a new approach entirely. What is lacking currently are the principles on which political decision making should be based, and through which far-reaching policies can be produced.

Human rights represent exactly those principles, and with a government that talks more about “gesture politics” than it does about homelessness, now more than ever are they necessary. 

A human rights approach to housing would play a central role in guaranteeing that core issues such as homelessness and affordability are back on the front pages. Instead of viewing housing as a commodity and allowing the profit motive to dominate at the expense of our mental health, the framework of human rights would shape the housing market into one that works for all.

In 2019, Keir Starmer stated that housing is a fundamental human right. Amidst unparalleled levels of wealth and a seemingly perennial housing crisis, it is time that our legislature goes a step further.


Jeff Smith is the Labour MP for Manchester Withington and chair of the APPG Mental Health. Nick Hodges is a senior homelessness prevention worker in North London and part of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights.

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