Tenants by Vicky Spratt review – empty rooms and empty promises | Society books
If the government of one of the richest countries in the world can’t adequately house the people who live in it, then what exactly is its point? The journalist Vicky Spratt doesn’t make this case directly in her first book, but she does lay bare our state’s lack of fitness for purpose in its current condition, showing how scarce, unsafe, cramped, unaffordable and, above all, insecure housing lies at the root of Britain’s ongoing public health crisis.
How did we get here? To put it bluntly, we allowed ourselves to be bought off. Instead of investing in skills, industry and people, voters were consistently told that if they bought a house they’d be set for life, and if they didn’t, it was their own fault if they ended up poor and voiceless. Everyone knows it’s a busted flush: even Michael Gove, now housing and “levelling up” minister, has belatedly recognised the urgent necessity for more social housing if he’s going to live up to his job title.
Since long before Covid, the gap in health and wealth between homeowners and renters has been worsening as house prices have become decoupled from incomes and the right to buy has taken 3.5m council homes out of public hands. The proportion of householders renting privately – at market rates, from barely regulated landlords – has doubled from around 10% 20 years ago, pushing millions into housing precarity.
Spratt began researching Tenants in 2017, after she founded the Make Renting Fair campaign which, alongside the work of tenants’ union Acorn, Shelter and Generation Rent, eventually got letting fees banned under the 2019 Tenant Fees Act. There are so many facets to Britain’s shortage of decent, affordable housing that she takes care to discuss them in separate chapters while showing clearly how each is connected.
Housing is a social and political responsibility that, in the past 40 years, has been handed to individuals in vastly differing sets of circumstances. Home ownership, the ultimate form of privatisation, has been exalted over every form of tenure, meaning that those who own see increasingly little common ground with those who rent. The number of households on waiting lists for social housing far outweighs the number of secure tenancies that come up in every local authority, forcing people who can’t afford to buy into private renting, even when they can’t afford it.
One instance, or run, of bad luck can make people homeless for years. Families reliant on one income can be knocked for six if the main wage-earner is made redundant or injured at work. Spratt speaks to her interviewees over a period of months – years, in some cases – gaining testimonies of how losing a secure home, or not getting one in the first place, derails every other aspect of people’s lives.
She meets Limarra, a 26-year-old woman who gained two degrees after having her child aged 17, and whose least-worst option while her daughter is small is to get up at 4.30 every morning to manage a branch of Starbucks for £230 a week take-home pay. She is ambitious and focused, and can afford the £1,000-a-month rent on her privately let flat as long as the landlord doesn’t put it up and as long as her paltry earnings are topped up by housing benefit.
In Peckham, their area of London – near to Limarra’s mum, who takes her daughter to school every morning, so she can work – a grand a month in the private sector is cheap. When her landlord decides to sell up, it quickly becomes clear there are no other affordable flats in the area, but when she approaches Southwark council for emergency social housing she is told that they have no responsibility to rehouse her until she is literally homeless – that is, sitting in the housing office with her bags on the day her tenancy expires. Otherwise, she is deemed to have made herself “intentionally homeless” because she “chose” not to pay higher rent.
“OK, now are you are homeless,” the housing officer tells Limarra, her belongings sitting in a rented van outside the council offices. She is offered a flat in Croydon, miles away from her mum, her daughter’s school, and, crucially, the community mental health team she has been seeing directly as a result of housing stress. Again, she is told that if she doesn’t accept it she would once again be classed as “intentionally homeless”. Placed in an insanitary, privacy-lacking hostel in Camberwell, she becomes suicidal and her daughter starts to wet the bed.
Conversely, Kelly’s family are moved to emergency housing after being “evicted by proxy” – that is, their tenancy ended by a landlord who puts up their rent beyond what they can afford. In Bromley, where Kelly lived with her partner and children, she was across the road from their trusted GP who treated her son for asthma. Once in new accommodation, she registers at a different surgery, whose inexperienced GP prescribes him the wrong inhaler. Six weeks after their enforced move to an unfamiliar area, he is dead.
It is impossible to read this book without becoming almost incapacitated with rage. The difference between being securely and insecurely housed is effectively the difference between life and death. The King’s Fund, a health thinktank, estimates the cost to the NHS of poor-quality housing as £1.4bn every year. In Germany, writes Spratt, where 40% of households rent privately, rents are kept affordable relative to income and tenancies are open-ended rather than requiring renewal every two years, often lasting decades.
Spratt returns throughout to the point that our housing problems, while complex, are solvable. When Covid-19 barged into our lives two years ago, the government’s Everyone In initiative ended street homelessness in the space of 10 days. Emergency legislation temporarily prevented evictions, and a combination of furlough and mortgage relief prevented mass repossessions. She points to the Housing First programme, pioneered in Finland, as an example of how meeting needs directly – giving homeless people a house, with no conditions attached but the support to make it a home – transforms lives.
Towards the end of the book, Spratt impressively widens her focus to consider how home is “the base from which we engage with society, with our community”. Without housing security we are condemned to living atomistically from day to day, unable to raise our horizons beyond the four walls we are threatened with losing. Housing isn’t a pension, or an investment, she writes: it’s “essential infrastructure”, not only materially, but psychologically. Until housing security is taken this seriously by everyone, the winners as well as the losers from this toxic lottery, all our homes will be built on sand.
Lynsey Hanley is the author of Estates: An Intimate History (Granta) among other books