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Why should housing be fit for human habitation?

There is currently a lot of attention on the UK’s “housing crisis”. One issue here is the quantity of available housing. There are commitments to address the shortage of housing in the 2017 manifestos of both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Another issue is the quality of housing. On this issue, the Labour Party have restated the commitment they made in a 2015 Homes Bill to require that all homes meet the standard of being “fit for human habitation”. In this post, I explore the reasons in favour of this commitment.

The specifics of Labour’s proposal are roughly as follows. Currently, rented accommodation in the UK must meet certain health and safety standards, as specified in the Housing Act 2004. There are also a set of further requirements outlined in Section 10 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 concerning state of repair and vital facilities. But these latter requirements are largely ineffectual because Section 8 states that they apply only to properties with rents up to a certain threshold, a threshold that was surpassed by almost all rented property in the UK a good time ago. So, much rented accommodation does not meet these requirements and is under no legal obligation to do so. According to one estimate, under this system, nearly 30% of rented properties fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard the UK government specifies for social accommodation. The Labour Party commitment is to update the legal arrangements so that the requirements in the Landlord and Tenant Act apply to all rented accommodation.

Where Labour have said somewhat less is what motivates or justifies this goal. This might be thought not terribly important. We might wonder: who would disagree with making homes fit for human habitation? But being able to provide a good case for a policy is always important, not least because there are people who do disagree with the commitment, including the Conservative MPs who (overwhelmingly) voted down Labour’s previous attempts to update the legal arrangements. So, what can be said in its support?

First, a case can be made that decent housing should be classified as an essential good. There is a direct reason for this: people both want and need some kind of shelter. There is also an instrumental reason. As analyses of homelessness by Christopher Essert and Jeremy Waldron have highlighted, shelter is important for helping us access us other basic goods and activities. It can protect us from the elements, and, thus, helps keep us safe and healthy, and it can give us a private space to keep clean, use the bathroom, and rest. Perhaps needless to say, accommodation can play these roles only if it meets a certain standard of repair and quality.

Second, housing can play an important role in establishing a comfortable and helpful environment in which to pursue our lives. One thought here is that housing difficulties can be a considerable drain on our time and resources. Most people know something about the inconvenience of bathroom or kitchen condensation, and, again, the kind of problems that can flow from inadequate repair or modernisation can be much more significant when conditions are particularly poor or there are a range of such problems. When they fall beneath a certain threshold, these issues can take over much of one’s life, reducing capacity for both work and leisure, and ensuring they do not fall beneath this threshold gives space and peace of mind to pursue these other things.

Another line of reasoning here is offered by Cara Nine: that we use our homes as way of helping us perform many aspects of our everyday lives. We ‘outsource’ components of our daily routine by setting certain cues, such as regulating our diets by storing and arranging food in particular orders in our cupboards. Again, having accommodation in a proper state of repair and with appropriate facilities is important for conducting our lives in this way.

These concerns may straightforwardly be enough to motivate requiring that all accommodation not only does not pose a sharp health or safety threat, but also has a state of repair or facilities that properly serves this variety of functions.

There is also a further point: because accommodation provides such essential goods, those who supply rented property have a certain power over others, especially those who are not in a strong position to bargain, because they are poor, unemployed, or suffer other kinds of discrimination in the housing market. As Deborah Satz has argued in detail, this kind of power can produce objectionable market processes, such as getting renters to accept sub-standard accommodation for fear of having no alternative. Arguably this is exactly what is currently occurring in the UK. And implementing legislation is a way to ensure this kind of exploitation cannot occur and everyone can access a decent option.

Andrew Walton is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Politics Department at Newcastle University. His research centres on questions of economic ethics and justice in housing policy.



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1 Comment

  1. Mirjam

    Hi Andrew, this is really interesting! I just have thought rather than a question.
    I believe that in addition to thinking about housing from an individual perspective, we also need to consider the collective value of the availability safe and decent housing. People who spend their time fixing broken sinks and removing mould, will also have less time to engage in politics or communal activities. So from a collective point of view: a society that aims for an active citizenry better cares for decent housing.

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