A new report – ‘Creating a Wellbeing Society: Scoping Housing Need, Homelessness and Mental Health in the West Midlands Conurbation’ – by the Human City Institute (HCI), a Birmingham-based think-tank and research charity, explores the extent to which housing inequalities, housing need and homelessness are linked to poorer mental health and lower wellbeing.
The report, supported by social landlords Black Country Housing Group and Nehemiah Housing, together with social housing governance specialist Central Consultancy and Training, Coventry University, M-E-L Research and family wellbeing organisation Holiday Kitchen, reveals that tenure inequalities are growing, that social tenants are the most disadvantaged of all tenure groups, and that such inequalities impact adversely on levels of mental health and wellbeing.
HCI’s report also finds that tenure embeds inequality and has become a major factor in perpetuating wealth inequalities between home owners and renters. Outright home owners have 36 times the wealth (at £475,000) of social tenants (at about £13,000), and mortgagees (at £219,000) have 17 times. Net property wealth represents approximately half of the total wealth of all home owners.
As Professor Kate Pickett, co-author of ‘The Spirit Level’ and ‘The Inner Level’, who wrote the foreword to the HCI report, and delivered HCI’s recent annual lecture, says: “People in societies with large income gaps between rich and poor are much more likely to suffer from a wide range of health and social problems, including the psychological effects of social stress and more prevalent mental health problems. HCI’s report shows how such inequalities have a geographical dimension between deprived and affluent neighbourhoods, and how housing need and homelessness are strongly linked to greater incidence of mental health problems and lower wellbeing.”
People with mental health problems are more likely to be in housing need – finding themselves in low quality rented accommodation, social housing, and in overcrowded or poor housing. Conurbations like the West Midlands have particular problems with around 1 in 5 neighbourhoods having high levels of overcrowded and poor housing.
Precarious tenancies, frequent moves, the threat of eviction, poor quality of life, and the location of much rented housing in the most deprived locations, all exacerbate mental health problems and reduce wellbeing. Homelessness is both a cause of, and a symptom of poor mental health.
Half of homeless people have been diagnosed with a mental health problem, compared to 25% of the general population. A further third have reported suicidal thoughts and two thirds have panic attacks. Over two thirds have felt depressed, 1 in 10 had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Two fifths have had drug or alcohol problems.
As report author and HCI Director says: “Social housing has a major role to play in improvement of mental health and wellbeing among tenants. Status anxiety, identified by Professor Pickett as a driver of poor mental health in more unequal societies like the UK, linked to inequalities in social class and income between social tenants and others, is stoked by negative portrayals in the media. Social stigma remains a problem for many social tenants, and compounds their often difficult financial circumstances; including insecure debt, which is also strongly associated with poor mental health.”
HCI recommends a series of housing actions to confront housing and mental health problems in concert, including increased investment in new and existing social housing and the most deprived neighbourhoods where much of social housing is located; more emphasis on tackling mental health problems and promoting wellbeing at the community level; localised public health strategies and a return to higher yet more focussed funding of care and support.
Key Findings – the West Midlands Conurbation
Homelessness and housing need are growing issues in the West Midlands, and underscore growing problems with mental health and general wellbeing:
- Emerging models pioneered by national homelessness charities Shelter and Crisis calculate both core and wider forms of homelessness are much higher than official figures show.
- This is especially so in Birmingham, which has the largest number of homeless people of any local authority in England (more than 15,500). This equates to 1 in 73 of the population, which is the highest ratio outside of London and the south-east.
- Statutory homelessness in the WMCA is higher than ten years ago and has averaged over 5,800 households over the last decade.
- Temporary accommodation in the WMCA area has risen by 250% over the last decade, costing more than £40m last year.
- Rough sleeping has doubled in the West Midlands and risen by 333% in the WMCA area, although from a low base.
- Rough sleeping counts are likely underestimates, since they do not include people sleeping in cars, sheds, tents, on public transport, or squatting.
- Homelessness also adversely affects both physical and mental health, reduces levels of wellbeing and lowers life chances.
- Homelessness stems largely from national policies – especially those associated with austerity that have cut local authority and housing budgets. Eviction from shorthold tenancies, exclusion by family and friends, welfare reforms, and a lack of social housing are also drivers.
Key Recommendations – Reducing Inequality
There are specific macro-changes that the UK could make to its tax and benefit system, to ameliorate current levels of income and wealth inequality, including:
- A more progressive income tax system and introduction of wealth taxes (including a review of council tax bands last upgraded 25 years ago).
- A more generous benefits system, introduction of a Real Living Wage, greater rights for zero hours contract workers, investment in economic regeneration and localised public services.
- Possible introduction of a Universal Basic Income and initiatives to extend ownership and control of assets by low income groups beyond becoming home owners.
- Development of more localised and co-operative forms of enterprise and business.
- Increased investment in social and affordable housing, together with furthering opportunities for tenants to control their housing and communities (via extending mutualism for example).
- Strengthened approaches to improve existing housing, bring empty homes back into use, and combat homelessness.
- Investment in the most deprived neighbourhoods to support families and children, and vulnerable individuals.
- More emphasis on tackling mental health problems and promoting wellbeing at the community and individual level, through the NHS and via public health strategies at devolved and local government levels, plus higher funding for care and support.