According to housing charity Shelter, over 1.5 million people are being forced to live in overcrowded social homes.
“We are in desperate need of more space,” says Eleanor*, a 29-year-old single mother who has been living in a one-bedroom flat with her two children for nine years.
Sharing a bedroom has impacted her and her children’s lives, health and wellbeing greatly, she tells Stylist. “I keep trying to find us a bigger home but I’m just facing dead ends.”
The impact of overcrowding
New research from Shelter has revealed the shocking scale of overcrowding in England, with over 1.5 million people forced to live in overcrowded social homes.
According to the housing charity, one in six residents now live in an overcrowded home.
With current levels of overcrowding the worst on record, and previous research from Shelter’s frontline services demonstrating the damage overcrowding can cause to children’s health, educational attainment, and life chances, it’s an alarming trend.
Eleanor and her children, aged six and 11, would be unable to access affordable housing if it wasn’t for social homes. “Being a single parent on a low income, a lot of private landlords aren’t willing to accept us, and I don’t have the money for a big deposit even if they would,” she says. “Plus, it’s a very unstable situation when you face eviction anytime with the children.”
Eleanor explains that the overcrowding makes looking after her children challenging. “I feel sorry for them and as a parent you feel guilty and like you’ve failed, because every child wants to have their own room.”
But not only does she feel like her children don’t have enough space, she also says that not having her own privacy can be “frustrating”. “If you want to pursue a relationship with someone, you just don’t have the space to. And having lots of family and friends around to socialise just isn’t an option. Some people take that for granted but we just can’t.”
What has caused the social housing crisis?
Shelter believes that the gross undersupply of new social homes is to blame for the social housing crisis. Last year fewer than 7,000 new social homes were built, despite more than one million households being on the waiting list.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter said: “The devastating level of overcrowding in social housing is scandalous. Years of failure to build social homes mean there are too many people chasing too few homes. Families are literally living on top of each other – something you would expect to see in the Victorian era, not the 21st century.”
And of course, lockdown made things even harder for many low-income families. “The pandemic has left many of us feeling trapped, but for those crammed into homes too small, it’s been a nightmare. Overcrowding puts a strain on every aspect of family life. We’ve got parents sleeping on sofas, siblings all sharing one bed, and babies who don’t have the space to crawl,” says Neate.
“These overcrowded families are stranded with nowhere else to go. Home ownership is out of reach and private renting is too expensive for most. The answer is clear: the government cannot build back better without building good-quality social homes.”
The experience has left Eleanor feeling dejected and alone in her fight to have enough space for her family. “I feel like I have no one to turn to and no one willing to listen or take me seriously,” she says.
When she first moved into her flat, she says that she did her best to make it feel homely. “At first I tried to fix it up, but I’ve gotten rid of a lot of stuff in order to make more space,” she says. She explains that she’s been in a limbo of if or when she can move for so long that she’s just stopped trying.
“It doesn’t feel like a home because there’s so much we can’t do. It’s a really stressful situation to be in.”
How can the social housing crisis be tackled?
With the spiralling costs of homeownership and private renting driving up demand for secure and genuinely affordable social housing, Shelter is calling on the government to invest in building 90,000 new social homes a year to combat overcrowding and end the housing emergency.
Eleanor agrees that “social housing is and should be for people who need it most, but there just aren’t any homes available.” She hopes to move soon, and says that doing so would “change everything” for her family.
“This hopeless situation has caused me so much distress and has made my depression and anxiety much worse.”
“I just want local authorities and housing associations to take more notice and prioritise it more.”