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Beyond Shelter: The role of home in health and wellbeing

Over 15 million people in Europe live in precarious housing, and over a quarter of UK children are growing up in private rented accommodation.


Housing policy is enjoying a period of increased interest. Even in social policy circles, the importance of housing has been debated, famously described as a ‘wobbly pillar’ of the welfare state. However, dramatic changes to housing in the UK and beyond, linked to the role of housing in the recent recession, have made it harder to ignore.

The role of housing in the welfare state is changing. Governments in recent decades have focused on homeownership, and the financial benefits that this tenure can bring. They have encouraged the accumulation of wealth through housing with the idea that this wealth could be used to meet welfare costs, particularly in older age, resulting in reduced need for government support (asset-based welfare). However, the idea of using housing wealth to meet the costs of social care is, politicians are discovering, very unpopular.

One of the consequences of encouraging homeownership was rising housing prices. With increasing prices comes increasing inaccessibility for those not yet on the ‘housing ladder’. This poor affordability is one of the main reasons that owner occupation is at a 30-year low.

With fewer people able to access home ownership, and the residualisation of the social rented sector, in no small part due to another policy designed to encourage home ownership – the Right to Buy – increasing numbers of households are forced to live for extended periods in the private rented sector.

Costs are higher in the private rented sector, and private sector rents take up a higher proportion of income, on average, than social rent or mortgage payments. The high prices mean that increasing numbers of private renters must rely on housing benefit to meet their housing costs. But in 2011 the Coalition government cut housing benefit, reducing the amount allowed from the area median to the 30th percentile. One consequence of this reduction, averaging at around £1,200 per household per year, was a statistically significant increase in mental health problems among those affected by the policy change (Reeves, Clair et. al., 2016, American Journal of Epidemiology).

Clearly then, housing policies have consequences beyond immediate housing situations. Housing plays a central role in our lives, and when it becomes unaffordable or creates financial strain this can have significant consequences on our health and wellbeing. In a study of housing payment arrears it was found that moving into housing arrears was as bad for health as becoming unemployed (Clair et al., 2016a, European Journal of Public Health).

On average, renters were found to suffer more when facing housing payment difficulties, but international variation in the effect of tenure suggests that this may depend on housing policies (Clair et al., 2016b, Social Science and Medicine – Population Health).

This difference in housing policy approaches has significant implications for how people experience housing. Our recent comparative study of housing precariousness (published in the Journal of European Social Policy) found that, for example, approximately 75% of people in Norway experienced no elements of housing precariousness (affordability, security, quality and facilities, access to essential services), compared to just over 20% of people living in Cyprus. Exposure to precarious housing likely has important consequences for health (McKee et al., 2017, Archives of Public Health).

While we know a lot about how housing affects the health and wellbeing of adults, one area that has not received adequate attention in the housing literature is the effect of housing on children’s wellbeing. A recent review (Clair, 2018) highlighted the lack of evidence surrounding the effects of housing problems on children’s lives. Research to date has focused heavily on the impact of housing on children’s educational outcomes and behavioural difficulties, neglecting their broader wellbeing.

The numbers of children growing up in the private rented sector have increased dramatically. In the UK the proportion of households with children in the UK living in private rented homes has increased from 8% in 1996/97 to over 25% in 2015/16, suggesting a significant shift in children’s housing experiences as they grow up.

Organisations such as Shelter have already raised concerns about the impact that growing up in the private rented sector may have on children, pointing to issues such as increased school moves, loss of friendships, stigma and health issues. Research is needed to understand what this new housing market means for children and their wellbeing, and what can be done to ensure the best possible outcomes. High quality longitudinal data, including that available from Understanding Society, means that this research is possible.