Migration holds a mirror up to society and prompts reflection about social issues that might otherwise be brushed under the carpet of political and popular debate. So it is with housing.
England is suffering a housing crisis. Rising house prices and restricted access to mortgage finance have put home ownership beyond the reach of increasing numbers of households. There is a desperate shortage of affordable homes. More than 1.5 million households are reported to be waiting for social housing, yet we are building fewer houses than at any time since 1945. Overcrowding is on the rise and more than 600,000 households in England are now living in overcrowded conditions. The rising cost of living is leaving many households struggling to cover housing costs and facing the possibility of repossession or eviction. Homelessness is increasing and more and more homeless families are being placed in bed and breakfast hotels because suitable accommodation is simply not available.
Tackling this crisis should be on the pledge card of every political party. Decent, stable housing provides more than just a roof over someone’s head. It provides a place of safety and security, a healthy living environment and links to community. It promotes health and well-being and life chances. Yet the housing issue rarely warrants a mention by politicians, while press and media coverage merely feeds the public’s appetite for news about the latest house price figures. However, the interest of politicians and the public in the housing crisis can be piqued when a convenient folk devil emerges which they can blame for these miseries.
Housing is one of the key issues around which popular and political debate about the impacts and consequences of migration has coalesced. In England, anti-immigration groups and far-right parties frequently place housing at the centre of their campaigns, criticising the political establishment for failing to protect and provide for its citizens. The housing shortage, rising house prices, and problems of affordability are blamed on international migration. The accusation that migrants are unfairly advantaged in the allocation of social housing is one of the most frequently alleged injustices of migration. Rather than asking why successive governments have failed to ensure a supply of reasonable quality, accessible, secure and affordable housing, the housing crisis has been blamed on migration. The irony here is that migrants tend to be living in some of the worst housing conditions of all.
New migrants typically fill voids in the housing stock left aside or avoided by other households. Consequently, migrants often end up living in unpopular neighbourhoods and in poor quality housing, usually in the private rental sector. Such housing is often overcrowded and in a poor state of repair. Insecurity is a major problem. Difficulties with paying the rent and limited recourse to public funds can increase the risk of eviction and homelessness for many migrants. Estimates vary, but it is possible that upwards of 20 per cent of people sleeping rough in London are migrants.
The fact that many migrants struggle to meet their basic material needs and frequently occupy a precarious position in the housing system is a cause for major concern. The 1951 Geneva Convention specifies the social rights of refugees in relation to housing for good reason. Housing is fundamental to quality of life and critical to the integration process. Housing that provides a place of safety, security and stability provides a home. It improves life chances, promotes health, education and employment. It is fundamental to an adequate standard of living. Of course, this is true not just for migrants, but for everyone. We therefore urgently need to shift the focus of attention away from blaming migration for the housing crisis to solving it, so that everyone can gain and sustain a safe and secure home.