Is Public Housing Healthy?

In these unusual times, there seems to be an increased impact on disadvantaged communities. In a recent article, the Mayor of London stated that coronavirus ‘is discriminating – targeting the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and BAME communities’ with ‘poor health often a product of inadequate housing, overcrowding and poverty’. However, does public housing really have a detrimental impact on the well-being of communities?

On paper, home and the needs of the inhabitants rely on several fundamental necessities including adaptability, sufficient circulation, the importance of studying and working at home, private open spaces and accessibility. Our new normal has strained these requirements. The needs for space, adaptability, private open spaces and working from home are expected now more than ever. Although housing has always been built to suit the needs of the surrounding context, time and often the problems of the past.

In the book Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing, architectural writer John Boughton explores the nature of poor health and spread of diseases in early and pre-war council housing in Liverpool. The reasoning of such premature death was the result of sanitary, sewage issues, the close proximity and the typology of housing during that period. Supporting these conclusions was a 1889 report by Doctor John Thresh about the neighbourhood Ancoats, Manchester in which researchers explained increased mortality was due to many streets being ‘seventeen feet wide’ and housing being ‘mostly over seventy-seven years old’ (Boughton, 2018, p.22).

Perhaps the creation of post-war large-scale public housing forged an unavoidable opportunity for viruses to spread through the communal use of commodities. Lifts, external staircases, balconies and in some cases laundry rooms all produce repeated interaction and circulation. Peckham’s Ledbury Estate follows similar notions, the communal lifts and stairs, drying room, narrow external hallways, all of which are prone to contamination. However, this is simply not enough to single out public housing as ‘inadequate housing’.

In fact, post-war council housing is more capable of adapting to situations such as a global pandemic due to the spacing standards surpassing the housing standards of today’s contemporary apartment, through the use of the Parker Morris standards for public housing (1961). For instance, a typical two-unit dwelling in the Alexandra Road Estate in North West London is 57.68m2 excluding terrace area. In 2011, the GIA (gross internal area) requirements for an identical dwelling were 50m2. This is a deduction of a spare room.

Delving further, a dressing room or an individual bedroom can be converted into a place for study or to self-isolate. Externally, the balconies allow for isolated open space, chances for direct sunlight and distanced social interaction between residents, all benefiting the inhabitant’s health. The internal street itself also works as a place for interaction during daily forms of exercise. Public housing manages to obtain and integrate a neighbourhood environment or a microscopic city which constructs the idea of normality in unorthodox situations.

Council housing and housing as a whole have all but one important variant: the inhabitants, who are likely to be from BAME or working-class families. Council housing ‘culture’ has been associated with a working-class occupancy since it’s birth. Through rent levels, overcrowding and class segregation, unhealthy perceptions were solidified. 

Yet, it is important to acknowledge that these are the same people who are now ‘essential workers’ with two options in our new normal: stay at home, struggle and live on reduced wages (or benefits) for the foreseeable or work and increase their chances of contracting the virus. By no fault of its own post-war housing layout, localities and economic barriers have become detrimental to an inhabitant’s well-being.

In truth, working-class areas are limited to work opportunities, leaving them with unskilled jobs which tend to have no option of working from home or with little money for weekly necessities and bills. This alone could bring upon physical and mental disadvantages to a person such as stress or anxiety, which could lead to underlying illnesses. 

History has shown us that public housing occupants are more likely to struggle with their well-being due to localities and it is likely that these people will be from working-class families. However, to interpret public housing as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘inadequate’ is far-fetched.  We have to start to scrutinize the role of economical importance in public housing and working-class communities which could be detrimental to the well-being of residents. Or possibly revert back to the Parker Morris standards.