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Inequality and the Coronavirus: The Effects on Housing

Sam Tenny explores the disproportionate effects on renters of working from home during the pandemic.

The spread of the Coronavirus has highlighted systemic issues ingrained within some of the poorest communities across the UK. Not only have high-case rates rapidly swept across low-income areas, but the conditions of housing and the turmoil that renters and those on low incomes across the UK face have also been exposed. With these effects taken into account, it becomes evident that the threat of the virus is both pathologically and economically determined. These threats have exposed the underlying issues that currently exist within rental properties and low-income housing. They are further exacerbated by the remedial measures put in place to stop the spread, as the severity of the effects of lockdowns are more substantial to those on lower incomes.

Use- and Exchange-value

During the pandemic, the significance of housing within daily life has increased vastly, and Marx’s notion of use- and exchange- value can elucidate this change. Use-value refers to the tangible features of a commodity and how significant they are to human needs and requirements. As well as use-value, a commodity also has an exchange value, which is best defined as the monetary value of a commodity.

Lockdowns across the UK have fuelled a surge in the number of people working from home. This has transformed the use-value of one’s home; initially, homes were seen as places of living, sleeping and socialising. Lockdowns have raised the use-value of homes, giving them a multi-faceted function as places of worship, exercise, education, and work. Despite this, renters or the economically deprived face the forlorn reality that their homes cannot satisfy the increased use-value.

An Illustration of the Effects on the Deprived Population

In Birmingham, a city in the top quintile for deprivation, 60% of those from low socioeconomic backgrounds are employed in jobs where they have the ability to work from home. Despite this, people in areas like Birmingham are at a significant disadvantage compared to people in areas with less deprivation; economically deprived people are most likely to live in overcrowded accommodation. Considering the poorest quintile of UK households, 7% of people live in overcrowded dwellings, compared to 0.5% in the top quintile. The realisation of new use-values is reaped by the wealthy, who can set up office space and take advantage of the new work-from-home opportunities. However, economically deprived individuals have struggled in overcrowded shared spaces whilst attempting to be as productive as their counterparts. Additionally, crowded dwellings are a severe health risk for respiratory illnesses like Covid-19, as any attempt of social distancing in overcrowded accommodation nears practically impossible.

A Renters Market?

Upon understanding the relationship between the new use-values that the pandemic has caused, it becomes evident that those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected by lockdowns. Of the 1.4 million private renters living on low incomes, almost 90% suffer in harmful living conditions, occupying housing that is risky and unsafe, with 1.71 million privately rented and social rented homes not meeting the decent homes standard i.e., the minimum standard for housing conditions. Therefore, trying to exploit the current usevalues that lockdowns have brought to housing is very difficult for those who rent and those who are on lower incomes. Privately rented homes are also, on average 30% smaller than the ones occupied by homeowners, restricting activities like exercise, worship or work and storage of essentials; a significant issue given the current advice is to limit the number of essential shopping trips.

While use-value plays a significant part in illustrating the impact of Covid-19 on the economically disadvantaged, exchange-value has extreme significance, especially in periods of lockdown. In the UK, 85% of those renting on low incomes are in ‘after-housing-cost poverty’, which means paying their rent pushes them below the poverty line. This is especially worrying as it was not only use-values of housing that peaked during lockdowns, but the exchange value as well, with record rent prices across the UK, recorded just before the first lockdown. These increasing rents create a further sense of distress for those on low incomes as the absence of truly supportive measures means that those who are already on the minimum wage are not only most at risk from being furloughed, but when furloughed, they only receive a fraction of the minimum wage they were already receiving. This pushes the most vulnerable further into poverty as lockdowns have forced them to earn lower incomes despite facing higher rents than previously.

Will Things Change?

The situation that those who earn low-incomes face is not only a reflection of their treatment during the pandemic, but a further reflection of entrenched systemic issues that exist within the UK housing market. Although 60% of those from low socio-economic backgrounds can work from home, they’re prevented from doing so by low quality, overcrowded and overpriced housing. Regardless of whether people have to worship, educate or work from home, no person should live in an unfit house, especially when paying for that unsuitable home pushes them into poverty

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