Blog Post

London’s housing census data is a call to action

The 2021 Census has highlighted the unique challenges that Londoners face finding a place to live. Jeeshan Choudhury explains why dealing with this now is vital for London’s future.

The census results from the ONS have provided concerning, if unsurprising, data about the current state of London’s housing market. The new findings reveal that London is increasingly becoming a city of renters, at a time when renting is ever costlier.

But the even bigger cause for concern comes from the revelation of how many Londoners are living in unsafe homes, or poor-quality ones unsuitable for their needs.

If we don’t act to address these issues with the urgency they require, what will the next census show in ten years, and how many Londoners will have been forced out of the city by then? The time to tackle the housing crisis is now.

Understanding London’s housing crisis

All Londoners who have searched for somewhere to live know how difficult the city’s rental market can be, even at the best of times. And compared to ten years earlier, the latest census findings reveal increasing dependence on the private rented sector in London, to levels unseen in recent history.

The rise of renting households in the capital is up from 26 per cent in 2011 to 30 per cent in 2021, translating to hundreds of thousands more people doing so compared to a decade ago. This is creating fierce competition for increasingly limited places to live, with rents increasing as a result.

Of course, high housing costs are no secret to Londoners. For an entire generation, it’s been a fact of life. Over decades the price of homes has been far higher in London than any other region in England. Clearly then, this is not a new phenomenon. Its root cause has been the long-term failure of housebuilding and social housing to keep pace with increasing demand.

A large increase in the number of people renting in London is not necessarily a problem by itself. Other global cities, such as Berlin, have demonstrated that it is possible to have a large proportion of people renting rather than owning homes outright, and still succeed in having a stable housing system thanks to secure tenancies and powerful tenants’ associations.

However, with more and more people renting here and an absence of similar protections, the volatility and uncertainty of rents is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Combined with other well-documented cost of living pressures experienced by Londoners over the last year, many on lower incomes are now falling into poverty and homelessness because of how expensive it is to afford somewhere to live.

More than just the price: London’s poor-quality homes

The census also highlights issues with London’s housing stock.

It shows that more than half of London’s households are in flats or apartments. Too often, this is because people – including families with young children – are living in cramped conditions.

According to the data, 11.1 per cent of London households live in “unsuitable accommodation”, defined as having fewer bedrooms than occupants require.

Inadequate housing conditions are not just an inconvenience. They can have a significant impact on people’s wellbeing. Cold homes and damp are a serious health risk, particularly for children.

This is why the census data revealing that London has a higher number of homes without central heating than anywhere else in the country is cause for real concern, especially in light of the city having to activate emergency weather protocols three times already during this cold and difficult winter.

Finding solutions to London’s housing crisis

If the current situation paints a bleak picture, how can we improve it and give all Londoners the homes they need?

The long overdue Renters Reform Bill currently going through Parliament is a good first step. The extra protections promised within this legislation will provide vital stability for tenants, including an end to no-fault evictions.

But for longer-term solutions, the city’s policymakers, developers and housing experts will need to reconsider what is practically and politically possible. The scale of their ambition must match the scale of the current problem, as this is not a short-term issue. London’s future success depends on getting this right.

Centre for London’s upcoming housing programme plans to explore the systemic change needed to ensure that all Londoners have housing that is affordable, energy-efficient and feels like home. Part of our aim involves broadening the debate, and we hope to change the conversation to recognise the challenges low-income Londoners face, and the need for London-specific solutions.

With people being forced out of the city, London may struggle to house the key workers it needs in future, and make life in the city increasingly unliveable for a growing number of people. The statistics from the census are the latest warning of this urgent problem.

Jeeshan Choudhury is Senior Communications Officer at Centre for London. Read more from him here.