BLOG: Home improvement for quality homes throughout our lives
Published: 10 Aug, 2023

This blog post is the first in a new series on home improvement—exploring how the quality of our living spaces profoundly affects our physical and mental health. Examining the association between inadequate housing and health issues, we will delve into the dynamic challenges faced by different demographics and regions.

There is ample and longstanding evidence that the quality of our homes is associated with a range of physical and mental health impacts. Analysis of survey data in England suggests that around three in ten people live in inadequate housing. The association between living in bad housing and having health problems is particularly acute in those above retirement age. This has driven a focus on poor-quality homes by organisations such as the Centre for Ageing Better, which has commissioned a national evaluation of home improvement services in England. Whilst home condition and improvement is a national issue, it is also important to recognise different geographies. For example, one-third of all non-decent owner-occupied homes in England are in the North, with the highest concentrations in the North West – which also has the highest level of older people in non-decent housing in England (Smith Institute and Northern Housing Consortium, 2018).

There are times when the impacts of poor-quality homes have been magnified and come to the forefront of wider national debates. One example is during periods of stay-home orders during the Covid-19 pandemic, in which inequalities in housing conditions and our differential ability to ‘stay safe at home’ were laid bare. Another case was the death of Awaab Ishak in Rochdale in 2020, which resulted from prolonged exposure to mould in the home, which had not been proactively treated, nor was there consideration of the inadequate ventilation within an ageing property.

The way our homes contribute to our health and wider wellbeing is not static or fixed at one point. Our needs, as residents, will differ across our lives, and this inevitably exists in tension with our homes since our homes often do not have the same flexibility and adaptability to meet these needs. Life events, such as changes in our health, may mean that we need to change our homes. But tension can also come from shifting expectations, for example, related to our sense of comfort, which means that standards previously seen as ‘normal’ would now fail to meet our expectations as residents. The material structure of the home is not readily responsive to this dynamism, and one of the challenges we face in maintaining high-quality homes across our lives is how we can best facilitate changes to ensure homes can be continually improved and responsive to residents’ needs and preferences.

Currently, the framework for facilitating home improvements is relatively fragmented and includes individual property owners, central and local government, and third-sector and private agencies (which may operate at a local, regional and national level). While various national funding programmes have historically supported different home improvement efforts, some funding schemes have recently ceased or been scaled back.

Despite this, comprehensive home improvement services remain a key route through which individuals may navigate a complex web of access and funding possibilities. Whilst these services look different in different places, they may commonly provide a ‘one-stop shop’ access point to a range of home improvement services and funding routes. Foundations are the national body for Disabled Facilities Grants and Home Improvement Agencies, overseeing a nationwide network of agencies and handyperson services across England.

So, we know that poor-quality housing is associated with poor outcomes for residents and that there are services to help facilitate home improvements. But there are also barriers to home improvements – something we will look at in more depth in a future blog. Many of us may have our own experience of living with issues that were contributing to a poor living environment – this might be because of issues like:

  • Not knowing what the problem is or how to go about fixing it (an information gap)
  • Being unable to afford repairs or improvements
  • Worrying about disruption
  • Not having control or responsibility to resolve the issue (the ‘landlord-tenant’ problem)
  • Fears of adverse consequences (e.g. revenge evictions)

Also, buffers may lessen or offset the day-to-day impact of poor living conditions. In student housing, for example, we know that the relationships within the home can create feelings of homeliness even in challenging circumstances; this can be instrumental in living alongside problems of poor-quality housing. We also can ‘look past’ or live with problems, sometimes for a long time – this inertia doesn’t require us to do anything, whereas dealing with home improvements requires a conscious decision and action. When there are so many potential barriers and challenges, it perhaps isn’t surprising that millions of people live in poor-quality homes.

Our research will help us to understand the characteristics of excellent home improvement services. We will be working with local and national stakeholders to develop actionable learning that draws from professional experiences; in addition, a major strand of work will be integrating learning from those with lived experience of poor-quality homes and home improvement services. To find out more about this work, please see our project page.

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