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New project exploring how local authorities can support families experiencing housing insecurity  

This blog by Dr Hannah Fairbrother SFHEA, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sheffield describes an ongoing project involving the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham which aims to find out what information would help local authorities provide better support to families at risk of housing insecurity. Specifically, the project will look at experiences and drivers of housing insecurity and current local authority strategies.

In the UK today, many children live in insecure housing – they have either experienced or are at risk of multiple house moves that are not through choice and/or related to poverty. Identifying families at risk of housing insecurity and providing appropriate support is one way local councils can help families in greatest need.

Our project, funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research School for Public Health (NIHR SPHR), aims to find out what information would help local authorities to provide better support to families at risk of housing insecurity and to work out how we can assess how well current strategies are working. The project brings together researchers from the University of Sheffield, Cambridge University, Liverpool University and Birmingham University, as well as local authorities in South Yorkshire, the North West and London.

Why is the project needed?

Insecure housing and poverty can affect access to employment, education and services and have a direct impact on children’s health and life chances. The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis means that housing insecurity is set to worsen, and it is unsurprising that key organisations including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group have identified housing insecurity as a major public health issue.

Identifying families at risk of housing insecurity and providing appropriate support is one way local councils can help families in greatest need. Research has shown that policies which reduce housing insecurity for young children can help to improve their emotional health and successful strategies can potentially reduce negative outcomes for children for example, emotional and behavioural problems, lower academic attainment and poor adult health and wellbeing.

Currently, there is limited research into how parents and children experience housing insecurity, and how it impacts their health and wellbeing (including the food they eat) and other aspects of their lives (e.g., education, play). There is also very little research exploring people’s experiences of how local authorities try to reduce housing insecurity.

Developing a detailed picture of current experiences, the factors that drive housing insecurity and local authority strategies, and approaches to reducing housing insecurity for families with children will be key in trying to tackle the issue.

Where are we up to?

The project team are currently working on recruiting and working with parents, children and young people as critical friends for the project to help shape and work with us through the lifecourse of the project. We also had a really helpful first meeting with our project advisory group – made up of colleagues from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), academics, local authority partners and colleagues working in the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise sector. A key focus of our discussion at the advisory group meeting was how to define and mobilise our definition of housing insecurity.

While there is no standard definition or validated instrument for ‘housing insecurity’ or ‘housing instability’, the Children’s Society (2020 definition, generated through participatory work with children) is a helpful starting point. They define housing insecurity as the actual experience of and risk of multiple moves that are not through choice and/or related to poverty. The definition goes some way towards acknowledging that the wider health and wellbeing impacts of housing insecurity may be experienced by families who may not have experienced frequent moves but for whom a forced move is a very real possibility. It also recognises that frequent moves may be positive for families if through choice and for perceived gain (e.g., employment opportunities; moves to ‘better’ housing or areas with better amenities). The focus on poverty is also key.  The Resolution Foundation (2022) estimates that absolute poverty will rise by three million over the next two years (from 11 million in 2021-22 to 14 million in 2023-24) and forecasts that child poverty will reach its highest level (33 per cent in 2026-27) since the peaks of the 1990s.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis mean that housing insecurity is set to worsen, and it is unsurprising that key organisations, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group, have identified housing insecurity as a major public health issue. The recent death of Awaab Ishak, a young boy exposed to mould in a housing association property, has put housing conditions firmly in the spotlight (Atkinson, 2022).

The Marmot Review (2020) emphasises that good health starts at home and that the home is the main setting for health throughout our lives. Marmot also highlights the interrelationship between housing and poverty, as housing costs play a significant role in increasing poverty, and poverty is a driver of housing insecurity (ibid). Experiences of housing insecurity also intersect with and cut across other key inequalities, including ethnicity and geography (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2021; Clair & Hughes, 2019).

In relation to poverty, however, our advisory group members highlighted the need to be attentive to:

  • Rising levels of unaffordable housing meaning that more and more families (not only families on a low income or experiencing poverty) may experience housing insecurity
  • Families who are living on a low income may not associate themselves or wish to associate themselves with poverty (so if we define housing insecurity based on experiencing poverty, we may exclude families who are at risk of multiple moves not through choice)
  • The dynamic nature of housing insecurity whereby sudden changes in families’ circumstances can mean that they become housing insecure (e.g., job loss)

Emphasising that we are interested in experiences of insecure and unstable, unaffordable housing may therefore be more fruitful than a narrow focus on poverty. Working out how we introduce and frame the project (in a way that is non-stigmatising but attentive to the very real impact of life on a low-income) will be something that we plan to work on with our ‘critical friends’ group of children, young people and parents. It is also something that we will revisit as our project progresses.

Next steps

  • We hope to begin working closely with our local authority partners to recruit parents, children and young people and local authority colleagues for interviews in 2024
  • Working with local authority colleagues to establish what data can be extracted at a local level to build in objective data into an evaluation framework to assess how well housing insecurity strategies are working.

As the project progresses, we will post any outputs / publications on our project webpage here.

If you would like to signpost us to relevant literature or strategies, please contribute to our Call for Evidence here.

Author: Hannah Fairbrother h.fairbrother@sheffield.ac.uk

 

Date: January 16, 2024 5:42 pm

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