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Key points

  • 8.1% of households in the social rented sector and 5.3% in the private rented sector were overcrowded in 2021/22.
  • For people renting social homes this is a return to pre-pandemic levels. For people renting private homes this is the lowest level in the past 5 years.

Overcrowding matters for health in several ways. It has been linked to psychological distress and worse mental health, resulting from having less privacy and the risk of increased conflict in a household. It can also be linked to the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Several factors can lead to overcrowding, such as scarce or unaffordable housing, and demographic characteristics, such as age.

This chart shows the proportion of households that are counted as overcrowded by housing tenure over time in England.

In 2021/22, 8.1% of households in the social rented sector were overcrowded, compared to 5.3% of private rented households, and 1.1% of owner-occupied households. Overall, 3.1% of households in England were overcrowded in 2021/22, which amounts to 731,000 households.

Overcrowding in private rented and social rented tenures peaked in 2019/20 before the COVID-19 pandemic following a rapid increase since 2016/17.

  • Overcrowding in the social rented sector decreased by 0.6 percentage points between 2019/20 and 2021/22 but still remains 1.9 percentage points higher than the post-financial crisis low in 2013/14.
  • Overcrowding in the private rented sector peaked at 6.7% of households in 2019/20 but declined to 5.3% in 2021/22, the lowest since 2016/17.
  • In contrast, overcrowding in owner-occupied homes has fallen steadily over the past two decades, from almost 2% in 1995/96 to 1% in 2021/22, and was largely unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A number of changes to household composition have occurred since 2020/21, which include an increase in single person households, a reduction in households with children and temporary moves in and out of households. These changes could have impacted on rates of overcrowding and may also partly relate to changes in living arrangements since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic  the pandemic. 

Policy in the social rented sector has also sought to discourage under-occupation. The under-occupation penalty or ‘bedroom tax’ reduces housing benefit for people living in homes that are under-occupied, relative to their assessed bedroom requirements. This has led to fairly small improvements in overcrowding relative to the number of overcrowded households in the sector and the financial penalties for people who are unable to downsize. There have also been concerns that cuts to housing benefit for people in the private rented sector could increase overcrowding.

The increase in overcrowding in the private rented and social rented tenures is further evidence of housing affordability problems in parts of England, and the associated health risks for people living in these tenures. Reductions in housing benefit for people living in the private sector may have contributed to the problems of affordability, but the government should conduct a formal evaluation to understand the impact of this on overcrowding.

  • Overcrowding is measured by comparing the number of people in a household against a bedroom standard. This standard allocates the number of rooms the household is likely to need, based on the relationship status of adults in the household, and the age and sex of the children. 
  • The data uses 3-year averages, ending in 2021/22.

Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, English Housing Survey, 2021/22

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