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Home truths – getting and keeping a home is a game of snakes and ladders for many

Posted on 30 April 2018

Working your way up the housing ladder for people on low incomes is a myth, with many trapped on a 'treadmill' of inadequate accommodation, a new study has revealed.

The researchers compare the UK housing system to a game of snakes and ladders.

University of York researchers, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, worked with participants on low incomes, of all ages and from across the UK over three years.

They found that finding a safe and sustainable place to call home is often a struggle, particularly when major life changes – illness, redundancy, relationship breakdown, or having caring responsibilities - had occurred that impacted on income or the capacity to work.


This led some to a 'snakes and ladders' pathway of gaining and losing homes over time, while others remained 'stuck', often in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation, unable to move on to a better home or a better neighbourhood. Many of those studied reflected that only an unexpected inheritance or other windfall would give them any choice or control over their own housing situation.

One of those interviewed in the report said: "I'm one rent review away, one complaint away from being homeless. It's as simple as that. I feel terribly, terribly vulnerable, I really do. I wake up with it every day I go to sleep with it every night. There's no getting away from it; I'm that far away from my whole world being turned upside-down."

Lead author of the study, Karen Croucher, from the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York, said: "Let’s be absolutely clear – the individuals whose housing histories and experiences we explored for this report were not 'Benefit Street' stereotypes. Many were working either full-time or part-time, some were retired, some were students, some were ill or disabled, and some were full-time carers.

"Rather than a housing ladder, the closest analogy is perhaps that of a housing 'treadmill', where people were running to stay still, or a game of snakes and ladders where the meanest of the snakes leads you onto the streets or into temporary accommodation."


The study is the first in-depth analysis of the interaction between housing and low income over the course of people’s lives.

The researchers also found that access to a stable and affordable home played an important role in people’s ability to sustain wider family networks and support.

Karen Croucher added: "Debates about housing often focus on numbers – how many units are needed, how many built or not – and while no one would deny we need these figures, perhaps what we need more is policy making that puts the basic human need for a home – a place where you can be warm, comfortable, secure, have some privacy, feel in control, and crucially a place where you can support and care for others, and be supported and cared for – at its centre, and recognises that people’s lives rarely  follow an easy or steady course.

"We need housing policy - and practice - that has care at its heart that is attentive to a wide range of different housing needs, and takes some responsibility for making sure these needs are met to enable people to flourish."

Housing and Life Experiences: Making a Home on a Low Income is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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About this research

This research was carried out by Karen Croucher and Deborah Quilgars from the Centre for Housing Policy and Alison Dyke from the Stockholm Environment Institute at York. Explore our research.