Overcrowding in South Asian households: a qualitative report

Exploring issues of overcrowding from the perspective of the British Bangladeshi and Pakistani people affected.
Council housing flats

About the study

This study was commissioned by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to explore overcrowding in South Asian households. The overall objective of the research was to provide a strong evidence base to allow DLUHC to build a more nuanced picture of overcrowding among those from South Asian backgrounds.

The research design involved three key phases:
•    Phase 1: Project scoping and set-up (including 12 stakeholder interviews)
•    Phase 2: 50 depth interviews with members of the South Asian community
•    Phase 3: Six solutions-focused group discussions


  • There is a complex interplay of factors that can result in overcrowding, underpinned by people’s wish to live with or close to extended family members and attachment to an area. The critical factors that pushed participants into overcrowded living conditions appear to be systemic. This pertains to the availability of sufficiently suitable and affordable housing.
  • Experiences of overcrowded housing were dynamic and transitory, that is, households could move into or out of ‘overcrowded’ status depending on life events. Participants’ cultural conceptions of family (which include the importance of familial social bonds and non-nuclear family structures) often meant that they required additional space within the home.
  • Housing choices were influenced by a strong attachment to locality. Reasons for this could be practical (access to services), psychological (sense of belonging or nostalgia) or social (proximity to support networks).i
  • The Bedroom Standard criteria does not reflect participants’ understanding of ‘overcrowding’. They made comparisons with previous housing, their use of available space, and access to communal rooms to explain their overcrowded circumstances.
  • The desire to change their housing situation involved trade-offs between the space inside the home and the quality and nature of space outside, including the surrounding neighbourhood. Inside space was also balanced against other priorities, such as security of tenure.
  • The benefits of living in larger family units included additional support with childcare and finances. However, to take full advantage of these benefits more space was considered necessary.
  • There were negative consequences to overcrowded accommodation, including an inability to sleep, a lack of privacy, and more family arguments.

Suggested interventions

Participants’ solutions in relation to the affordability of housing focused on the following changes:

  • Financial assistance offered to individuals, including:
    • widening the range of government backed homeownership schemes to include more than just first-time buyers
    • more rigorous equality impact assessments of financial assistance schemes to address perceptions that these schemes only help those in already strong financial positions
    • verification of shari’ah compliant loans to build trust in their authenticity
  • Regulating the housing market, focused on changes to improve access to the private housing market. Specific suggestions included:
    • reduce the amount of deposit required for private rentals
    • consider regulating rents or capping annual rent increases
  • With reference to the availability of suitable housing, suggestions included:
    • improving the condition of existing homes in the social and private rented sectors
    • converting older buildings and disused offices to provide new and larger properties
    • encouraging under-occupiers to downsize through combining incentives with ongoing engagement
    • changing local planning requirements to reflect local resident demographics
  • Participants also offered short term structural actions that, through the enhancement of accessible and adequate support, could help ease the toll on overcrowded households. These included:
    • information on wider benefit entitlements provided at the same time as housing advice
    • home visits to assess and fully understand overcrowded conditions
    • on-going contact and support during housing application and bidding processes
    • reducing variability in the service provided with quality standards applied consistently across local authorities.


Phase 1: Scoping

  • Desk based research: To contextualise the research, we conducted desk research. It involved a review of research publications and policy papers relevant to overcrowding and the impact of COVID-19 on overcrowded South Asian households. Secondary analysis examined data on overcrowding in South Asian households from the 2011 Census and the English Housing Survey 2020-21.
  • Stakeholder interviews: Depth interviews with local authority housing staff, Registered Social Landlords, and representatives from homelessness/housing charities were used to gather information on local housing issues in areas where those from South Asian backgrounds experience a high incidence of overcrowding. 

Phase 2: Depth interviews

  • Depth interviews with British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis focused on selected areas. In addition to capturing the experiences of those living in overcrowded households, for comparison, a small number of interviews were also conducted with people from South Asian backgrounds who were not living in overcrowded homes. Participants were given the option to complete the interview online, by telephone or in-person. The interviews with those in overcrowded accommodation covered the following themes:
    • perceptions of their living situation
    • how the COVID-19 pandemic affected these perceptions
    • ideas about what household changes are needed
    • support needs to help change their living conditions.

Phase 3: Solutions-focused group discussions

  • Phase 3 comprised six group discussions with British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, including a number of participants reconvened from the depth interview stage alongside new participants. Discussions were designed to first elicit spontaneous suggestions from participants in response to a vignette portraying a household living in overcrowded circumstances. Group participants were then presented with two potential policy responses to overcrowding. The first considered provision of shari’ah compliant interest-free loans to help with upsizing or moving and the second proposed a dedicated information and advice service for people living in overcrowded accommodation.