New research published today into the lived experience of Victorians throughout the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the urgent need for reform to new and existing housing and urban environments. 

The study, conducted by researchers at RMIT University for AHURI, points to the design and quality of homes and neighbourhoods as a major mitigating factor when it comes to people’s resilience and capacity to cope with disasters. 

Lead researcher of the report, ‘The lived experience of COVID-19: housing and household resilience’, Professor Ralph Horne says the built environment has a vast capacity to influence people’s physical, mental and emotional health outcomes. 

“Melburnians endured a 111-day lockdown and during that time housing became the primary – and often the only – site of everyday life,” Professor Horne says. 

“However, housing is not currently organised in a way that provides for universal sanctity, security, health and liveability. 

“COVID-19 restrictions have exacerbated the impact of existing inequalities and deficiencies resulting in unequal vulnerabilities. 

“This has significant implications for housing and urban policy going forward and makes policy action in response to these issues more urgent. 

“In the lead up to next week’s state budget, we have seen the Victorian Government take important steps to address some of the most pressing priorities highlighted in our research including unprecedented investments in social housing and energy efficiency upgrades.” 

More than half of the research participants (25 out of 41) indicated that COVID-19 and adversely affected their emotional wellbeing, ranging from feelings of disappointment and boredom through to strong signs of emotional suffering. 

“Policy responses focussed on reducing the risk to physical health. However, the wider impacts of lockdown measures on social and mental health were largely neglected,” Professor Horne says. 

“The rich insights this study provides into how policy ‘hits the ground’ and where the gaps lie should inform how these new measures are implemented.” 

The study recommends a critical review be undertaken of the appropriateness of housing designs, especially of apartments without balconies (or only small balconies), small kitchens and limited storage spaces. 

“Simple things like ensuring residents have sufficient space to store additional groceries and supplies can have a big impact in the context of extended time spent in the home. 

“Ensuring access to gardens and balconies - or having a view – seemed to build resilience” Professor Horne says. 

“Visual and acoustic issues impacting privacy – especially in apartment buildings – also came to the fore and new issues arose around intimacy in all housing typologies. 

“We need urban planning initiatives that ensure proximity to healthy, affordable and walkable grocery shops and food outlets.

“Including community garden allotments for apartment dwellers is another way of ensuring access to outside spaces and food security.” 

Thermal (dis)comfort arose as a recurring theme in the interviews with research participants, most of whom put the onus and stress on themselves as individuals to keep warm or cold and even resorted to deprivation to keep the bills down. 

“Mandating more energy-efficient homes through improved building code stringency and through mass-upgrades to the energy efficiency of the housing stock across Australia not only provides stimulus and enhances future pandemic planning, it also achieves environmental benefits from lower emissions and improves health and equity for vulnerable Australian households.” 

Professor Horne says; ‘this is a win-win-win situation with multiple reinforcing benefits.’ 

Social isolation and emotional suffering were exacerbated by COVID-19, and the study found that involuntary separation from family and reduced or cancelled care-worker visits were found to be particularly challenging, with digital connection offering a poor, and not always available, substitute. Digital exclusion was also highlighted. 

As core public services have gone online, households lost access to these services where they were either financially digitally excluded or lacked confidence and capabilities to engage digitally, and/or were wary of security concerns associated with digital technologies. 

“Social and community services, ranging from care-giving to libraries, need to be recognised as essential services to ensure a base resilience and ongoing provision of these services in the face of future disasters,” Professor Horne says. 

“Social housing must also be re-imagined in terms of its value to the community in the face of COVID-19 as it provides much more than shelter and continuity.” 

Given their success, the report also recommends that JobKeeper, JobSeeker and the Coronavirus supplements should be maintained for as long as it takes for those affected households to recover and re-enter their paid work. 

The analysis is drawn from 40 interviews with 41 research participants across metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria conducted both prior to and in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic.