Dr Steve Rolfe, Research Fellow in Housing Studies, University of Stirling
Dr Lisa Garnham, Public Health Research Specialist, Glasgow Centre for Population Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that most of us are spending much more time at home. At the same time, many of us are also experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety than usual, caused by both the pandemic itself and the measures being taken to control the spread of infection. There are real concerns that being stuck at home may have negative effects on health and wellbeing, particularly for those more vulnerable groups who may have to stay home for a long time yet. Our research shows some of the ways in which housing organisations and policy-makers may be able to reduce the long term impact of this period on public health.
We looked at the ways in which housing organisations support private and social housing tenants and, in turn, how this impacts on their housing experience and their health and wellbeing. The study showed that whether people are able to establish a sense of home in their tenancy has a deep impact on mental wellbeing. These impacts work through two main pathways. Firstly, the home is something that we can feel proud of: it reflects our identity, what we value and how others see us. When the home is not or cannot be something we’re proud of, it is often a source of shame and a sense of failure.
Secondly, the home is a place of respite and sanctuary, where we can take refuge from life’s ups and downs, recharge and take stock. Where the home cannot offer respite, we often have nowhere else to recuperate from pressures, stresses and shocks, making it harder to cope effectively. This is especially the case now, when we cannot recuperate by visiting friends or family, taking time out in a local community centre or cafe, or explore the outdoors at our own pace.
We identified four key housing needs which need to be met for people to feel a sense of home and get health and wellbeing benefits from it. It’s important to think about each of these if we are to help people under lockdown to feel that their homes are a sanctuary, not a prison.
In the UK, regulations have been changed to prevent tenants who cannot afford their rent during the lockdown from being evicted. But there is a growing concern that this may be storing up problems for the long-term. Tenants are understandably fearful of getting evicted when the rules return to normal, or having to pay off arrears when they may be facing a long period with no or less paid work. At the same time, landlords in the private and social rented sectors are worried about the impact on their income as large numbers of tenants struggle with their rent. All of this is exacerbated by the last decade of ‘welfare reform’. Our research also showed that tenants’ wellbeing is affected by other housing-related costs, such as utility bills and the costs of moving for new tenants. If we want to keep people in their homes as the pandemic progresses, it will need more than a temporary ban on evictions. Removing the benefit cap, substantially increasing the housing element of Universal Credit and maybe even funding a write-off of COVID-related arrears should all be considered.
While some people have taken the opportunity of more time at home to redecorate and get to grips with that long list of outstanding DIY jobs, not everyone is able to improve the condition of their property. Those most vulnerable to COVID-19 may be particularly likely to face difficulties because of low income or physical infirmity. In addition, housing organisations and landlords have inevitably had to reduce home visits, cutting back to only essential repairs. As the lockdown eases, it will be vital to consider how those who remain isolated at home can be supported in terms of maintaining the condition of their homes.
One of the few positives of the coronavirus pandemic has been the flowering of volunteering and community support. Contrary to the doom-mongers who have been prophesying the death of community for decades, it turns out that people do look out for their neighbours in times of crisis. Our research showed that people only really feel at home in their property when they also feel at home in the neighbourhood. So, for some at least, COVID-19 may have increased their sense of home as they have got to know their neighbours, potentially mitigating some of the stress caused by the crisis. As things become more ‘normal’ (whatever that will look like), we need to try to maintain these supportive local networks, making sure that vulnerable households are not isolated again as some return to work.
Person-centred housing services
COVID-19 has significantly altered the ways in which we communicate with each other, as well as eroding our usual routines, practices and expectations. The uncertainty and anxiety this has brought has impacted on tenants and those working to support them in their tenancy, putting that relationship under strain at a time when the support it provides and the sense of home it can bring are needed more than ever. Our research showed that people gain real wellbeing benefits when their landlord, letting agent or housing support agency took a person-centred approach, building relationships with tenants and often supporting them with other aspects of their life, beyond housing.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the number of challenges that people need support with, as well as their diversity and novelty, are only likely to increase, posing significant risks to the stability of tenancies and people’s health and wellbeing. Clearly there are particular challenges in building and maintaining relationships while we physically distance ourselves from one another, but for many tenants having a trusted person to turn to for emotional and practical support is going to be increasingly important as this crisis lengthens from weeks into months. As our research showed, housing providers are extremely well placed to provide that support, so it will be crucial for housing providers to innovate in their communications with tenants in order to maintain relationships – many have stepped up to this challenge already.
Living in a home that feels like a safe and stable sanctuary is going to be vital for the mental wellbeing of tenants across the rental sectors, particularly those more vulnerable households who may be isolated at home for longer. Housing organisations, landlords and policy-makers are facing multiple challenges during the pandemic – thinking about the ways in which tenants experience their house as a home may help to shape long-term thinking in response to these issues. Regardless of how the pandemic progresses, our research recommendations suggest that focusing on person-centred services, neighbourhood support, property condition and affordability will go a long way to maintaining broader public health.
The study was led by:
- Dr Steve Rolfe, Research Fellow in Housing Studies, University of Stirling
- Dr Lisa Garnham, Public Health Research Specialist, Glasgow Centre for Population Health
The project team also included:
- Professor Isobel Anderson, Professor of Housing Studies, University of Stirling
- Professor Cam Donaldson, Yunus Chair in Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University
- Professor Jon Godwin, Professor of Statistics, Glasgow Caledonian University
- Dr Pete Seaman, Acting Associate Director, Glasgow Centre for Population Health