When home is not a place of safety

I’m one of the lucky ones. I work from home and have a safe and comfortable house overlooking a valley of trees on the outskirts of Brisbane, Australia. Yet issues of affordability and space have influenced how I work under crisis. We built my home – a tiny home – to get out of the excessive rental trap that took more than it gave. My home, at dimensions of 9 by 2 metres, has me thinking about other people’s homes – and when home is not a place of safety for some during COVID-19.

More people have stayed home from work during COVID-19 than perhaps ever before, and until any cure is found, the treatment remains to be social distancing. Yet, whether forced to stay home through lockdown, voluntary/involuntary quarantine, or simply out of necessity, this period represents a significant test for how adequate our housing really is – and what gaps remain.

In fact, this crisis is pushing our housing to the limits, exposing inordinately high cases of domestic violence, revealing cracks in housing affordability, and highlighting cramped, sub-par or inadequate living arrangements that characterise many cities and towns across the region.

Finding safety

For many women across Australia and ASEAN, home is not a place of safety. During COVID-19 cases of domestic violence have skyrocketed. While we know that domestic violence occurs across all social and economic demographics, I am particularly anxious for women, people with a disability, LGBTI+ people and migrants, for whom access to resources and support may be particularly affected during social isolation.

In fact, we know that women with disabilities experience violence in situations similar to all women: that is, they will be assaulted by someone who is known to them, will most likely be assaulted by a man and it will most likely be in private, such as in their home. With services cut (or non-existent in the first place), lockdown is likely to have inordinate effects on people with disabilities, particularly for those also facing economic hardship.

The plight of LGBTI+ people is also firmly in my mind. Notwithstanding the fact that many countries across the region legally condone homophobia and state-sanctioned violence, transgender people are amongst those experiencing the highest rates of physical and sexual violence, and in Australia, even lesbian, gay and bisexual women report higher rates of violence than their heterosexual counterparts do.

Further, we know that migrant domestic workers are amongst the “single most disregarded segment of workers” across Asia, with women across the region facing disproportionately high rates of physical and sexual violence. Enforced isolation and lockdown requirements put strains on everyone; however, for some the challenges are unique, confronting and particularly difficult.

Affording shelter

In Australia, housing affordability has been one of this generation’s greatest challenges, with a lack of housing affordability consistently one of the main issues highlighted by Australian youth representatives to the UN. Home ownership rates are falling among all Australians under 65 and those on low incomes increasingly spend more on housing. Housing is also an issue across ASEAN, with governments finding it particularly difficult to satisfy the demands for affordable homes following rapid urbanisation across the region.

Mass global unemployment therefore signals havoc for housing. Over 780,000 Australians have already lost their jobs, and in ASEAN, almost 50 per cent of the workforce is in the services sector – a sector worst hit by the crisis. Bloomberg has warned that mortgage defaults could surpass those of 2008, which has big implications for those across the region who fail to meet their mortgage or home loan repayments, particularly if banks do not step in. It is likely that those already marginalised and in precarious socio-economic positions will be most affected.

The flow-on effect is mixed. Some will lose their homes and risk homelessness, whilst others may have their first chance to enter the market. Some predictions have pitched house prices to fall by 30 per cent in Australia. There is a conspicuous silence across much of ASEAN on how the crisis is affecting housing affordability and homelessness, yet humanitarian workers have warned that widespread poverty, crowded living conditions and weak healthcare systems across the region are likely to exacerbate issues.

 Making space

Inadequate housing complicates issues for people stuck in lockdown or working from home. If people have the luxury of being able to work from home, it is around about now that the difficulties of dividing living versus working spaces become apparent. Taking meetings from the breakfast table, making time before lunch to do emails, and balancing home-schooling or other care responsibilities has gendered implications for women whom remain to do the majority of domestic labour across the region. (And this is only if they are not one of the majority women employed on the frontline as healthcare workers and cleaners).

For much of the region, cities are characterised by crowded living spaces and often, inadequate poor-quality housing. An over-supply of apartment blocks, many of poor construction, are notorious in some states, including in Australia, which has witnessed a spate of high-profile building failures that have forced tenants and owners out, and highlighted issues in quality of materials, design and construction. Asia, on the other hand, has some of the biggest slums in the world, and quality, affordable, and clean housing remains an issue for the poorest in particular.

Being locked inside for weeks or months has some at a tipping point. Mould, cracks, cramped and windowless spaces, broken lights, windows, or structural deficiencies exacerbate the requirement to be home. Natural disasters, which (naturally) have not abated through the crisis, leave some more at risk than others. 

Social isolation may be our best solution to the crisis right now, yet let us not forget that for some, home is not a place of safety.

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