Overcrowding and affordability stress: Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots are also housing crisis hotspots



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Rebecca Bentley, University of Melbourne and Erika Martino, University of Melbourne

Melbourne is once again grappling with increasing COVID-19 rates. Ten suburbs in Melbourne have been designated COVID-19 outbreak hotspots: Broadmeadows, Keilor Downs, Maidstone, Albanvale, Sunshine West, Hallam, Brunswick West, Fawkner, Reservoir and Pakenham.

The outbreaks have sparked discussions about lockdowns and travel restrictions for people living in these parts of Melbourne and generated intensive suburb-specific testing.

The outbreaks have been attributed to family gatherings in homes and people failing to self-isolate, even after positive test results. This has occurred alongside possible breaches of infection control protocols in hotels accommodating people in quarantine – with security guards from major hotels having contracted the virus.




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Socio-spatial clues

While chance and circumstances converge to create outbreaks there are also some obvious factors related to where and how people live that impact their capacity to isolate.

As we potentially face a two year-long wait for vaccines (16 are in clinical evaluation internationally (with one being developed in Australia), we need to acknowledge the spatial concentration of these sites of vulnerability is not random. There are socio-spatial clues as to why we have had outbreaks in these locations.

Four measures: overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and financial hardship often occur in the same areas.
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First, the hotspots have some of the highest rates of housing precarity and financial hardship across Melbourne. People in overcrowded or unaffordable or insecure housing may have less control over their immediate environment and less capacity to isolate themselves than other community members.




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The recent Melbourne outbreaks have occurred largely in areas with:

  • high housing affordability stress: where those in the lowest 40% of income spend more than 30% of their household income on housing,

  • overcrowding: measured in terms of the number of people in a household, their age and gender in relation to the number of bedrooms in a dwelling, and/or

  • homelessness: where a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives and their current living arrangement is in a dwelling that is inadequate, has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable or does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.

While housing security seems like an obvious problem to fix, it remains a long-standing, difficult issue for governments to tackle. Going into the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia exhibited high rates of homelessness and spiralling housing costs.

Many people in Melbourne and Sydney live in overcrowded or inadequate forms of housing as a result of what has become known as our “housing affordability crisis”. Alongside this, the numbers of people who require emergency accommodation far outstrip our cities’ capacity to house them on a medium- to long-term basis.

Second, people without savings may be compelled to go to work despite feeling unwell. They need to meet their weekly housing costs and don’t have savings enough to go two weeks (or longer) without income. This can occur even if people have negotiated reduced rent with their landlords.

Where housing and COVID-19 collide

When one considers these housing and financial factors from the perspective of COVID-19 suppression, their geographical clustering should not be disregarded. The areas in Melbourne with high rates of household overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and (related to this) financial hardship (often measured using people’s self-reported capacity to access funds in an emergency) map closely to areas where there are now high numbers of COVID-19 cases.




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Using publicly available data, we created a simple index describing capacity isolate based on the above four characteristics. We created maps of Greater Melbourne to examine the relationship between current COVID-19 cases and these housing and financial vulnerability factors. Our index shows Hallam, Sunshine West, Albanvale, Broadmeadows, Falkner, Reservoir and Maidstone are all in the top two quintiles.

Housing Vulnerability Index for Greater Melbourne.
NATSEM – Social and Economic Indicators – Synthetic Estimates SA2 2016; ABS – Data by Region – Family & Community (SA2) 2011-2016; and UNSW CFRC – Overcrowded Households Australia (SA2) 2016. Data were accessed on 26 June 2020 from AURIN Portal (https://portal.aurin.org.au/), Author provided

Over the last decade, Melbourne has seen itself become more spatially segregated. And household overcrowding and precarity are geographically clustered.

Acknowledging correlation is not causation, these findings suggest solving some of Melbourne’s housing problems might reduce the spread of COVID-19 now and in future outbreaks as we await a vaccine.

Taking this further, when assessing where in cities we are likely to see a spike in cases in the future, we should take housing-related vulnerabilities into account alongside other factors.

While steps have been taken by the Victorian government to address some of the issues we have flagged, such as the one-off payment of up to A$2,000 for eligible renters who are unable to afford rent, and the A$1,500 payment to people who test positive and have no leave cover, more could be done in the medium to long term to reduce the risk of overcrowding, housing related financial stress and precarious forms of housing (that lead to homelessness) across the city.




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The past months of COVID-19 restrictions have highlighted how critical housing and financial security are to our health and well-being at both an individual and population level. The Victorian Council of Social Service has noted disasters can be “profoundly discriminatory” in where they occur, and in their impacts.

Successful COVID-19 suppression requires safe and equitable cities and addressing housing vulnerability is one of the many challenges we must take up.The Conversation

Rebecca Bentley, Professor of Social Epidemiology, Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Erika Martino, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Homelessness and overcrowding expose us all to coronavirus. Here’s what we can do to stop the spread




Nicole Gurran, University of Sydney; Peter Phibbs, University of Sydney, and Tess Lea, University of Sydney

Staying home and social distancing are now essential to control the spread of COVID-19. Suitable accommodation for quarantine and isolation are critical, but Australia’s broken housing system leaves us all exposed.

By now, almost every Australian will have thought about the coronavirus pandemic in terms of their own housing. For many home owners, this is an economic concern. They are dangerously in debt after a 20-year housing boom. Renters face greater uncertainty.




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But it’s people in overcrowded, informal or no housing at all who are most exposed. Crowded housing conditions are bad for all occupants, largely through the increased risks of infections, as WHO Guidelines on Health and Housing clearly identify.

Expose one, expose us all

The increased risk of COVID-19 infection will have impacts on both the residents of crammed dwellings and the rest of the community. Improving the housing conditions of the most marginalised members of our society is an important biosecurity measure.

The number of Australians who are homeless grew dramatically from 2011-2016. The largest increase was people living in severely overcrowded dwellings.


Data: ABS Census 2016, CC BY

This trend includes a sharp rise in older people living in crowded or marginal housing.


Data: ABS Census 2016, CC BY



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Crowding is endemic in Indigenous communities. Poorly maintained and inadequate dwelling conditions make the impacts of crowding worse.

Previous experience with swine flu – Influenza A (H1N1) – indicates contagious disease outbreaks in Indigenous communities will be catastrophic. After over a decade of making remote areas harder places to be – as a result of cuts to housing and infrastructure allocations and increased water insecurity – they are now expected to operate as refuges.

Tertiary students, including international students, are also likely to be living in overcrowded share houses and room-share rentals. These arrangements already breach basic health and sanitation standards.




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These problems aren’t due to a shortage of housing. Census data show the number of unoccupied dwellings increased during the same period that homelessness grew.


Data: ABS Census, CC BY

Rather than an absolute shortage of homes, our increasingly financialised property market has distorted access to decent accommodation. Housing is now treated as an asset instead of a basic right. In recent years platforms such as Airbnb have made this situation worse by transforming permanent rentals into short-term accommodation for tourists.




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What should governments do?

Moves to prevent evictions and to offer mortgage relief during the pandemic period are an urgent first step in what needs to be rapid national action on housing.

Securing adequate housing for those in unstable accommodation, particularly those who need to isolate, is the next phase in this public health response. Suitable housing must be made available immediately in locations near hospitals and key health services. This can be triaged.

Options might include:

  • local hotels or motels – for people in metropolitan and some regional centres this seems to be an obvious option as many are likely empty of travellers

  • vacant holiday homes or temporary workforce housing

  • other health accommodation used for rehabilitation that can be repurposed

  • construction of temporary dwellings.

Hotels close to major teaching (university) hospitals could be commandeered for patients with COVID-19 who need quarantined nursing care, but not intubation to help them breathe.

These hotels could also provide places of rest for health workers who might wish to isolate themselves from their families while they fight in our favour. For example, the University of Tasmania has provided one of its hotel buildings, which has been used for student housing, to the Tasmanian government for this purpose.

Access to hotels and motels for civilian isolation practices more broadly is an obvious solution across urban areas and regional centres.

To reduce the risks arising from inadequate housing, the nation’s vast holiday rental supply should also be considered for people on priority waiting lists for social housing who are in crowded accommodation. Owners of currently empty holiday accommodation could receive the equivalent of rent assistance payments from the Commonwealth for making their housing available.




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A vast tourism workforce of property managers, maintenance and cleaning staff, already reeling from the bushfire crisis, is likely ready and able to repurpose residential tourist accommodation for those in need.

On the other side of the health crisis, it’s clear a rapid, nation-building expansion in social and affordable housing must be part of Australia’s plan. Well-designed, secure and maintained housing should be Australia’s first defence, not our weakest link, in combating health, climate and economic crises.




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The Conversation


Nicole Gurran, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Sydney; Peter Phibbs, Director, Henry Halloran Trust, University of Sydney, and Tess Lea, Associate Professor, Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.