Marginal and informal housing a COVID health risk

New research finds the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a rise in underlying housing vulnerabilities such as overcrowding and a link between falling demand for Airbnb style short-term rental accommodation and an increase in long-term private rental housing availability.

The research, ‘Marginal housing during COVID-19’ commissioned by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURIA) was led by research author Dr Caitlin Buckle from the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning. It examined the impact of the pandemic on health and housing risks in marginal and informal housing, as well as changes to the demand and supply of short-term rental (STR) housing during COVID-19.

It found residents of ‘informal’ and marginal tenures-particularly those living in substandard or overcrowded rental accommodation-may face additional health risks in the context of COVID-19, largely because of the need to share bedrooms and facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens.

Indeed, the report examined emerging research from the US which indicates that, for every five percent increase in the number of households with poor housing conditions – such as overcrowding, incomplete kitchen facilities, or incomplete plumbing facilities (all characteristics of marginal and informal housing) – there was a 50 percent higher risk of COVID-19 infections.

“We’ve also seen risks to stable tenures due to informal rental arrangements negotiated between landlords and tenants, or between members of group or share households,” said Dr Buckle.

“In the specific context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been reports of international students and migrants being evicted from share houses, resorting to rough sleeping and facing housing discrimination due to fears of virus transmission.”

The report identified significant risks to older residents living in marginal housing during the pandemic.

“Age is a known risk factor in relation to the COVID-19 virus and people over the age of 60 living in substandard housing such as boarding houses will have multiple vulnerabilities,” said Dr Buckle.

“Given the concentration of residents in boarding houses, and the prevalence of shared facilities, older residents are likely to be at increased risk of infection”.

The report also found evidence of a link between falling demand for Airbnb style short-term rental accommodation during the pandemic, and an increase in long-term private rental housing availability in the case study housing markets of Sydney and Hobart.

“This suggests the loss of residential units to Airbnb-style platforms affected private rental housing supply and affordability pre-pandemic.

“Our analysis showed even small changes in the rental vacancy rate associated with the release of short-term rental properties back into the rental market had significant impacts on rents in Sydney and Hobart.”

Dr Caitlin Buckle, School of Architecture, Design and Planning

The findings suggest, as tourist demand returns to the major cities, there is a need to address the potential loss of permanent rental accommodation through stronger regulations on short term rentals in high demand housing markets.

Authored by:

Caitlin Buckle, University of Sydney

Nicole Gurran, University of Sydney

Peter Phibbs, University of Sydney

Tess Lea, University of Sydney

Rashi Shrivastava, University of Sydney

Patrick Harris, UNSW Sydney

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