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Life under lockdown: Our complex and varied relationship with ‘home’

In this blog, Prof Moira Munro notes that the positive association of home and wellbeing isn’t shared by everyone, and highlights that the current ‘lockdown’ will bring many of the potentially negative aspects of home into sharp relief. This blog is part of a wider series exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on housing in the UK.

The UK government has recently issued the most draconian set of constraints on liberty in modern history. People are being encouraged – and increasingly required by law – to stay at home as much as possible, with limited, minor excursions for essential supplies and limited exercise allowed for most people (excluding key workers).

In the academic literature, home is associated with a range of positive emotions and affects. It is argued to be the site of personal autonomy, where you are free to be yourself and do whatever you want without surveillance. It is the site of family life where the most intimate and rewarding relationships can occur. Home can be a source of self-esteem, signalling achievement, wealth and taste. Home is argued to provide ontological security – a sense of order and stability that allows the foundation for building a meaningful life. This is argued to be particularly so when the house is owned rather than rented, with homeownership associated with measurable increases in well-being (Smith et al, 2017), perhaps because of the insecurity created when landlords can relatively easily evict their tenants.

An older feminist literature pointed to the hidden inequalities at home. For women in particular, home is a site of work, that may be experienced as repetitive, menial drudgery. Women disproportionately shoulder the burdens of childcare. Home may be experienced as a direct site of oppression or violence (for both women and children) – an issue expanded upon by Craig Gurney in his related paper.

More ordinarily, we know from our day to day lives that this relentlessly positive association of home and wellbeing does not hold all the time. The enforced isolation imposed by the COVID pandemic brings many of the potentially negative aspects of home into sharp relief.

The autonomy afforded by home – the ‘haven from a heartless world’ – is likely to be less valued when one has no option but to stay there in a lockdown. As a site of family life, it can be the site of conflict and tensions. Whether in arguments with rebellious teenagers, trying to get reluctant children to do their homework or put away their screens, or controlling fractious toddlers there are many potential flashpoints for mundane conflicts in the home. It is also likely to be the main place where trivial or significant conflicts between partners or members of extended families are aired. Forcibly cooping families up together for weeks at a time can only exacerbate these conflicts.

It is also worth reflecting on the growing diversity of families – no longer does the nuclear family of the 1950s dominate. Instead, there are growing numbers of single people (including the older people that were the focus of David Robinson’s recent blog) for whom housing can be associated with loneliness, isolation and boredom. Single parents face the challenges of parenting alone. There are increasing numbers of step and blended families with additional complexities to negotiate in their relationships. There are households where adult children have moved back into their parental home requiring new relationships to be forged as autonomous adults between two, or even three, generations. Of course, there are many more variants – students sharing, or living in Purpose Built Student Accommodation, young adults living as a group of friends or strangers, young mothers living with their own mothers. The list does not have to be exhaustive to remind us that there are many types of household, with many potential sites for conflict (or isolation) exacerbated by the imposition of lockdown.

The notion of housing being linked to security is also sharply revealed as a very contingent notion. With thousands of businesses shutting up shop and sending their workers home, for an uncertain and open-ended period, there will be millions worrying about how they will be able to pay their mortgages or rents. The iniquities and fragility of lives built on zero-hour contracts and the gig economy have also been brought into sharp focus. The basic notion of ‘home’ as a warm and comfortable space will be impossible to achieve for many unable to pay their bills.

Further, it has been striking that in the long period post-global finance crisis (GFC), mortgage arrears and repossessions have not been the problematic issue they were in the crash of the early 90s for instance. Sustained, unprecedentedly low-interest rates have allowed mortgage payments to remain manageable, despite tough economic times. But it must be anticipated that mortgage arrears will grow if this health emergency continues for long, as many will face reduced income and any forbearance amongst lenders is unlikely to be open-ended. The loss of a sense of security is likely to be very significant for many anxious about being able to pay for their home. There are already reports that evictions from rented housing have continued, despite government guarantees.

Finally, it is worth remembering that ‘home’ is embodied in a physical space – a house or flat– and housing is very unequal in the UK. Isolation is likely to be more bearable when occupying a spacious house, with a garden to escape to and enough rooms for all family members to be on their own for a while when they want. However, many UK houses and flats are relatively small, with small rooms. Plots for new houses are often small too, often with open space dedicated to parking at the front – not suitable for children’s play while they are in lockdown. At least social media allows individuals to connect with the wider world and disconnect from those immediately around them. The recommendation that self-isolation within a household is best managed by the infected person having their own room and their own bathroom suggests that policymakers do not always have in mind the wide range of housing circumstances in the UK.

There are also many families in extremely unsatisfactory accommodation – overcrowded, or in temporary and B&B accommodation, where families live in one room. The consequences for such families of isolation will be particularly severe. There has recently been emergency action taken to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on rough sleepers, though without the sustained additional support that many are likely to need.

For the moment, we are spending much longer at home than most of us usually do. For some, at least some of the time, this will be pleasurable. In these fast-paced times, we often hear complaints about being time-poor – but the lockdown provides more time to interact with children, cook slow meals, pursue hobbies and gardening, get round to some of those jobs that have been put off and enjoy big box sets together on the sofa. This may cause some to reflect on their preferred work-life balance. A digital transformation in working practices has long been heralded, and for those working at home, this period of enforced adaptation to new ways of working may finally encourage more use of the possibilities offered by remote working. It may. after the lockdown, seem bizarre to sit in rush hour traffic or travel miles for face-to-face discussions, when many alternative ways of accomplishing work and enjoying interactions with colleagues from home have been discovered in these strange times.

However, the coronavirus pandemic invites reflection on the consequences of endemic housing inequality and the ways this impacts on the relationships between home, work and family. In the light of experiencing these new restrictions, there will be scope to reflect more deeply on how the many differences and inequalities in households and housing should shape a more nuanced academic conceptualisation of ‘home’.

Professor Moira Munro is a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. 

 
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Date: April 9, 2020 10:00 am

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