How housing impacts health and well-being

Rathy Srikanthan • 27/10/2023

In the past fifteen years, a number of studies have shed light on the significant relationship between housing and well-being. Recent research by Rachel Ong VitorJ and others underscores the two-way nature of this relationship, by demonstrating that it is not just our housing situation (whether precarious or non-precarious) that influences our well-being - conversely, our well-being can also impact our housing status and feed into if, when and for how long people stay precariously housed.

Picture of person (absent) in profile sitting at her home's table, absence speaks of precarity
Transient Home, Photographer: Daniel Gerling

Closer examination of this relationship may help policymakers design interventions that are effective in improving well-being outcomes and housing outcomes across Australia - particularly for those who are most at-risk of experiencing negative impacts from precarious housing.

 “My lease was coming to an end and I got a letter saying the rent was going up. When they told me the rent was going up I told them they needed to see to the mould issues in the house.
Initially the first week this happened – my head would not stop spinning with all the ‘what ifs’, asking myself ‘what will happen now?’ I was very anxious and worried I’d be evicted next. I’ve lost sleep. I’ve had nightmares."
Sarah*, Teacher, Sydney

How does housing status impact wellbeing, and who are the most impacted?

When looking at the connection between housing and wellbeing in their research, Ong ViforJ et al specifically pinpointed three key dimensions of housing instability: forced moves, overcrowding, and unaffordable housing. They examined how these factors impacted various groups in Australia, including: individuals with differing income levels, singles, couples, couples with children, and sole parents. 

From this study, forced moves emerged as the primary factor negatively affecting well-being across all groups, followed closely by the burden of unaffordable housing. Among these groups, sole parents, public renters, and individuals with low income, all experiencing precarious housing, were the most likely to report lower well-being scores. Over half of sole parents and public renters grappling with housing precarity reported a ‘low’ well-being score, and those with low incomes in precarious housing followed closely behind, with 47% reporting low well-being scores.

Interestingly, the most notable disparities in well-being between those precariously housed and their more stably housed counterparts did not match up with those experiencing the lowest well-being. Instead, singles and private renters showed the most pronounced gap in well-being when grappling with precarious housing, surpassing the gap experienced by sole parents and public renters. Low-income earners, however, not only reported lower well-being but also exhibited some of the most profound well-being disparities when confronted with precarious housing.

How does wellbeing impact housing status?

In the same study, it was demonstrated that individuals who have recently faced major life-altering events, such as enduring physical violence or being detained in jail, found themselves more likely to fall into and stay in precarious housing situations, compared to other groups. This alarming trend unveils another critical aspect of the housing puzzle. Individuals experiencing strong disadvantage are often more likely to stay precariously housed, which can further complicate their path to recovery and stability. 

Why is the relationship between housing and wellbeing a pressing issue?

Ong ViforJ et al’s study also indicates that the well-being gap between those who are precariously and non-precariously housed has been widening in Australia. This suggests that the interplay between housing and well-being may presently be caught in a vicious cycle - current policy interventions may be unable to rectify low well-being across precariously housed cohorts, or provide adequate housing solutions to people experiencing low well-being.

What are the next steps?

From the work that has been done in this space, it is clear that the relationship between housing precarity and wellbeing has a lot to tell policymakers. Wellbeing data assists greatly with untangling the complex nature of housing precarity and its multiple dimensions, as well as increasing our understanding on how the impacts of housing precarity are felt across different populations. If we adopt wellbeing metrics when setting goals and objectives (and identifying appropriate targets), as well as in evaluating efficacy of interventions, we may be able to transform the relationship between housing and wellbeing into a positive, virtuous cycle. 


* Not her real name. Sarah has chosen not to be identified because she is worried about the security of her tenure in her rented home if she publicly shares her story.