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How has COVID affected people’s access to secure and safe housing?

The pandemic has presented an array of issues throughout society, with it particularly affecting the access to affordable and safe housing for renters, and victims of domestic violence. 
With the decreased income and job prospects caused by COVID-19, a recent nationwide report by UNSW and Across estimates that around 5-15% of tenants Australia-wide are in rental debt, which would equate to 324,000 to 973,000 people. This is because rent has remained the same with few rent variations despite lost income by tenants during the pandemic, according to UNSW Prof Hal Pawson. At least a quarter of all private renters had lost income during the pandemic, yet as few as 8% got a rent variation from their landlord. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported similar results: “Nearly one in five Australians reported that their household finances worsened in the four weeks to mid-June, one in eight Australians are struggling to pay their mortgage and nearly a third of Australians have reported that their household finances have worsened due to COVID-19”.  
In 2021, amidst this worsening housing environment, government assistance decreased, when planned federal government cuts to income support and the end of emergency tenant protections were enacted. Australia’s rental housing markets have overall experienced substantial turbulence during 2020, placing more individuals at risk of inadequate housing than ever before.
Domestic violence is a common issue in Australia, with around 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men being victims of it in their lifetimes. Shockingly, 1 woman is killed every 9 days by a partner as a result of domestic violence. 
And in times of crisis, domestic violence rates typically increase, which is particularly of concern in the context of COVID, which presents a more prolonged period of disaster than those in previous studies. This is true for COVID, with the pandemic coinciding with the onset or escalation of violence and abuse for many victims. Contributing factors include how quarantine and stay at home orders mean that abusers are at home for longer periods of time and how COVID’s associated financial stress and job loss antagonises abusers.
Such a worsening of domestic violence rates and thereby a lack of safe housing was prominently seen in how there was a 75% increase in Google searches for domestic violence support in Australia after the onset of COVID, alongside with an 11% increase in calls to 1800RESPECT and a 26% increase in calls to Mensline. Out of a national Australian Institute of Criminology survey of 15,000 Australian women, two-thirds who experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner said the violence had started or escalated in the three months prior to the survey. Other sobering examples include how during stage 4 restrictions in Victoria, calls to the Safe Steps crisis support hotline spiked by 20% and 49% of cases in Queensland reported an escalation of perpetrators using Covid-19 as a reason for abuse.
Concerningly, support services are unable to cope with all the overwhelming numbers of domestic violence cases, with houses becoming increasingly unsafe for victims. Staff at Illawarra Women’s Health Centre faced unprecedented demand for support from women in domestic violence situations, with increases in referrals from January to August increased 189% compared with the previous year. Yet despite this, waiting lists for counselling have blown out from two weeks to three months, for many support services are critically underfunded. 
Our programs include Home of Hope, a dedicated activity conducted every International Women’s day that mobilises corporate volunteers to refurbish and restore women’s crisis accommodation to support women and children escaping domestic violence. In 2020, Habitat for Humanity Australia signed up 42 teams, comprising 463 corporate volunteers from 22 companies across Australia as part of our Homes of Hope Campaign. Volunteers helped to contribute and assist with women and children experiencing homelessness often due to domestic and family violence, as well as women-headed households, by renovating transitional shelters. Such efforts are much needed to help address domestic violence and unsafe homes, another detrimental consequence of the COVID pandemic. 
As a whole, COVID has brought on a precarious housing and shelter environment, especially for Australia’s vulnerable groups such as renters and those escaping domestic violence. To see how you can help Habitat work to stabilise the living environments for those vulnerable in Australia and beyond, please support us by volunteering or donating. For volunteer opportunities to give back and support Aussies in need visit: