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Housing and wellbeing
from the motion picture 'The Castle'1
At its most basic, housing satisfies people's fundamental need for shelter from the elements. However, places of residence serve many other functions in satisfying human needs. Dwellings, when they become homes, provide a place where people can withdraw from the world and enjoy privacy, a place to eat, relax and sleep, a safe place to keep possessions, a place to spend time with, entertain and care for family members and friends, and a place to pursue recreational activities. Not having a place to live which satisfies these human needs is a key hallmark of people in crisis whose mental and physical health are also likely to be at risk.
Places of residence also provide individuals with a key means for expressing their identity. The attributes of the dwelling itself, such as its look, size and location, along with whom it is shared, often indicate the values and social position individuals hold. The importance of housing as a form of self expression is revealed in the time and energy many people spend in furnishing, decorating, and renovating their homes and gardens, and in the space given to home improvement and related topics in the popular media.
Places of residence are important too because many formal social interactions and entitlements, such as getting a job, joining a club, taking up the right to vote, or accessing subsidised health services (by registering with Medicare) are predicated on the idea that an individual will have a fixed place of residence where they can be contacted. The inability to readily contact people without a home (who may also be disadvantaged in other ways) immediately imposes practical problems for those concerned with providing a range of support services, including medical, emotional and financial support.
There are many other aspects of housing that are associated with individual wellbeing. Important among these is whether or not occupants own their dwelling. Households who have purchased their own home are widely considered to enjoy benefits not so readily available to renters. These include greater security in being able to stay at that dwelling, the freedom to modify the dwelling to suit household tastes without reference to a landlord, and the benefits of being able to accumulate a substantial financial asset which can be used as a tradeable item to support the acquisition of other goods and services. However, there are also trade-offs against such benefits which can favour rental housing as an option. These include, the relative size of financial commitments, the opportunity costs of making financial investments in other assets which may yield a higher return to investment, and the level of flexibility available to move elsewhere in response to changing life circumstances.
Other attributes of housing affecting wellbeing relate to the various qualities of dwellings. These include their appeal, market value, and costs, their suitability to needs in regard to size, location - relative to appropriate services, places of work and other places of interest - and, among other attributes, the quality of the environment in which they are located. Because housing is, to varying degrees, integrated within systems of physical infrastructure (such as roadways, systems of water and power supply, telephone lines, and household waste disposal systems) the availability and quality of these services can also have a substantial affect on living conditions. Taking all of the above attributes together, areas in which housing standards are visibly good provide attractive environments for people to live and visit. Areas with poor housing, on the other hand, often reflect a range of social problems such as poverty, ill-health and crime. Such differences can create social tensions and give rise to a demand for community response.
As discussed in Chapter 1, an individual's wellbeing in any particular aspect of life (be it family and community relationships, health, education, employment or income) may be dependent on, or related to, their wellbeing in other aspects of their life. Such inter-relationships naturally also occur in relation to people's housing circumstances. Thus it might be expected that poor housing outcomes may influence a person's health or vice versa. Relationships between housing and access to educational and employment opportunities are also likely to exist for people in particular circumstances. For instance it may be that children in families who need to move between various residential locations may experience educational disadvantages if, as a result, they also need to move to different schools. Understanding the nexus between people's housing circumstances and other aspects of wellbeing among people experiencing life difficulties and those who are relatively well off may help in providing a suitable set of responses not simply related to the dwellings as physical structures.
WELLBEING OF THE SOCIETY
There are also social good aspects associated with the business of meeting housing demand. Indeed the process of housing the population is recognised to be of great importance to the Australian economy. Activities associated with the construction and maintenance of dwellings are themselves typically labour intensive involving the use of many different materials and skills. The on-going demand for new housing arising from the growth in numbers of households sustains the lives of many people. Changes in levels of demand for new housing development can quickly impact on those involved in the housing industry with subsequent flow on effects to the rest of the economy. Reflecting this volatility, economic indicators measuring changes in housing industry activity are used as leading indicators of national economic performance.
Community wellbeing is enhanced if the transactions involved in providing suitable housing, including those between governments, financial institutions, and consumers, provide effective outcomes in meeting housing needs. This is facilitated by monitoring and disseminating information to facilitate efficient market operation and to enable the assessment of the desirability, costs and implications of intervention by Government. This includes information on changes in the stock of dwellings over time in relation to the underlying growth in demand for housing. In regard to the demand for housing this includes information about changes that occur as a result of demographic factors as well as changes which may be related to changes in households incomes, household prices and the nexus between the two. An adequate supply of housing, including appropriate growth in the housing stock over time, helps to avoid short to medium term fluctuations in dwelling prices and rent levels and thus assist with the affordability of housing. Because of the importance of the housing industry to the national economy, and to the livelihood of those involved, community wellbeing is enhanced if there is relatively steady rather than volatile activity within the industry. In a broader context, the dissemination of good relevant information provides an important means to enhancing community wellbeing.