Post COVID-19: Reimagining housing paradigms, building better housing systems

with No Comments

The corona crisis has made the invisible housing inequality visible

Will the corona crisis increase inequality in housing in the coming months and years? In every sector of our society, people are discussing what the adverse impact of this crisis will be, and how we can minimise the impacts and quickly recover the damages on people’s livelihoods to prevent further growing inequalities afterwards. The housing sector is not exceptional, of course. The precarious workers, students, the self-employed, small café owners, seasonal workers, informal labourers……many people are facing the substantial decline of their income—even fall into a heavy debt— or losing their jobs. They are struggling for paying the monthly rent or mortgages. Their residency became extremely vulnerable. 

Migrant workers crowd up outside a bus station as they wait to board buses to return to their villages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus, in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi. [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]
As soon as a coronavirus lockdown was placed, thousands of migrants workers were forced to leave their rented homes as they are unable to pay rent.  (Source: Aljazeera)

In March, I saw the image of Indians rushing for going hometowns as soon as cities are locked down. Only one day of shut-down was already heavily impacting on their livelihoods and their residency security, while another population was much resilient to adapt to this crisis for the time being. Yes, it is well known that there is a huge informal sector in Indian cities, and informal labourers and their families are experiencing high inequality at every corner of society. But the scale of the problem was hardly conceptualised in our mind. The image was literally visualising the scale of underlying urban inequality that has long been existed.

As many countries started shutting down one by one, the extreme situation— a sudden stop of society—is making the invisible housing inequality visible. The Indian scene might be a too extreme story. But the situation in advanced countries like Western Europe is also revealing the inequality that has existed so far.  As economy stops, we can now see who do not have any struggles concerning their housing, who became so vulnerable in their residency within a couple of days, and who are even taking advantage of this crisis to seek for new housing investment.

The corona crisis is forcing us implement radical measures

Yes, it is vital to plan a quick response, prevent them from falling and support them for recovering as soon as possible. However, how about we take one step further and discuss how we can build the housing system and policies better than before? The discussion about emergency first-aid reactions is vital. Nevertheless, we may not have to confine the discussion only to the conception of ‘we need to bounce back to the status before the crisis’, presuming the system before was fine and correct.

We see that the government is implementing many radical measures. Some countries decide to give money to all citizens amid the corona crisis, regardless of their income level and damages they’ve got. We remember that the basic income idea has been a long debate subject, and now the government is forced to implement similar measures. Some countries seize the rental fee of social housing for the time being. For those who cannot make mortgage payments, some banks agree with governments to allow the extended period of payments, instead of putting people in accumulated heavy debts during their livelihoods’ downturn. In some society, landlords are offering lower rent to the tenants. Instead of the core market value of ‘profit maximisation’, those property owners chose to take more common goods.  In difficult times, there are many good initiatives of a shared economy and collective actions. Many experimental ideas are now forced to be implemented. The actions and measures made amid the corona crisis are ironically those that we have imagined and debated for reducing inequality.

Grasp the opportunity: proactively shape the housing system better

Perhaps, this crisis will allow us to understand the inequality in housing in multiple aspects that became much visible. It may also allow us to see the real case of the experimental policy ideas. Decision-makers may be able to see (if they have some willingness to do so) to what extent those radical measures can be adjusted, actually feasible to be implemented, beneficial to the people and society in the longer term, and thus be part of our housing system in the future. People are concerned about increasing inequality after the crisis. Yes, it seems very likely, but it will all depend on how we act and demand the government while overcoming this crisis. Instead of constraining our focus on how to recover back to where we used to be, it might be the right timing for reimaging and proactively discussing how to build society better together.