Opinion: Why housing should be a health issue this election

By Associate Professor Yvonne Parry, Child Health, College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University
Monday, 04 April, 2022

Opinion: Why housing should be a health issue this election

Successive federal and state governments have abandoned families to housing market forces — placing many in the situation of being unable to afford home ownership or living in housing stress where the cost of accommodation makes up more than 30% of household income.

The type and quality of housing conditions impacts many aspects of children’s lives, and development and research tells us the consequences of childhood housing instability has impacts well into adulthood.

The current debate on housing affordability misses the importance of housing as a basic human need, so how serious are the risks for low-income Australians?

Links between housing stress and child health

Families living in housing stress can’t afford health care, medications, dental care, food and educational needs, eg, school uniforms or transport to school.

Children enduring multiple moves also lack a sense of security, are often anxious, have difficulty concentrating, are unable to sleep and are disconnected from supports such as family, friends and support services. They can be depressed and show signs of poorer mental health.

Stress lowers the immune system and children are more susceptible to illness and infections. These children are disconnected from health with much poorer rates of immunisation, only 11% are fully immunised. It’s clear housing issues are linked to the burden on our health system.

Impacts of overcrowding

Since the 1960s, research has indicated several impacts of overcrowding on physical and psychological health outcomes including behavioural issues, poorer child–parent relationships and exposure to higher levels of infections due to overcrowding.

The term overcrowding can be used to describe several families in one home or accommodation that is unsuitable for the number of members in a family, which has become more common in Sydney and Melbourne.

Children incur higher rates of skin infections, scabies, ENT infections, chest infections, eye infections (conjunctivitis), meningitis (10 times), asthma, wheezing, coughs and colds. Additionally, overcrowding means there is inadequate space for sleeping and children sleep on sofas, floors and babies in drawers. Babies are also at higher risk of mortality.

Substandard and inadequate housing for families

Substandard housing refers to buildings that are damp, cold, mouldy, infested (cockroaches, mice, rats) or lacking in modern facilities or they simply don’t work, eg, toilets unable to flush or backflow of sewage from floor drains.

Our work and the work of colleagues in the UK has highlighted some of the impacts of inadequate and substandard housing on children’s health. Those living in housing that is substandard are at higher risk of poor physical and mental health with research estimating children are at 25% higher risk of ill health.

For example, they are at increased risk of chest infections and asthma from poor ventilation and poor heating, and gastroenteritis and diarrhoea from poor plumbing and waste management, and poor school performance.

Current policy inadequacies

Aside from natural disasters and global conflicts creating pressures on housing stocks, ongoing policy inadequacies have failed to meet demand.

Australian policy especially focuses on population growth and is not matched by the provision of housing to ensure stock meets demand and growth expectations.

Displaced families from multidimensional causes create additional issues in the housing sector which have not been addressed. Previous housing policy has done little to address the needs of children, and this continues to have detrimental impacts on their health and development.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Watchara

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