About now, I imagined I'd be downsizing to a two-bedroom apartment with views. This would be the life. No more worrying about guttering or gardens, no more home maintenance. Free at last. I thought I'd be able to benefit from the downsize by putting a chunk in my super and I'd be laughing.
But it turns out that the pandemic has delivered more lessons than just sneezing into our elbows and washing our hands incessantly. How we live has changed beyond hygiene. We recognise there are times now and into the future where we will have to work from home. And that while we are working from home, we are also still living at home. Trying to have what passes for fun. And in many cases, we are doing it with many more people in our homes. In my case, seven people across three generations and multiple competing priorities.
New research from both Westpac and ING says pretty much the same thing. When we think about what we want from our homes, we want much more room. The Westpac research says one-third of Australians want somewhere less populated, one in five want suburbs which are less crowded; and spaces such as the backyard and entertainment areas have become more important. So, too, are separate study areas and bigger kitchens.
This could only be because we are sick and tired of trying to make our existing kitchens function as places where we work and study while our kids work and study and we also balance our brand new grandbabies on our laps. Adorable, but also insane.
The research from ING also says more than two-thirds of Australian say they need a different kind of space in their homes, whether it's setting up a permanent home office, redecorating or renovating. Maybe that's what the niche HomeBuilder package is all about. Anthony Hughes, Westpac's managing director of mortgages, was quoted as saying: "Staying home for an extended period has changed how we use the space we live in, whether that's home schooling from the kitchen table or setting up a makeshift office in the lounge room."
He's not wrong - although he forgot the gym equipment.
In the long term, those of us who own our own homes and have secure employment can spend time thinking about how we can make [our living situations] better. Those who rent are in a far more precarious situation.
The Westpac research also says we are now less likely to want to live in high-density housing. Over three-quarters would prefer to live in a house because of COVID-19 - that's compared to 22 per cent a year ago. In the ACT alone, apartment approvals fell to an eight-year low in May, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics - and it was similar across Australia, where multi-units fell to an 11-year low. While this shift was expected before the pandemic, the trend is bound to increase because of our changed living conditions. We can't move into an apartment because there are too many of us.
Edgar Liu, a senior research fellow in the City Futures Research Centre at the University of NSW, is all over the way we want to live our lives. He has new research being published in November which explores some of these challenges in pandemic times.
Liu says we know young people have been the ones hardest hit by the impact of the pandemic on casual work. They've lost their incomes, and they've moved out of shared accommodation and back home with their parents. This kind of shared living can have big impacts on older people, especially in a pandemic, where the continuing engagement of young people in the outside world can bring increased risk of infection back into the home. But he says the desire to have a different kind of housing is impacted by more than intergenerational living. It also comes from a recognition that our homes are not suitably designed for this way of living.
"Most of our living spaces are open plan, and that's a design trend we have been having for 10 or 20 years - instead we need appropriately designed properties," he says.
His earlier research showed those living in multi-generational homes felt a keen lack of privacy and no place to have some quiet time. Bigger homes won't necessarily fix that problem - we need better interior design, he says.
In other words, the kids need somewhere to do their work (which now might be taking place on Zoom) while some of us are in work meetings, some of us are cooking, and some of us are watching Unorthodox. Or similar.
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) chief executive officer Michael Fotheringham says he is unsurprised by the results of the surveys. He's feeling it himself as he works from a shed in the backyard of his home in Melbourne.
"Once we start working from home and you are schooling from home and you've got kids and parents, you have to have more than enough bedrooms to sleep in," he says.
"Houses are now workplaces, community centres, parks and schools, and all that's been concentrated in your home."
AHURI launched research in May on the effects of the pandemic on people's living arrangements. In the long term, those of us who own our own homes and have secure employment can spend time thinking about how we can make it better. Those who rent are in a far more precarious situation.
Fotheringham says he is concerned about what will happen to renters when those individual state and territory agreements come to an end in September and suddenly we don't have a plan for afterwards. It is not as if everyone will suddenly be fully employed again. The rent will still need to be paid - in some cases, more than the original rental agreement.
"We are at risk of a wave of evictions followed by a wave of vacancies, which leads to further costs to the government because of negative gearing," he says.
In other words, a complete catastrophe.
But he adds: "The strong rental reforms in Victoria and the rapid national response to the housing challenges of COVID demonstrate that with political will we can address those challenges."
Now we just have to hope that the political will remains beyond the second spike.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Sydney and a regular columnist.