Home is where the wellbeing is?

by Sara MacLennan

6 Feb 2017

Intuitively, we all believe that the places we live in, the people we live around, affect our wellbeing. Backing up this intuition with evidence proves a lot harder than you might think. Currently, there are huge gaps in the evidence base about what impact different place-based housing interventions have on our lives.

This is especially shocking because we know that housing and community cohesion are important and topical issues for a wide range of people. Back in 2015, we at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing asked communities around the UK what was important for their wellbeing. The resounding reply was housing.

“A lot of people are living in awful housing. That has a knock-on effect on everything else, their mental health and within the community.” (participant in WWCW consultation)

If the physical and social place where we live has a massive impact on our personal wellbeing, it can also affect other factors which influence our wellbeing: our health, our relationships, even educational outcomes.

There can be a number of complex interconnections between these, which can intensify issues. Those with poor health may also have poor social connections and lack the opportunities for better housing.

The Centre is now working on a systematic review of housing and wellbeing for groups who experience vulnerabilities related to housing (including Black and minority ethnicities, or gay, transgender or lesbian people). This was identified as a key gap in our knowledge after our partners in the University of Sheffield and Liverpool conducted a rapid scoping review.

Housing and wellbeing: what does the evidence tell us?

The scoping review was surprising: of the 50 published studies of housing and wellbeing, the overwhelming majority were low quality. The risk being that the results may not reflect the benefits which we would see in reality, if we were to do the same thing again. Others come from the US, which may not be relevant to the UK.

The best-quality evidence related to the physical structures of a house, showing the positive impacts of having a home that is warm enough, safe to use or free from mould or allergens. But there was a gap in understanding the subjective wellbeing impacts and we need to better understand how the benefits of these actions compare to the costs over the long term, including wider impacts such as reduced sick days and any negative impacts of, for example, energy efficiency and health.

There is a lot of review-level interest in the wellbeing impacts of regeneration, highlighting for example, the benefits of community engagement. However, when we are trying to focus on understanding housing, it is difficult to draw out what is due to changes in housing and what is due to other, wider changes taking place at the same time. Our community evidence team are looking at this wider context, including social relations and how change happens, with evidence to be published later in the year.

When it comes to the economic situation of tenants and homeowners, the evidence is mixed. Does it make a difference if a family is moved from a poorer to a richer neighbourhood, or poorer and more affluent households live together in a community? The evidence is not strong enough to draw any conclusions. Unsurprisingly, reviews have shown the negative health and neighbourhood effects of home foreclosures, but again without strong evidence.

And a lack of affordable housing – how does that impact personal wellbeing? There is no existing review. There is clear scope for a systematic review to look at this and the performance of affordability initiatives – both in the UK and internationally.

 Sara MacLennan is head of evidence and analysis at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. The full report on Housing for Vulnerable People was published in 2018. 


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